Book Review: The Purpose Driven Church, by Rick Warren
Every so often a book makes itself a must read simply because of the sheer number of people being influenced by it. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) fits this bill to a “T”. While most evangelical authors struggle to sell 5,000 copies of a single title, Warren’s 1995 release has sold over a million, with rave reviews from evangelicals of all stripes. Warren’s has become a household name among pastors everywhere, many of whom are implementing the Purpose Driven model with reportedly astounding results.
Indeed, Warren is part of our own household. On the spiritual battlefield, he is our ally. His understanding of salvation is biblical, he trusts in the sovereignty of God, evangelistic zeal pulsates from his heart, he affirms the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, he believes in regenerate church membership, and he has been practicing church discipline for 21 years now. In fact, his beliefs and values are ours in so many ways that we are wary of questioning his methods lest we be seen as turning our turrets on our own trenches. What’s more, his evident productivity in evangelism is nearly unrivaled, which makes his methods seem sacrosanct, and critically evaluating them taboo.
But McLuhan’s dictum is still instructive: The medium is the message. The methods we use to spread the gospel and build the church will not just be determined by our understanding of gospel and church. The relationship is reciprocal – our methods will in turn play a subtly formative role for our thinking on gospel and church (or at least the thinking of those converted under our ministries). The Purpose Driven concept is more than just an isolated idea or discrete curriculum that takes its place among a pantheon of programs. It is an overarching method for Christian ministry – a way of going about spreading the gospel and building up the church. As such, its implementation will contribute to our understanding of the gospel and the church. The magnitude of popular influence wielded by the Purpose Driven method, coupled with the enormity of its reported success among professing evangelicals, makes asking all the more important: what should we think of a church driven by purpose?
Before posing the question, let’s be careful to understand the author in his own words.
II) SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
Warren’s primary thesis is that “what is needed today are churches that are driven by purpose instead of by other forces” (p80). His paradigm consists of a perspective that looks at everything through the five New Testament purposes of the church, and a process for fulfilling those purposes (p80). The five purposes are taken directly from the Great Commandment in Mt 22:37-40, and the Great Commission in Mt 28:18-20, and are therefore non-negotiable in the application of the model:
- Worship – “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37).
- Ministry – “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39).
- Evangelism – “go therefore and make disciples” (Mt 28:19).
- Fellowship – “baptizing them” (Mt 28:19, identification with the Christian community).
- Discipleship – “teaching them to obey all that I command you” (Mt 28:20).
According to Warren, the foundation of such a healthy church is laid “by clarifying in the minds of everyone involved exactly why the church exists and what it is supposed to do. There is incredible power in having a clearly defined purpose statement” (p86). After the foundation of biblical purpose is laid, Warren encourages the pastor to define his purposes, communicate his purposes, organize around them, and apply them.
Having presented the theological and theoretical perspective, Warren then explains the process of implementing that perspective, walking the pastor from targeting his evangelistic audience, to attracting an un-churched crowd, and finally to building up the church.
Maximum evangelistic effectiveness, according to Warren, requires that a local church strategically target the segment of the local population that best matches the current make-up of the church. “The more your target is in focus, the more likely it is that you will be able to hit it…. The people your church is most likely to reach are those who match the existing culture of your church” (pp172, 174). Warren grounds his strategy in Jesus’ practice of targeting the lost sheep of Israel (p158; Mt 10:5-6; 15:22-28), the practice of Peter and Paul in targeting the Jews and Gentiles, respectively (p158; Gal 2:7), and the target audiences of the four written gospels (p158). He then specifies that we must target our audience geographically, demographically, culturally, and spiritually (pp161-169). This target analysis is then used to develop a strategy that will enable us to evangelize people on their terms, making it “as easy and attractive as possible” for them to become Christians (p185, cf. pp189, 193). While warning the reader never to compromise the message (pp62, 157-158), Warren encourages us to “change methods whenever necessary” (p199), and to “use more than one hook” as we fish for men (p200).
