Is Your Church Service Seeker-Hostile? (Charles Arn)

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).

  • Bob Whitesel

    I like what Dr. Arn shares about the impact of culturally-influenced language and aesthetics. And, I appreciate that he gives a helpful graphical picture of this. I personally have struggled with the term “target,” for it seems to imply in some circles a sort of hostile encounter (technically, it should not though). Thus, I have been using the term “non-churchgoer” as in “non-churchgoer friendly.” This does not make a value judgement (just a judgement of measurable action, i.e. attendance). And, not all non-churchgoers are seekers, but still in need of the community of Christ. These would be my tweaks, but don’t let this detract you from applying this insightful exercise to your worship encounter.

  • xjm716

    So…un-churched and de-churched is out?

    Seriously, I love the distinction that you have created here. I know some even use “pre-Christian”.

  • Good article Chip. there are 5 mandates in scripture for worship
    1. God must be glorified
    2. Christ must be exalted and proclaimed and lifted up
    3. The Holy Spirit must have the freedom to minister
    4. The believer should be edified and equipped
    5. the Unbeliever should be drawn to Christ.
    Your grid is helpful in helping us all determine where we are and asking these questions helps us see where we are weak and needing to modify or tweek our worship. Keep up the great work my friend

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think people do not return because of ‘in-house’ jargon. Americans are not ingnorant of the ‘in-house’ jargon that Charles Arn speaks about. Americans have a judeo biblical background. The reason people do not return is because the gospel demands repentance, and people want a watered-down gospel, and many churches are giving it out to them. More and more churches are adjusting themselves to what people want to hear. This is sad.