Traditional or Seeker-Sensitive?

Traditional or Seeker-Sensitive?

The Missouri Synod Lutherans are arguing with each other about “traditional” versus “seeker-sensitive” styles of being church. And the debate has spilled over into the pages of the Wall Street Journal. In its March 28 issue, the WSJ published an op-ed piece by Mollie Zeigler Hemingway, a former member of the denomination’s Board for Communication Services, criticizing the church leadership for canceling a respected radio program that discussed current issues from a Lutheran perspective. Since then some letters have appeared, debating the pros and cons of the claims she made about the significance of the cancellation.

Here is her basic thesis:
“The program was in all likelihood a pawn in a larger battle for the soul of the Missouri Synod. The church is divided between, on the one hand, traditional Lutherans known for their emphasis on sacraments, liturgical worship and the church’s historic confessions and, on the other, those who have embraced pop-culture Christianity and a market-driven approach to church growth. The divide is well known to all confessional Christian denominations struggling to retain their traditional identity.”

I have no views about the cancellation of the program, which I have never listened to. Nor do I know how to assess the claims and counter-claims about the actual motives at work in this particular case. But the larger scenario presented by Ms. Hemingway points, as she makes clear, to some important issues for all of us who care about traditional confessional identities. Indeed the Lutheran version of the issues is laid out in much helpful detail in Stephen Ellingson’s 2007 book, Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-first Century. Ellingson, a sociologist, provides in-depth accounts of the ways in which nine Lutheran congregations in the San Francisco area are responding to new challenges for the church’s life and mission. While each of the congregations has its own unique character, Ellingson sees two very different patterns being explored. Borrowing terminology from the sociologist Robert Bellah and his Habits of the Heart colleagues, he sees some congregations attempting to be “communities of memory,” while others are promoting a model associated with “communities of interest” that draw on “seeker sensitive” themes.

It is unfortunate that the debate is often posed in terms of those who care about traditional theology and those who have sold their souls to “marketing” techniques. (I can’t resist the temptation to observe that there is some irony in Ms. Hemingway’s choosing the Wall Street Journal as the venue for making her case against the influence of “market-driven” strategies on church life.) I won’t develop my own argument in detail here, but I am convinced that in my own Reformed tradition there are important theological resources for taking “seeker” sensitivities very seriously in reflecting on the life and mission of the church. In fact, I look directly to John Calvin himself for positive encouragement on this subject. In the Institutes Calvin introduces two themes for understanding what he sees as the indelibly spiritual character of human existence, even in its fallen condition: the sense of divinity (sensus divinitatis) and the seed of religion (semen religionis). All human beings, Calvin says, have a sense of the divine, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not. This is due to the fact that God has planted the seed of religion in every human heart. Human beings, even sinful human beings, yearn for God. As St. Augustine put it in the form of a prayer at the beginning of his Confessions: “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

To be sure, the yearnings of the sinful human heart are fundamentally misdirected. As Calvin also put it: “The human heart is a factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” When, because of our sinful rebellion, we cut ourselves off from a vital relationship with our Creator, we seek to satisfy our hopes and calm our fears by putting our ultimate trust in something creaturely, in something that is less than the true God. But it is precisely because we are created for fellowship with the Living God that our idols never really satisfy our deepest yearnings. Our hearts are restless until they rest in the Living God.

So we have the present-day question that is being debated by the Missourians and others: should we attempt to be communities of interest or communities of memory? The Reformed answer, it seems to me, is that we must focus on both. The experienced “needs” of the unbelievers whom we want to reach with the gospel are themselves expressions of deep, although certainly misdirected, yearnings that are planted by God in their hearts. Those needs, those quests and longings, are not wrong in themselves. Rather, they are misdirected. People who are trapped in sinful lives are looking in the wrong places to find ultimate meaning and true satisfaction.

I have put the case here in Reformed terms, but I am quite sure Martin Luther would agree with the basic point. As Thomas Aquinas. And the Wesleys. And maybe even Menno Simons.

When the new-style congregations emphasize the importance of welcoming “seekers,” then, they are pointing all of us to something important. We need to see our congregations as places of safety, as spaces into which we can invite wandering sinners to come home to the Living God. And those of us who care deeply about confessional identities need to be willing to learn important lessons from those newer congregations about how best to welcome this new generation of seekers. We do need to think new thoughts, in the new cultural situations in which we find ourselves, about the tone and atmosphere of our worshiping life–and about the kind of language that best communicates the truths of God’s Word to people who desperately need to hear the Good News of a Savior who was sent to minister to “the hopes and fears of all the years.”


  1. Good post! The either/or discussion is far too superficial. Apparently Jesus himself entered the Synagogues to teach when appropriate, but also stood up on the hillside when possible. He seemed to value the communities of memory at the same time that he advanced communities of interest. Both have their time and place.

    It seems worthy of note that even communities of interest seem to eventually lose their interest in becoming more interesting and begin to value their own memory. Maybe it depends on just how deep you want your roots to grow.

    Teenage movements are energizing as are those in their twenties and thirties, but a very real challenge every movement faces is in the transition to the 2nd and 3rd generation.

    Comment by John Hamilton — April 14, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  2. The overarching question that I would have is, “Should we take this one hour (or so) per week that is dedicated to corporate worship by those who have been redeemed by God and who are offering their praises, prayers, and administering the sacraments as instituted by our Lord, and receiving the Word of the Living God, and design this time of worship to be accomodating or palatable to those who are attending that may be bored with this stuff? Or…is there a better time and place to evangelize those who may be called “seeker sensitive”?

    Comment by David Van Inwegen — May 2, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  3. Last line should be….those who may be called “seekers”?

    Comment by David Van Inwegen — May 2, 2008 @ 11:45 am

  4. I think the term we are looking for is not seeker sensitive, or seeker focused. I think what we see in Scripture are believers and unbelievers in the same worship service, and the worship must be “seeker comprehensible”. That’s the commitment any church must make regardless of their style. This commitment comes from being unified not around memory nor around pop-culture interest, but around mission. We exist for those not yet among us. When churches are so loaded down with jargon from the evangelical subculture on one hand, or unexplained theological/liturgical terminology on the other, they are unintelligible to the outsider.

    Comment by Fred Harrell — May 20, 2008 @ 5:38 pm