If we want to attract an unbelieving crowd, Warren advises us to follow the example of Jesus by loving people, meeting their needs, and teaching them in interesting and practical ways (p208). Once we’ve got them gathered, we need to make the most of the opportunity by being seeker sensitive in our worship, which Warren believes is commanded by 1Cor 14:23 (p243). Method may therefore vary, as long as the message remains biblical. “The spiritual food is unchanged in a seeker sensitive service, but the presentation is more thoughtful and considerate of the guests present” (pp243-244). What this means for Warren is that we need a separate weekly service that is designed particularly to appeal to unbelievers. “Create a service that is intentionally designed for your members to bring their friends to. And make the service so attractive, appealing, and relevant to the unchurched that your members are eager to share it with the lost people they care about” (p253). The music style should therefore be that preferred by the target audience (p280), and the preaching should focus on those passages that require no previous understanding and that “show the benefits of knowing Christ” (p298). The biblical justification for such a service is to “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive’” (Titus 2:10, pp269-270, emphasis his).
In seeking to build up the church, Warren encourages pastors to make local church membership meaningful by implementing a mandatory new members’ class, asking people to sign a membership covenant, and encouraging them to participate in small groups. Spiritual maturity is then “simply a matter of learning certain spiritual exercises and being disciplined to do them until they become habits” (p334). But in order to develop vibrant lay ministry, “you must set up a process to lead people to deeper commitment and greater service for Christ” (p367). Establishing a ministry placement process and providing on the job training are likewise encouraged, along with the delegation of decision-making authority as a logical and necessary complement to delegated responsibility. Warren closes by encouraging the pastor to focus on fulfilling the purposes of the church while expectantly trusting God to cause the growth. This is then coupled with an encouragement to emulate David in serving God’s purposes in our own generation (Acts 13:36, quoted on p395), along with a definition of successful ministry as “building the church on the purposes of God in the power of the Holy Spirit and expecting the results from God” (p397).
So, what do you make of it? Should churches be driven by purposes? Should we change our evangelistic methods if they don’t work? Is seeker sensitivity in worship a biblical command? Should we use audience analysis to make it easy and attractive for people to become Christians?
III) HELPFUL INSIGHTS
Warren’s model is appealing both because it has enjoyed so much apparent success and because he gives us so much with which we can agree. His results are impressive – Warren started from scratch with one other family besides his own, and fifteen years later, his church boasts 10,000 attenders, 7,000 of whom gave their lives to Christ during that period through the evangelistic efforts of the church Warren pastors, Saddleback Community in Lake Forest, CA (p46). Perhaps the greatest evangelical strength of the book is that it clearly directs the reader to Scripture in order to discover God’s purposes for the church. “It isn’t our job to create the purposes of the church but to discover them. . . . As the owner of the church, [Christ] has already established the purposes, and they’re not negotiable” (p98). Chalk one up for the sufficiency of Scripture!
Second, Warren makes helpful comments on the identity and practice of the church. He rightly recognizes that the church is God’s chosen institution for blessing the nations with the gospel of Christ (p21); he realizes that the church is a living organism, and as such should be growing if it is healthy (p16); he reveals the unnecessarily bureaucratic nature of committee structures (p377); and he explodes models of ministry that expect the pastor to do everything (p377).
Third, Warren confronts the radical individualism rampant in American culture with a robust biblical understanding of local church membership, making membership a meaningful commitment by using a church covenant (pp309-310, 320-322) and practicing church discipline (p54).
Fourth, Warren emphasizes the importance of conversion growth over against growth by transfer or natural birth (p63).
Fifth, in an age when many churches are aspiring only to the level of mediocrity, Warren models deliberateness in ministry by continually evaluating everything that the local church does (p276). And even more central to his main assertion, the purposes of the church that Warren points out are all patently biblical and distinctively Christian. Thank you, brother Warren!
A. Interpretive Difficulties
In assessing any ministry model, we need to look at the way Scripture is interpreted and then employed to construct it. The constructive criticism that might be offered here is that the Purpose Driven model seems to draw conclusions and applications from texts that don’t necessarily support them. A few instances are worth mentioning.
1. The Purpose Driven paradigm takes Jesus’ ministry as a model for our own in meeting felt needs as a platform for evangelism.
