You Can Lead a Horse to Water
According to Seeker-oriented evangelism, the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation —but only to a point; then man himself must act. God proposes, man disposes. God offers, man decides, accepts or commits. Near the end of a sermon cited as an example of clearly communicating the Gospel to seekers, Bill Hybels writes:
The Bible says that between now and that day you’ve got to make a decision. If you’re going to take the hit and do your own atoning, then you’ll do it forever—separated from God in a place called hell. It’s your choice. But there’s another option available to you: substitutionary atonement. It’s Jesus Christ, out of love, saying, "I’ll take your rap, I’ll take the hit. I’ll pay the penalty. And you, as a guilty party —on my merits— can be free, forgiven, adopted into God’s family, blessed in love, and taken to heaven forever. Your choice!"
Notice what conversion is here. Rather than conversion being purely God’s active work and man’s passive reception, conversion becomes God’s more or less passive offer and man’s active reception.
This view of conversion is the entire rationale for Seeker-oriented evangelism. This explains why the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is kept in the background so much of the time. This explains why the clear Gospel isn’t proclaimed at every opportunity in seeker churches.
You see, conversion is the goal. And that’s good. But, according to Seeker-oriented evangelism, what Jesus has done for you at the cross is only half the story. The crucial point of conversion occurs at your decision. Hybels writes:
[Jesus] says to us, "I love you, I’ve willingly paid the penalty you owed, and I want to forgive you. Would you trust and follow me?" The ball is now in your court, and it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do with it. Jesus paid the price of salvation for the whole world, but only those who say yes to Him will actually receive His forgiveness…this is the most overlooked part of the message in a lot of churches today… a personal response is essential.
Now, this is puzzling, because Hybels and Mittelberg deny the Arminian view of conversion, namely, that the Spirit cannot regenerate the sinner until he believes as an act of his free will. Yet the emphasis remains on man’s decision. Pritchard observed:
The message that a decision has to be made in response to the gospel is regularly repeated in the weekend services. The words decisions, committed, commit, commitment, choice, decision and decide were used a total of 502 times over the year I studied (an average of 9.3 times each message).
Apparently, God can lead the horse to water, but He can’t make the horse drink. The horse has to decide to drink. Pastors sold on the Seeker-oriented approach believe that most churches are filled with horses that have their noses in the trough, but aren’t drinking. They believe that we need to become more strategic about how we lead them to the water so that they will want to drink once we get them there.
The view is this: The Holy Spirit moves you to seek God, to consider God, and to weigh the prospect of God, but He does not create faith —at least not apart from your personal response.
We believe that it is only…because of the work of the Holy Spirit that anyone can be drawn to God and can begin to seek Him; but that He does enable people to do that and that there is a time period in their life between when He begins to do that and when they actually make a commitment to Christ…. Salvation is a point in time where a person reaches repentance or comes to a point of repentance, acknowledges their need for the forgiveness and lordship of Christ, and they are made a new creation. But I’m saying that there’s a period prior to that where people can begin to seek after God, to say "Does this make sense?", to count the cost as Jesus described it.
Still, its unclear when the conversion actually takes place. Where along the continuum of seeking, considering, counting the cost and commitment does God actually create faith? Or does He?
Mark Mittelberg is fond of citing the example of a former atheist, who is now a minister at Willow Creek. Speaking of this man before his conversion in an interview with Don Matzat, Mittelberg says:
Mittelberg: It was the Holy Spirit that was drawing him, the Holy Spirit that was working in his heart.
Matzat: Not changing his nature, though?
Mittelberg: Not yet, not until a year and nine months later when he committed his life to Christ, that’s when he was regenerated.
Matzat: So, he was still an enemy of God, dead in his trespasses and sin while he was being drawn?
Mittelberg: That’s the way I’d describe it.
So, according to the Seeker-model, conversion is an evolutionary process culminating in man’s decision and commitment. The unbeliever needs to be walked through this process —intellectual, psychological, emotional, sociological and spiritual— wherein his natural resistance is overcome, and his barriers are removed. Mark Mittelberg puts it this way: People go through a process in coming to Christ —a process. And I believe in and respect that process.
When you honor and validate the process people go through in coming to Christ, many of them will be willing to get started. Your approach tells them you really understand what they’re going through as they take those difficult steps toward faith.
Now, if conversion is a process, then the highest priority is not to preach the Gospel at every opportunity, rather it is to understand that process and to keep people in the process. Hybels writes:
Sometimes God does a miracle and instantaneously changes a Saul into a Paul, but that’s the exception and not the rule. At other times, He’s already prepared the person through efforts of somebody else. But as a general rule people need time to think it over. We need to give them that freedom. If we push or rush them, they’ll back out of the process. But if we allow them to move at their own pace, we’ll be able to help them gradually progress until, eventually, God brings them to the point of crossing the bridge and trusting Christ.
Again, God brings, lures, draws and woos unbelievers. But just at the point where you would expect God to finish the job and create faith, you find man making his decision. At the crucial point of conversion, the emphasis and onus lies squarely on man’s action, not God’s.
If conversion is not entirely God’s work, if man has even his little part to do, his final decision to make, then all sorts of human considerations will begin to take priority over the clear and regular proclamation of the Gospel.
Another Emphasis, Another Center
Hybels and Mittelberg write:
Those outside the faith grossly underestimate the day-to-day benefits of knowing and honoring God. So [Seeker-oriented churches have] learned to emphasize not only the central Gospel message, but also the Bible’s wisdom for everyday life, including guidance in the areas of marriage, child-raising, family and work relationships, conflict resolution, and issues related to ethics and morality.
Not only the Gospel, but also the Law. But what does the Law do? The Law is not there to show us the day-to-day benefits of knowing and honoring God, the Law is there to show us our sin. Isn’t this what Paul tells us?
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Rom. 3:20)
But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, [the law] produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. (Rom. 7:13)
When the Gospel has to compete with the Law for centrality in the message, which one wins? When the Gospel shares the spotlight with the Bible’s wisdom for everyday life, including guidance in the areas of marriage, child-raising, family and work relationships, conflict resolution, and issues related to ethics and morality, does God’s work accomplished in Christ remain central and preeminent in preaching?
Seeker-oriented churches claim that this doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. But in actual practice, it often is. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest California, another famous Seeker-church, recently chided a group of 1,500 pastors:
You must preach to change lives. You have to preach for application. It’s not good enough to say, "Oh, I’ll leave that up to the Holy Spirit." It’s not good enough just to interpret Scripture. The Bible says, "And teach them the kind of behavior that comes from sound teaching." That’s what preaching is all about.
We’ve made biblical interpretation an end in itself. This is why our churches are filled with far more believers in the Word than doers of the Word. …Application-less preaching is why there is no difference between the way many Christians and non-Christians act.
Warren wants deeds and action. I ask: Are we going to produce the fruit of the Spirit by the preaching of the Law or by the preaching of the Gospel? How does St. Paul answer that question?
Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? …Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believed what you heard? (Gal. 3:1-5)
The way to proclaim the whole counsel of God is to proclaim the Law to the unrepentant and self-assured, and to proclaim the Gospel to the repentant and despairing. The way to lay the day-to-day benefits of knowing God before seekers is to lay the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection before them. The way to preach to change lives is to preach the life-changing Gospel clearly, at every opportunity.