A Review of Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Movement

A friend of mine, along with a large number of people in various church organizations (especially the Orthodox Church) have become enamored of Rick Warren, of Saddleback Community Church, and his Purpose Driven program.  Over the past few years I finally made an effort to read his Purpose Driven Church and wanted to express my opinions based on this book.

Before getting into his book, I have to say that I almost immediately had a negative reaction to him and the entire movement.  I hesitate to claim some great level of discernment, but I have to admit to a long standing aversion to slick salesmen and the marketing of the Church as if it was just another consumer product.  Warren’s first impression is that of a slick salesman.  His writings are just filled with very glib, catchy sayings.  This already made me suspicious that he was not necessarily the most honest or forthright person in the game.  As you read his writings, this suspicion becomes confirmed when you see the way he utilized Bible translations.  He doesn’t just stick with one preferred translation, as most people would, but he changes around chapter after chapter.  The reason for this is he mostly utilizes thought for thought translations, a particularly poor form of translation, and this allows him to find a translation that agrees with whatever point he is making, even if the translation is incorrect.  For instance, he cites Colossians 2:19, which says:

“It is from him that all the parts of the body are cared for and held together. So it grows in the way God wants it to grow”

Warren, Rick; Warren, Rick (2007-09-04). The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Kindle Locations 319-320). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

At least, according to the NCV.  The NCV, or New Century Version, is a fairly obscure translation.  However, he needed a translation that supported his point that God wants the Church to grow.  Although that is an argument that could be made in a number of ways, he needed a single verse.  However, more traditional translations, such as the NKJV, would not really lend themselves to this interpretation: “and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God,” which speaks to the individual believer staying connected to the true Church.

He follows this same pattern in all of his writings.  He develops an opinion, then searches around for a Bible translation that supports his opinion.  This is disingenuous to say the least, and decidedly egotistical.  However, his ego comes out in all of his writings, so this is no surprise.

I will acknowledge that there are a number of valid points in his book, but the points I agree with are really no different than what I, and many others like me, have been saying for years.  The question is, are these points, and Saddleback’s execution regarding these points, the reason for their tremendous growth?  My friend sent out another email this morning, requesting that our parish pursue the “5 Renewals” that Saddleback publishes.  His justification for pursuing this was Saddleback’s success, defined as “Saddleback has over 50,000 members around the world at 9 church campus locations, planted 197 churches around the world in one year,etc”.  In other words, success is entirely based on numbers.  I challenged him on this point, and his only response was that Warren argues that health comes before numbers.  He never clarified his view of what success was defined by.

He also argued that we don’t need to adopt Warren’s theology in order to adopt his techniques.  I’m not at all convinced that this is so.  I think Warren’s theology drives the particular reasons he has been so successful.  We can see three aspects of his theology that drive the key elements of the growth experienced at Saddleback.

The real question is, what is driving the growth they see at Saddleback?  We know from the outset (as stated in PDC), that he was starting a Church that was not going to have traditional worship services.* I think here we see part of the real secret for his growth.  A charismatic preacher offering something new and more entertaining.  Several times in his book, he suggests modifying worship to make it more attractive.  While such a notion is fairly consistent with the overall Protestant/Evangelical approach to things, it seemingly ignores the attitude God has in the Old Testament with regard to worship.

A recent podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, on the topic of Pentecostalism noted that modern Evangelicals, and, in particular, the seeker sensitive movement, of which Warren is a prominent member, focuses on emotionalism as a means of drawing new members in.  Warren’s theology places the structure of worship as merely incidental.  It can be appealing to potential converts or not.  Of course, Protestant theology, and particularly the Evangelical perspective on a “decision for Christ” means that once you’ve made the decision, nothing after that is particularly relevant.  So, worship really serves no purpose as far as the growth of the believer.  Given that, you can adjust your worship to attract non-believers (or more likely, non-active Christians).

However, in the Old Testament, we see a distinctly different view of worship.  Of particular note is the entire book of Leviticus, and the rules God put in place around worship, and then the rebellion of Korah.  In the interest of space, I won’t go into elaborate details, but anyone with even a passing familiarity with the OT, will know how obvious it was that God took the order of worship very seriously.

