The Dishonesty & Unhelpfulness of Much Seeker-Sensitive Worship (HC LD 31, QA 83-85)

Imagine an unbeliever named Liam going to church. That’s a great thing, by the way. We want unbelievers in worship. Like all unbelievers, Liam is living in rebellion against God. Liam is unwilling to admit his sin and misery, confess it, repent of it, and he’s unwilling to trust in Christ alone for salvation. However, Liam is spiritual and curious about the Christian faith.

So, Liam visits a seeker-sensitive church. As he experiences the worship service, Liam hears the pastor say, “God is not mad at you. God loves you just the way you are. God is not against you. God is for you.” The preacher mentions sin but doesn’t really explain or apply it clearly and never mentions God’s holy law. How do you think Liam will hear the preacher? Do you think hearing “God is not mad at you; God is for you” will challenge Liam to think about God’s holiness and righteousness, God’s demanding law, his sin and misery, God’s justice, judgment, and wrath against all lawbreakers including him, the purpose and glory of the cross, the goodness and comfort of God’s mercy and grace found in Christ alone, and so forth? Will a generic message about God’s love and favor void of God’s holiness, justice, and wrath compel Liam to repent and believe? I don’t think so. A comfortable message keeps Liam comfortable in his sin. Liam’s self-love will not be confronted especially when he hears that God is a big fan of his. In my experience, much seeker-sensitive worship inordinately focuses on God’s love and caters to the comfort of unbelievers like Liam, and largely avoids warning unbelievers of God’s justice and wrath. It boasts of God’s love without unpacking the expression of God’s love in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Some seeker-sensitive churches tell unbelievers that God is not mad at them or against them but loves them and is for them. Is that true? Consider Psalm 7:11 which says, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” Psalm 11:5 adds, “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” Preachers proclaim, “God is love.” That’s Biblical and exactly right (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Preachers should proclaim and explain God’s love but only in appropriate balance with God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice. Love is certainly not all that God is. God is also holy (Ps. 99:9). God is righteous (Dan. 9:14). God is a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). The prophet Nahum wrote, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies” (1:2). God’s justice is as important as God’s love. Sometimes, seeker-sensitive worship sounds as if God doesn’t have any enemies.

God is for His people. God is against His enemies. According to James 4:4, God’s enemies are those who wish to be friends of the world. From where I sit, it seems like much seeker-sensitive worship is straying from Biblical worship and becoming chummy with worldliness in order to win the world. Using ACDC songs in worship to be friendly and familiar with unbelievers is dishonest and unhelpful. James 4:6 adds, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” God outright opposes worldly unbelievers who arrogantly ignore His law and gospel and who join the world in ungodly living. Isn’t it Biblical, faithful, and loving to explain this in worship?

Seeker-sensitive worship is right in its awareness and consideration of unbelievers. That said, much seeker-sensitive worship is in some ways dishonest and unhelpful because it doesn’t often clearly and effectively communicate a balance of God’s attributes or His law and gospel. Seeker-sensitive worship often truncates God, the law, and the gospel. Faithful worship clearly unpacks and explains both the law and the gospel and draws clear, convicting, and beneficial lines. Faithful worship makes clear distinctions between believers and unbelievers. Faithful worship opens heaven to believers and closes heaven to unbelievers. Could it be that many seeker-sensitive worship services are full, not because they are actually reaching the lost, but because unbelievers are most comfortable in churches that have lost the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

Keys unlock and lock doors. Keys open and close doors. Keys let people in and keep people out. The doors of the church are open for absolutely everyone, but that’s not the case with heaven. Heidelberg 83 asks, “What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?” In other words, what opens the door of heaven for people, and what closes the door of heaven for people? It answers, “The preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers.” Much seeker-sensitive worship is void of these keys.

Preaching the holy gospel must not be curtailed or softened. Unbelievers like Liam need clear, convicting, and compelling law and gospel preaching that confronts self-importance, self-esteem, and self-love, exalts the crucified and risen Christ, and calls people to true repentance and faith. The church also needs church discipline which is a loving and helpful gift for the purity and growth of Christ’s church. We’ll leave church discipline for another time, but here’s a word on faithful preaching.

Heidelberg 84 asks, “How is the kingdom of heaven opened and closed by the preaching of the gospel?” If unbelievers like Liam are to receive Christ by true faith and enter the kingdom of heaven, they need a steady diet of honest, clear, straightforward, and expositional law and gospel preaching so they can truly understand and believe. Listen to the answer Heidelberg 84 gives:

According to the command of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ’s merits as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent. According to this testimony of the gospel, God will judge both in this life and in the life to come.

Now, I ask, “How will that happen if we blur the distinction between unbelievers and believers?” How will heaven be opened and closed if we do not clearly explain the law and gospel, God’s justice and mercy, God’s judgment and grace, God’s anger and love, etc.? How can we compellingly talk about God’s forgiveness in Christ without deeply understanding the unworkable demands of the law and our sin and misery? How will we boast in the glories of Christ if we diminish the realities of sin and aim to make unbelievers comfortable? I think telling the whole truth to unbelievers so they find true comfort in Christ is more loving than making worship comfortable for them. If they’re paying attention, they’ll eventually pick up on our reductionism and feel unloved. Jesus began his preaching ministry with these compelling and forceful words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17; c.f. Mk. 1:14-15). The last thing we need in worship is to be comfortable with the way we are. We need comfort in Christ so much more.

Brothers and sisters, we need to recognize that when we diminish the horrors of lawlessness and sin, we also diminish the relevance and glory of Christ crucified. It is loving to tell unbelievers that God’s wrath and condemnation rest heavily upon them as long as they refuse to repent. At the same time, it is loving to tell repentant believers, in distinction from unrepentant unbelievers, that because of Christ’s merit and grace granted to them through faith, they are truly forgiven and co-heirs of heaven. More than striving to make unbelievers comfortable, let us strive to be most honest and helpful in worship, and perhaps God will give us favor in seeing sinners saved and sanctified.

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism and creeds are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism: True Comfort for Life & Death (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021), 395.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

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