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by Darin Latham

The “seeker sensitive” movement, at its core, is not about “watering down” the truth; it is about magnifying, unpacking and explaining the truth. It is an attempt to speak the cultural language of one’s audience so that the truth can be understood. As far as I can tell, this movement didn’t begin with Bill [Hybels] of South Barrington; it began with Saul of Tarsus.
Why are you reading this article?
You are either incredibly bored or you are reading this because the title piqued your interest. And chances are that the title piqued your interest because you are aware of a tension in the Canadian church, a tension between two values that you hold: the value of teaching about the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the value of reaching unchurched people in an increasingly biblically illiterate culture. Like many of you, I have lived with this tension for the last 25 years of my life as a Pentecostal pastor.

I was not raised in a Pentecostal church. Soon after deciding to follow Christ at the age of 19, I was baptized in the Spirit at a Full Gospel Businessmen’s meeting. It revolutionized my life. It opened up a whole new world to me. It enabled me to see, expect and experience things that can be characterized only as supernatural. Since then, I have studied what the Scriptures declare about this experience, and I can honestly say that I am intellectually convinced of the doctrinal position of the PAOC. This is a value to which I hold tightly.

However, there is another value I hold tightly: the value of reaching a biblically illiterate culture.

I don’t need to quote the statistics to you. You are living it. Canadians have abandoned the church over the past 60 years and our culture is fast becoming biblically illiterate. The world to which our forefathers preached is vastly different from the world to which you and I preach. Decades ago, pastors could speak to people as though they were backslidden. Their listeners may not have had a relationship with God, but at least they had a working knowledge of the Scriptures. Pentecostal pioneers appealed to that knowledge and sought to fan the embedded biblical spark into flame.

Today, we don’t have that option as we are increasingly speaking to people who are either entirely secular in their upbringing or have been raised in another land under the teachings of a different religion. How has the church responded to this new reality? The “seeker sensitive” movement is one response.

Over the years, many have characterized this movement as an attempt to “water down” the gospel. I have found that to be a misrepresentation. The “seeker sensitive” movement, at its core, is not about “watering down” the truth; it is about magnifying, unpacking and explaining the truth. It is an attempt to speak the cultural language of one’s audience so that the truth can be understood. As far as I can tell, this movement didn’t begin with Bill [Hybels] of South Barrington; it began with Saul of Tarsus.

When you study the letters of Paul they read like Willow Creek manuals. Consider Paul’s instructions to factor the seeker into how we conduct our services (1 Corinthians 14:21-25); his guidelines for the expression of vocal ministry gifts during public meetings (1 Corinthians 14:26-32); his encouragement to restrict one’s freedom for the sake of others (1 Corinthians 14:12-20); and his example of tailoring his ministry to be “all things to all men” so that he could reach more people for Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

In my mind, however, the scenario that best reveals the DNA of New Testament “seeker sensitivity” is the contrast of Peter in Jerusalem versus Paul in Athens.

It was the Day of Pentecost, a very popular Jewish festival in Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism. Peter stood before a crowd of thousands and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, spoke boldly. Peter used the Old Testament Scriptures: he quoted the prophet Joel once and the words of King David twice. In fact, of the 22 verses that Peter spoke, 10 of those verses were direct quotes from the Old Testament. He talked about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as well as the promised and anticipated Messiah. The crowd understood everything he said. This was their religion, their Scriptures, their heritage, their language. They got the message immediately, and in response they shouted out, “… what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).

A few years later, another apostle stood before a different crowd. Inspired by the same Holy Spirit, he, too, spoke boldly. Paul stood in the city of Athens, the heart of the secular, Gentile world. It was their centre for philosophy, art, sports and architecture. The average “man on the street” in Athens didn’t know anything about Abraham, Moses, or the temple, let alone any concept of a coming Jewish Messiah.

While wandering through this pagan city, Paul noticed several idols, all dedicated to different gods. They even had an idol dedicated “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD”—just in case they missed one! Using that idol as his opening illustration, Paul stood in the public square and began to speak (Acts 17:23). He preached the same core message that Peter preached, except in a completely different way. Peter quoted 10 verses from three different Old Testament passages. Paul didn’t mention a single Old Testament passage. Not one.

Why would he do that? Was he not as comfortable with the Old Testament as Peter? Hardly! Paul had a PhD in Old Testament studies! Why, then, did Paul not quote a single Old Testament passage? Did he not like using quotes? No, that’s not it because Paul did use quotes that day. He used two quotes, from Gentile poets, Epimenides and Aratus. And, to make it even more interesting, the quotes Paul used spoke of the Greek god “Zeus” which he applied to the God of the Bible! What was going on?

Paul recognized that Athens wasn’t Jerusalem. He didn’t have the luxury of appealing to an existing understanding of God, sin, and a Messiah. In Jerusalem, Peter built upon the existing foundation. In Athens, Paul was starting from square one. Two different apostles, two different settings, and one identical message using two completely different approaches. That is “seeker sensitivity.”

