The Purpose-Driven Church: A Review

What follows is a book review I wrote while in seminary. Some people in my church have asked me about this book and I thought it might be helpful for them to have access to it. So . . . here you go: happy reading!!

 

Warren, Rick. The Purpose-Driven Church: Growing without Compromising Your Message and Mission. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church was written to help pastors and church leaders reach out to unbelievers and see them converted and assimilated into the life of the church.  Based upon what he writes in the book, Warren’s desire is to see peoples’ lives transformed by the power of Christ.  Most of all, he wants churches to be actively engaged in fulfilling the Great Commission, making disciples of all nations, and in turn seeing passionate followers of Jesus Christ make an impact in their sphere of influence.

Stated simply, The Purpose-Driven Church is the story of how Saddleback Church (the church Rick Warren started and still pastors) was planted and grew into a mega-church.  Warren is clear that other churches should not try to duplicate what he has done (27).  That being said, for churches that might be struggling to grow, Warren makes gentle suggestions along the way of how they might increase their attendance.  These suggestions, however, are not stated explicitly; rather, since Warren’s results have been effective, other pastors reading the book walk away sensing that if they want to see numerical growth, it would behoove them to implement Warren’s strategy.

Warren begins by stating that churches cannot create a “wave of God’s Spirit” (13).  He notes that only God can cause a church to grow (14).  That being said, Warren says he can teach readers “how to recognize what God is doing, how to cooperate with what God is doing, and how to become more skilled in riding a wave of God’s blessing” (15).  He says pastors should not ask how they can grow their churches; rather, according to Warren, the question pastors should be asking is, “What is keeping our church from growing?” (15, emphasis in original).  Warren says every church has obstacles that stop it from growing, and “The task of church leadership is to discover and remove growth-restricting diseases and barriers so that natural, normal growth can occur” (16).

For Warren, the beginning of Saddleback Church started with him moving to California, going door-to-door conducting interviews with unbelievers to see what prevented them from attending church (39).  He did this because his desire was to reach unbelievers for Christ.  Thus, he says, “Even though I knew what these people really needed most was a relationship with Christ, I wanted to listen first to what they thought their most pressing needs were” (39-40, emphasis in original).  Warren says this is “the fastest way to build a bridge to the unchurched” (40).  In sum, Warren’s goal at the outset was to start a church with unbelievers that would cater to unbelievers (39).

While on one hand Warren says that unbelievers cannot “drive the total agenda of the church” (79), at the same time he begins by asking “What style of worship would be the best witness to unbelievers?” (42, emphasis in original).  By beginning with this question, Warren shows where his true commitments lie: it is with the taste of unbelievers.  Thus, in a real sense it appears that unbelievers are at least driving the agenda of the style of worship music Warren selects.  For this reason, Warren admits, “To maintain consistent growth, you must offer people something they cannot get anywhere else” (48, emphasis mine).

In evaluating The Purpose-Driven Church, the wisest way to move forward is to look at the positives and negatives.  First, it should be noted that Warren does make some helpful comments with respect to church life, membership matters, and how pastors proceed in shepherding the flock as well as fellow pastors on staff.  For example, Warren gives sound advice to pastors or aspiring pastors looking to plant a church.  At a minimum, Warren suggests that a church planter should select five committed volunteers to assist in the areas of music, membership matters, pastoral care, teaching, and missions.  As one who has considered planting a church, I found this advice helpful.

Secondly, Warren highlights the importance of the local church.  He notes that “Many American Christians . . . hop from one church to another without any identity, accountability, or commitment” (310).  This attitude prevails among Christians because they have not been taught “that the Christian life involves more than just believing—it also includes belonging” (310, emphasis in original).  Thus, churches must create a strategy for assimilation.  According to Warren, the way to do this is to 1) teach believers about the importance of membership, 2) require a membership class, and 3) draft a membership covenant (312-319).  To be sure, Warren’s points are not novel, but they do help communicate the importance of church membership.

Third, Warren’s strategy for developing mature believers is somewhat helpful.  I will only mention two key areas that stood out to me.  In Saddleback’s Christian education program, Warren teaches classes on the doctrine of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, revelation, creation, salvation, sanctification, good and evil, the afterlife, the church, prayer, and the second coming (354).  While he does not elaborate on the content communicated in these classes, given that Warren’s teaching ministry is not known for its theological depth, I was a little surprised that these topics were covered in Saddleback Church.

Despite these positive aspects of the book, I also see a number of flaws.  For starters, Warren fails to see that theology and methodology go together and cannot be separated.  He says, for instance, “The message must never change, but the methods must change with each new generation” (62).  Though this argument is made quite frequently,[1] I fail to be convinced by it.  Those who agree with Warren often state that what is important is the message, not the medium.  I would argue, however, that the medium is the message.  The medium and the methods matter because they can trivialize the message.  For example, a pastor who preaches in a suit is more likely to be taken seriously than a man who attracts people to his church in a bunny suit on Easter Sunday! (true story).  A pastor who enters his sanctuary from underneath the ground covered in smoke with rock music playing (again, a true story) is communicating something about what he values.  This is in contrast with the churches of the Reformation where ministers preached in elevated pulpits and Genevan robes.

Methods matter because a church’s theology is put on display in corporate worship.  Thus, as D. G. Hart and John Muether conclude, “[W]hen churches undergo dramatic changes in what is called ‘worship style,’ they may actually be changing their theology as well.  Form and content cannot be separated.”[2]  In addition, commenting on the different worship styles among Baptists in Britain, Christopher Ellis writes, “This diversity of worship reflects a diversity of theology and spirituality.”[3]

The second flaw I see in the content of the book is related to the first.  Warren says that churches must use methods that work: “I contend that when a church continues to use methods that no longer work, it is being unfaithful to Christ!” (65).  In order for Warren to positively make his case here he must back-up this assertion with exegetical support.  Unfortunately, no such support is found.  For this reason, I believe his comment is a drastic overstatement.

The third weakness I see in the book is in its repetitiveness.  Much of what Warren writes in his section on a church’s need to write a purpose statement, and define its purpose and mission has all been stated before (100ff.).  The repetitiveness continues into the section on defining a target audience and then marketing to them.  At the same time, it should be mentioned that what Warren writes in The Purpose-Driven Church is a bit dated now.  More recent research indicates that the younger generation does not want to be marketed to at all anymore.[4]

Fourth, regardless of what Warren says, his approach to seeker services makes the audience sovereign, not God.  Corporate worship on Sunday should be designed, first of all, to honor and glorify God, not to make unbelievers comfortable.  If Warren and others want to have an evangelistic service on another day, that is fine.  However, to construct and invent a “believer’s service” where a pastor teaches to believers on a day other than Sunday seems grossly out of touch with the Scriptures (245, 253).  If anything, the “believer’s service” should be on Sunday and the evangelistic service should be on Wednesday.

Finally, in my view, the weaknesses outnumber the positives in this book.  That being said, I did learn a few important points that I will use in the future.  The concluding lesson is that one’s philosophy of ministry will determine the methods one will use in the future.

 

[1] Dan Southerland, Transitioning: Leading Your Church through Change (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 14; James E. White, Rethinking the Church: A Challenge to Creative Redesign in an Age of Transition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 143.

[2] D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Roots of Reformed Worship (Philipsburg: P&R, 2002), 16, emphasis mine.

[3] Christopher Ellis, “Baptists in Britain,” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, eds. Geoffrey Wainwright and K. B. W. Tucker (NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 569.

[4] David F. Wells, The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 25ff.

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