Niche Marketing, Audience-Driven, Full Service Churches: How We Got Here?
By Orrel Steinkamp, The Plumbline, Volume 8, No. 1, January/February 2003

By the end of the 19th century the "enlightenment' of the age of reason had significantly penetrated the church.  One by one the historic, main-line denominations capitulated to the scientific rationalism of the wider culture.  The culture was infatuated with progress and change and a new golden age of enlightenment seemed poised to change the world forever.  But two world wars and the holocaust dashed all this utopian optimism.  Nevertheless, German theological rationalism and scientific Darwinism had already been swallowed, digested, and infused into the bloodstream of the historic churches.  Two popular media pastors in the 1930's were Sloan Coffin and Harry Emerson Fosdick.  In their accommodation to modernism they denied such foundational tenets of Christianity as the resurrection of Christ and Ms virgin birth.  The fundamentalists rose to challenge this denial of truth, but with very little attempt to make the Gospel culturally attractive.

Near mid-century a number of fundamentalists rightfully decided to end the needless Christian isolation from it's cultural surroundings.  Consequently, in 1942 the National Association of Evangelicals emerged.  In 1947 Fuller Seminary was organized.  Billy Graham began his nation-wide crusades in the early 50s and Christianity Today appeared in 1956.  In a few years Christianity Today had more readers than the liberal Christian Century. For the next 25 years Billy Graham expressed the focus of the new evangelicals.  This more outward-looking movement, known as Neo-evangelicalism, became so successful that Time magazine declared 1976 the "Year of the Evangelical."

In the last 25 years, however, the Church Growth Movement has become the main focus of evangelicalism.  Church Growth teaching is the application of Donald McGavran's missiological church growth principles to the American church.  Church Growth, like many movements, is a grand mixture of things good, bad, and in-between.  David Wells, commenting on the Church Growth Movement, writes:

"A new and more culturally adapted evangelicalism emerged the central figures of which were no longer the scholars who had been prominent in the immediate postwar years but rather a host of managers, planers and bureaucrats - and not far behind them, marketeers.  This new set of leaders view growing a church or for that mater, any Christian ministry as essentially no different from growing a business." 1

In the late 70's a ground-breaking cultural movement was recognized, commonly called Postmodernism.  This movement is a challenge to rational thought, so much so that classical liberal theologians, asserting that most of the Bible is not factually true, have no more cultural support than Bible-believing Christians.  The "Jesus Seminar" is the final bloom of liberal theologians attempting a last hurrah.  In Postmodern thought there is no universal truth to be established; everyone has total freedom to create his or her own truth.  Postmoderns are driven by the heart rather than the head.  Current pop-spirituality reflects this in its focus on feeling, the inner life, and promotion of spiritual pluralism.  Consequently, evangelicals do not have the same need, as previously, to think through their apologetics.  In fact there is a truth "vacuum" which frees the church to present an audience-driven, user-friendly gospel in order to compete with the new smorgasbord of spiritualities.  There is no longer a compelling need for evangelicals to express their faith in clear and logical propositions.

Don Matzat writes:

"The postmodern expression of Christianity is no longer historically based but is merely built upon the spiritual whims of the populace. Fifty years after the rise of the new evangelicalism and 20 years after Time declared 1976 the Year of the Evangelical, what has become the shape of American evangelical Christianity? Has the push to attain cultural relevance been successful?  By and large the Christian church has not impacted the secular culture with the Gospel. Instead the philosophy, method and style of the secular culture have invaded the Christian church... Many pastors are CEOs.  The worship services offer entertainment. We have Christian television Christian radio, Christian books, and Christian gift shops.  We search the Christian "yellow pages" to find Christian lawyers, psychologists, and financial advisors. We cast our vote for the Christian politicians. Christian music is marketed the same way as secular music.  We can do Christian aerobics and join Christian weight-loss programs.  A Christian ghetto has been produced. While Jesus told His church to be in the world but not of it, the culturally relevant evangelical is of it but not in it. Successful evangelical pastors like Bill Hybels and Robert Schuller are really no different than the successful modern liberal clergy, like Sloan Coffin and Harry Enwrson Fosdick. While Coffin and Fosdick built their congregations by appealing to human reason, Hybels and Schuller "grow a church" by appealing to the feelings and experience of people.  While the classic liberal pastor questioned on the basis of reason the truth of traditional Christian doctrine, the postmodern pastor ignores doctrine and focuses on methods which produce success. 2

The new liberalism is incognito and flies below the radar.  The Bible-believing pastor doesn't, for one minute, doubt the truths of scripture, but in adopting the market-driven, Postmodern model, his presentation of the gospel is deceptively altered.  G. A. Pritchard, who spent the first 183 pages of his book listing the positives of Willow Creek, finally concludes:

Hybels incorporates large chunks of the American psychological worldview into his basic teaching and teaches that fulfillment is a consequence of the Christian life.  There is a lack of critical evaluation to Willow Creek's approach to relevance.  This felt-need approach to relevanceultimatelydistorts their Christianity. " (Willow Creek Seeker Services, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1996, p.200).

