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A dramatic seascape with a vulnerable chapel facing nature's fury, depicting the themes of the seeker-sensitive church in a tumultuous world.

Christianity Lite: The Seeker-Sensitive Church

Is seeker sensitivity in churches a solution or a trap? There is a paradox that increasingly inclusive doctrines lead to both orthodox and progressive departures. There is an honest Latter-day Saint approach.

Seeker-sensitive is a phrase that has come to describe Christian congregations that seek to accommodate people who are uncertain in their faith convictions. The seeker church movement emerged from the 1970s through the 1990s as a response to a legitimate problem: not all people who desire the benefits of Christian community share the level of personal conviction that is the basis for a sense of belonging in Christian community. Seeker churches try to bring people into the fold, sometimes through entertainment and self-help activities, and create church environments that allow for varieties of experience.

Evangelical communities distinguish between the saved and unsaved, with seeker sensitivity creating a transitional space for the unsaved to explore Christian doctrine. This approach acknowledges that people are in different places spiritually and otherwise and invites them to participate and belong before making firm commitments like baptism. Seeker status, distinct from being saved, shows spiritual potential that can be nurtured.

For Latter-day Saints, the tools for a seeker-sensitive church environment are readily available. There is support in messaging from church leadership: think, for example, of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s reassuring statement in general conference, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a place for people with all kinds of testimonies. … The Church is a home for all to come together … I know of no sign on the doors of our meetinghouses that says, ‘Your testimony must be this tall to enter.’”

Belonging has never been a substitute for real conversion.

The challenge of accommodating unbelief in Christian communities is a common one but not a new one. In a series of lectures a hundred years ago in 1923, Presbyterian scholar Gresham Machen spoke of an inner conflict among progressive Christian congregants who wanted all of the same roles and privileges held by believing Presbyterians but without believing in the core tenets of the Presbyterian faith. Machen held that doctrinal differences were too important to merely ignore. His concern over unbelief in his Presbyterian denomination (found primarily among liberal/progressive members) was shared across most of Christianity and continues to the present day.

In this dilemma, the stakes are high. As Latter-day Saints, we know the problems that come when people make commitments too far beyond their actual convictions, and whenever our former members boast publicly of their earlier compliance and high participation in the Church, we are reminded that belonging has never been a substitute for real conversion.

Some groups among Latter-day Saints are attempting to develop a seeker-sensitive approach to our faith, in contrast with traditional agonistic (debate-oriented) apologetics aimed at defending the faith against skeptics. The search for alternatives to traditional apologetics is sometimes driven by an awareness that traditional apologetics is often a predominantly male endeavor, utilizing public debates and rational counterarguments to reinforce faith through intellectual contests that seek academic respectability. In 2016, Alastair Roberts described formerly male-dominated academia as a realm of “ritual combat and competition.”

In academia, the insistence upon a contest of ideas has indeed benefited many fields, as it has required participants to raise the bar of their research with the understanding that they would likely need to defend it against attack. When applied to religious apologetics, the agonistic academic framework has resulted in formidable answers to the claims of skeptics, and for many, it has indeed created intellectual soil conditions for successfully planting the seed of faith. But Roberts points to real pitfalls in this kind of engagement that extend to the realm of religious apologetics: “If not well tamed,” Roberts warned, male styles of discourse lead to “tiresome games of one-upmanship. … A concern for the truth has on many occasions been eclipsed by the pursuit of ego.”

Those of us involved in various forms of apologetics recognize these tendencies and how agonistic frameworks seem to often bring out the worst in our instincts. But when it comes to apologetics, we sometimes see deeper problems emerge. First, agonistic discourse often operates with an assumption of objectivity: I and my champion are bias-free, whereas the opponent’s thinking is clouded by subjective judgments and motivated reasoning. These are self-serving perspectives, and they are not true: numerous studies demonstrate that we all employ our rational thinking in service of our non-rational feelings and intuitions and not the other way around. The second of the deeper problems is that convincing is not conversion. A cerebral process of intellectual assent to ideas about God is not the same as coming to know God personally and experiencing inner transformation as a result. If apologists are not careful, we can mistakenly deprecate conversion or even ignore it in our pursuit of an idol of intellectual vindication.

If there have long been problems in male-dominated academic discourse, Heather Mac Donald points to different problems that have recently arisen in predominantly female academic spaces.  In a recent article titled “The Great Feminization of the American University,” she offers an alarming commentary:

Female students and administrators often exist in a co-dependent relationship, united by the concepts of victim identity and of trauma. For university females, there is not, apparently, strength in numbers. The more females’ ranks increase, the more we hear about a mass nervous breakdown on campus. Female students disproportionately patronize the burgeoning university wellness centers, massage therapies, relaxation oases, calming corners, and healing circles …

Female dominance of the campus population is intimately tied to the rhetoric of unsafety and victimhood. Females, on average, score higher than males on the personality trait of neuroticism, defined as anxiety, emotional volatility, and susceptibility to depression…

When students claim to be felled by ideas that they disagree with, the feminized bureaucracy does not tell them to grow up and get a grip. It validates their self-pity.

