The other day I was reading about an alleged cult group that was featured on Dr. Phil. It’s a long story why I looked them up, but I wanted to verify something my mom thought she heard in the program about them. It turns out that if she heard correctly (which I will verify tomorrow), they might have misstated something kind of important, and I wanted to research it. In the process, I read statement after statement after statement (or maybe I should say argument after argument after argument) as people attempted to “argue” the members out of said church. Sure, the topics were about things such as links and name usage (and rightfully so, if they were opposed to the ministry, they shouldn’t use names or likenesses against people’s will), but the real argument at hand was the group itself. One email or letter or correspondence or whatever it was stood out to me. In it, one man from one group addressed the men from the group with a statement to the following effect: why were they not a church that was formed from a group of older male elders who then sent them to start this work?
I agree from what I saw of this group that they lacked proper spiritual covering and mentorship in their lives. It did look, for all intent and purposes, like a group gone wild with a bunch of young, unqualified men at the helm, controlling and directing the lives of all who followed their whims. But it wasn’t this that stood out to me as much as what the man said to them. It is 2018, and no matter how much women have tried to gain ground and usher in change, the church, as a whole, remains untouched. It is still a boys’ only club, with boys in charge, commissioning other boys to do their bidding, and no girls are allowed.
No girls allowed didn’t just mean “no girls allowed,” although that was a big part of it. It also, by proxy of its nature and association, meant certain other people weren’t allowed, either. It was “no parents allowed.” “No older brothers allowed.” “No kids we aren’t friends with allowed.” “No diversity allowed.” “No one who doesn’t look like us allowed.” In its implication, “No girls allowed” meant a lot more than just no girls. That might have been a starting point (and a relevant one, at that), but discrimination isn’t that simple. It moves in packs, in groupings of dislike, of embittered concepts that speak to personal airs of superiority. We all know “-isms” of all sorts are learned.
Today I saw a “boys only” club for adults. Yes, women were there, sort of. Yes, two people of color were present. Yes, there were at least seventy-five Caucasians. And loud and clear, it was a “boys only” club.
As I got ready to attend what we might call a “seeker friendly” church this morning, the letter to the men of the group featured on Dr. Phil came back to my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been to a “seeker friendly” church. I’ve been to three others on five different occasions: two in Owensboro, Kentucky (three times between the two of them), and two in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The “seeker friendly” church doesn’t vary much depending on location. They might have different constituencies depending on location, but the basic format is the same: they all appear very “laid back” and “casual,” especially in attire, there is always coffee available, the members are usually young families or married couples, they appear very “high tech” in visuals, the leaders of the church always introduce themselves by their first names, the sermons always sound more like a seminar than preaching, oh yeah, and there is never a woman in leadership or more than a handful of diverse people anywhere in the building. It is, without a doubt, a decidedly white church movement.
It is a boys club, conceived by white men, trying to drive a church around techniques and approaches that are appealing to other white men. The most insidious part? It’s designed not to look so, but there it lies…lurking…all in its overtones.
Taken this morning, before service
But, for those who are unaware of this movement, I will explain.
The “seeker friendly” church movement is known by a few names, and is more properly known as “church growth.” It is a movement that started in 1965 after the publication of a book by Donald McGavran known as The Bridges of God. McGavran was born as the third generation of his family as a missionary to India and took particular interest in developing sociological approaches to church growth. The movement itself wasn’t particularly popular at first, as it was more of a social study of ways to evangelize, trying to counter traditional methods of evangelism, which seemed to be failing in his day and age. As a result, people saw it as too innovative and too contemporary, and it was rejected in many circles.
