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.