Why we must be seeker sensitive

The phrase ‘seeker sensitive’ has dropped out of fashion recently. For those who haven’t heard the phrase, the idea of a ‘seeker sensitive service’ is a church gathering that focuses on the desires and needs of ‘spiritual seekers’—non-Christians with a thirst for knowing more about God. It aims to do everything possible to make it easy for them to come to church and enjoy the experience so that they come back and learn about God. Yet the Willow Creek Association, for example, once a champion of the ‘seeker sensitive’ model of church, has recently had a major rethink of some of its key values. In their book Reveal: Where Are You? by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, they speak frankly about the failures of an approach that was too heavily oriented towards growth in numbers rather than growth in maturity.

This short article isn’t meant to be a critique or discussion of the Willow Creek model, or of church growth in general. However, I do want to explore the idea of being ‘seeker sensitive’. And to do that, I want to look briefly at a story from Luke’s Gospel—a passage that is all about a seeker:

And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. (Luke 19:2-3)

Here is, in the Bible’s words, a true seeker—a man who seeks to see Jesus. Like many seekers in our world, there are all sorts of cultural barriers in his way. Zacchaeus isn’t a classic churchgoer. In fact, he’s a man who couldn’t show up in the synagogue without being despised. He’s a rich tax-collector—a corrupt businessman who’s betrayed his country. Besides, he’s short. He’s probably hurting and lonely. The only way for him to get to Jesus is through the unorthodox method of climbing a tree (19:4).

The question is, what does Jesus do for this seeker? Does Jesus show sensitivity to his needs and feelings? Does he create a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for Zacchaeus? Does he allow him time to experience spiritual connectedness with God? Well … not really. In fact, he seems to do the exact opposite. He draws attention to Zacchaeus by stopping and looking up at him (19:5). He commands him to come down. He tells Zacchaeus in no uncertain terms that he’s going to stay with him that night. It’s not quite the model of seeker sensitivity that we’re used to.

Yet Jesus’ words and actions are strangely effective. Zacchaeus receives Jesus with joy (19:6). And his life is radically changed that day: he turns away from his corrupt past, and promises to make amends immediately (19:8). He is, in Jesus’ words, a saved “son of Abraham” (19:9).

What has happened here? Why has salvation come to Zacchaeus? How did it happen? Jesus explains it in verse 10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”.

The reason that salvation came to Zacchaeus was not because Jesus was being particularly sensitive to his needs. It’s because Zacchaeus came face to face with Jesus, the one whose job it is to seek and save the lost. Indeed, by the end of the story, we see that the real seeker is not Zacchaeus, but Jesus. Jesus is the one who seeks and saves: Jesus, the seeker, sought out Zacchaeus (even though Zacchaeus thought he was doing the seeking). He humbled him, he commanded him to come to him, and he brought about that joy and radical change of life that only Jesus can bring.

So, in short, I want to suggest that our church gatherings must be seeker sensitive if they are to be truly effective. But by this, I mean that our church gatherings must be sensitive to the seeker of Luke 19:10: we must aim, in everything we do, to bring people face to face with the seeker—the Son of Man who came to seek and save the lost. In doing so, we will need to present the urgency of his demands and the need for radical repentance, as well as the joy of knowing him. Of course, we should also be sensitive to people, and seek to remove unnecessary distractions (e.g. strange clothing, music, jargon and traditions). But we do this not because we are trying to make lost people feel comfortable, but because we want lost people to focus upon the seeker of their souls, and so be saved.