The purpose of McGavran’s movement was not to become corporately driven or so statistically drawn, which is exactly what started to happen when the model of “seeker sensitive” church started to draw the megachurch movements in the early 2000s. Books such as The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren outlined specific models of church programs that draw interest from the “right” people in a community, namely things such as nursery, sports programs, and contemporary music. Nowadays, we could define the “seeker friendly” movement as an Evangelical church model that uses modern-day marketing techniques in order to draw in its audiences. There are a few key elements to seeker friendly churches, namely:
- The churches are designed to address common complaints that people have about church membership and attendance. These complaints tend to be: lack of applicable programs, services are too long, services are too traditional, churches aren’t social enough, too much asking for money, not wanting to be uncomfortable by being dressed up, and leadership is too formal or too impersonal. By eliminating these issues, the seeker friendly movement thinks they are making the idea of church more appealing, and erasing excuses frequently invoked by those who don’t want to go to church.
- The church are corporate in structure, focusing on things like time and the length of services, seminar-style speaking, a “business casual” atmosphere in terms of structure (not attire, which is strictly casual), and slideshows, all of which contain all visual information needed for the entire meeting.
- The churches use a very specific model based upon their social peripherals rather than actual doctrine or structure within the group. Because the draw to the church is not their theological beliefs or teachings but the atmosphere they create and the response to their desired audience, it is very possible to have a church full of people with no idea what the true doctrine is of their church, because much of the doctrine is implied, without being addressed.
- Evangelism is corporate and impersonal in nature. People are encouraged to be overly solicitous, but not friendly. People are asked specific questions and instructed to generate desired assessments of people from those assessments, kind of like being in a job interview. People are welcomed inasmuch as someone is deemed a right “fit,” or as “seeking something” that they are prepared to offer. If someone isn’t seen as a right fit, they aren’t encouraged to offer a different view or to stay. Quite quickly, they become irrelevant.
- The churches are governed by a board of elders, usually consisting from about three to eight, depending on the size of a congregation. Church staff is always male, with acknowledgements of an occasional woman who serves as a secretary, administrative assistant, or serves over the nursery or children’s Sunday school program. Women are never selected for preaching or teaching over a general meeting and never assume authority.
In other words, seeker friendly movements are male-driven models of what church looks like if a man was to design a church program that would be appealing to other men, just like him: they don’t have to get dressed up, they don’t have to worry about being in church all day, they don’t have to watch the kids during the message, they don’t have to be real impersonal or fuzzy, they get free coffee, the message is done in a format appealing for them, and the language of the group fits male meta messages, full to the brim of unspoken innuendo and cultural patriarchy, setting the tier for who is on top, who reigns, and who is there to do what.
It probably seems like these “seeker friendly” movements are popping up everywhere, but they aren’t as random as they might seem. On the contrary, seeker friendly churches are brilliant at demographical placement, marketing, solicitation, and reaching their audience. They’ve taken the time to learn who lives where, who has access to what, and who wants what where they are, and providing whatever it is those people are looking for, all within their corporate Evangelical structure, all to make sure that everyone knows their place, without them even knowing what is happening.
Think about it: if you ask someone if you can pray for them and then take their requests, you learn a lot about that person, don’t you? You’ve learned in under five minutes their major concerns, issues, lacks, their priorities, and what they are looking for in their lives. It is by using various demographical information that seeker friendly churches exploit things like this, turn them inside out, and then create specific marketing and style to reach the people whose interests and concerns match their purpose.
So here’s how it works: an existing seeker friendly church, usually in a different part of the country, starts scoping out different areas to determine which ones are most likely to respond to their style and unstated values. A target audience is developed, along with a developmental plan for that region, usually first for a year, and then for five to ten years. This church’s board of elders selects one or two trainees from their church, usually younger men, to go and check out what is going on in the selected area. If things go as planned, the area is worked, all with their specific marketing techniques, and a new church is then developed. Usually one of the starting elders stays on as pastor, with the rest returning home, and new local leaders trained and installed for that area. Groups usually meet in libraries, on college campuses, in schools, and other community assembly halls for a period of time before finding their own property, which is usually supposed to happen within a certain period of time.