Jesus attracted crowds by meeting people’s needs…. Jesus frequently asked people, “What do you want me to do for you?” God uses all kinds of human needs to get people’s attention. Who are we to judge whether a person’s interest in Christ is for the right reason or the wrong reason? It doesn’t matter why people initially come to Jesus, what matters is that they come…. It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart…. The most likely place to start is with the person’s felt needs. As I pointed out earlier, this was the approach Jesus used. (p219, emphasis his)
This is a common way for proponents of various seeker-sensitive models to understand and apply the ministry of Jesus. But a more careful reading of the gospels reveals that almost all the healing miracles were intended to function as messianic identity markers – acts that prove Jesus is in fact the divine, promised Messiah – not primarily as a model for our ministry. So, for example, in Mt 8:14-17, Matthew follows the general healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus with the interpretive comment “This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases,” which is symbolic of His becoming “sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2Cor 5:21; cf. Isa 53:4; cf. also Mt 11:1-6, Luke 7:18-23; Mark 2:1-13; John 6; 9:32-33). Jesus works miracles not simply to meet people’s felt needs as an example of how we should do ministry. He works them fundamentally to attest his Messianic identity (Acts 2:22).
Warren argues that Jesus often begins an evangelistic encounter with the question “What can I do for you?” But Jesus is only recorded as saying this five times in all four gospels combined, three occurrences of which are the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus, and perhaps a companion (Mt 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-51; Luke 18:35-43). In each of those passages, His question is a response to the blind men’s request “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David! Son of David, have mercy on us” (or a similar variant). In each passage the men twice acknowledge Jesus as the Son of David – they already believe He is the Messiah. Jesus’ question, then, is not intended as an evangelistic foray. He’s proving their faith is well placed, and rewarding it. When Jesus poses the question in Mark 10:35-45, it is in response to the disciples’ desire for status in the kingdom – no replicable ministry method here. John 1:38 comes closest to making Warren’s point, when Jesus asks his eventual disciples “What do you seek?” They ask where he’s staying, and he tells them to “come and see.” But “what do you seek?” is too broad to necessitate a felt needs oriented interpretation.
It is better to say that when Jesus sensed that crowds were showing up to get their felt needs met, he left and preached elsewhere (Mark 1:35-39). Jesus did not view Himself as having come for the purpose of meeting felt needs. He would not be viewed as a sensational miracle worker, or a source of physical blessing, that people could manipulate for their own ends. His purpose in coming was to preach the gospel (cf. Mark 1:14-15). He actually rebuked the crowds for coming to hear Him just because he met their felt needs (John 6:26), which contradicts the Purpose Driven assumption that it does not matter why people come to Christ.
2. The Purpose Driven model claims that Jesus attracted the crowds by teaching in interesting and practical ways.
Warren cites Mt 7:28; 22:33; Mark 11:18; and Mark 12:37, where the crowds are variously amazed or pleased by His teaching. But in every case, the reaction is to the authority of Jesus’ teaching, not His style (Mt 7:29; Mark 11:15-17; 12:37). Jesus was ready to offend his listeners if it meant clarifying the gospel. He said things in evangelistic sermons that actually made people want to murder Him (Luke 4:14-30). We cannot, then, justify the Purpose Driven method of preaching evangelistically by presenting only the benefits of knowing Christ, or by appealing to the felt needs and tastes of unbelievers.
3. The Purpose Driven model interprets 1Cor 14:23 as a mandate for seeker sensitivity in worship.
“Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?” Warren concludes from this verse, “God tells us to be sensitive to the hang-ups of unbelievers in our services. Being seeker sensitive in our worship is a biblical command” (p243). But the context of 1Cor 14 is the edification of the church (vv3, 4, 6, 12, 17, 26), and specifically the superiority of prophecy over tongues for corporate edification (vv22, 24, 31). Warren is right to see an application for the way we treat unbelievers in our services, but Paul’s primary solution to the apparent madness of tongues in the assembly is neither linguistic translation nor cultural accommodation. It’s prophecy – what we would today call preaching. Also, the specific issue in 1Cor 14:23 is translation, not idiom or worldview, as Warren applies it. Paul has already told the Corinthians that the Gospel will seem foolish to unbelievers no matter how we present it (1Cor 1:18; 2:14). They need more than sensitivity to see the gospel as attractive – they need the Spirit.
4. The Purpose Driven model cites 1Cor 10:32 as proof of Paul’s seeker sensitivity.
“Give no offense either to Jews or Greeks or to the Church of God” (1Cor 10:32). Warren comments, “Although Paul never uses the term ‘seeker sensitive’, he definitely pioneered the idea. He was very concerned about not placing any stumbling blocks in front of unbelievers” (p243). Warren is right to see the context as having implications for evangelism (v33 “so that they may be saved”). But the passage is not addressing how a preacher should get the gospel across in corporate worship; it is addressing how a Christian should live the gospel to the glory of God in all of life (v31). Paul wants seeker-sensitive lives, not seeker-sensitive services.
