A Conflict of Visions: Comparing Rick Warren’s SBC Speech and Juan Sanchez’s Convention Sermon
Every once in a while, you witness something that captures in a single snapshot an entire way of thinking. In just a few brief moments, a whole world of assumptions and beliefs is laid bare. The curtain is pulled back, and the heart of a matter is exposed.
Something like this occurred at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Anaheim last week. Of course, many were fixated on the presidential election, which seemed to represent a clash of two conflicting visions of what the SBC is and ought to be. But for those paying close attention during the Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning sessions, another conflict of visions was revealed, one that I would argue is far more spiritually significant.
I have in mind Rick Warren’s brief address Tuesday from the floor of the convention and Juan Sanchez’ convention sermon Wednesday. These two messages represented two different, competing visions of ministry and the local church.
RICK WARREN’S “LOVE LETTER”
Warren’s massive Southern California megachurch, Saddleback Church, has been under scrutiny for installing female pastors, a move that may result in the church being disfellowshipped by the SBC. This potential removal provided the backdrop for Warren’s speech. This article is not concerned with debates over female pastors. In fact, Warren himself hardly addressed the issue. What was far more intriguing about the speech was the window it gave into Warren’s vision for ministry.
For roughly six minutes, Warren drew the convention’s attention to the explosive statistics coming out of Saddleback. He even began his address by welcoming the messengers to Orange County, where, he reminded the audience, he had planted 90 new churches. Then Warren took out a piece of paper that he called his “love letter” to Southern Baptists; what he wanted to say was not spontaneous, but pre-planned.
Warren began, “Kay and I could not have built Saddleback Church to its size and influence in any other denomination.” Saddleback is indeed enormous, and Warren reminded the messengers that he “grew it to become the largest church in this convention” (the church began in 1980, with Warren as its founding pastor). Warren then ran off a long list of statistics that presumably spoke to his success over the past 42 years. He stated that Saddleback, under his leadership, baptized 56,631 new believers and sent 26,869 members overseas. He also shared that he himself trained no less than 1.1 million pastors, a figure, he told the messengers, “that’s more than all the seminaries put together.”
Of course, these numbers, if accurate, are astronomically large. A quick calculation suggests that Warren baptizes an average of 3.7 new believers per day, sends out roughly two members overseas per day, and trains around seventy-two pastors per day. Those figures are enough to make even Charles Spurgeon blush.
However, it wasn’t the sheer grandiosity of these numbers that stood out to me, but rather what Warren had marshaled them to do, namely, to demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that Warren’s ministry has been self-evidently successful. After all, how could anyone doubt it? Simply look again at those numbers!
It seemed Warren felt he hardly needed to defend himself before the convention and that this simple rehearsal of statistics was enough to prove his faithfulness. No commentary was required on the long-term discipleship of these purported converts. Nothing needed to be said about the health of the churches he planted. No mention needed to be made of the depth or quality of the training Warren provided to pastors, or even where these pastors are today. All that seemed to matter is that these benchmarks of ministerial success were met, counted, and reported.
And yet, what’s striking to me is something I regard as far more telling. I couldn’t help but notice the frequent use of personal pronouns throughout Warren’s speech, virtually all of which referred to Warren himself or Saddleback Church. Not once did he reference anything God had done. Of course, I expect if I asked Warren, he would quickly acknowledge the goodness of God and the many expressions of God’s blessing on his life and ministry. But that was not what got the attention in Warren’s pre-planned speech. What got the attention was a massive church with massive numbers and a larger-than-life pastor. And this was held up before an audience of 12,000-plus attendees, and tens of thousands more watching online, as a model of ministry success.
JUAN SANCHEZ’S CONVENTION SERMON
Those who arrived early enough to the convention hall Wednesday morning heard about a different vision for ministry. Juan Sanchez, a pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, preached the annual convention sermon. He stated his aim was “to call us back to the basics of establishing healthy churches that display God’s glory.” This he did through an exposition of Ephesians 4:11–16. In this message, Sanchez promoted a vision for church ministry that had, at its heart, the centrality of the Word of God, an emphasis on the ordinary means of grace, and the priority of pastoral faithfulness.
Sanchez called pastors to give themselves eagerly to the humble work of ministry and reject a fixation on numerical growth and outward indicators of ministerial success. He warned against building the church on any foundation other than Christ. He said.
We cannot build the church on any other foundation. Brother-pastors, I appeal to you, if our primary end is merely church growth . . . we will be tempted to build on other foundations. We’re tempted to build our churches on a foundation of music styles or age-graded ministries, or even politics or social justice, or even our own personalities. Growth that comes by something other than the Word of God about Jesus is not lasting, nor is it God-glorifying. . . . What you win people with is what you win them to.
Sanchez referred the gathering to 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 and warned pastors in the room of working for results that will prove fleeting and ephemeral on the day of judgment. He said,
Our ministries will be tested through the fire. You will stand before the Lord, I will stand before the Lord, and we will give an account. On that day, when our ministry is tested by fire, the only thing that will remain is that which has been built on the foundation of Jesus Christ with eternal materials. And everything else will be consumed by the Lord’s fire.
In an effort to liberate pastors from bondage to outward signs of ministerial success, Sanchez extolled the virtues of ordinary faithfulness and of a ministry that is marked by steadfast commitment to the Word of God and an ardent love for the flock. Such ministries may not garner the attention and praise of man, but Sanchez assured his audience that they will be pleasing to God.
“You don’t need to be known outside your town,” Sanchez said. “You don’t need to write a book. You don’t need to be on a conference platform. If you are faithfully preaching the Word, the Father knows who you are. And the Father is pleased. So trust the Lord, and preach the Word.”
As I listened to this sermon, I found myself praying that the pastors of the Southern Baptist Convention would find in this message a biblical vision for church ministry that would humble and satisfy them. I hoped pastors would reject any view of the ministry that prizes church growth as its ultimate aim and vindication and, instead, focus on ordinary faithfulness to Christ and his flock, entrusting all fruit to the Lord. I prayed, in our ministries, we would remember those timeless words, “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7b).
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Image Credit: Baptist Press / Adam Covington