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The Savior-Sensitive, Seeker-Sensitive Church

CrossIn 1975, Bill Hybels assumed the leadership of a fledgling church plant that would grow into the rather influential Willow Creek Community Church. Under Bill’s leadership, the church pioneered many concepts in the seeker-sensitive strain of worship and ministry. In 1997, Bill and his wife, Lynne, co-wrote Rediscovering Church, an inside look at how the church grew from 100 to 15,000 in weekend attendance.

In 1980, Rick and Kay Warren relocated to Orange County, California to launch Saddleback Church. In 1995, Rick released The Purpose Driven Church, which spelled out the purpose driven paradigm and philosophy of ministry, one of the most transferred church models in history. It also told the story of how Saddleback had grown from seven people to well over 10,000 in weekend attendance (as of the mid-1990’s).

Because both churches emerged as influential institutions in evangelicalism at about the same time, and because both churches publicly espoused what each called seeker-sensitive worship, both have often been lumped together as carbon copies of each other. Actually, there are dramatic differences between the models. Not long ago, the Reveal Study demonstrated that Willow Creek had struggled to produce lasting change in the lives of new believers. Bill is an excellent leader, so he and Willow Creek are adjusting the way they do church and I know God will continue to bless their turnaround, as He already is.

Because both church created widely followed methodologies, the seeker-sensitive approach to worship has been talked about plenty in the last twenty years. Saddleback no longer even uses the phrase, primarily because it’s been hi-jacked by leaders who expect nothing of believers and really do choose to water down the gospel and minimize the “all in” commitment required of every believer.

Having served on staff at Saddleback, I can tell you personally that being purpose driven is far less about a worship style than it is about having an intentional process for moving people forward toward spiritual maturity, ministry, and mission. There’s a great backstage video interview with Rick Warren in which he explains why Saddleback is concerned about moving people from “come and see” to “come and die” and you can watch it here.

In 1985, Paul Chappell became the Pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church in the high dessert of southern California. The church has experienced phenomenal growth over the years and has produced visible change in the lives of thousands of people and the surrounding culture. Pastor Paul and one of his associates, John Goetsch, co-authored a little book entitled The Savior Sensitive Church that offers a critique of the seeker-sensitive movement, at least as a whole. I’ve read it, a couple of times actually, and while I don’t agree with some of the specific convictions at which Drs. Chappell and Goetsch arrived, I do think it’s a great book with brief but powerful insights. (By the way, it’s important to read more than just the guys we agree with in totality or we’ll never challenge our assumptions or grow beyond our current experiences.)

It’s very easy for us to get the impression that there are two sides to the debate over how to do church. It would seem there is the seeker-sensitive angle, then the Savior-sensitive. Or there are those who are all about evangelism and growth to the neglect of biblical discipleship and then those who are all about discipleship to the degree that they become totally insensitive to seekers. In fact, I think it’s often easy for us, as leaders, to peg other leaders as one or the other and then begin to criticize according to our preconceived assumptions. Therein lies the problem.

I’ve read all three books. I’ve studied all three of these churches. And I’ve learned a great deal by watching the ministries of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Paul Chappell. I chuckle inside when someone asks me, “what do you think of (fill in the blank with some well-known Pastor)?” and I often reply with, “I’m a big fan, and here’s what I learn from him.” For some reason, we have the impression that if you learn from John MacArthur, you can’t possibly be fond of Rick Warren. Or if you learn from Rick, you can’t possibly be fond of John Piper. After all, these guys are… different!

When I was in Bible College, that’s how I thought. In fact, I still read and hear the discussions of young, eager seminarians who know far more than people with decades of experience doing the very same thing. Listen to a guy preach. Hear a catch phrase or three. Brand him as weak, strong, heretical, soft, worldly, etc. Then criticize everyone who listens to him. My mind is drawn to Paul’s rebuke of this kind of thinking in the Corinthian letters. He made it clear that God never intended for us to line up behind our favorite leader, such as Paul or Apollos, and create imaginary lines of demarcation between “our camp” and “their camp.”

Instead, I’ve come to some conclusions. Regarding the leaders I’ve already mentioned, you need to learn from Rick Warren about leadership and about creating an intentional process for discipling people. You need to learn from Bill Hybels how to be authentic and authoritative from a depth of personal character. You need to learn from Paul Chappell the importance of standing by your convictions and preaching truth without apology.