5. The Purpose Driven model cites Luke 5:38 (new wineskins for new wine) as proof that new generations require new ministry methods (p121).
Most seeker-sensitive models use this image to prove this point. But the point of the image is the proper reaction to the Messiah’s physical presence, not the need for new ministry methods in new generations (Luke 5:33-39). Jesus is making a point about His messianic identity and the implications of His incarnation. His physical presence was a time for feasting, not fasting (v35). That is the point that the image illustrates – not the need for new ministry methods as each new generation rises.
In short, the hermeneutic often overlooks context and comes away with a different point than the one the text makes.
B. Methodological Difficulties
1. Only the Gospel Has Driving Power for the Church.
Warren’s primary claim is that churches need to be driven not by programs, tradition, or even by the seekers themselves, but by purpose (pp75-80). The negative part of this statement is true – nothing from personalities to seekers can drive the church, and many of us need to hear that point and quit our fascination with worldly methods. Yet the Bible does not ascribe driving power to purposes – even God’s purposes.
Warren quotes Proverbs 19:21 at the head of his chapter on the driving power of purpose: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purposes that prevail.” True, but how do the Lord’s purposes prevail? God accomplishes His purposes by His Word. Four times in Gen 1 we read “God said…and it was so” – not just “God purposed…and it was so.” God clarifies this distinct relationship between His word and His purposes in Isa 55:10-11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return from there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.
Isaiah teaches not only that God’s word accomplishes God’s purposes, but also that God Himself distinguishes between His word and His purposes, such that the two cannot be equated. The New Testament specifies that driving power for the church is only available in God’s word as we find it in the gospel. Paul is “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ [precisely] because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16; cf. 1Cor 1:18; James 1:18, 21; 1Pet 1:23-25).
The purposes that Warren highlights are altogether biblical, but they do not have driving power for the church. God’s Word is what provides driving power for His purposes. We do not need more purpose driven churches. We need more gospel driven churches.
2. Method and Message are Biblically Inseparable.
Warren encourages us not to “confuse methods with the message. The message must never change, but methods must change with each new generation” (pp61-62; see also p200). Yet God’s commitment to accomplishing His purposes by His word means that method and message are inseparable. God’s message is His method (Isa 55:10-11; Rom 1:16).
Separating method from message leads to a “whatever works best” mentality when it comes to deciding how to do things, which is sometimes softened with the language of blessing. “You must figure out what works best to reach seekers in your local context” (p248). “I’m in favor of any method that reaches at least one person for Christ – as long as it is ethical…. We should never criticize any method that God is blessing” (p156, cf. p62). But what then is the standard for effectiveness or blessing? It is the number of people apparently reached. Numbers measure evangelistic and ministerial success.
At Saddleback, we identify the results we expect to see coming from fulfilling each of the five purposes of the church. For each result, we can ask questions like: How many? How many more than last year? How many were brought to Christ? How many new members are there? How many are demonstrating spiritual maturity? . . . How many have been equipped and mobilized for ministry? How many are fulfilling their life mission in the world? These questions measure our success and force us to evaluate if we are really fulfilling the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. (107-108, emphasis mine)
If numbers add up to success, then it would only stand to reason that numbers would best function to justify the method – and that’s exactly how they are used. (178-179; 248)
The model tells the pastor not to concentrate on numerical growth, but on purpose (p394). Yet numerical growth is exactly what the seeker service is designed to promote.
Increasing the size of your church does not require the intelligence of a rocket scientist: you must simply get more people to visit!…. What is the most natural way to increase the number of visitors to your church?…. The answer is quite simple. By creating a service that Christians want to bring their unsaved friends to, you don’t have to use contests, campaigns, or guilt to increase attendance. Members will invite their friends week after week, and your church will experience a steady influx of unchurched visitors. (253)
Aren’t these the kinds of questions we should be asking? Isn’t this the kind of creativity we’ve been looking for? Perhaps. But what would we say to Jeremiah or Ezekiel if numerical growth were the key index of success in evangelism and ministry? What would we say to Stephen in Acts 7, who was stoned to death for preaching the gospel? Was Stephen unsuccessful in ministry because he didn’t see three thousand immediate converts in one day like Peter did at Pentecost in Acts 2:41? What would we say to Adoniram Judson, and myriad other faithful missionaries like him who struggled for years to see appreciable fruit from their ministries, if any at all? And have we forgotten about the function of the preached gospel as that which hardens recalcitrant men and women in their refusal to repent (2Cor 2:15-16)? Faithfulness is the measure of the minister, not numerical results.