Warren and his organization provide a number of other things that they do at Saddleback, but it seems, again based on PDC, that these things are not really causative to their growth.  For instance, they will take you off of the membership rolls if you don’t give regularly.  However, it is unclear what the real impact of that removal is, nor is it clear how much you really have to give.  They also speak of the importance of having members who are growing in order to attract new members.  While I agree with that, their initial growth can’t really have been attributed to that, and when Warren really gets down to brass tacks in his book, he returns to the theme of modifying the worship.  Adjust the style, and adjust the time.  In addition, he tendency toward dishonesty and saying what he thinks people want to hear, makes me question his honesty regarding anything he states regarding the methods he uses and how successful they may or may not be on an individual basis.

One final note on Warren and honesty.  Back when California was debating proposition 8, that would have firmly established marriage in the state to be only between a man and a woman, Rick Warren related to his parishioners his views on the subject.  When the leader of a church communicates a view to over 20,000 of his followers, any reasonable person can conclude that this qualifies as a teaching from this leader.  However, when this support went public, which would undoubtedly impact Warren’s ability to market himself, he backpedaled.  In other words, you never really know what the truth is with him, because at the end of the day he is all about marketing.  Following Christ is supposed to be about following the Way, The TRUTH, and the Life.  Warren doesn’t seem to have much need for the truth, so I wonder who, exactly, he is following.  In turn, should we really be following him?

*The first sentence of that letter clearly stated our focus and position. It said: “At last! A new church for those who’ve given up on traditional church services.”

Warren, Rick; Warren, Rick (2007-09-04). The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Kindle Locations 630-631). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.



I guess a theme is developing for this blog.  I’ve been wanting to post some thoughts on Rick Warren, as his name keeps coming up in conversation.  This blog is not about him or his teaching or church growth views, but it is going to be part of the foundation.

Today driving in to the office, I was listening to this podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.  The first thing that struck me was that the development of our faith is dependent on prayer and fasting.  Actually, convicted is more the word.  I definitely felt convicted, and was thinking again about this post, about how the purpose of the Church is creation of saints.

Then I read todays epistle reading, and was struck by the last verse,

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.

Now this verse, of course, refers to the apostles, but I suspect it is reasonable to assert that this is what all people involved in evangelism are called to be, the aroma of Christ to God.  After all, that is what a saint is, and thus it is what we are all called to be.  What is so great about the aroma metaphor is that aroma’s so often reveal the substance of the thing.  Consider a plate of food, such as this yummy looking hot fudge sundae:


I want a bite of this, don’t you?  However, if you were to smell it, you would discover it doesn’t have an aroma.  This particular sundae is fake.  It is a prop.  Depending on how the prop is made, it probably doesn’t have a taste, or it has a bad one.  Sometimes, food looks good but smells really bad.  Either way, the aroma reflects the substance.

It is fairly easy to be a good looking Christian.  Show up to church once in a while.  Throw a few dollars in the collection plate.  Put a couple of icons up in your house.  It is much more difficult to smell or taste like a good Christian.  In order to accomplish that, you need prayer and fasting.

If we are concerned with evangelizing people, and as Orthodox Christians, we should be, then we need to be very concerned with becoming the aroma of Christ.  Not only to lead people to Christ, but to also not drive them away with a bad smell, or a bad taste.  This post reminds me of something that happened many years ago, interestingly to a non-Christian colleague.  We were at a restaurant for dinner, and the waiter brought a tray of desserts by the table for us to see before we made a selection (or chose not to have one as we had just eaten a big meal, which is likely why the visuals).  My colleague grabbed his spoon, stuck it in an apparent bowl of ice cream and put it in his mouth before the waiter could react.  The “ice cream” was, in fact, pure lard.  The dessert was a prop.  The look on his face reflected the taste of the “ice cream”.  We should all be concerned that when non-Christians sample us, they get what they see on the surface, not a bad taste.


The Decline of Orthodoxy in America

St. Seraphim and Motovilov

St. Seraphim and Motovilov

A friend sent out an email recently regarding this article from Orthodox Christian Laity, in which it is noted that the Orthodox church in the United States is shrinking according to a recent PEW forum survey.  The question posed, then, is what do we make of this?

