What’s wrong with the seeker-friendly gospel?

At a service my wife and I attended, the pastor ended with the question “What do you need from the Holy Spirit today?” Although the congregation reacted enthusiastically, we were alarmed, because this is unbiblical teaching on at least two levels. First, we don’t really know what we lack, so we can’t decide on what we need. Naturally, we will always tend toward the goodies and never toward the discipline. If we (rather than God) can decide on what we need, we will become self-righteous consumers wallowing in our lukewarm bath and we will never follow the ‘way of the cross’ (Mk. 8:34-38), because we will never ask for suffering to become more Christ-like. Second and far more worrying, it puts God in the position of our divine butler or genie in a bottle ready to fulfill all our needs. This is idolatry.

Obviously, the pastor didn’t intend to teach such heresy, but it didn’t seem to be an innocent slip of the tongue either. Why not? Because it’s the inevitable consequence of preaching Bill Hybels’ seeker-friendly gospel. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek (Chicago) is the major example-to-follow of many pastors. The message that Hybels preaches is commonly known as the seeker-friendly Gospel or the felt-needs gospel. Because the biblical Gospel is considered unattractive to ‘unchurched Harry’ (Hybels’ target audience), Hybels preaches a message that addresses the felt-needs of Harry. Based on psychological polls and sociological surveys, we know that Harry is after personal fulfillment and experiencing God, so that is what Bill Hybels offers. Hybels’ seeker-friendly gospel portrays sin as a flawed strategy to gain fulfillment and salvation as a means to fulfill your felt-needs. Harry asks “How can I be happy?” Hybels answers “Accept Jesus.” This connects the seeker-friendly gospel seamlessly to Harry’s felt-needs. It’s this seamless connection that makes the felt-needs gospel so effective in reaching out to Harry. The enormous size of the seeker-friendly megachurches (thousands of members) is irrefutable evidence for the success of Hybels’ felt-needs approach.

Bill Hybels’ view on seeker-friendliness can be summarized as follows. If you want to reach unchurched Harry, you have to be seeker-friendly, otherwise Harry will stay out of reach forever. So even if the felt-needs gospel is theologically questionable, from an outreach point of view it’s pragmatic, effective, and necessary. At first sight, Bill Hybels’ view seems reasonable, so what’s wrong with it?

Unfortunately, quite a lot.

In essence, the seeker-friendly gospel merges the role of ‘salt and light’ with the role of the Gospel message itself. The role of ‘salt and light’ is to address Harry’s felt-needs, to show how God’s kingdom looks like and to attract Harry to the Gospel message (Matt. 5:13-16). Therefore, ‘salt and light’ pave the road to the Gospel, which itself must stay unchanged. The fatal flaw in Hybels’ seeker-friendly gospel is to incorporate the role of ‘salt and light’ into the gospel message, thereby changing the gospel message. This results in a serious corruption of the Gospel message. The true grit of the biblical Gospel message is lost.
The core problem of Hybels’ seeker-friendly Gospel is the redefinition of sin and salvation. The biblical gospel portrays sin as rebellion against God and salvation as deliverance from God’s wrath. Hybels’ gospel portrays sin as a flawed strategy to gain fulfillment and salvation as a means to fulfill your felt-needs. The biblical gospel is “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18), Hybels’ gospel is attractive to those in pursuit of experiencing God. Hybels’ gospel is routinely defended by saying “methods change, but the message stays the same.” But this is not the case. Hybels’ gospel has gutted the true gospel. Hybels’ gospel is man-centered, not God-centered. By telling Harry that Christ will meet his felt-needs and will lead him to personal fulfillment, Hybels has shifted the focus from the truth and the eternal to the pragmatic and the temporal. Harry is not interested in truth and eternal destiny, but in feeling better about himself in the here and now.

Focusing on human usefulness instead of biblical truth is the fatal flaw in Hybels’ seeker-friendly approach. If accepting Christ is nothing more than a means to an end (namely, reaching personal fulfillment), then what happens if Harry finds a more convenient way to reach personal fulfillment? Then Christ can be discarded, because he is no longer useful. If Harry (rather than God) can decide on what he needs, the result will be an unrepentant Harry being fulfilled in his sinful needs and feeling better about himself, completely ignoring the radical challenge that Harry stands condemned before God and that he must repent and submit to God in order to get saved. God does not exist to meet Harry’s needs. The biblical Gospel is not about Harry’s pursuit of happiness, it’s about Harry’s rebellion against God who will ultimately condemn him to hell if he doesn’t repent and submit to Christ.

The mindset with which Harry was attracted to Christ is very different from the mindset needed for the ‘way of the cross.’ (Mk. 8:34-38) Hybels’ felt-needs gospel requires the mindset of a confident customer who selfishly focuses on personal fulfillment to feel good about himself. The biblical Gospel requires the mindset of a repentant sinner who humbly focuses on God’s gift of redemption and who is willing to follow Jesus Christ as his Lord no matter what the costs. Why would Harry stick around if the focus shifts from the pursuit of Harry’s happiness to Christ’s demand “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me?” It’s no coincidence that Bill Hybels (or for that matter other seeker-friendly pastors) rarely preaches on New Covenant discipleship, because the transition from a seeker-friendly gospel to the ‘way of the cross’ is difficult to make. However, according to the New Covenant the transition from saved sinner to active disciple must be made. It’s an obligation, not just an option. Discipleship is a mandatory part of the complete package of the Christian faith. Therefore, New Covenant discipleship must dominate churches’ teachings.

In order to illustrate the gravity of exchanging a message from God for the felt-needs of man, let’s have a look at the first temptation of Christ (Mt. 4:1-4, Lk. 4:1-4). The first temptation focuses on human needs instead of God’s commands: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” The devil is appealing to Jesus’ felt-needs because Jesus “ate nothing during those [forty] days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” In fact, Jesus’ answer reveals that it is wrong to exchange God’s commands for human needs. In his answer Jesus refers to Deuteronomy 8:2-3:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Just like the people of Israel, Jesus was humbled and tested for forty days (years) in the wilderness in order to know what was in his heart, whether or not Jesus would keep God’s commands. It’s significant that Jesus was tempted to focus on his own felt-needs, but that he answered that we should focus on God’s commands instead.

A better way to be seeker-friendly in order to reach out to unchurched Harry is to follow the example of Jesus Christ who was seeker-friendly in a good way. Jesus reaches out to the people to address their felt-needs, to show God’s kingdom to them and to preach the Gospel to them. Matthew 9:35-38 shows Jesus’ seeker-friendly approach:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Jesus’ seeker-friendly approach does not corrupt the Gospel message in any sense. Jesus went actively after the lost sheep and he actively relieved their pain and sorrow, while preaching and teaching the Good News of God’s kingdom to them. It’s highly significant that Jesus was motivated by compassion for the lost sheep.

What lessons can be learned from Jesus’ seeker-friendly approach?

First of all, Jesus was motivated by compassion for the lost sheep. Second, he went actively into the world (out of the church building!) to reach out to the lost sheep. Third, by relieving their pain and sorrow he addressed their felt-needs and showed them how God’s kingdom looks like. Fourth, by combining practical help with preaching about God’s kingdom, Jesus taught the lost sheep what their non-felt, but true and fundamental need was (the need to be saved from sin). Fifth, Jesus did not merge the role of ‘salt and light’ with the role of the Gospel message in any sense (and we shouldn’t do that either).

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Photo by Mor via Flickr