Confessions of a (Former) Seeker Church Pastor

Confessions of a (Former) Seeker Church Pastor November 6, 2014

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(Excerpt from Sunday Schooling Our Kids Out of Church! The True Story of How One Congregation Dropped Sunday School to Save its Soul.)

I was the Associate Pastor of a large, Lutheran, Seeker-driven congregation in the Phoenix area from 1984-March 2005. And I loved every minute of it!

Every day was energized by the creative passion to find new ways to connect with people disconnected from the church. My particular area of focus was on the Seeker Worship Service. Each week we dived into the challenge of creating an innovate experience that would speak the language of non-church going Baby Boomers, using new forms of music, drama, images, videos, and practical, Christ-centered messages.

For many years, 60% of those joining our congregation came from an “unchurched” background, meaning they hadn’t been involved in a congregation for 5 years or more. During our Newcomer orientations we heard compelling stories of people and families connecting with faith for the first time in their lives.

In addition to creating dynamic, attractional worship experiences, we looked for ways to lead people deeper into their faith through seminars, Bible studies, children’s programs, events for Seniors, and youth ministries. We hosted community-wide concerts featuring popular artists who were people of faith and created our own outreach events around Christmas time.

We grew so quickly that we eventually sold our 10 acre property and relocated to a new campus of over 100 acres. For 15 years we hosted conferences for pastors across the country, offering principles and training for reaching their communities with the good news of Jesus.

I’d wanted to be a pastor since I was in 2nd grade…and this was the church of my dreams.

During those years many outsiders declared churches like ours “shallow.” But I can say, from an insider’s perspective, that God was at work in profound ways in the lives of our people. Like every congregation, we had people who took their faith seriously and those who relegated faith to the bottom of their to do list. But overall, you can’t build a large congregation, and especially an outreach congregation, without people of deep faith. The cost is far too high.

By the turn of the century, the Seeker movement began to show its age. We did a great job of reaching Boomers, but what reached Boomers didn’t seem to reach the next generation. Some Seeker congregations were able to reinvent themselves for the next generation. Others struggled (and continue to struggle) with how to be the church in this new century.

In the mid-2000’s our congregation was feeling that change. One of the outcomes was the planting of a new church in March of 2005. I became the Senior Pastor of that new start.

While the Seeker model was still in my DNA, I knew that what we had done for 20 years wouldn’t necessarily work in this new start. For one thing, we were no longer a congregation of thousands but of a few hundred. We didn’t have our own campus and only had the school rental facility one day a week.

Looking back now on our first 10 years in this new church, and further back to the congregation that started us, I think I’m ready to make a few confessions.

Before I do, I want to say this clearly: I believe that the Seeker Movement was (and still is) a movement of God. It was not a movement without flaws and excesses, but it was a movement that woke us up to the fact that the primary mission of the Church is to make disciples, and that that mission begins with connecting Jesus to those not yet connected to him. While the attractional model of mission may not be as effective as it was in the 1980’s and 1900’s, the Seeker Movement put mission back into the center of the life of the church.

Confession #1: Boomers, especially those who left the Church in the 1970’s and 1980’s, saw ritual as dull and lifeless. Finding new ways to embed the faith in them was imperative to reconnecting with many of them.  So we dropped many (most) of the rituals from our parent’s worship and found new ways to embed the faith.  The confession: In this new world where people have so few roots to stabilize them, throwing out the bathwater (rituals) robs our people of faith-rooting touch points. Our primary form of worship is still “contemporary.” However, one of the things we are trying to reclaim, lost during the Seeker years, is our touch point with rituals that root us in the faith. From day one we made The Lord’s Supper a weekly part of our worship experience. We’ve included updated versions of old hymns. And lately, we’ve been learning the Apostles Creed. As a grandpa, I’m re-seeing how important it is to embed in the minds of my grandkids certain statements like the Creed.

