A new approach to evangelism, SEEKER SERVICES, using contemporary music, drama and a user-friendly, jargon-free message has mushroomed to become a major Church movement. Pippa Rimmer investigates.



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According to Bill Hybels, as quoted by Roger Sutton, "Church should be a safe place to hear a dangerous message." But what sort of message are churches putting across? And just how are they doing it? How do you make it all non-threatening to the unsaved?

"You begin to think things through from the non-Christian point of view," says Roger plainly. "Think of a friend and what they would like to see or hear if they were to come into the church. Do I want them to get a big hug on the door by one of the deacons? I'd want them to be given a programme so that they know what's happening. We think about playing music as they come in, perhaps a song from the charts. The lighting is low, so that they're not sticking out like a sore thumb. Somebody uses language that they'll understand."

Therein lies another problem - how we, as Christians, communicate to the world in a way that avoids clich├ęs and jargon. "The language the Church speaks is not a language the world speaks," Roger tells me. "When we send our missionaries to France or Zaire, they have to learn the language. But the Church hasn't learnt the language of the unchurched. I think the new Generation X in 30 years time will create a very different Church, because culture is changing dramatically. Even the most charismatic places have brought church music into the 1970s - that's as far as we've got!"

In terms of sorting out the real life issues, there's no point giving people 12 biblical principles on How To Be Like Abraham, but you can talk to them about childlessness and how to cope. It's about applying biblical truths in very practical and foolproof ways. Roger agrees, "It's not that the Bible is irrelevant, but it's about coming at it from the life experience of the person coming in there. They're not thinking about Abraham when they come in. They're thinking about their marriage which is on the rocks, the stress in their life, crime and taxes. The Bible speaks about these subjects and they can look up what it says."

Both Aylesbury and Altringham use secular chart music as part of their evangelism, alongside very strong Christian messages. Like Willow Creek, they both make wide use of multi-media, drama, video and contemporary issues, but the American model has to be modified in order to be culturally relevant to the British populace. Initially, Aylesbury followed the Willow Creek pattern, then allowed their own style to develop. Chris Stoddard shares: "We've adapted and changed a lot as we've gone on. We realise that although Willow Creek is a great experience, it's a different culture and it's reaching a different type of person. We've tried to produce something that is more relevant to our market town and style of church."
"Our aim is to be culturally relevant and not just contemporary, because whatever's contemporary changes with each phase that comes along. The Word of God remains the same. We seek to be relevant to our culture and to present the Christian faith in a way that people can grasp."

To bring the Word of God bang up to date and 'accessible' to the average unchurched punter, Chris makes use of both secular and Christian music, where Chris Eaton, Amy Grant are companions to Elton John, the Beatles and Eric Clapton and punctuates it with illustrations from the Word, music or drama.

Andy Mackie is Outreach Co-ordinator at Riverside Church in Birmingham, the third in the triumvirate of churches who originally headed RUN.

Riverside, a thriving and forward-thinking church in multi-racial Moseley, runs two services. On a weekly basis there's a service which includes elements of worship songs but also contains presented drama and music with a life-related talk. Once a month on a Sunday evening they do a purely presented service made up of videos, songs, drama and talk based on a particular subject. Again, as with Aylesbury and Altringham, Riverside has the mammoth task of pushing all the cultural buttons, made more challenging by Moseley's vari-cultured, multi-faith surroundings.

"Churches generally have a subculture," explains Andy, "and there are certain things that are traditional to any church that you're expected to do. If you don't know when to stand, sit or do things you can feel very much like an outsider. A lot of preaching has traditionally taken a verse from the Bible and expounded it. The Christian faith is relevant, but the task is to apply it to everyday issues that people are facing and to help people see that it's more than relevant and has a prophetic edge into their lives."

The fact that church members make themselves available and accessible in their everyday settings can act as a springboard to the uninitiated into other aspects of church life, such as Seeker Services.

"One of the philosophies of the church here," says Andy, "is that the main work of the church is Monday to Friday in the work place, in the Mums and toddlers groups or wherever you are during the week. Through that people are having an impact on the lives of people around them. At some point those people then share their faith with others. Part of my role is to encourage and to equip people to do that. As people show an interest, I help put on culturally relevant events for people in church to bring their non-Christian friends. It helps people to see how relevant the Christian faith is to their lives."

Andy continues sharing the church's vision: "Nick Cuthbert, who leads the church here, has a passion for reaching the lost, in Birmingham in particular. We've always been an outward looking church. When Nick heard about Willow Creek he went over to see what they were doing and really felt that it was a model for evangelism that was getting to his heart. In the summer of 1992, people from Willow Creek held a conference in Birmingham. We got sent as a team to see what they were doing and very quickly we started to implement it into our services in October."

The services have been running weekly since then, with the fully presented one running for about a year. Like Altringham and Aylesbury, Riverside has implemented the best of the Willow Creek programme and adapted it to suit British sensitivities. But there's one issue that has been bothering me through all this. What about worship? Surely that is an exclusive activity for believers which could easily alienate an unbeliever who has never experienced it? Thank goodness Andy is at hand to explain!

"My experience is that half the people who come along struggle with worship and half expect something like that, possibly because of their preconceived ideas of Church. There's something about a Sunday morning where people expect 'churchiness' to some extent. The worship that we have in the Sunday morning service some people can cope with and they may have some sort of nominal church background. We have another service for people who can't cope with it in the presented, non-participatory service. But I think the key really is to explain worship as much as possible and to find material that isn't full of jargon."