3. Building on Purpose Leads to False Unity.
Uniting around purpose before uniting around a biblical understanding of the gospel is what led many evangelicals into false ecumenism with liberal churches in the latter half of the twentieth century (see Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided [Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth], 2000). Once the purpose of evangelism replaced the Gospel as “the main thing”, the Gospel ceased to regulate our participation in those purposes. We united with liberal Protestants in the purpose of evangelism; but since they were not in fact preaching the same gospel, we weren’t really accomplishing the same purpose.
The Purpose Driven idea of building on unity of purpose rather than on unity in the gospel is moving in the same direction, leading to a unity that is, at best, sub-Christian. We should unite around the gospel before uniting around God’s purposes because the gospel is what enables, regulates, and empowers our participation in God’s purposes.
4. The Evangelistic Method of the Seeker-Sensitive Model.
At this point, the advocates of seeker sensitivity and the Purpose Driven model might well respond, “Of course! We believe that the gospel is primary too. But it’s how you package the gospel for the unbeliever that increases evangelistic effectiveness.” So let’s take a look at a Purpose Driven packaging of the gospel.
The first two points of the vision statement of Saddleback Community Church read like this: “It is the dream of a place where the hurting, the depressed, the frustrated, and the confused can find love, acceptance, help, hope, forgiveness, guidance, and encouragement. It is the dream of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the hundreds of thousands of residents in south Orange County” (p43). Warren has five more dreams listed in the vision statement, but never defines what the gospel is, or that it requires repentance and belief. This statement is what he read at the trial run service before Saddleback got started. His aim was “to try to paint, in attractive terms, the picture as clearly as I saw it” (p42, emphasis mine). When he mailed out his promotional letter to unbelievers announcing his first service, he surveyed the community for their perception of their own needs, and their major complaints about churches. His findings? The messages are irrelevant, the members are unfriendly, the church just wants my money, and child care should be better (pp192-193). So in his promotional letter, he announces that “At Saddleback Valley Community Church you
- Meet new friends and get to know your neighbors
- Enjoy upbeat music with a contemporary flavor
- Hear positive, practical messages which encourage you each week
- Trust your children to the care of dedicated nursery workers” (p194)
The rationale for such an upbeat approach is that “[Jesus’] message offered practical benefits to those who listened to Him. His truth would ‘set people free’ and bring all sorts of blessings to their lives” (p224). But the call to take up our cross is part of evangelism, not just discipleship. We find Jesus preaching the necessity of repentance and belief right from the outset of His ministry (Mark 1:14-15), and He demands that the rich young ruler part with his possessions on their first encounter (Mt 19:16-26). Jesus preached a message of cost and cross (Mt 16:24; Mark 8:34-38; Mark 10:17-27), not just a gospel of prosperity and blessing. Again,
Crowds always flock to hear good news. There is enough bad news in the world that the last thing people need is to hear more bad news when they come to church. They are looking for anyone who can give them hope and help and encouragement…. A good salesman knows you always start with the customer’s needs, not the product. (225, emphasis his; cf. also 271)
But are sales techniques and positive thinking required to be “effective” in evangelism? The evangelistic preaching of the apostles regularly accused the unbelieving Jews of crucifying Jesus (Acts 2:37; 3:13, 26; 4:2, 10; 5:29-30; 7:52), resulting in Peter’s imprisonment (Acts 4:1-3) and Stephen’s stoning (7:54-60). But “the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem…” (Acts 6:7; cf. 13:24; 19:20). We are called to simply and clearly preach the gospel, and to call people to genuine repentance from their sins and belief in Christ for forgiveness.
The way the Purpose Driven model packages the gospel assumes that audience analysis is the key to influencing people. “Anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart” (p220). What does this mean for the evangelistic preaching at the seeker sensitive service? “We like to use passages that don’t require any previous understanding. We also like to use passages that show the benefits of knowing Christ” (p298).