I came to realize that in Vancouver I am a lot closer to Athens than I am to Jerusalem. I live in a highly secular city. Like Paul, I need to start at square one. I need to be “seeker sensitive.” But I also need to be Pentecostal! Is that even possible? Can one be “Pentecostal” and “seeker sensitive” at the same time?

How can I preach on the complex topic of “Spirit baptism” and “speaking in tongues” when many sitting before me are still trying to grasp the simplicity of the gospel? Should I devote prime-time Sunday morning pulpit minutes to talking about “inside baseball” issues like “prophecy versus interpreted tongues” or “prayer language versus public utterance protocol” when I know that many will have absolutely no idea what I am talking about? Yet pretending these topics don’t exist is not the answer either. I know their importance and I value the dynamic they represent. How does one live and lead in the midst of this tension?

At Broadway Church, it is our mission “to produce fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.” As a way of tracking one’s progress on this journey toward Christcentredness, we use the following stages as our template:

a. Unfamiliar with Christ
b. Exploring Christ
c. Beginning in Christ
d. Growing in Christ
e. Centred in Christ

Everyone is somewhere on this spectrum. Our mission is simple: we’re trying to move people from “a” to “e.”

Here is the key: I have come to the conclusion that, at its core, the message of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is not for seekers but for believers. It is a message for those in the “c” to “e” range. As Roger Stronstad observed in his recent contribution to the “Authentically Pentecostal” booklet, “… only believers are baptized in the Holy Spirit (John 2:11; 6:69; Acts 8:12; 11:17; 19:2).
Therefore, being baptized in the Holy Spirit is not an initiation-conversion experience. Rather, it is a commissioning-empowerment experience.” Exactly! The baptism in the Holy Spirit is not an “entry level” topic. It is not the first thing you explain to your unsaved neighbour when they ask about “the reason for the hope within you.” It is a vital dynamic for the Christ follower, but that’s just it—it’s for the Christ-follower!

It is living out this realization in my Sunday ministry where the tension is most felt. For what it’s worth, here are some practical suggestions I have learned from my own journey:

a.) Using our five-stage template as a reference point, target those in the “a” to “c” range on a Sunday morning. Certainly do your best to give those in the “d” and “e” stages something to “chew on” each week, but remember that they are, by definition, more spiritually mature. They should be “self-feeders” to a larger degree and not nearly as dependent upon the Sunday sermon for their core nourishment.

b.) Don’t treat the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a Pentecostal distinctive. Treat it as a Christian distinctive.Instead of treating it as something that sets us apart from the Baptists, treat it exactly as we claim it to be: the normal expectation for every Christ follower. I.e. “When you become a follower of Jesus Christ, you are ushered into a supernatural kingdom. Expect to be introduced to some mysterious, mystical, and out of the ordinary experiences!”

c.) Treat the topic the way Jesus treated parables—as bait for the spiritually hungry. For example, as part of a Sunday morning sermon on “How to Overcome Harmful Habits in Life,” touch on the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a sub point and say, “I will be expanding on this aspect more this evening for those who are interested in going deeper and taking the next step in their spiritual journey.”

d.) Here is where your Sunday evening service becomes unique from your Sunday morning service. In my previous congregation
(, we designed our services to have strategic differences. Our mission statement for the morning services was: “To apply timeless biblical principles to 21st-century issues in a manner that equips the believer and attracts the seeker.” Our evening services were solely for Christ followers. We didn’t even advertise them on our sign. Our evening mission statement was: “To experience God in response to a specific targeted truth.” It was in those evening services that we unpacked many of the “meatier” topics we had touched on in the morning.

e.) If you do not have a Sunday evening service, then special retreats, classes, prayer meetings, summer camp meetings, or the ever popular “Holy Spirit Weekend” are all great opportunities to express this value. Or you could have a monthly or quarterly Sunday evening “Experiencing God” night designed specifically for the purpose of cultivating this value.

f.) A few weeks ago, I discovered another creative way to exercise this Pentecostal value: the membership class. Seriously … As I was winding down a Saturday morning membership class, I was going through our Statement of Fundamental and Essential Truths. After I finished highlighting our position on the baptism in the Holy Spirit, a young lady in the front row put up her hand. She asked if anyone could experience this. I told her they could. She then asked, “Can I receive it right now?” I said, “Sure.” Without hesitating, she stood to her feet to receive prayer. Trying to look like this happened all the time, I stepped forward, laid my hands upon her head. Thirty seconds later, she was speaking in other tongues as the Spirit enabled her. After that, another person stepped forward to receive prayer as well!

Welcome to the membership class of a seeker sensitive, Pentecostal church …
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DARIN LATHAM is the lead pastor at broadway church in Vancouver, BC. He has been a frequent contributor to a variety of publications produced by The Pentecostal Assemblies Of Canada
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