Was the Apostle Paul Seeker Sensitive?
By Bob Cook
Was the apostle Paul seeker sensitive? Absolutely not. Paul was thoroughly Pentecostal. But what did Paul mean when he challenged the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 14:23 by saying, “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”
Paul was trying to persuade the Pentecostal people of Corinth to give some thought to how outsiders, pre-Christians, or seekers might see their meetings. In 1 Corinthians 12 through 14, Paul gave correction to a Pentecostal church that was allowing spiritual gifts and manifestations in a way that were not edifying to the body. It seems that the people in the Corinthian church were all speaking in tongues at the same time. They were excited about the experience the Holy Spirit had given them; they were thrilled to use their new heavenly language. But Paul gently corrected them. He told them to allow the gifts to flow in “a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
Have you ever wondered if some of the people in Corinth did not receive Paul’s correction? Or, did they understand why he would appeal to the church to consider how an outsider might feel?
Some in the church may have replied to Paul, “We want the Spirit of God to move among us; we will not put any barriers in the Holy Spirit’s way. How dare you tell us to stifle the gift God has given us? If we cannot all speak out loud in tongues whenever we want, we will find another church that believes in the moving of the Holy Spirit. Paul, shame on you. You have gone seeker sensitive.”
Paul had not gone soft on his Pentecostalism. He was only asking the Corinthians to consider how they might be able to help outsiders understand what was happening in their services. It is possible to be thoroughly and passionately Pentecostal while also being wise about how we conduct ourselves in our public meetings.
Years ago I read a book by Haddon Robinson entitled Biblical Preaching. One point he made about his sermon preparation was that he always thought about how his words and message might be understood by an unchurched person, or perhaps by a new convert, in the crowd. Robinson cautioned against preparing our meetings and messages with only the choir in mind.
Earlier in his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul stated, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Paul also wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4). Those attending our services who have not experienced regeneration and/or the baptism in the Holy Spirit will always have questions; there will always be words and actions they may not understand. But it would be helpful for those in leadership to give some consideration to seekers who may be in attendance. Are there things we could do that would enhance the Pentecostal message we are embracing, rather than deflect people away from it?
What are the implications of Paul’s correction in 1 Corinthians 14:23 to the 21st-century Assemblies of God church? Let me share a few observations I have made over the years along with some suggestions:
First, as a youth pastor and senior pastor, I desired to have spiritual gifts in operation. There are times when God desires to speak to the body through tongues and interpretation or a prophetic word. When those gifts occur, it is always imperative for the leader to explain what has occurred, especially if visitors, seekers, or new Christians are in attendance. We cannot assume everyone has grown up in Pentecost. Some have not. spiritual gifts or manifestations may frighten some. That is why I always give verbal instructions to the congregation concerning what has taken place. Some of our churches have done an excellent job in preparing bulletin inserts that explain why we worship the way we do. Anything we can do to help an outsider understand our Pentecostal ways helps us to reach them with our message.
Second, I have seen abuses or unwise utterances given by overzealous people. When this happens, it is imperative that the leader gives correction. If not in public, he needs to speak with the person lovingly and in private. For instance, if a person blurts out a prophecy in a loud voice and frightens everyone around him, he needs loving correction.
I have found that if one is truly Spirit-filled and has the right attitude about God using him in public, he will receive the gentle correction I give him as his pastor. If he responds negatively, leaves the church, and accuses me of quenching the Spirit, that is usually an indication of spiritual immaturity on his part. Sometimes leadership is risky. Sometimes strong, loving leadership will face unfair criticism from overzealous Pentecostals. But our churches desperately need firm, but loving, leadership, especially concerning spiritual gifts.
Third, our spoken language has much more Christianese in it than we realize. We use spiritual jargon and code language that most visitors or pre-Christians do not understand. To help alleviate this, some pastors have asked outsiders or seekers to attend their meetings and take notes of anything spoken from the pulpit that was not understandable. In fact, some leaders have even hired outsiders to come in and critique the entire meeting. The pastor then meets with the person later in the week or invites the person to attend a staff meeting and share his observations. Some might say this sounds weird or even say it profanes the holy, but a wise Pentecostal leader will do everything possible to make sure his entire message is communicated clearly. Rather than putting up barriers to the communication of the gospel, we need to do whatever we can to take barriers down.
Last, the issue of too much Christianese holds true for our songs. It would be cumbersome to explain the spiritual language in each of our songs, but we need to examine the lyrics of the songs or hymns we sing each week and help seekers understand what we are singing about? For example, does a typical unchurched person understand what the song, I Went to the Enemy’s Camp means? My point is not just about newer songs. How about the old gospel song Camping in Canaan’s Land? Even some of the great classic hymns could use some clarification. When leading Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, I am always tempted to define the term Lord Sabaoth. (By the way, it has nothing to do with Lord of the Sabbath.) The list goes on and on. Songs utilize a great deal of metaphor and imagery, but the key is to clarify to the unchurched what we are singing about as best we can.
It is unfortunate that people have construed the term seeker sensitive to mean a watered-down gospel message that merely seeks to stroke the unsaved with polite homilies that do not mention sin or the cross. I have visited some seeker sensitive churches that some of our Pentecostal evangelists and leaders castigate. In each one I witnessed a clear presentation of the gospel, and the anointing of the Spirit was evident on the leaders. But it was also obvious that the pastor had given careful thought concerning how he delivered his message. Each pastor empathized with the unchurched, and each had considered how he presented the gospel. Each sought to remove any barriers he could so he could give seekers a clear communication of the gospel.
It is possible to be absolutely, thoroughly, passionately Pentecostal, but, at the same time, heed Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian church. These words were recently written in a national publication: “All we desire is to allow the lost to experience the presence of God.” Though I agree with the basic idea of that platitude, I am concerned with how some define the presence of God. Unfortunately, some in Pentecostalism define the presence of God only by how many messages in tongues were given in a service, or whether they were moved to tears during worship, or whether people fell over when they were prayed for, or other visible signs occurred. Could it be that pastors have unwittingly pushed people away from God by insisting on their right to do or say whatever they desire in a Pentecostal meeting? When we fail to consider the effect our meetings may have on the unchurched, we unwittingly fall into the same syndrome that the Corinthian church suffered from.
Let’s heed Paul’s clear admonition to consider how outsiders understand our actions in our public meetings. Let’s be wise Pentecostal leaders who are full of the Spirit of God, but also sensitive to the mindset of the seeker.