But doing evangelism the way Warren suggests here poses sobering difficulties.
a. It obscures the gospel. Presenting the benefits of the gospel is a fine thing to do, as long as the benefits are accompanied by the costs. But Warren is suggesting we present only the benefits, whereas true gospel preaching includes the demand of repentance (Mark 1:14-15). For this reason, it is difficult to see how presenting the unbeliever with only those texts that show the “benefits of knowing Christ” does not end up as a bait and switch when the seeker is finally told weeks later that biblical Christianity actually requires a lifetime of continual repentance from sin.
b. It leads to false assurance. If the “gospel” is presented this way and people are “reached for Christ,” then encouraging them to be assured of their own salvation is really just a happy damnation. If unbelievers have not been clearly urged to repent and believe, then they do not know how to respond properly to the gospel, and are therefore “still in their sins” (1Cor 15:17). No one becomes a disciple without taking up the cross of self-denial.
c. It misunderstands man’s inability and God’s sovereignty in conversion. The assumption that “anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart” (p220) fails to recognize either the inability of the natural man to understand the gospel of grace, or the sovereignty of God in dispensing that saving grace. The gospel is such foolishness to unbelievers that only the Spirit can make it look attractive to them (1Cor 1:18; 2:14), and the Father Himself is sovereign in giving to the Son those whom He intends to save (John 8:43-47; 10:26-29). It simply cannot be true, then, that anyone can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his heart. Allowing this assumption to drive our evangelistic methods is actually to depend on manipulation to convert people, which we are sure is not Warren’s intention.
d. It builds on a worldly perspective. Warren suggests that “We must learn to think like unbelievers in order to win them” (p189; see also p186). At the same time, Warren himself acknowledges that “baby believers don’t know what they need” (p311). How much less, then, do complete unbelievers know what they need! So why base a whole evangelistic method on suiting their tastes and meeting their needs as they define them? But this is the very foundation of the seeker sensitive service. “Once you know your target, it will determine many of the components of your seeker service: music style, message topics, testimonies, creative arts, and more” (pp253-254, emphasis mine).
When Paul talked about becoming all things to all people in 1Cor 9:19-24 (p197), he did not mean that he was willing to “think like an unbeliever” (p189) in order to make the gospel attractive to unregenerate minds (1Cor 2:14). He meant that he was willing to give up his freedom from Jewish ceremonial law in order to win Jews to Christ, and that he was willing to use that freedom when with Gentiles in order to win them to Christ. And when he becomes “as without the law”, he qualifies that with “though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1Cor 9:21), such that he constrains his evangelistic method by the parameters of the true gospel. His method was still to preach plainly the cross of Christ – not just the comforts (1Cor 1:18-2:5) – to both Jew and Gentile. What Paul was indifferent to was the Jewish ceremonial law (for us, perhaps the weaker/stronger brother issues of Romans 14) – as long as it was clear that the cross of Christ is what saves, not observance of Jewish ceremony.
e. It tries to make the gospel appear attractive on the world’s terms. The Purpose Driven evangelistic method is built on the perceived need to “exegete the community.” “I must pay as much attention to the geography, customs, culture, and religious background of my community as I do to those who lived in Bible times if I am to faithfully communicate God’s Word” (p160). At one level this is true. If the gospel and its requirements are not to be misunderstood by our hearers, then we must clarify where it contradicts culture, and where culture has made it hard to understand the implications of the gospel for our everyday lives.
But this is not what Warren means. Warren’s purpose in cultural exegesis is to make the gospel appear attractive on the world’s terms, as we’ve already seen. But is it possible to make the exclusive cross of Jesus Christ attractive and appealing to a religiously pluralistic, morally relativistic culture by structuring our approach on the blueprint of their preferences? Unbelieving Americans do not believe in absolute truth, or universally binding morality, or that exclusive claims of truth in religion can even be made – nor do they believe in sin. But the gospel requires that we contradict every one of these cultural assumptions. It is difficult to see how we can remain faithful to the content of the biblical gospel and yet allow our method of presentation to be “determined” (pp186, 253) by advice from such an anti-gospel culture.
5. Worldly Necessities.
There is one other aspect of the model that is less central to the thesis but still important to address. The Purpose Driven model states the necessity of worldly elements for effective evangelism. In other words, it seems to make secondary things primary. From multiple services and programs (200-201), to the arrangement of the chairs (266), to sanitized nurseries (268), to the building itself (269), Warren insists that churches won’t grow if these things aren’t in place. “In America, it takes parking to reach people. . . . If you don’t have a place for their car, you don’t have a place for them” (254).
Such elements are helpful, but they certainly are not primary. Acts never mentions the necessity of a nursery in the growth of the nascent church, nor does Paul advise Timothy and Titus to offer multiple programs simply because unbelievers expect them.
