August 2011


A “seeker-hostile” church service is where the activities, worship style, and “in-house” jargon are so foreign to newcomers that they have no desire to return.  The Apostle Paul, in speaking to the Corinthian church about the use of tongues, talks about a seeker-hostile service and presents a broader principle which applies to every church: “If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me” (I Cor. 14:11 NIV).  Paul goes on: “But in a church meeting, I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language” (I Cor. 14:19 NLT).

Why would Paul be so concerned with communication in a common language?  Because he assumed there would be unbelievers in the midst of their Christian worship.  It was important to Paul that the services not be an obstacle to understanding the Gospel, so that “… if you come together as a congregation and some unbelieving outsiders walk in on you as you’re all praying in tongues, unintelligible to each other and to them, won’t they assume you’ve taken leave of your senses and get out of there as fast as they can?” (I Cor. 14:23 MS)

All services, whether “believer-targeted” or “seeker-targeted,” should be seeker-friendly.  Unfortunately, not all services are.  The following Service Evaluation Scale can be helpful in evaluating and planning the service(s) in your church.  If your church service (or new service you are planning) is seeker-targeted, where the primary focus is on outreach to non-Christians, you will want to design your service to be far up, and far right on the axes below.

If your service will be “believer-focused,” where the primary focus is on spiritual growth of believers, you will want to design your service to be in the top left corner of the quadrant.

There are more than a few services I have attended that fall in the bottom left portion of this scale.  And, surprisingly, some mis-directed services in the bottom right.

The “X” axis on this Scale measures the content of the service.  The “Y” axis measures the comfort of the visitor.  For example, an emphasis on redemption is seeker-targeted.  An emphasis on sanctification is believer-targeted.  If the language is clear and understandable to an outsider, and the welcome is warm and hospitable, you are “Seeker Friendly,” regardless of the content.  If the service is filled with religious jargon and the newcomer is ignored or uncomfortable, you are “Seeker Hostile.”

An important part of your service evaluation is the music.  The words of the song identify the music’s location on the “X” axis (“Seeker-Targeted” or “Believer-Targeted”).  The attractiveness of the music (rhythm, melody, tempo, etc.) to an unchurched visitor defines its place on the “Y” axis.

In general, the “Y” axis evaluates the medium.  The “X” axis evaluates the message.

Why not ask some of your church leaders and worship planners to identify where they feel your service(s) is on the “X” – “Y” axes?  Then compare each other’s notes and use the results as a discussion starter as to whether this is where you want your services to be.  And if they aren’t where you want, what can be done to move the service(s) in the right direction?  The goal, as Paul reminds us, is: “…if some unbelieving outsiders walk in on a service where people are speaking out God’s truth, the plain words will bring them up against the truth and probe their hearts. Before you know it, they’re going to be on their faces before God, recognizing that God is among you” (I Cor. 14:25 MS).

The effects of not having a balanced diet can be harmful to the body. If my body does not get one or more of the nutrients from the basic food groups it will not grow and will be susceptible to various health problems. The same is true with the church body. If the church you lead doesn’t get all of the various nutrients necessary for health, it will become imbalanced and prone to all kinds of church diseases.

One of the ways the preacher can facilitate health in the church body is by providing a well-balanced diet of Scripture. A thoughtful preaching plan, then, is necessary. Every preacher has favorite go-to themes, which some might call a soap-box. One of my soap-box themes is obedience. Obedience is a central Gospel theme, but if it is the only food group the preacher provides then the church body will miss out on some other key Christian nutrients like grace, for instance. This imbalance might lead the church to become ill with legalism.

As I reflect upon my preaching over the years, I don’t believe anyone would accuse me of not teaching sound doctrine, except for the one guy who sat in the back pew with his arms crossed all the time. However, I could be accused of not preaching comprehensive doctrine. We preachers, if we’re not careful, can get in the habit of a tunnel vision focus on the 2, 3, or 4 doctrines or themes we most want to preach about. If we don’t catch ourselves doing this, our congregants might end up misguided or imbalanced in their faith. Do we preach about sin and grace, faith and works, imparted and imputed holiness, justification and sanctification, heaven and hell? Do we preach from all the various genres and sections of the Bible or just the passages with which we are most comfortable?

Most preaching pastors spend some time, usually in the summer, sketching out a sermon plan for the year. Here are a few tips to assist you in providing a well-balanced diet for your church body:

Incorporate a Variety of Biblical Genres: If I had my way, I would preach entirely from the Gospels of Luke and John. Perhaps you would pick the prophet Jeremiah as the text from which you would preach sermon after sermon, year after year. However, a well-balanced diet requires that preachers provide nutrients from all the genres of the Bible. The bible contains a variety of genres such as poetry, history, narrative, parable, epistle, apocalyptic, proverb, and law. Each has a unique richness that, hopefully, will surface in the sermons developed from each of these literary forms.       

Follow the Christian Calendar: If you follow the Christian Calendar you know that it journeys down the main roads of the Gospel narrative. The two major sections of the sacred calendar, Advent and Lent, consist of ten weeks total and provide helpful direction for the preaching plan. As Christians we don’t just experience a day called Christmas, we celebrate a season called Advent. Advent is the four weeks preceding Christmas and focuses on the advent, or “coming,” of Christ into the world. Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from death to life. Repentance that leads to spiritual growth is the focal point of Lent. Generally, Advent is a good time to preach evangelistic messages that talk about the hope and significance of Christ’s coming into the world. Lent is the perfect season to preach a discipleship-oriented series of sermons challenging believers to grow in grace.

