If you combine a rock concert, a shopping mall, and a self-help seminar with a young, nondenominational evangelical church that meets in a theater, school, or warehouse, you begin to get a picture of a seeker church. A seeker church designs its programs and services to attract its target audience of "Unchurched Harry," a midcareer, suburban professional male who does not attend church but probably was raised in either a mainline Protestant church or in the Roman Catholic Church. By developing an innovative model for reaching unchurched baby boomers, seeker churches are growing rapidly in the United States and even internationally as they seek to re-form the practices of evangelical churches.
The most prominent seeker church is the United States is Willow Creek Community Church, the self-proclaimed largest church in America, which attracts more than fifteen thousand people from suburban Chicago to its services every weekend. This modern American cathedral features a winding drive around a picturesque lake, a forty-five-hundred-seat theater offering a high-energy service with live band, professional lighting and sound, dramatic presentations, and topical messages on practical concerns. Willow Creek, however, does not look like a church. It has no crosses or religious symbols on display, even on its exterior. Willow Creek's extensive complex of dark brick and smoked glass buildings resembles a modern community college or corporate training center. Its facilities include a conference center, a cafeteria food court and atrium dining area, three basketball courts, a wing of offices, a chapel the size of many churches, a bookstore, and endless hallways of Sunday school rooms and nurseries that rival the most expensive private day-care centers.
Large, contemporary churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback Valley Community Church, in Orange County, California, represent one of the most influential movements in American Protestantism because thousands of pastors from across the country are not only flocking to these churches to learn more about their new model of ministry but also establishing their own seeker churches. This broad movement, unlike previous movements within Protestantism that were associated with a particular theology (such as neo-orthodoxy or fundamentalism or the social Gospel), is not defined primarily by doctrine or denominational affiliation. Instead, the seeker church movement is distinguished by its emphasis on a particular methodology. Seeker church pastors retain traditional evangelical tenets, such as the authority of the Bible or the divinity of Christ, but reject more traditional forms of church services and organization.
What seeker churches have in common is that they are all committed to using new methods, frequently drawn from marketing principles, to reach those who currently do not attend church. These methods include using contemporary music and developing topical messages that apply biblical teaching to issues from daily life and the self-help movement's concern with fulfillment, as well as providing excellent child care, featuring a wide variety of choice in small groups and other ministries, creating an informal atmosphere, and deemphasizing denominational identity. Seeker churches stress the importance of authenticity—of making religion personally relevant not through inherited liturgies and creeds but through dynamic services; teachings that relate Christianity to everyday life; and intimate small groups. They also tend to train their own leaders, rather than to rely on seminaries or denominations. While there is not one single model that defines the seeker church (e.g., Willow Creek urges pastors to offer separate services for seekers and believers, while Saddleback offers just one type of service), many seeker churches are relatively large (with more than a thousand attendees), and their leaders look to the shopping mall, Disney, and other customer-sensitive companies to shape the practices of the twenty-first-century church.
The most dramatic evidence of the influence of the seeker church movement is the growth of the Willow Creek Association (WCA). From its founding in 1992 to 1998, the WCA's membership grew to more than twenty-two hundred churches, ranking it in the top 10 percent of American denominations based on the number of member churches. It is growing internationally as well, with chapters in Australia, England, Germany, and New Zealand and with more on the way. Nondenominational and Baptist churches are the two largest types of churches within the WCA. As significant as its size is the fact that the WCA represents a new kind of denomination—a postmodern denomination that stresses flexibility, specialization, flat authority structures, and the market as the primary source of accountability. Just as mainline Protestant denominations formed large bureaucracies in an age of corporate vertical integration (e.g., General Motors), so the WCA embodies the kind of flexibility that technology allows—and that low levels of denominational loyalty require.
The emergence of seeker churches stems from major cultural shifts since the 1960s that have influenced where and why people decide to participate in organized religion. Religious affiliations such as Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian are less stable and enduring than they were previously. This declining significance of denominational loyalty has restructured American religion in profound ways. For example, two-thirds of the baby-boomer generation, what Wade Clark Roof (1993) has labeled the "generation of seekers," at some time in their adult lives left the church in which they were raised. Many remained religious dropouts, although one-quarter of all baby boomers who left the church at one point have since returned. What many of these seekers have in common is a do-it-yourself mentality toward religion in which they want to choose their own form of religion rather than rely on the authority of a tradition or a religious community. These seekers choose freely from an increasingly diverse array of spiritual options. This contemporary culture of choice encourages people to create new types of communities rooted primarily in an achieved identity (based on choice) rather than in an ascriptive identity (based on birth). By designing services and programs that emphasize authenticity, informality, and the practical benefits of belief, seeker churches are an innovative and effective response by evangelical churches to this cultural environment.
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Kimon H. Sargeant