Confession #2: Two thirds of all Boomers left the Christian Church. They found their parents’ church boring and irrelevant. We needed new wineskins in order to call them back to Christ and his Church. So for good reason we laser-focused our creativity on reaching them.  As the movement grew, and Boomer kids began to move into young adulthood, we realized that our kids would probably not assimilate into a Boomer-oriented church (in part because they weren’t Boomers, and in part because we raised them in Sunday School, not worship–see confession #3). In seminars I suggested that perhaps the answer would be found in larger churches seeing themselves as a church of congregations, with different worship services for each generation, and that small churches may have to focus on one generation and reach those who have an affinity with that one generation. The confession: That may still be the answer for some (see emerging churches, for example). But I’m increasingly convinced that one powerful way to be the church today is to go back to the future and build intergenerational worshipping communities—Worship experiences where all ages worship together using the gifts of all ages, the music of all ages, the language of all ages. No easy task. But the downside to generation-specific worship is losing out on the unique gifts of the other generations from children to youth to young adults to midlifers to the old wrinklies (as the Brits call them). Doing intergenerational worship will have to look different than it did in the 1950’s, but I think that if we can figure it out in our contexts, it could jump start some of our congregations.

Confession #3: We offered amazing programs for all ages in the Seeker model. We had the resources, the staff, and the facilities to be a 7 day a week church. While the Seeker service was the main attraction, everything else we did during the week was geared to equipping people to follow Jesus. I think, for example, of our youth choir. 40-60 High School students singing, acting, playing in the band, touring, etc. It provided a place to use their gifts and talents. It provided leadership opportunities. It shaped faith. Both of my kids would say that that experience was a primary faith shaper as they look back on those years. The Confession: We probably programmed our kids out of the church. We made Church the primary place of faith formation, something the church was never meant to be. We encouraged families to outsource their faith to the church when the church should have been equipping families to make the home the primary place for faith formation. We separated families from each other, sending them off to age-specific growth experiences. The result: for all the good the Seeker Movement did (and it did a lot of good), its legacy is the most unchurched generation in the last few hundred years in the history of our country. Programming isn’t bad. In fact, there are many things a church can do that a family can’t. But for the most part, deep faith is forged in the home, every day.  Churches committed to a new (actually ancient) mission of equipping households to be the primary place for faith formation could very well reverse the trend of people no longer connecting with Christ or his Church.

I still feel honored to have been a part of one of the great movements of God in the last part of the last century. Good Kingdom stuff happened through the Seeker movement.

But the best of movements eventually invite us to see our blind spots. These confessions are some of the blind spots I see in my own ministry that we are now addressing.

The world has changed dramatically since the 1980’s and 1990’s. While the Gospel never changes, the way we take the Gospel to the world does and has to change.

I’m excited to see where God leads his Church next.

(Excerpt from Sunday Schooling Our Kids Out of Church! The True Story of How One Congregation Dropped Sunday School to Save its Soul.)

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  • Defensor

    I appreciate this article immensely. I’m a man of the liturgy and ritual and family and all that stuff. One of my main concerns about the massive modernized church is a failure to emphasize those things by basically creating a rock show atmosphere and also having services in which children are not allowed. I come from the catholic variety and. I totally admit the seeker churches are wayyyy better at evangelizing but the downsides you mentioned are something I think we are strong with. We all have something valuable to offer!

    • RevTim

      The variety of worship styles and churches demonstrates the remarkable variety of God and how God can be worshipped by a variety of people. 🙂

      • Troy

        Times have changed but God’s word hasn’t. He sees the change and embraces it. I both like the traditional setting as well as the modern upbeat ways to spread the word. Sometimes I move with the beat of God’s music and my kids laugh at me but he moves me.
        __________________________________
        Jobst Compression Stockings

        • alexinfinite

          “Times have changed but God’s word hasn’t.”

          The very transition from the old to the new testament alone disproves this claim

  • thegooddancer

    I took notes! This helped me think through things. Thanks for writing.

    • RevTim

      You are welcome.

  • FireInSpace

    Ultimately, the difficulty you find in attracting young people to your church is that you just make stuff up and preach it as truth. Maybe if you had some evidence you wouldn’t have to find all these ways to trick people into thinking the same way you do. Barring that, I look forward to witnessing the continuing decline of the church, as people become more educated and realize that the folklore you are selling is just a bad story.

    • RevTim

      FireinSpace, if you are really interested in whether or not this is made up or true, try reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.

  • Thin-ice

    I appreciate where your heart is, but the millenials will never return to the church in any numbers at all. Why? Because the internet happened. Information is now instantly accessible. My kids left the church. My nephews and nieces left the church. In fact, out of a hundred kids of my friends in the church, I don’t know any who stayed in the church or who still believe in God at all. And I stopped believing 5 years ago, at the age of 60. It’s so easy now to verify the contradictions and impossibilities contained in the bible. America will some day look like Northern Europe in terms of religious belief. Maybe after I’m dead, but it will happen. You’re fighting a losing battle. . . .