Warren goes on to claim that “explosive growth happens when the type of people in the community match the type of people that are already in the church, and they both match the type of person the pastor is” (177). But then how was Paul, a Jewish Pharisee, so incredibly fruitful in evangelism to Gentiles – one of the broadest categories of mankind available? Explosive growth can happen even when people are different. In fact, when it does, it bears testimony not to their common demographics, but to their common Savior.
Warren attributes the same necessary significance to music style. “The style of music you choose in your services…may…be the most influential factor in determining who your church reaches for Christ and whether or not your church grows. You must match your music to the kind of people God wants your church to reach” (p280). The assumption is that the audience of our worship in an evangelistic service is unbelievers. But worship has an audience of One. Choosing music in worship is not about pleasing ourselves or an unbelieving audience. It’s about pleasing God, and choosing music that serves the intention of God-centered lyrics. That is why matching the style of your music to the preferences of your evangelistic audience is unwise. Pagans cannot know what pleases God in corporate worship because they are God’s enemies (Rom 5:10). Warren acknowledges that “unbelievers usually prefer celebrative music over contemplative music because they don’t yet have a relationship with Christ” (p287). But that’s just the point – they don’t yet have a relationship with Jesus Christ. So what are we doing asking them for advice on how to worship Him?
6. Conversion and the Seeker Sensitive Service.
The Purpose Driven model raises problems for the doctrine and experience of Christian conversion. “Making a service comfortable for the un-churched doesn’t mean changing your theology, it means changing the environment of the service” (p244). But comfort is the least of the unbeliever’s spiritual needs. He needs to feel uncomfortable in his sins in order to repent and believe in the gospel. Repentance never happens comfortably – and yet it is precisely the response that the gospel unbendingly requires. Comfort is the very thing that must be overcome in order for conversion to take place. This is why an evangelistic service cannot be at the same time comfortable for unbelievers and faithful to the message we’ve been given to share with them – because part and parcel of the gospel message is the requirement of repentance. What this means, however, is that making a service comfortable for the unchurched does mean changing your theology – it means changing your theology of conversion. If you’ve made the service so comfortable for the unbeliever by gearing it to meet his every felt need that repentance from his sins is the last thing on his mind, then your theology must change to allow for conversion by some response other than repentance and belief.
Warren has done us a great service by calling us back to the biblical purposes that God designed the church to fulfill. In admitting that we discover the purposes of the church in the Word rather than create them ourselves, he models a submission to Scripture that we readily applaud. That submission to Scripture leads Warren to a joyful commitment to thoroughly evangelical doctrine. We can lock arms with him in a common commitment to every-member ministry, to conversion growth, to making membership more meaningful by using church covenants, to church discipline, to the continual growth and up-building of the church, and by all means to the abolition of long-standing bureaucratic committees! We also appreciate his heart to remove any stumbling blocks in the church that might make it more difficult than necessary for a convicted sinner to repent and believe. In all these obviously important ways, we are eager to partner with Saddleback in the great cause of the Gospel, and we pray for Warren’s continued fruitfulness as he labors in Christ’s vineyard. Press on, brother!
Yet as much as we want to see Warren’s work enjoy continued success, we cannot help but be lovingly candid about our concerns. While his passion for biblical fidelity and evangelical commitment are obvious and infectious, we fear that his interpretive methods lead to applications that do not always represent the intention of the text he’s using to support his model. While his evangelistic zeal is exemplary, his evangelistic methods tend to make genuine repentance unlikely and can have the effect of rounding off the naturally sharp edges of the Gospel. Sharing his desire for numerical growth, we are reticent to use numbers as a barometer of God’s blessing. Realizing the relative safety of rooting his model in the biblical purposes of the church, the tendency of purpose to replace the primacy of the Gospel has implications for the life of the church that we are confident Warren would not intend.
J. Ligon Duncan, Senior Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS, makes a striking observation. “Liberalism says that the gospel won’t work unless the message is changed. Some evangelicals say that the gospel won’t work unless the method is changed. But biblical Christianity believes that the gospel will work, and that God has given us both the message and the method.”
As a result, we are less optimistic than many regarding the usefulness of the Purpose Driven model as a paradigm for local church ministry. Having said that, we continue to partner with Warren in worship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship, and discipleship; and we continue to pray that God would use Warren’s ministry in bringing many sons to glory.