Include Major Christian Doctrines and Themes: Classic Christian doctrines and themes answer the questions that the human race has been asking for thousands of years. Preaching on major doctrines can ensure that our sermons have theological substance, that they say something about God and living in relationship with Him. Here are some of the Christian doctrines and themes that transcend denominations, ministry styles, and trendy topics: creation, sin, grace, salvation, justification, holiness, restoration, sanctification, mission, and worship, to name a few. While I think it’s important to use Christian language when speaking of these doctrines, it is also necessary to articulate these doctrines in a contextual manner. That is, if you are preaching to the youth group on the doctrine of sanctification you had better describe and apply the doctrine in a manner that connects with 21st century American teenagers. If you don’t, you can expect their minds to wander and their fingers to text.   

Explore Urgent Topics: Reflect upon the needs of your people. What questions are they asking? What struggles are they experiencing? What dreams are they chasing? Jot down all of the topics you can think of tackling through your preaching plan. Here are a few possibilities for your congregation: friendship, dating, marriage, parenting, suffering, sex, finances, leadership, loneliness, depression, etc. Once you develop an extensive topical list, consider distributing it as a survey to the people of your church asking each of them to circle their 2-3 preferred topics. Tabulate the results and see what topics rise to the top of the list. You may want to preach on the 4-6 most important topics to your flock in the summer when people are more likely to skip church.            

Study Bible Characters: The Bible is full of characters whose lives highlight important themes and doctrines like sin, grace, and redemption. You can find some rich character studies in all genres of the Bible, so be sure to pick characters from the Old Testament (Law, History, Poetry, Wisdom, Prophets) and the New Testament (Gospels, History, Epistles, Apocalyptic). You can travel through and teach lots of Scripture as you delve into the lives of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Esther, Elijah, Mary, Peter, and Paul.

As you consider the ideas above you will have more than enough genres, seasons, doctrines, topics, and characters from which to build an annual preaching plan. I suspect you might even end up with a two-year preaching plan. Whether you develop a one or two-year plan, I hope this resource will assist you in developing a well-balanced diet for your body, the church body that is.

EXERCISES:

  • Begin to sketch out some immediate thoughts under each of the categories above.
  • Now, develop a one or two-year preaching plan that provides both a well-balanced diet of the biblical narrative and addresses the unique needs of your congregation.

© Lenny Luchetti

Well, I went to the doctor for my annual physical a week ago.  I’d like to think I take fairly good care of myself, and I’m grateful for overall health.  But the doctor, with the help of a variety of tests, identified some things she wants to keep an eye on.  It seems the older I get, the greater the possibility of health challenges.

Maybe it’s that way for the local church as well…the further along in its’ life cycle, the more diligent we must be in monitoring its’ health and proactively addressing potential health issues.  When I was privileged to serve Kentwood Community Church we prioritized an “annual check-up” – a way of intentionally measuring the health of our church and seeing what issues might need to be addressed.  It’s a practice they still continue.

Such checkups, like the annual physical exam provided by a doctor, aren’t always pleasant.  Sometimes the necessary probing occurs in places that make it uncomfortable!  When we as church leaders received the results of these annual checkups, we had to fight the tendency to be defensive or dismissive…denial may be more comfortable but it is also more perilous.

A variety of tools that have been developed to help measure church health.  I’d encourage you to explore which might be best for you:

Natural Church Development (NCD) – developed by Christian Schwartz, it identifies eight areas of church health, and encourages churches to focus in on raising their minimum factor (www.ncd-international.org)

REVEAL – developed by the Willow Creek Association, it seeks to measure a congregation’s makeup in terms of four stages of spiritual growth (www.revealnow.com),  and suggests key contributors to forward movement.

Transformational Church – this more recent work by Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer identifies seven areas built around the arenas of lives changed, churches growing and communities being changed and served (www.transformationalchurch.com ).  Dr. Bob Whitesel, a member of our Seminary faculty, was expert consultant in the development of this tool.

Patterns of Missional Faithfulness – eight patterns were identified by George Hunter and others (Google “Treasure in Jars of Clay: Patterns of Missional Faithfulness)

CHAT – Church Health Assessment Tool (www.healthychurch.net)

Dr. Tim Roehl , who serves The Wesleyan Church through its Department of Evangelism and Church Growth, recently stated he is familiar with about 10 different tools, each having its own strengths and weaknesses.

At Kentwood Community Church we alternated between NCD one year and REVEAL the next year.  We found it gave us two different snapshots of church health – one focusing on the church as a body, the other focusing on the spiritual place and progress of the individuals who make up the church.

While there is value in having the right tool to measure the health of your church, the great value is found in the process of assessment.  While Romans 12:3 is often applied individually, it occurs in a context that is speaking to the Church corporately – “For by the grace give me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”  I love the balance between “sober judgment” (not surrendering to “happy talk” or anecdotes that evade hard realities) and “in accordance with the faith” (realizing we have cause to be optimistic because of the power of God available to His Church).

Just as faith without works is dead, assessment without action is dead.  Once we have prayerfully processed what we have learned about our church’s health, it’s time to faithfully steward that insight in a way that brings greater missional faithfulness and effectiveness in the future.

The Board of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University has identified “assessing and promoting church health” as one of the ways our Seminary can serve the Church.  Seminary board members LeRoy Chambliss, John Ott, John Symonds and Stan Hoover will be joining me in a conference call later this month focused on our contribution to great church vitality and longevity in the days to come.

P.S.   I love these first two weeks of August – the Noggle Christian Ministries Center is energized by many returning students gathering for week-long intensives, joined by 40 + new students (including our second Spanish-language cohort, which includes Alfredo Barreno, Director of Hispanic Ministries for The Wesleyan Church).  We’ll be celebrating this Sunday with our annual Convocation dinner and service…a highlight of our year!