    • sg

      Does that really apply to churches like the ELCA that don’t actually believe the stuff anyway?

  • kemalettin

    Hi, Tim

    May I share a part from the book named ‘ The Staff of Moses’
    by Said Nursi

    ‘Death is either eternal annihilation, a gallows on which
    will be hanged both man and all his friends and relations; or it comprises the
    release papers to depart for another, eternal, realm, and to enter, with the
    document of belief, the palace of bliss. The grave is either a bottomless pit
    and dark place of solitary confinement, or it is a door opening from the prison
    of this world onto an eternal, light-filled garden and place of feasting.’

    This is the link fort he whole book:

    http://www.nur.gen.tr/en.html#maincontent=Risale&islem=read&KitapId=398&BolumId=8210&KitapAd=The+Staff+of+Moses&Page=-1

  • rob

    I’ve found evangelical churches (non-denominational) here in New Hampshire to be very ridged while claiming to be otherwise. I hear them talking of fluid, unscripted ways, yet shun suggestions from groups/categories of people they find … “eh.”

    A lot of churches think they are who and what you describe Tim, yet are just a re-painted house. I fear its just human nature that leads people to the eventual valley of…well…”human-nature.”

    • RevTim

      Thanks, Rob. It’s often hard to see who we really are as a church when we stand in the middle of it. Sometimes it’s good to stand outside and look in…or have an outsider do so for us.

      • rob

        I think a tangible example is in order.

        I left a church I was in for 15+ years. It was fiercely independent and very purely Bible-driven. No programs like Iron Sharpens Iron were encouraged for individuals and were verboten from adoption by the Church (Celeb Recov – same thing).

        Once, a 15-yo girl became pregnant by her boss. She was blamed, as she went to his apartment, and she was expelled.

        Similarly, modern diagnoses of personal malady was observed via “cherry picking.” PTSD was considered to be a symptom of a lack of faith. There were two people, who were on meds (I’m one) and were told our faith was “weak,” and that we don’t need the meds. WRONG thing to say to someone deep within the throws of mega-depression and flashbacks. We both left and sought out churches individually.

        I moved onto a mega-evangelical Church that had lots of break-out groups of various flavors. I went with a men’s group that chose to deal with very hard issues and support each other. They were led by whomever wanted to lead permanently, or for the week.

        There was this one woman’s group (of about 50), that dealt with being a survivor of sexual abuse in childhood. It was full and did amazing things for its members.

        I suggested a similar group for Male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I had first-hand testimony from MANY drug and alcohol dependent men that it was the root of their substance-abuse problem, but they felt squelched by society’s judgement to deal with it.

        My suggestion to form a male survivor group, modeled exactly after the women’s group dynamics and studies, was stomped dead. I heard “we aren’t equipped to deal with that sort of thing.” To which I would rebut, “we have faith and a Bible…tis all we need for this group.”

        Well, the door did hit me on the back-side as I left.

        I have an amazing story of Salvation, and my supposed Brothers in Christ will not even look at me. But Pat Robertson did, and he made a TV segment out of it.

  • rob

    To pave the way for my kids to see God’s truths and hear his words, I consistently use today’s events (over the past 13 years) and discuss the “rights,” the “wrongs” and the “whys.” Everything happening today or 50 years ago is covered by the Bible sufficiently. I understand why I’ve seen the kids leaving churches the moment they are allowed to. It’s the people in their lives as Word teachers to blame.

    For example: None of us were commanded to have faith in man…any man. Some are actually told and believe that Christians are supposed to be perfect and without sin. There are always those “AH HA” moments the other side will publicize as hypocrisy, and our mis-taught kids see it as such.

    Our kids are being pulled away by the other side wholesale. But its not the internet to blame. Its the world pulling them, exactly as we were told it would. Universities and such have been “disproving God’s word” and berating our faith since Jesus walked his final Earthly day. God’s word and my faith are no different just because the calendar says “2014.”

    I’m very upset by the level of attacks these days however. It is reaching a crescendo very shortly I fear. The persecution is upon us.

    I get militant and aggressive when I see overt attacks on our children’s faith, as they are not being given the opportunity to learn the truth if we don’t fight the Hell Hounds.

    • Randolph Bragg

      A seeker is born every minute.