by Cameron Buettel & Jeremiah Johnson
Most diners and restaurants across the country can serve you fried chicken, but only KFC has the Colonel’s original recipe of eleven herbs and spices. The same goes for other brand names you recognize—Coca Cola and Krispy Kreme stand out from their competitors because of the uniqueness of their products.
In each case, the secret recipe is the key to their success. Through trial and error, each of them has developed a specific formula for its product that appeals to the widest-possible audience.
But what if you’re not selling chicken, soda, or doughnuts? What if, as prosperity preacher T.D. Jakes once said, “Jesus is the product”? Tragically, too many in the church today have adopted that mindset—they’ve developed their own formulas to make Christ and the gospel more appealing to the world.
The quest for Christianity’s secret recipe goes back to nineteenth century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney. Finney believed he could win souls through a variety of methods that would compel his listeners into making a decision for Christ. He argued that a revival “is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.”  Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 2nd ed. (New York: Leavitt, Lord, and Co., 1835) 12.
Finney was a pragmatist driven solely by results. He held no strong allegiance to any theological framework. That’s why his preaching was such a mixed bag—he was only interested in refining his sales pitch. In his day, that meant crusades of fire and brimstone preaching, as he worked to scare sinners into the arms of the Savior.
Finney’s methods live on in the hellfire and damnation preachers we see on busy street corners today. Their promise of fire insurance against God’s impending wrath echoes the tone and topic of much of Finney’s teaching.
But Finney’s legacy extends beyond modern prophets of doom. The seeker-sensitive movement—while seemingly antithetical to fire and brimstone preaching—owes just as much to Finney’s influence, with its emphasis on emotion, pragmatism, and developing widespread appeal.
In fact, Finney’s fingerprints are all over modern seeker-sensitive strategies. Consider these words from Rick Warren, perhaps the world’s foremost purveyor of seeker-sensitive strategies: “It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart. . . . The most likely place to start is with the person’s felt needs.” Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 219.
Just like Finney, seeker-sensitive gurus are devoted to developing the latest and greatest formula for selling the gospel. Every aspect of the church experience, from the style of music and teaching to design aesthetics—even the kind of clothes the pastor wears—are carefully chosen to make the message as user-friendly and enticing as possible.
But marketing and manipulation don’t make the gospel any more plausible or potent. No scare tactics or sideshow techniques can secure salvation or transform the sinner’s heart. Even Finney acknowledged that the vast majority of his converts “would of course soon relapse into their former state.” Cited in B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford, 1932), 2:24.
The truth is that the gospel doesn’t need to be cleverly packaged—it simply needs to be preached.
The pure gospel message has never been a seductive sales pitch; on the contrary, it is foolishness to the unbeliever.
God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:21–24)
There’s no clever gimmick that makes Christ’s sacrificial death more believable. The truth of the gospel is inherently offensive to fleshly ears. Making it attractive to the world would require altering the message itself; and that’s what often happens in seeker-sensitive churches. Unappealing fundamental truths about sin, hell, repentance, faith, submission, and holiness are buried under layers of worldly entertainment, pop culture trends, and man-centered self-improvement.
The bottom line is simple—either God’s Word is sufficient to bring people to repentance and faith or it isn’t. And while many seeker-sensitive gurus wouldn’t openly question the sufficiency of Scripture, their dependence on extrabiblical methodologies and manipulation unmistakably indicate where their confidence truly lies.
In the end, the fatal flaw of seeker-sensitivity—and every other movement that carries on Finney’s legacy—is that they usurp a role that does not belong to them. Salvation is not up to us. No one—no matter how clever or cool—can coerce a sinner into God’s kingdom. God alone is responsible for rescuing sinners from hell, as He intervenes into lives and illuminates hearts to the truth of His Word.
As Jonah succinctly declared, “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9 ESV). Christ Himself confirmed that very point in John 6:44, explaining that “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” Only God can resurrect the dead and grant them new life in Him (Ephesians 2:4-5).
In God’s gracious plan, we do have a part to play in bringing the gospel to a lost and dying world (Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 10:14). But we need to keep our role in proper perspective: We’re called to be messengers, not manipulators. With that in mind, we need to measure the success of our gospel preaching not by the number of professed converts, but by our faithfulness to the truth of Scripture.
Standing together for the gospel compels us to stand together against any movement that overestimates the importance of the messenger and his methods. It means we need to boldly oppose anyone who seeks to usurp God’s role in the work of salvation, and that we faithfully proclaim the sufficiency of God’s Word.
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