Logic alone tells that there are only two possible reasons why the numbers are shrinking.  The first is people leaving the church, and the second is few new people coming in.  I anticipate that both reasons are in play.  Typically, I would expect each reason to require a different response, and frequently we see people approaching these as having two different causes.  People not coming in is because we don’t evangelize enough.  We don’t get the message out, we don’t invite people to our church, we don’t welcome people when they do come for a visit.  People leaving is because we aren’t providing the programs that they want, or aren’t satisfying them in some way.  Outside of the Orthodox Church we see pushes for more dynamic entertaining worship services.  Even Within the Church there is a drive to model our behaviors on those of apparently successful megachurches.  I say apparently because these churches only exist for a while, typically, then fall apart as their charismatic leader either retires or falls from grace due to some indiscretion.  What they do is create programs that tickle the current perceived needs of the spiritually starving masses, then market their product, pretty much using the same approaches as one would use to market a Ford Fusion or the latest Carl’s Jr. hamburger.

But why are people really leaving?  I would argue that they are leaving because the Orthodox Church, in America especially, but perhaps everywhere, has become irrelevant.  Many members of the Church from my generation went to church on Sunday morning because it is what they were trained to do.  I saw this during my life as an Episcopalian (born and raised).  Of greater importance, they grew up in an American culture where people went to Church on Sunday.  Little Tommy Romero went to the Catholic Church, Johnny Berg went to the local Presbyterian or Lutheran Church, and Ben Ludlow attended the Episcopal Church.  Nick Maropolous?  To the Greek Church.  It was what was done.  21st century America, on the other hand, no longer has need of church on Sunday.  If there is no cultural imperative to attend church on Sunday, why bother with the Orthodox Church, or any other?  Church, itself, is irrelevant.  I think this comic captures the notion best.

The purpose of the Orthodox Church is to create saints.  I’ve heard this before, and was reminded of it again during a recent visit to another parish in the San Diego area on All Saints.  The priest made this and some other key points during his homily.  If parishes are actively engaged in this “saint building” practice, then we should expect that membership would not be on the decline quite as much.  After all, the Church is providing something other than simply a cultural experience.  Unfortunately, for a great number of Orthodox parishes, there is very little focus on the building of saints, and instead the primary focus is on cultural activities.  As new generations of members come to adulthood, they will find themselves less connected to their ethnic origins, and these cultural activities will also become less relevant.  At that point, where there is no cultural motivation, people simply leave.  They go to other churches that “feel” better, or more than likely, they simply stop entirely.  I’ve seen it outside the Orthodox Church (in particular in the Episcopal Church), and thus I’m not surprised to see it here.

What about bringing in new members?  What is limiting us here?  As pointed out earlier, many would have us model our evangelism after those of popular mega-churches.  We should market our church as if it is simply a competing product.  In an environment where we are not focused on the building of saints, but rather other less central programs, then we are simply a competing product.  Unfortunately, we are a competing product of ancient music, long services, and ethnic isolation.  There is little within that to be of much appeal to the average American.  If I felt like I needed to do something “spiritual” on a Sunday, I’d rather go to the local St. Starbucks and have a frap while watching a rock band (yes, a local North County megachurch is known for having an on-site Starbucks).  Of course, if I was really smart, I’d simply sleep in then go play for the rest of my last day off before the work week.

However, if we were to offer something of great spiritual significance, like a means to grow saints, to provide a pathway for people to become united with God, then we would have something.  Well, the Orthodox Church has that means.  We’ve had it from the beginning.  The question is, how do we let people know?  Many proponents of marketing campaigns would look to to glitzy ads, social media, and the like to get the point across.  They would point to the New Testament and early Church looking for examples of people spreading the gospel to non-believers.  Frequently, however, they overlook a key component.  Who is it within the New Testament and Early Church that is doing the evangelism?  Who is drawing believers to the Church?  Typically it is a saint.  We see that all the way up to the modern times.  So, if we have a proper saint building program within the Church, we will have the means of drawing people in.  Holiness is really quite attractive to many people.  We cannot simply say we have something.  We have to demonstrate it.

What this means is that the solution to both causes of the decline of the Orthodox Church is to focus on the building of saints.  The Orthodox Church has that program.  It is the sacraments, fasting (and related ascetic practices), and confession (which included spiritual guidance).  It requires a proper catechetical underpinning so that people are properly educated.  Nothing new needs to be invented, we simply need to do what the Church has always done, at least until recent times.  In the sermon I mentioned earlier, the priest also reminded us that becoming a saint requires suffering, hence the focus in the Orthodox Church on asceticism.  This stands in contrast to the feel good focus that underlies many of the megachurches in the US, as well as competing religious systems.  That, by itself, is a bit challenging to market.  However, like a good sports program, if you develop a number of top level athletes, then people will be drawn to the program, even if you tell them they will need to work hard and suffer to achieve their objectives.  There is, of course, an interesting corollary to this.  If, instead of a great athlete, the sports program puts out a consummate couch potato as the example of what they produce, will that be very appealing?