It is not a false gospel as such, but rather an incomplete gospel.  Jesus is still the Savior but the primary purpose of the cross is meeting felt needs and life fulfillment Here an illustration may be helpful.  In my backyard I have a sandbox, but the sandbox is really a tractor tire.  It works well for a sandbox and I didn't have to build one.  But the first and primary purpose of a tractor tire is to be put on tractor wheels.  It can have a secondary purpose of being a sandbox, but that is not the reason it was manufactured.  Market-driven evangelism is selling tractor tires as sandboxes.  They say that though the cross does work for canceling out sin, unchurched Harry is not interested in the cross canceling out sin as much as in a gospel he can use for the joys of sandbox Christianity.  Christian marketers have done their market surveys and are market-wise enough to make their gospel pitch in this way.  Note the subtlety of this: not one Christian doctrine is denied (as the old liberals did), but the essential purpose of the cross is being assigned to the margins and often ignored.  This is alarming.

This Little Church Went to Market
by Gary E. Gilley

... [Evangelicals] having watched a large segment of the church become content with short yardage and lousy scores, ... decided that there had to be a better way.  The church was not penetrating society; she was not pulling in the masses; she was not making a significant impact for the gospel.  It was not that the church leaders didn't care, it was, it seemed, that they lacked the "know how," the tools, to effect change.  The gospel was still the "power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16), but it was being rejected out-of-hand by too many.  What was needed, apparently, were new methods to reach the lost, new techniques to promote the church, new packages for the gospel message.  People, we were told, were not rejecting the gospel or Christ; they were rejecting our out-of-date, unappetizing form, philosophies, and methods...

... We will focus on the two flagship churches: Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California, and Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  These churches serve as the models that are reshaping the way we "do church" today.  As a matter of fact, many refer to these churches and their clones as "new paradigm churches." Churches all over the world ... are imitating the many methods promoted by Saddleback and the "Creekers." Others have written about church growth, but these two churches have made it work, and for their success they are idolized and adored by the modem evangelical community...

An interesting article, just the type that shapes the new paradigm system, is found in American Demographics (American Demographics, April 1999, "Choosing My Religion," pp. 60-65, by Richard Cimino and Don Lattin) ... According to this article people today claim they are:

"...into spirituality, not religion... Behind this shift is the search for an experiential faith, a religion of the heart, not the head.  It's a religious expression that downplays doctrine and dogma, and revels in direct experience of the divine - whether it's called die "Holy Spirit" or "cosmic consciousness" or the "true self." It is practical and personal, more about stress reduction dw salvation, more therapeutic than theological.  It's about feeling, on being good.  It's as much about the body as the soul... Some marketing gurus have begun calling it "the experience industry". (Ibid., p 62).

But is a market-driven church so bad?  After all, a lot of people seem to be getting saved and they're really "packing 'em in." Rick Warren puts a positive spin on new paradigm philosophy in his very popular book The Purpose Driven Church ... Many of Warren's suggestions are excellent.  Churches should pay attention to cleanliness and attractiveness, where people are going to park ... We should strive for excellence and do the best to communicate God's truth. And we should want to grow - in the right ways.  Warren states, "Every church needs to grow warmer through fellowship, deeper through discipleship, stronger through worship, broader through ministry, and larger through evangelism." (The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, p. 48)

Who could argue with that?  And who would debate the need for churches to know why they exist (their purpose), channeling their energies in that direction rather than wandering aimlessly as many do? And what about evangelism?  Warren and the new paradigm churches are geared to reaching the lost.  While many churches are wasting precious energy fussing over the color of the drapes in the foyer, the Saddlebacks and Willow Creeks are focusing their attention on bringing unchurched Harry and Saddleback Sam to Christ.  You can't help admire that kind of emphasis ... Perhaps no single source carries as much weight in the "seeker sensitive" church as George Barna and his Barna Research Group.  Barna, the church counterpart to George Gallup, has ignited a number of fires in Christian circles with his books such as The Frog in the Kettle and Marketing the Church. In his more recent book Church Marketing, Breaking Ground for the Harvest, Barna declares that he and his types have won the ideological battle over the issue of marketing the church (p. 13, 14).  That is, only a few old-fashioned stick-in-the-muds still question the validity of the market-driven strategy ... Barna assures us that churches sell (or market) their product the same way Wal-Mart sells shoes and Sears sells tools.  But what is the church's product?  What are we trying to peddle to consumers?  This has to be thought through carefully, for unlike shoes and tools that have great attraction for some consumers, the gospel is repulsive, foolishness to the unsaved (I Cor. 1: 18-23).  How do we market such a product?  By changing the package.  Note the subtle bait and switch in Barna's philosophy.  Ministry, in essence, has the same objective as marketing - to meet people's needs.  Christian ministry, by definition, meets people's real needs by providing them with biblical solutions to their life circumstances (p 21).

