Book Review: The Purpose Driven Church

by Rick Warren (Zondervan:1995)

Rick Warren is pastor of the 14,000-member Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California. He has influenced tens of thousands of pastors and church leaders during the last decade through his church growth seminars at Saddleback and as director of "Building a Purpose Driven Church" workshops (see note at end of this article). His 399-page book, The Purpose Driven Church, is being used as a "How-to" manual throughout church growth circles. Its principal teachings are:

The principle of pragmatism: (p. 13-15) Rick Warren uses a surfing illustration to demonstrate how church leaders should operate. He says pastors need to learn to recognize a "wave of God's Spirit and ride it" or "catch a spiritual wave of growth" (p. 14). His advice is to learn how to recognize a wave in which people are getting saved (a successful method). He also suggests that we learn to get off dying waves (methods that do not seem to be producing fruit). This is nothing more than a modern illustration of an old principle New Evangelicals have been teaching for decades, namely, "if it works, it must be right"! His advice seems to boil down to this -- look around at different methods used by other churches, and if it seems to bring people in -- jump on the bandwagon -- ride the wave! His updated illustration of surfing is nothing more than pragmatism. This is the principle that serves as a foundation to his whole approach to church growth.

Ridicule of the "old fashioned": Warren mocks churches which "seem to think that the 1950s was the golden age, and they are determined to preserve that era in their church" (p. 55). He later makes it clear what he means by this. He encourages young pastors to leave behind that old fashioned church music in favor of jazz or rock or whatever turns your people on! He encourages churches to imitate the culture and "dress down" for church. On the one hand, he states that "there are those who, fearing irrelevance, foolishly imitate the latest fad and fashion; in their attempt to relate to today's culture, they compromise the message and lose all sense of being set apart." Yet Warren and those who follow his methodology practice exactly what he says is "foolish." He is desperately trying to be relevant, and in the process has lost all sense of being "set apart." Walking into church with food and drink, dressed down as if at the mall, and hearing rock & jazz music may be relevant, but it is NOT much different from the world. On page 62, Warren attempts to shelter himself from criticism on this issue. He says, "Never criticize what God is blessing, even though it may be a style of ministry that makes you uncomfortable." In other words, the new rock music, the new dress down look, and all the "cultural changes" which make many fundamentalists uncomfortable should be overlooked -- IF IT WORKS!

Enamored with success: Fundamentalists have for years made "faithfulness to the written Word of God" their hallmark. Many fine sermons have been preached in which it was declared that God has not called us to be successful, but to be faithful. This principle is well documented in the Word of God. Noah faithfully preached for many decades, and yet seemed to have precious little fruit to show for it! While he may have only won his own family, he was successful in God's sight. Missionaries around the world have sown the precious seed of the gospel for years and have not seen much fruit for their labors. Yet Rick Warren strongly disagrees with that principle (p. 64). He argues that God HAS called us to be successful. He cites an example from the gospel in which the Lord Jesus judged the unfruitful tree (Matt. 21:19). He states that the nation of Israel lost its privileges because of unfruitfulness (Matt. 21:43). He concludes from this that God HAS called us to be fruitful and that God is not pleased if we are not successful. But in those examples he cites, the lack of fruit was the proof that Israel was an apostate, unbelieving nation. It had nothing to do winning souls for Christ.

A church ministry based on a market-study of the unregenerate, rather than a study of the Scriptures: When Rick Warren began his church, he started out using the very same methodology of Robert Schuller and Bill Hybels. Not surprisingly, Schuller praises the book inside the front cover, and Hybels highlights the book on his Willow Creek Internet web site! Warren spent twelve weeks going door to door and surveying the "needs" of the people (p. 139). Therefore, he offers what he calls a "full menu" of support groups for empty nesters, divorced couples, grief recovery, etc. In other words, offer the community/consumer what they want, and they will come. Perhaps the title "Market Driven Church" would suffice as well as "Purpose Driven Church." While he SAYS he is not "pandering to consumerism" (p. 200), his own words seem to contradict that. He states that church, in order to be successful, must target its audience, and then appeal to that audience. He even goes so far as to claim that Jesus targeted the audience of Israel "in order to be effective, not to be exclusive" (p. 158). In applying this philosophy to dress standards, Warren discovered that people in his community do not like to dress up, but instead prefer casual, informal meetings. Therefore, Warren said, "I never wear a coat and tie when I speak at Saddleback services [his home church]. I intentionally dress down to match the mind set of those I'm trying to reach."

Warren states that Jesus also used this methodology. He and His disciples "targeted people they were most likely to reach -- people like themselves. Jesus was not being prejudiced, he was being strategic" (p. 187). To say that Jesus targeted Israel because He could relate to them culturally and in order to be strategic (successful) flies in the face of prophecy, the real purpose of His ministry, and common sense. Jesus "targeted" Israel because He was sent there by His Father, not because He felt He would be more successful there than in Egypt!