The gendered tendency toward validation over empowerment was discussed in a Psychology Today article by Dr. Steven Stosny, who noted a clear tendency toward over-validating among female therapists-in-training, while male trainees tend toward under-validation, skipping ahead to discussion of solutions. Validation is often a critical step in helping people to come to a receptive frame of heart and mind, but when taken to excess, it can reinforce false and harmful narratives of reality, as well as poor cognitive behavior. Heather Mac Donald is right to point to codependency as the dynamic at play; a validating friend can feel like they are behaving with kindness while enabling a person’s downward spiral into mental and emotional misery.

This problem illustrates many people’s frustrations with the seeker-sensitive church, and Paul Carter’s writing for The Gospel Coalition offers a case study. He tells of a church that promised to evolve from a lightweight, inclusive doctrine to a more substantial one but never did. As he describes, seeker churches become trapped in offering “Christianity Lite,” a superficial experience that trades genuine spiritual growth for continual entertainment and therapy.

As Paul Carter’s story indicates, any movement toward seeker sensitivity among Latter-day Saints should be honest, or it will repeat these and many other failures experienced elsewhere. And honesty requires a reckoning with the history and results of progressive religion, which has often formed the ideological basis for seeker-sensitive messaging. Progressive religion’s attempts to “keep people in the church” involve abandoning doctrinal clarity in the name of inclusion. Yet its ultimate result is the opposite of keeping people in the church. David Deavel wrote of the impact of the transition to progressive religion in the church of his youth, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC):

If progressive Christianity leads to ecclesial death is the first lesson, the second is that its parasitical nature means there are limits if enough people keep fighting for the host’s body. … This summer, at the CRC’s annual denominational meeting, known as Synod, the delegates voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm … much of traditional Christian morality. Not only did the delegates reaffirm it; they raised it to the level of “confessional status.” In Catholic terms, it went from doctrine to dogma. 

Deavel’s account is striking: As CRC adopted progressive reforms, conservatives left the denomination. But progressives left as well, causing the CRC pendulum to swing back to more conservative leanings. It might seem counterintuitive that progressive reforms cause progressives to leave their churches, but it is true. The relativism that characterizes so much of progressive religion turns the church experience into, paraphrasing Seinfeld, a show about nothing. And even progressives won’t roll out of bed early on Sunday mornings for that.

We should promote a church culture that is able to accommodate.

Honesty requires acknowledgment of another reality of progressive religion; I have observed its tendency toward fundamentalism. Ian Harber tells of the transition of his church from conservative fundamentalism to progressive fundamentalism, noting that “Progressives had become just as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists they despised. Only now, instead of traditional values being the litmus test, it was wokeness. If you didn’t toe the party line of progressive orthodoxy, you were an outcast. A heretic.”

Those who, in the name of seeker sensitivity, imagine a progressive alternative vision for the church are faced with a hard dilemma: progressive religion does indeed offer a sense of relief for people who experience traditional faith as stifling or intellectually unpalatable. But as Ian Harber’s experience indicates, progressive religion and progressive political ideology share some basic assumptions, and progressive political ideology has a powerful gravitational pull. When the Christian story of inside-out redemption is replaced by a political story of outside-in activism, congregations soon find that political ideology cannot abide any rivals in theology or other areas. And the relief of progressive religion can only ever be temporary because its relativism opens the abyss of nihilism in the souls of the formerly believing. Political ideology deceptively offers to fill that abyss or sometimes offers a welcome distraction from it. But in the end, political religion turns out to be a much more harsh and jealous taskmaster than traditional religious faith.

The final point of honesty is to plainly acknowledge the importance of developing our own Latter-day Saint model of seeker sensitivity. The process of faith development looks very different for different people, and among some souls, the branches of commitment are too lofty, stretching beyond the strength of the roots of personal conversion. We can teach and testify; we can improve our assumptions and epistemology, but gospel-seeking is a process that will always vary among people who differ in their wiring, their culture, and their life experiences. Seeker sensitivity in the early restoration allowed Brigham Young to investigate the restored gospel for two years before making a firm commitment and for the great Eliza R. Snow, that process of seeking lasted four years. If we want more members whose conversions share the durability of those of Brigham Young and Eliza R. Snow, we should promote a church culture that is able to accommodate people’s individual processes of seeking while also maintaining clarity about the problems that have plagued the movement for seeker-sensitivity in broader Christianity.

 

About the author

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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