By repackaging ministry ... Barna has made it attractive.  If we can convince people that Christ died to meet their need, they will line up at our doors to buy our product.  But is this the Gospel message?  Has Barna merely repackaged ... the Gospel product, or has he gutted it of its purpose and value?  An important question upon which so much hinges...

The standard rhetoric coming from new paradigm churches is that they teach the same message, the same gospel, as the more traditional evangelical churches; that they differ only in methodology and philosophy of ministry.  Lee Strobel (former Teaching Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church) writes, "Objections [to the market-driven church] generally relate to the method that's used to communicate the Gospel, not the message itself and consequently we're free to use the God-given creativity to present Christ's message in new ways that our target audience will connect with" (Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, by Lee Stroebel, p. 168).  This is simply not the case.  While some methods may disturb us it is their message that is of real concern. ... Barna defines marketing as "a broad term that encompasses all the activities that lead to an exchange of equally valued goods between consenting parties."...Is the gospel marketable by this definition?  Is the gospel the "exchange of equally valued goods between consenting parties" Let's see.  The Gospel is offered by grace (undeserved favor) and received by faith.  In the exchange God gets us, we get Him (equally valued goods?).  In the exchange we receive the righteousness of Christ, He takes our sins upon Himself (equally valued goods?).  The market process breaks down in its very definition when the "product" is Christ... The Gospel is not bringing people to Christ in order to meet their felt-needs. According to Scripture the gospel is the good news that lost sinners can be forgiven of their sins and receive the righteousness of Christ in exchange.  This is the real need of humanity, the need for which Christ died... The gospel message in a nutshell is this: Harry (to use Willow Creek's name for the unsaved) is a sinner, in full-blown rebellion against God (Rom. 3:23; 5:1-12).  While some Harrys are outwardly religious and some even desire the gifts and benefits that God can supply, no Harrys truly seek after God or desire Him (Rom. 3:10-18).  As a result of Harry's sinfulness he is under the wrath of God (Rom. 1: 18), faces future judgment (Heb. 9:27), will die both physically and spiritually (Rom. 6:23) and will spend eternity in hell (Rev. 20:11-15)...

The new paradigm church operates under the credo that Harry is "hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ" (ibid. p. 47) ... Now we know that Harry is not motivated by the commands of God, nor is he all that interested in truth, [so] we can abandon the direct approach.  And since he is looking for something that will help him reach his goals in life and feel good in the process, we are ready to package the gospel to draw his attention.  The new paradigm church does this by focusing on the gospel of felt need.  "The Church's problem today is simply that it does not believe that without tinkering, the Gospel will be all that interesting to modern people" (Losing Our Virtue, by David Wells, p. 207).  And tinker it must... The new paradigm church is offering a purely Americanized, yuppie brand of Christianity found nowhere in the NT...

G.A. Pritchard, after spending a year (onsite) studying the ministry at Willow Creek, eventually came to the conclusion that "Hybels believes that Harry's most important concern is for his personal fulfillment"...Hybels teaches that Christianity will satisfy Harry's felt need and provide him fulfillment ... Hybels and the other speakers do not condemn the search for fulfillment.  Rather they argue that Harry has not searched in the right place. (Willow Creek Seeker Services, p. 254-256).  Pritchard's analysis is on the money:

"Is Willow Creek correct in their teaching that a relationship with Christ will provide a life of fulfillment?  In a word, no. ... Personal fulfillment is the dominant goal of the vast majority of Americans.  In this context it is a great temptation for American evangelicals to argue that Christianity is a means of a more fulfilling life. ... the Church becomes another place that promises to satisfy emotional desires.... To argue for Christianity primarily by pointing to its usefulness in satisfying felt needs is to ultimately undercut it.  To teach Christianity as a means eventually teaches that it is superfluous.  If someone is able to satisfy their felt needs without Christ, the message of Christianity can be discarded. ... The bottom line why individuals should repent and worship God is because God deserves it. Fulfillment theology does not reflect the teaching of the Bible.  We find in Scripture vast evidence that Christianity is often not 'fulfilling, " Jesus promises his disciples that "in this world you will have trouble....... The Lord did not promise fulfillment, or even relief, in this world but only in the next... (Pritchart, p. 254-256),