Church auditorium before service. A play was staged for the following day, as the group met at a local theater center.
The entire thing is all extremely calculated, rather than divinely led. I wonder how much of their movement and progress they trace back to God, because it’s all about numbers and matching numbers with marketing research. It’s not particularly spiritual, at all, and the seeker friendly movement hasn’t ever sit well with me, from the very first time I visited such a church and didn’t even know what seeker friendly was. I’ll be honest in saying I wasn’t crazy about the idea of visiting another seeker-friendly church. Having been before, my impressions of these churches weren’t good. On every other occasion, I went with a male, and it was as if I didn’t exist. The leaders of all said churches were rather outright rude, in fact. I went today because my mom wanted to see one, and as much as I put her off on the idea initially because I knew the experience of seeing the implications of seeker friendly dynamics would be upsetting to her. I conceded, in part because I needed to write a new blog and didn’t have any other obvious suggestions on where to visit, and also in part because I was curious if this might be a new experience (it wasn’t).
I also wasn’t thrilled with the idea of going because I knew that I would stick out like a sore thumb and my mother would stick out like a sore thumb’s mother. I’ve been in authority and position in church for too many years to be comfortable going to any church service dressed down, so I resolved to be comfortable as myself, since that’s what these churches insist is what they are about. I donned my white “Wonder Woman” cape dress, blue shoes and blue accessories, and went out, early this morning, to take pictures before the service.
The group we visited was Emmaus Church, meeting at Cary Arts Center in Cary, North Carolina. It is an outgrowth of a church in Washington state, and long story short, I did my homework before attending. Not a woman in leadership or authority, a bunch of men, and apparently the guy who leads their coffee ministry or whatever it’s called can have tattoos and ear gauges, but women and people of color can’t lead. So, as much as I could, I tried to go incognito, because being too much of…well…me…would warrant too many questions and would lead to arguing.
Two men were stationed outside the door to start with the solicitation process. Some of it was standard, but some of it was…marketing. They asked our name, but then they immediately wanted to know how we heard about the church. I was trying not to treat them like they were stupid for asking, since on the steps of the arts center is a sign that says EMMAUS that’s taller than me and almost as wide as the street itself, so you can probably see the sign from space, along with the Great Wall of China. But what seemed like a ridiculous question to me was a serious question to them, because they wanted to know how people like us somehow inadvertently found their marketing. We weren’t dressed according to form, we really weren’t the right age, I wasn’t there with a family, and they already assessed, just by looking at us, that we weren’t “right” for their church.
In other words, we would call what they do “profiling.”
My mother, rather irritated with all the questions, asked where the sanctuary was so we could go in there. It was about 9:50, and the service was to start at 10. And, very much to my surprise, we were the only people sitting in there.
Then one of the tour guides at the door (who wanted us to stay out in the lobby and have coffee), went and found a man he identified by his first name, Brian, as being their “pastor.” He brought him over to introduce himself to us, and almost the same exact identical line of questioning started: who are you, how did you find us, why are you here, and the forever implied, what do you want. It was starting to feel like we were on display, instead of welcome guests. We were being “interviewed” as to our acceptability with the group, and they were making both of us notably uncomfortable.
That went both ways, however, as the leader made a point of saying, “We usually start on time!” It was already close to ten and no one was in the auditorium. Hmmm.
I started looking around and my eyes laid on something that made me consider leaving before anything got started: a roped off section, all the way in the back of the auditorium, with a sign that said, “NURSING MOTHERS SECTION.” Apparently if you are a mother with a hungry infant and you are breastfeeding, you get to sit in the back of the church, in a segregated section, away from everyone and everything else, because apparently breastfeeding is perceived as a sexual endeavor.