If we look around the Orthodox Church in the United States, we can find many examples of growing parishes, and the one thing they have in common is a focus on the growth of saints.  Those parishes who have, as a primary focus, cultural activities, are simply another flavor of country club.  One without golf, tennis, and with an inconvenient program time.


Every so often it seems that a bunch of “events” – in this case news events, blog articles, and podcasts – all occur at about the same time and all have to do with the exact same thing. The piece that actually pulled it altogether was this one, in which the writer states, “Orthodox Christianity has much to give secularized America especially to the young who, as I said at the outset, are searching for authenticity and communion. What are they waiting for? In a word – anthropology.”

A couple of weeks ago, I had listened to a wonderful radio show on the Orthodox view of Scripture, featuring Prevytera Jeannie Constantinou, which then led me to start listening to her podcast called Searching the Scriptures. As she was progressing through Genesis, she spent a couple of episodes on what she feels (and I think rightfully so) may be the most important verse in scripture, regarding man being made in the image and likeness of God. Her sources were St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Basil. Although it was not practical to discuss all of the ways in which man is made in the image of God, she hit on some key aspects. In the interest of blogging only highlights, I’ll address even fewer. There were two aspects that are key to my discussion. The first is the concept that man is made in the image of God because he has been made ruler over creation – that is, he has dominion over it. St. Gregory of Nyssa declared that man is therefore royal (or royalty to use my term, and I’ll get back to this in a bit). This dominion, however, does not give man the right to do whatever he wishes with creation, in the interest of satisfying his passions. In fact, being in dominion over nature leads to other conclusions, one of which is that man must therefore be above nature. The Fathers added to the list the fact that man, unlike animals, does not need to operate on instinct. He does not have to do what his passions tell him. He has the free will to act in a morally correct manner. He is a moral agent. These are two key elements of Orthodox anthropology. Man is royalty, and he does not need to be a slave to his base instincts. He has the ability to act in a morally correct way. When he does so, he is then growing in the likeness of God (I’d recommend listening to the whole podcast to really explore this).

I was then listening to the next Ancient Faith Today episode, which was addressing the subject of human exceptionalism. I won’t go into this in much detail, but one of the key elements to this show was pointing out that they too addressed the idea that man is a moral agent, and does not need to behave according to his passions. Again, the core principle in play is an anthropological one. This key, then unlocks the door to a lot of questions about how we should act in certain situations and how we should treat our fellow man (a host of other issues are addressed with this key as well).

Shortly after reading Fr. Jacobse’s piece, someone had posted a piece regarding the rape case in Steubenville. I’m rather embarrassed to admit that, although I was peripherally aware of some issue regarding a football player raping a girl, I was largely unaware of the specifics. As it turns out, at least two, perhaps more, football players got a girl roaring drunk, raped her, and posted pictures of her on Facebook, then went on to brag about it in videos (or some such, I have to admit I’m still not up to speed completely on this, nor do I want to be). Now, we can ask all of the usual questions about where the parents were, why did the girl allow herself to get drunk, and the like, but we’d be avoiding the more fundamental question about what has gone wrong in our society, and what can we, as Orthodox Christians, do about it? Fr. Jacobse holds the key. We can provide the anthropology that this society so clearly needs. If the football players understood this girl to be royalty, would they have thought it appropriate to treat her as a mere object for their gratification? If they understood that they are moral agents, capable of not responding to their baser instincts, and that they even have a responsibility to act morally, would this event not have happened at all? If the girl in question understood herself to be royalty, to hold a special place in the created order, that she, too, could operate above her passions (the one that drove her to over-imbibe), would she simply not have even been in that place?

The remaining question is, how can we present this anthropology to this society? We can certainly write about it, speak about it, do things of that sort. However, I think the most important thing we can do, which is what the early Christians did, is to live it. You can tell from the writings of non-Christians from the days of the early Church, that they understood Christians to have a very different world view. The knew that from observing their behavior. As I related in an earlier post, the best way for us to present the Gospel is to actually live it. I’ll leave it to the reader to ponder what sorts of changes in their behavior would be necessary to better present Orthodox anthropology. I know I have my list.