Pastor’s Unconventional Approach Inspires Some, Alienates Others
March 7, 2007 — – Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California may be the best-known pastor on the planet. His book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” has been translated into 56 languages and has sold 30 million copies.
However, the idea behind “purpose driven” is not something Pastor Warren takes credit for creating.
“The history of this idea — ‘purpose driven’ — is not something I thought up in the first place,” Warren explains. “There have been hundreds of books throughout history that talked about worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism.”
But while these five purposes are biblically based, there is no denying that Warren has popularized these purposes around the world. He says he has trained 400,000 pastors worldwide to start purpose-driven churches. But it’s Warren’s untraditional use of the Christian language that may be the reason for his enormous following.
“I like to teach theology to people without telling them it’s theology and without using theological terms,” he said. “Simple does not mean simplistic. Simple does not mean superficial. Simple means it’s clear.”
But Warren’s “outside in” approach to church growth is now causing rumblings. This past fall, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “‘Purpose driven’ methods divide: Some evangelicals object to ‘Madison Avenue’ marketing of churches that follow author’s advice.” In North Wilkesboro, N.C., one church exemplifies this schism.
Tom Bartlett is the pastor of Celebration Church — now a purpose-driven church. When he arrived in 2004, the church was more traditional and was in a poor state.
Bartlett said that when he first came to Celebration Church, the congregation was small and shrinking.
“There were 40 people my first Sunday, and I think the church had gotten down to about … 25 to 30 in attendance.”
It was a small showing. But then Bartlett began to apply Warren’s five strategies for church growth. He started with contemporary worship and, like in hundreds of other purpose-driven churches nationwide, out went the hymns and in came the drums and guitars. Within two years, the congregation at Celebration Church grew from 30 congregants to 300.
“We’ve taken a particular style that we think reaches the people that we’re trying to reach,” Bartlett said. “There’s a generation of people that we’re not reaching by and large. And predominantly, they’re younger, and we see them leaving the church in droves.”
But not everybody in Bartlett’s congregation was excited about the change. One of the first people to leave Bartlett’s church was a retired pastor, Joe Owings.
“Their music took on a much more contemporary effect — pop music,” said Owings. “[Bartlett] began to use, basically, the ‘Saddleback Valley approach’ to church growth and so forth. It was during that time that we began to get uncomfortable with the music. The emphasis seemed to be more on younger people and a new generation, and we just felt like we did not fit in.”
Warren says on his Web site that “Purpose driven is not about a particular worship style.” But many who follow Warren’s approach tend to jettison traditional forms of worship.
And what about those people who don’t want to hear guitar music, who prefer a quiet, reverent worship?
“Well, that’s why there’s different churches for different folks,” said Bartlett. “And we realize that we’re probably not going to reach every person.”
But beyond ageism, there’s more serious criticism that’s now leveled at Warren and his purpose-driven churches: that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are being mixed with popular psychology to help produce an evangelical version of “self-help.”
“Well, the preaching was very much topical preaching,” Owings said about the church he parted from in North Carolina. “It tended to deal with how to have a better marriage, or how to do this or how to do this. It was more self-help type ministry.”
When asked if he believed that some churches had become pop psychology centers focusing too much on self-esteem and well-being, Owings said, “Yes. It’s merchandising. … It tends to use psychological techniques. And it quotes more Freud, maybe, than it does the Bible.”
It’s Not About You?
Warren said that there is a danger in merging Christianity with psychology.
“Absolutely, there’s a danger,” he said. “Because what it does is feed this self-centeredness … I say, it’s not about you. It’s all about God. And one of the biggest myths is that all mega churches are alike. Well, they’re not.”
Warren also admitted that it can be difficult to strike a balance between the concerns of modern life and a focus on the Bible.
“When you’re preaching and teaching the good news, you walk a very fine line where you’re taking the world of the Bible and the world of today, and you’re building a bridge between those [worlds],” he explained. “Now, it’s easy to be biblical if you don’t care about being relevant … And it’s easy to be relevant if you don’t care about being biblical. I happen to want to be both.”
And so does Bartlett, who, at a recent church service, preached practically about love and giving out life skills to married couples. Bartlett firmly believes in using modern methods to convey old truths — that God wants us to live an abundant life.
“I think the problem most theologians have [with us] is that we don’t use the big theological words. But we talk about the terms of repentance, we talk about the terms of justification and sanctification,” he said. “And so we may not use the theological terms, but the concepts are conveyed in a way that people can understand.”
Paying the Price
So the debate goes on: Is the purpose-driven method simplifying Christianity in exchange for church growth? The founder of the movement says the conflicts and divisions are inevitable costs.
“You know, I wouldn’t intentionally want to cause pain to any person or to anyone,” Warren said. “Am I willing to put up with pain so the people [that] Jesus Christ died for can come to know him? Absolutely.”
Warren said that if some churches may suffer as a result of applying some of those principles, then “that’s the price.”
“Every church has to make the decision. … Is it going to live for itself, or is it going to live for the world that Jesus died for?”
When asked if he thinks that some of these splits are actually because Christians themselves are indulgent and refusing to change, Warren said, “Oh, without a doubt.”
And when asked if he blames them, he replied, “I do blame them.”