You also need to learn from John MacArthur to stay in the study longer to feed people from the depth of God’s Word. You need to learn from Chuck Swindoll about communicating with humor and grace the gospel of Jesus. You need to learn from Al Mohler how to silence skeptics, from Jack Hyles and John R. Rice about being constantly conscious of lost souls around you, and from W. A. Criswell about having a passionate, unwavering commitment to the full counsel of God, from Andy Stanley about systems, and from Craig Groeschel about communication in a technological age.

You need to hear the passion of Chrysostom and Athanasius about standing against heresy. Adrian Rogers can teach you about packaging God’s Word in a relatable, understandable way. Charles Spurgeon will teach you about unction. John Wesley and George Whitefield will fire you up to get on a horse and go to the furthest hamlet to thunder forth the gospel.

Some of these guys are Calvinists, others Arminian and some Wesleyans (particularly that Wesley guy). Some have been revolutionary, others have gone practically to their graves defending truth. Learn from them. Repent of the arrogance you have about your camp, and open your ears.

With all of that said, let me return to my original discussion. My hope and desire, as we plant Grace Hills Church, is to be both Savior-sensitive and seeker-sensitive (though I don’t like the latter phrase anymore either because of its misuse). We need to be Christ-centered in our theology as well as our methodology. We need to walk in wisdom toward those that are without (those would be seekers). We should start with the cross, identify with the needs of lost people, and develop people into fully devoted followers of Christ.

Not all debate is bad. It can yield good self-evaluation and out of the dialog can come healthy change. But debate isn’t the priority Jesus gave to the church just before He ascended to heaven. Making disciples of everyone on the planet is. So let’s get started.

Photo by Matt Gruber.

The Role of Preaching In Church Planting

Stephen F. Olford PreachingThere various viewpoints on the best church planting model. Some launch fast and large to attract the masses. Others launch slowly and intentionally with more of a one-on-one disciple-making mentality. There are probably cautions with any approach to planting, and one of the cautions I would raise is simply don’t neglect the power of preaching, even in a brand new church plant.

When we began the work of planting Grace Hills, I was reading everything I could and consulting every church planting leader I could reach about the best strategies for beginning a new church from scratch. I learned plenty about starting small groups, structuring our new church’s systems for leadership and communication, and gathering a launch team to carry out the ministry and mission of the church. What I didn’t hear much about was the role of preaching.

There is an eternal principle to be remembered when planting a new church: “Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.” 1 Corinthians 1:21 NLT

The word preaching is literally the telling of the good news, and doesn’t necessarily refer to proclaiming the gospel from a pulpit by someone in full-time vocational ministry. This kind of preaching happens anytime anyone shares the gospel with someone else. But the word preaching has always been identified in church history as also referring to the proclamation by a herald of the gospel. And the proclamation of the gospel is something God blesses. Preaching is a practice that changes the lives of hearers.

As a church planter plans his initial timeline, calendar, and launch strategy, it’s important to consider where proclamation fits into the picture. Contrary to some conventional wisdom, I would argue that in many cases, public preaching needs to happen early on in the life of a new church. My rationale?

  • Public preaching is a practice God has promised to bless and has rewarded with changed lives for two thousand years.
  • Public preaching isn’t necessarily the most important means of casting a vision (via leaders in conversation works even better), it is still huge for setting the direction of the body.
  • Public preaching brings the body together around a unified theme from Scripture.
  • Public preaching counsels, consoles, and encourages the masses.
  • Public preaching allows an expressive outlet for the gifted communicator.
  • Public preaching provides a special time for response, whether that looks like a traditional altar call or not.
  • Public preaching gives an opportunity for a passionate leader to motivate people and rally them to the cause of Christ.
  • Public preaching provides an atmosphere into which followers of Jesus can bring people who are far from God into the hearing of God’s truth.

Don’t misunderstand. We still want to establish that “bringing people to the preacher” is not evangelism, but it can be part of evangelism. We want to equip disciples to make disciples, for sure. But bringing people into the point of community to hear a public proclamation of God’s truth is at least one prong in our discipleship approach that shouldn’t be entirely neglected.

Does this mean that there should be a pulpit up front with people seated in rows facing the Pastor? Not necessarily. In fact, that isn’t the picture of preaching we see in Jesus’ life. He taught from boats and sitting on grassy knolls. The apostles preached standing in the colonnades of the Temple. Paul visited the synagogues and engaged the crowd during times of public conversation.