I have long seen the different posts online that advocate normalizing breastfeeding, complete with celebrity selfies to endorse the movement. Even though most states have laws stating that breastfeeding in public is legal and requesting a woman to move to a different room or place to do so is against the law, it happens all the time, and this church was no different. I hadn’t been sure of what I thought of the movement before, but seeing that section – that was quite utilized during the service – made me an advocate. Breastfeeding is not an indecent or sexual act, and for churches that want young families and young children, it is pure hypocrisy to expect that women will be penalized for such by sitting in the back of the church. You either want it or you don’t, and if you don’t, then women shouldn’t attend your church or should implement birth control advocacy as a protest to keep your church from growing.
A few minutes later, people start coming in from the church, with tour guide #1 trailing behind someone, saying “he couldn’t get anyone together to come in.” I am assuming “he” was the pastor, and the casually made comment was because he said how on time they always are, and here it was, 10:05, and no one had started yet. God has a way of making people eat their words.
The service started with two contemporary songs, lights down, projector screen alive with applicable words, as people came in from all directions, coffee in hand, for service. My former priest would have had a fit. My first churches as a Christian would have had a fit. Actually, just about every church I’ve ever attended would have had a fit. Coffee is for the car, water is for the hallway, nothing is for the sanctuary. Walking around with cups of coffee like it was Starbucks would have been seen as a disrespect to the sanctity of why we go to church.
But there was more that the churches I’ve been in would have balked at. The certified Hipster attire of the group was the lower end of Hipster style, and was rather messy, dirty, and overly casual. One woman had a large Hindu mandala on the back of her cape. Several men were in cargo shorts and t-shirts. One younger woman was wearing a men’s shirt as if it was a dress, and…nothing else. It was flip-flops as far as the eye could see. Their clothes were not clean, and their hair was dirty and evidently unwashed. It looked like people showed up in whatever they had on, when they went to bed, and they’d been wearing it for four or five days. The congregation was sloppy. The worship team was sloppy. The pastor was sloppy. Everyone was sloppy. And needed a shower. And needed to care about themselves and their appearance, because it was obvious they didn’t.
My shoes from today
The children present were also extremely disruptive. I understand that having young children at church is a challenge, and am not to suggest that expecting them to sit still or stand still for long periods of time is reasonable. It was obvious, however, that if the children weren’t being shuffled off to another room or for some class or event that was specifically for them, they didn’t have any training in how to behave, nor did their parents understand how to handle them. They were distracting and rude, and the experience of them as so unreasonably restless without someone addressing them was problematic.
I looked around and also took note that there was not a single person of color in the congregation. There was one African-American man playing an instrument on the worship team, but not another one in the whole church. Not. The. Whole. Church. As someone who has spent time in very diverse audiences (sometimes even being the only Caucasian-looking person in the room), this was quite shocking, but given the direction of the service, not at all surprising.
The service did not get better with a baby dedication. You’d think that of all things, they might pass this test, but they didn’t. The couple dedicating the baby was a Hispanic man (the only other person of color in the room), and a white woman. So the pastor starts on how the child has the perfect “skin tone” because she’s the “combination of her parents.” If it wasn’t bad enough he said it once, he said it again, this time, with more emphasis on her having such specific “skin color.”
Children were dismissed with a timed four-minute “mix and mingle” session across the church. A woman named Susan, who had already come up behind us and leaned over and touched me with her dirty hair (sending me into a fit of thoughts about head lice and bugs and how generally disgusting people are) decided she would sit in front of us and conduct, you guessed it, another interview to determine our worthiness for the group. Unlike the men, however, she sat herself down and made it clear she was going to ask anything she wanted. So by this, now being my third candidacy interview (I never interviewed this much for ordination or sorority membership, let alone just to visit a church service), I was rather annoyed. The questions probed into “where are you from,” and when we answered and that wasn’t enough, turned into “What do you do during the week?” To be honest, this question offended me, because of the implication in it. Most normal people ask what do you do for work or what is your job, but the question about what do we do during the week was a direct implication of how do we spend our time, as she tried to discern what was most important to us in our lives. When I said “working,” she still asked another question, “What do I do?” So I was like, OK, I am going to make you shut up and go away: I revealed being a minister, with thirteen churches under our organization, and I teach seminary. Then she still wanted to know why I was there, so I said I was a blogger who researched different groups for that purpose. Suddenly, and quickly, she went away…and wanted nothing more to do with me.