Disdain for fundamentalism and separation: Rick Warren's distaste for fundamentalism is expressed subtly, yet distinctly. On page 236 he writes, "Must we choose between liberalism and legalism? Is there a third alternative to imitation and isolation?" Note what he considers to be the opposite of liberalism -- legalism. The opposite of liberalism and modernism is in reality, fundamentalism! Warren knows that, but avoids using the term. Note how he refers to the doctrine of separation -- isolation! After asking if we must choose between the liberals or the fundamentalists (which he calls legalists), he offers a third alternative -- a new (?) method. Consider his words: "The strategy of Jesus is the antidote to both extremes: infiltration!" His words sound strangely like a quote from Dr. Harold Ockenga, the father of New Evangelicalism: "The New Evangelicalism has changed its strategy from one of separation to one of infiltration." Warren's thinking is thoroughly New Evangelical.

Man-centered philosophy: Examples of this philosophy abound throughout the book. His aim is obviously to please men. Consider Rick Warren's own words:

Figure out what mood you want your service to project, and then create it. (p. 264); We start positive and end positive. (p. 271); We use humor in our services ... it is not a sin to help people feel good. (p. 272); Cultivate an informal, relaxed, and friendly atmosphere. (p. 272); We made a strategic decision to stop singing hymns in our seeker services. (p. 285); We have attracted thousands more because of our music. (p. 285); Saddleback now has a complete pop/rock orchestra. (p. 290); Use more performed music than congregational singing ... (p. 291) (emphasis on entertainment); The ground we have in common with unbelievers is not the Bible, but our common needs, hurts, and interests as human beings. You cannot start with a text ... (p. 295); Make your members feel special ... they need to feel special. (p. 320,323)

Rick Warren's church (and others like it) have attracted thousands. His methods do work. He says that the reason for the spectacular growth has been his emphasis on creating a "purpose driven church." It could be argued with equal force, however, that the real reason for the spectacular growth is not at all related to his thesis. The real reason for the growth is because of the New Evangelical principle of pragmatism. He asked the people what they wanted, and he gave it to them. He provided the product the market demanded, and it sold like hot-cakes. If you please people, they will come and come again.

But what could be more contrary to the principles found in Scripture? Consider what God told the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 3:4-11). Ezekiel was told that the people would not like his ministry or message, and yet he was to preach it anyway, regardless of the response. Ezekiel was successful if he did what God said. His success in God's sight had nothing to do with the response of the people. It had to do with the faithfulness of the servant. They would know that a prophet was in their midst. He was not to ask the folks what kind of a prophetic ministry would most appeal to them. He was given a forehead harder than flint to stand for the truth against all opposition. "Whether they will hear or forbear" was not the prophet's responsibility. His goal was not to get as large a crowd as he could. His job was to preach the truth, and he did (vs. 11). That is success in God's eyes. That was a fruitful and faithful ministry.

Of course our churches will grow faster if we throw out Scriptural standards. Of course our churches will grow faster if we please men and give them what they want. Yet, the BIBLE says we are to aim to please God, not men. If we are really concerned about learning how to "build a church," does it not make more sense to study God's Word, rather than studying polls and surveys of popular opinion? Conspicuous by their absence in this book on church growth were any extended expositions from the pastoral epistles. Isn't God's opinion on the matter what we should really be seeking?

Rick Warren's approach to church growth stems from his primary philosophy: man-centered pragmatism. From that faulty foundation arises a ridicule of the old fashioned, and a disdain for the fundamentalist/separatist. Like so many in our age, being intoxicated by the sweet aroma of worldly success, he has stooped to building a church ministry based on a market-study of the unregenerate, rather than a Bible-study from the appropriate Scriptures.

[Adapted from a 4/98 report by Jim Delany, Salem Bible Church, Salem, NH 03079.]

[Editor's Note: In January of 1998, Dr. Dennis Costella attended a "Building a Purpose Driven Church" seminar where Warren taught that the following must occur to transform a traditional church into a dramatic growing church (March-April 1998, Foundation magazine): (1) A contemporary-styled, non-threatening "Seeker Service" must replace the traditional Sunday worship service; (2) The dress must be casual; (3) The music must be contemporary; (4) The message must be only positive so that saved and unsaved alike can feel better about themselves after a message that often mixes psychology and an uplifting Scripture text; (5) Church ministries must be geared to meeting needs, with support groups for depression, eating disorders, infertility, homosexuals' family/friends, post-abortion, and marital separation. Warren scoffed at the idea of passing out gospel tracts or going door-to-door since the typical "Saddleback Sam" is offended by such old-fashioned evangelism; (6) Doctrinal instruction is not given to the church as a whole on Sundays, but is available in sub-groups apart from formal church services; and (7) A spirit of pragmatic compromise must prevail. Warren was trained as a Southern Baptist (he frequently speaks at SBC events), but said, "It really doesn't matter your denomination, folks. We're all on the same team if you love Jesus." (Source: 6/98, Calvary Contender.)]