Preaching will probably look different in the early life of a new church, but don’t neglect it. Don’t underestimate its intrinsic power for drawing people into a relationship with the Creator.

8 Ways to Hook Your Congregation Into Your Message

HookThe biblical text should be the grand centerpiece of every sermon. But we often take what should be the centerpiece, and move it to the front of what we have to say. In most cases, reading the text should come first in importance, but not first in the order of a message. Whether you’re looking back at Plato or Jesus, virtually every culture has had great communicators who realized the power of attention-grabbing hooks.

1. Start with a deep, human need instead of jumping right into the exegesis and historical-grammatical analysis of the text. When you move from the need to the text, people have the context of its meaning for their lives.

2. Launch with a relevant story. We remember stories that are vibrant, funny, and powerful. And stories connect my heart to the text before my head grabs hold of it.

3. Tell a joke. That is, if you’re funny. I know a fellow Pastor who served a very discouraged congregation, but after years of opening with humor, they experience joy together every week.

4. Use an object lesson. You may not be able to match Ed Young’s capability to drive a tank on stage to illustrate spiritual warfare, but you can hand out puzzle pieces to represent how we all “fit” in God’s family or hold up your shoes as an illustration of an essential need many people live without.


5. Begin with someone’s testimony. This is also great for the middle of the message, but having someone address your topic from their life’s experience shows the congregation that there are others who struggle and others who overcome. Your words have increased credibility when someone “normal” has already proven the practical possibility of achieving what you’re about to preach.

6. Share the results of some word-on-the-street interviews. You can find these clips, or film them yourself as a chance to connect with your community. If you’re going to preach an apologetic message, interview people about their religious viewpoints.

7. Show a related video clip. Some great storytellers and artists have invested their talent into framing concepts in motion pictures. Take advantage of their work for the purpose of setting up your message in an artistic way.

8. Talk to the crowd. This, of course, depends on your setting, but with text messaging and Twitter, we can talk with our audience in real time as never before, fielding questions and allowing the crowd to speak to itself as we teach.

Our options for opening a message are almost limitless, but what we don’t have to do is jump right into the text. It’s still the most important thing we will share all day, but it doesn’t have to come first.

Photo Credit

Go, Disturb Your City

Disturb Your CityTwo thousand years ago, the good news of Jesus Christ had a tendency to upset entire social structures, flipping society upside down and leveling the playing field so that people from any position in life could have a restored relationship with God because of what Jesus Christ accomplished by His death on the cross. Throughout the New Testament, we read repeatedly of cities that were “disturbed” by the presence of the gospel (Acts 17:6).

This coming Sunday, I’m going to begin challenging those who are gathering as Grace Hills Church to disturb Bentonville, Rogers, and northwest Arkansas. That means we’re going to get intentional about infiltrating the culture around us, serving the city, loving the city, and changing the face of the city by the power of the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.

I’ll post the notes later, but I simply wanted to ask you – have you disturbed your city?

By the way, have you "liked" Grace Hills Church on Facebook yet?

Every Pastor Should Read ‘Note to Self’

Note to Self by Joe Thorn“Preaching it” is easier than living it. This creates significant problems when our speaking talent outweighs our personal character. Therefore, it is imperative that we, as shepherds, shepherd ourselves – that we hear the Word, do the Word, and preach to ourselves first. That’s why I love Joe Thorn’s book Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself (Re: Lit Books).

We often buy books to help us prepare sermons. You should buy this book to help prepare yourself. The book is divided into three sections, all revolving around the gospel. The first section leads our hearts to assume a posture of praise. The second teaches us how the gospel impacts our relationships with other people. The third reminds us of the impact the gospel should have on self. Here’s a line we need to hear concerning our wives…

You should seek to be the brightest representation of Jesus she sees, as you represent Christ as Savior and servant to her. That would look like seeking her out when you get home from work, instead of seeking solace for yourself. It means affirming her calling and gifts, listening to her, speaking words of encouragement to her, and at all times working for her good. Jesus loves you this way, and in like manner you are called to love your wife.

The gospel is not simply a salvation message intended for people who are lost and apart from Christ. The gospel is the central core of all that we are in Christ and all that we do for Christ. Believers need to be fed from the message of the gospel, and this book drives it home in the hearts of those of us who are most at risk for taking the gospel for granted – preachers.

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