I was found out: I wasn’t “seeking” anything from them, and suddenly I was no longer any value as a potential demographic. Susan went back and reported to someone that I was a blogger. The interviews promptly stopped.
The message was a seminar-style presentation on the first 24 verses of John chapter 6. For those who aren’t familiar with chapter and verse, the passage is about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in Galilee. The pastor equated the message to being about consumerism, and avoiding treating Jesus as a consumer model. The message itself wasn’t that extraordinary, at least on the surface. But there was something he pointed out, early in the message, that made it one big, political meta-message.
Jerusalem was the city life of ancient Israel. It was where the scholars, thinkers, and wealthy people lived. Galilee was an outskirts town, more backwoods, poorer, not as wealthy, as he called it, with a different dialect. He was quick to point out that consumerism was what plagued the people of Galilee, not Jerusalem. In other words: it was the poor, and not the rich, who had a problem with “consumerism,” as he called it.
In his message, which lasted somewhere around thirty minutes, he managed to make it clear that he felt poor people were greedy, wealthy people were better than poor people, poor people couldn’t be spiritual, people who liked to dress properly or dress up were doing so because they thought they were better than other people, and that you needed to define Who Jesus is to you, because it’s too easy to just want Him for what He can give, rather than what He can do.
The message was peppered with little innuendos that made it clear their politics, their beliefs about virtually everything not clearly stated in their statement of faith, and what wasn’t said in the service was said in their behavior. And the problem with the message was simple: the reality is that the message wasn’t innocent, and wasn’t sincere, and was nothing more than a great big cover to make comfortable people feel more comfortable.
The service ended with a communion service unlike any I’d ever seen. There was no Scripture reading, no mention of the Biblical passages of the Last Supper. As they took the grape juice, they raised the glass and said, “Hail to the King!” and then drank it. It was unusual, and…oddly unsettling.
I think the thing that bothers me most about the seeker friendly movement is the way it has raised up Jesus as some sort of socio-political icon, representing comfortable, American, Suburban, white values while ignoring what Jesus actually taught and looking around to find ways to reach out and do His work in this world. There was nary a word about social outreach, working with the homeless or poor, and everything, from start to finish, was about money. Issues like women’s ordination, lack of diversity in the church, and social inequalities aren’t honestly and openly discussed. No one says, “No, you’re a woman, we don’t believe in women’s ordination,” or “No, we don’t welcome blacks here.” Instead, they just act like such issues don’t exist. They aren’t on their radar, they don’t exist in their limited world, and as a result, they aren’t people who are able to handle the realities of our changing world.
If I had approached these people and told them how racist, classist, and sexist I found them, they would be shocked and horrified. That is the politics of the seeker friendly movements, and why they are so incidious, and dangerous. The world of traditional, comfortable white America is ingrained in their DNA, so much so, they don’t even realize when they look around their church that the “nations” are not present there.
It’s not an accident that I emphasize a need for missions, even among suburbia, even among Americans, in this day and age. It’s not an accent that the world of missions largely ended in the United States when imperialism was replaced by globalization. The American church does not, in large part, know where it stands because its existence hinged on too many political ideologies that have changed. Now, in effort to maintain them, there is the hold and hope that if they are rebranded, remarketed, and repackaged, maybe they can still withstand society’s change. Not only is this not happening, it is leaving an entire generation awash in another era, unprepared to handle Christian movement and change in this day and age.
Today, I watched another generation of women bite and swallow the patriarchy that their mothers and grandmothers fought so hard to overcome. I watched yet another generation of white men put women, blacks, Hispanics, and others in a perceived and subordinate place, all with a smile on their faces. I watched yet another generation of the American church malign the Gospel, all thinking it’s all going to be all right, as long as they can answer the three-part question at the end of the message.