In response to those who object to the new gospel, Stroebel counters that "these objections generally relate to the method that's used to communicate the Gospel, not the message itself, and consequently we're free to use our God-given creativity to present Christ's message in new ways that our target audience will connect with" (Stroebel, p. 168).  This is simply not the case.  While some of the methods way disturb us, it is their message that is of real concern. The new paradigm church would loudly proclaim that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  But they have redefined salvation.  Salvation is not simply, under the new gospel, the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness.  It is not a deliverance from the wrath of God upon a deserving and rebellious people.  The new gospel is liberation from low self-esteem, a freedom from emptiness and loneliness, a means of fulfillment and excitement, a way to receive your heart's desire, a means to meeting your needs.  The old gospel was about God; the new gospel is about us.  The old gospel was about sin; the new gospel is about needs.  The old gospel was about our need for righteousness; the new gospel is about our need of fulfillment.  The old gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing; the new gospel is attractive... We are forced to ask, with Peter Jennings in the thought-provoking video, In the Name of God, "As these churches try to attract sell-out crowds, are they in danger of selling out the gospel?"

The above article consists of excerpted sections from a four-part article at

Exploring the Headwaters of Willow Creek

Proponents of Willow-Creek Seeker Sensitive evangelism and the wider public have little knowledge of the historical genealogy of this movement.  Most simply assume that George Barna and associates originated the marketing model now employed widely in seeker sensitive evangelism.  Barna, however, is a late-corner, who actually adapted and expanded ideas that had been earlier discovered by Robert Schuller.  G. A. Pritchard quotes Schuller as saying "An undisputed historical fact is that I am the founder, really, of the church-growth movement in this country ... I advocated and launched what has become known as the marketing approach in Christianity." 3

Schuller tells of ringing 3500 doorbells and concluding that to reach his Garden Grove neighbors, he had to "throw the kind of bait out that they would like". Schuller decided that the best and most attractive bait was to appeal to self-esteem.  Accordingly, he turned to the guru of self-esteem, Norman Vincent Peale.  Schuller was aware that he needed to modify the message to fit this new method.  Consequently, Schuller called for a new reformation to move from a theocentric (God-centered) to a "human need" approach.  In Schuller's book, Self-Esteem: A New Reformation, he re-defines sin: "Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem." 4 This was indeed radical surgery on the body of biblical theology.  Schuller's message ceased to be the Gospel of the New Testament!

It is a matter of historical record that Bill Hybels attended Schuller's institute on church leadership in 1975.  After this he recruited individuals to join him in starting a church and later took 25 of the core Willow Creek leadership group to another session of that leadership conference.  At this conference Schuller pointed to Hybels and said: "I want you to know that this man right here is doing something out in Chicago which is actually what we are talking about at this conference" (quoted by Pritchard, p. 54).  Following Schuller's suggestions, Hybels and his staff took a community survey.  Based on the answers, the Willow Creek team developed a strategy for church planting, crafting messages that appealed to the audience, making sure they didn't feel guilty.  Schuller was delighted in Hybels, a son who went beyond his father.  Schuller said: "I was the first person to introduce real church growth to the American church. ... He [Hybels] became the first guy to take these principles, refine them, maximize them to the ultimate length of their potential' (quoted by Pritchard, p. 56).

In 1979, in what staff members refer to as the "train wreck:' a founding Willow Creek staff member was caught in adultery.  In response to this crisis, Hybels began to teach and preach about sin.  However, a staff member recounted that this emphasis seemed to promote a somber spirit and destroyed what had been the optimistic atmosphere in the services.  Pritchard notes that this change was "a relatively short term shift" (Pritchard, p. 42).  Now, however, rather than Schuller's self-esteem message being promoted as the bait, the bait is rather "personal fulfillment." We rejoice that the pure Schullerian heresy (the re-definition of sin) was abandoned.  Nevertheless, at Willow Creek, sin is still minimized and marginalized.  Hybel's teaching exhibits a strong reliance on psychological categories, not as strongly as Schuller's, but still very real.  The terminology is also different; while Schuller emphasizes "self-esteem," Hybels stresses "personal fulfillment" and "user friendly doctrine." In the final analysis, it is not possible to understand Willow Creek's method and message without exploring the source of Willow Creek.  If you go upstream from Willow Creek you will come to its headwaters, flowing from Garden Grove, California, and the Crystal Cathedral.


1 David Wells, God in the Wasteland, Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1994, pp. 71-72.
2 Donald Matzat, The New Liberals, Issues and Etc. Journal, Vol. 3 No. 2, Spring 1998.
3 G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1998, p.51.
4 Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, Waco, Word, 1982, p. 14.

About the Author

Offel Steinkamp is publisher of Plumbline Newsletter and director of Plumbline Ministries.  He has, served as a missionary to Vietnam, professor and pastor in Australia and most recently pastor of an AOG church in Redwood Falls Minnesota.  He received his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He currently resides near Renville, Minnesota.


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