Question: "What is a seeker?"

Answer: The term seeker is used to identify someone who attends church but isn’t a Christian. Churches that tailor the elements of their worship services to reach non-Christians are sometimes called “seeker-sensitive.” Advocates of this terminology argue that the label seeker conveys a positive and optimistic perspective of non-Christians as opposed to terms that identify them only by their lack of faith, such as unbelievers.

While each seeker has a unique backstory and reason for attending church, research suggests that many have similar experiences and perspectives. Some seekers have had negative experiences with Christians or churches, while others are skeptical of what some call “organized religion” or the “institutional church.” Additionally, many seekers find traditional elements of church services like sermons and hymns outdated or off-putting. To reach seekers with the gospel, some churches have transformed their worship services—especially their preaching and music.

Preaching that is sensitive to seekers often employs methods that its advocates believe effectively resonate with such attendees. Unlike traditional services that may feature expository preaching, which seeks to interpret and explain a passage of Scripture, many seeker-sensitive services include topical messages that focus more on individual empowerment than on doctrine. These messages, purposefully devoid of rich theological reflection, aim to address individual concerns known as “felt needs.” For example, seeker-sensitive preaching might cover topics like personal finance or parenting, rather than original sin or Jesus being the only way to heaven.

Another characteristic of seeker-sensitive services is the transformation of music and sanctuary lighting to align with contemporary trends. This includes replacing traditional choirs with worship bands, hymns with praise choruses, and organs with electric guitars and drums. Song lyrics are projected onto large screens, eliminating the need for hymnals. Additionally, the lighting over the congregation is dimmed, while the front of the sanctuary is illuminated, mimicking the atmosphere found in live entertainment events.

Prioritizing sensitivity to seekers has led to transformations in other aspects of church life as well, such as dress, seating, and financial giving. In seeker-sensitive ministries, clergy attire often mirrors contemporary fashion, with jeans, sneakers, and casual shirts replacing suits and ties. Additionally, many churches have swapped wooden pews for padded chairs to improve comfort. Furthermore, the integration of modern technological conveniences into church practices is evident, such as utilizing smartphone apps for financial giving instead of passing an offering plate.

Modernizing elements of worship services were once distinctive markers of the seeker-sensitive movement. Today, however, these practices have become commonplace in many churches, extending well beyond those calling themselves seeker-sensitive.

Churches have contemplated how to communicate with “seekers,” or non-Christian visitors, since the first century. The apostle Paul mentioned the presence of non-Christians at worship services in Corinth. He advised the church to prioritize prophecy over speaking in tongues so that non-Christians in the service would understand: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all” (1 Corinthians 14:23–24, ESV).

Despite Paul’s instructions, the topic of how best to accommodate non-Christians in worship services has sparked considerable debate among Christians today. The core of the disagreement lies in differing views on what sensitivity to non-Christians should entail and how much church services should focus on appealing to such visitors.

Those who argue that church services should target seekers emphasize hospitality and evangelizing the lost (Romans 12:13; Matthew 28:19–20). Alternatively, proponents of services aimed at edifying Christians highlight the importance of not compromising the gospel or diluting biblical teaching (Galatians 1:6–7; 2 Corinthians 11:4).

The seeker-sensitive approach to ministry is rooted in the mid-20th century church-growth movement. Robert Schuller’s focus on positive preaching at the Crystal Cathedral is often seen as a precursor to the felt-needs approach to ministry, though Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church is regarded as the pioneer of the seeker-sensitive movement. Other notable leaders include pastors Rick Warren, Andy Stanley, and Joel Osteen.

All followers of Jesus who are committed to obeying His instructions are dedicated to making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19–20; Acts 1:8). However, they sometimes disagree about the most effective methods for persuading non-Christians to follow Jesus and the role that church worship services should play in this endeavor. Nevertheless, if churches with varying approaches to evangelism share Paul’s heart for unbelievers (see Romans 10:1), there is optimism that seekers will hear the gospel and have a chance to respond to it, whether inside or outside of a church.