Outreach or inner growth. Seekers or the Saved. Evangelize or Discipleship. There has been a debate raging for years now in the church world about the "proper" approach to the Sunday morning experience. Do we focus on Sunday mornings to reaching out to the lost or do we use Sunday morning service as a classroom of sorts to teach those who are already in faith to deepen their relationship and knowledge of God? And in that, we must acknowledge the reality that, whatever approach we take, it does not simply affect the Sunday morning experience but filters down into all areas of the church.
I acknowledge that this conversation is one that takes place mostly in the realm of church leadership, amongst pastors and church elders, and it may seem odd to address it in a forum such as this but since it's impact so deeply affects the members of the local community I wanted to challenge to you to consider the question. I think it is so important for the members of Christ's body to examine the church community with which you choose to commit your faith and gifts and this question should be central to your evaluation.
Over the last 30 years there has arisen within the American church culture a philosophy of ministry that can be generically labeled "seeker sensitive church ministry." And although there are different variations of the theme (seeker friendly, outreach driven, user friendly, etc) they have all been influenced by a philosophy that emerged out of the birthing of Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Bill Hybels, and the founding leaders of Willow Creek developed a philosophy of ministry that was focused on Sunday morning being a "user friendly" service aimed at bringing the "seeker" to a non-threatening inspirational service that will introduce them to a life of faith in Christ. The service would consist of a time of music that was not intended to be participatory, or worshipful, and a teaching that was intended to be entertaining and enlightening but not necessarily (and I want to phrase this respectfully) spiritually challenging. This service, coupled with a mid-week "believers" service where "deeper" issues of theology such as sin and repentance would be taught, became the impetus for incredible growth in this local community. In fact, Willow Creek currently has a Sunday morning attendance of over 20,000 people.
Because of Willow Creek's wild success many church leaders have taken note and have attempted to imitate this approach. As a result there are a significant number of church leaders that see the primary role of Sunday mornings, and to be honest the church itself, to be one of attraction and evangelism, and as such, see every decision through the prism of those two values. Many of these leaders view those Christians who find this approach as too elementary or simplistic as selfish and not understanding that the Church is not "about them" but about the mission to reach the lost. (I know because I spent many years, in a previous position, building a church like this and making those statements.) Predictably, there has been a reaction to this philosophy with many people within the Christian realm rejecting a focus on attraction and evangelism while calling for a greater emphasis on the discipleship of the believer. It is their belief that we need to be more worried about teaching Christians the values of Christian living and deepening the faith of God's elect. This movement is marked by a call to "just preach the word" and a return to more traditional expressions of Christian faith. They see the tools of the seeker sensitive movement (contemporary music, drama, videos, etc) as examples of "compromise" and reject anything that may be viewed as an instrument of "attraction" other than the "preaching of the Word".
It is my belief that this debate, which is causing great dissension within the American church, is a false debate with both sides missing the true power of the Gospel.
Both sides miss the fundamental truth of what Christ called the church to be and how He brilliantly empowered the church to fulfill that calling. While those influenced by the seeker sensitive philosophy see the primary function of the Church being the mission of evangelism with discipleship being a byproduct of the believer "being on mission," those who are calling for a return to the traditional see the primary focus as discipleship with evangelism being the incidental outgrowth of "preaching the Word.” I think both positions are partly correct but fundamentally wrong. You see the primary purpose of the church is neither evangelism nor discipleship but the glorification of God. The Church exists for the purpose of revealing fully the Gospel of Christ in both word and deed and when the church maintains that as it's primary purpose both evangelism and discipleship and many other functions become the beautiful result of the Holy Spirit's work through a Gospel centered community. You can clearly see the folly of the debate when you simply examine the argument of the Sunday morning emphasis; evangelism v. discipleship. It is the false choice between focusing the message on evangelism or focusing the message on discipleship. The very question ignores the fact that the brilliant Holy Spirit power of the Gospel is that the SAME Gospel that saves is the Gospel that disciples. That the same Gospel that confronts is the Gospel that comforts. You see, the impact of the Gospel is not simply the words we say or even life we live but it is the empowerment by the Spirit of God to reach the heart-needs of the the hearers. The message of the Cross will call the believer to a heart of gratitude and spirit of rejoicing while the same message, by the teaching of the Spirit, calls the seeker to a place of sorrow that leads to repentance. Same Gospel but different influence because His Word is empowered to impact the hearts of man, which is why we are not charged simply with evangelism or discipleship but with lifting high the Gospel of Christ. We ultimately do not save anyone and we ultimately do not disciple anyone, the Holy Spirit does both those works through the working of the Gospel.
I do not believe we as the church should be focused on what methods will most bring about evangelism, discipleship or for that matter, anything else, but on developing methods that most reflect the mission of revealing the attributes of Christ through His local Body: attributes of truth, mercy, grace, love, salvation, forgiveness, holiness, community, charity, unity, self-sacrifice and many other beautiful elements that are revealed in the life and work of Jesus Christ. At Mercy Hill we have never sought to use methods to bring about anything other than bringing the attributes of Christ's Gospel into Christ's Body. We preach the full truth of God's word, not picking only "seeker sensitive" messages, because we believe it reflects the fullness of truth that God revealed in the life and ministry of Christ. We encourage community, which is communal unity, through small groups and even our cafe not because we think it attracts people (although it may) but because it reflects the nature of Christ revealed by His communal unity with God the Father and God the Spirit by whom He maintains His communal unity with us His church. We engage in activities within our greater community (Bay View and Lake Country) such as "Gallery Night" not because we want to increase our church rolls but because connecting with your "world" in humility, grace and love is a reflection of the life and work of Jesus Christ. All of these activities may "get people saved" and may disciple people but not because we have figured out how to reach those "goals" but because God is faithful, by His Spirit, to His Word.
I have never once prepared a message at Mercy Hill to accomplish anything other than to do my fallible best to reveal the message of the Gospel revealed in scripture. I don't set a goal of evangelism, a goal of discipleship or even a goal of getting people to give money so the needs of church would be met, but I have a goal of revealing the Gospel of Christ in the passage we are examining, fully believing that the byproduct of His gospel is the completion of His work in the Church.
Over the last 3 years we have had 300 people make first time commitments to Christ. Over the last 3 years the number one feedback I get from people in the church is that they have learned more in the short time they have attended MH then they did in all the years they attended other churches (I don't say that to glorify us, it's just what we have been told). The same Gospel that saves is the same Gospel that disciples.
May we use whatever methods possible to fully reveal the full Gospel of Christ to a faithful church and a fallen world. Whenever we have a different goal we become a part of false debate that is creating dissention in Christ’s Body.