There was one question the leader of the church asked that stuck with me: Why do I believe in Jesus? A fair question that got littered under a lot of mess, as I sat in that room, I knew exactly how to answer it. And it is, to you, the leader of the church (I believe your name was Brian), that I address my answer:
When I visited a seeker friendly church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina about four years ago, a man was standing outside the building, smoking his last cigarette before going in the church. Immediately after the service, he was smoking his first cigarette after church. Smoking was one of those things on the traditional Pentecostal list of NO, and I wondered: at what point does faith become uncomfortable? As believers, we are forever challenged to stretch, to move, to go beyond the god of Theism, as Paul Tillich called it, and believe in God beyond whatever it is that we have learned to be comforted by and to take our rest within.
I believe it is Jesus Christ Who, as the Scriptures states, is the light that shines in the darkness, but the darkness understands it, not. What this means is that Jesus Christ stands in dark places, in places that don’t rightly understand Him, namely, this world. He is not understood because it is by virtue of His life, death, and resurrection that our comfort, our false hopes, and our false theologies disappear.
This is why so many try not to overtly avoid Christ, but try to replace and overlook His true power; it makes them uncomfortable. Christ is the One Who draws all people to the Father. He draws ALL people; not just the ones that make everyone in a given demographic feel comfortable or quieted. It is not now, and never will be, a cup of coffee or demographical research that draws people to the truth of the Gospel. No matter how much research you do, no matter how you try to market your message, no matter what outfit you have on, only Christ has the power to draw us all, through the power of the Holy Spirit, together unto salvation, and together as a Body. It’s not as simple as doing chores or having a short, timed gathering where people can talk. It’s not a few minute job interview to determine who is suitable to be in church. Such defies salvation; anyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved, not any who fits in good with the rest of your church crowd.
I’ll fully well admit that through the years, even right now, I am not always so certain how I best fit with the Body, or where I am best suited to be. I know I am called; I did not ask for my position. I don’t always feel worthy to fill it, not by virtue of my gender, but on my awareness that without Him, I can do nothing. I may not fit in with your church – I may not dress like, talk like, or carry myself in a manner that you deem acceptable, but I know before God, I stand acceptable, thanks to Christ. Just as the song says, He is my way-maker. And I have seen Him work, hundreds of thousands of times, over the years for others, as He has for me. Christ is my acceptance, and the acceptance for the world.
To accept that He is my acceptance, He is the only way for that acceptance, I had to deconstruct every notion I had about my own abilities. Our acceptance, our standing before God, is not based on our race; our gender; our economic status; who or what we find attractive; or the things that lure us in, the false sense of security that if we abandon a certain dress or posture, that we are truly humble. My humility starts where my self-righteousness ends, and where He increases and I decrease.
Coming to God through Christ demands we abandon ourselves, and allow Him to increase within us; our very movements and our understandings; our judgments of others; our thoughts that need reorienting; our view of ourselves; and our views, yes, of God. We can carry the form of religion, but deny the power thereof; and denial and deception are two very powerful things. Through Christ, to see Christ, to put on the mind of Christ, we must confront ourselves. Christ is that confrontation – when we can look nowhere else but to heaven, because what we have relied on to save us has no power.
Christ forces us to take down our “No…allowed” signs, whatever they may say, and however they may manifest, because it is Christ Who draws all people. He does it through us, when we lay aside our swords into ploughshares and see neighbors instead of enemies. It is my prayer that you and your congregation find this realization, because to say Jesus is Lord…means that despite our best efforts, we will never be such, ourselves.
Oh yeah…and the church is a girl, so no matter how much you keep trying to make her a man, for men, by men…you aren’t going to ever succeed. Some things are just ours. Praise God, the church is one of them.
© 2018 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.