Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Snap: Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Church"

Whoops! I was reminded by Nick Peters that what I posted earlier today was already posted earlier, so instead let's have this 2009 E-Block review of Rick Warren's book.


Despite the similarity in titles, The Purpose-Driven Church (PDC) is not a version of The Purpose-Driven Life (PDL) for entire congregations. Indeed, it is not even for the same reading audience. PDL was intended for everyone; but PDC is written especially for pastors and church leaders, as a way to tell them how to run a church successfully.

Admittedly, I had two sources of trepidation upon starting PDC. The first was my prior reading of PDL, which I had found to be somewhat shallow and inconsequential. The second is that my prior church had professed to follow the PDC model, and ended up in a mess. I am thankful to say that PDC is not quite as shallow as PDL -- indeed, in many places is quite useful -- and that much of the mess at my prior church was not due to following PDC models (or else was due to misapplication). Still and all, PDC left me with certain reservations that were rooted in the same problems I found in PDL -- mostly having to do with Warren's unfortunate tendencies to decontextualize the Bible, especially for the sake of being "seeker-sensitive" (not always to an unfortunate extent, but sometimes so).

Much of PDC is certainly good advice for pastors and/or local church bodies. Warren has certainly correctly identified some important elements of having at least the potential for a healthy church: A pastor with a long tenure [31]; emphasis on responsibilities as a believer, not just benefits [56]; tailoring services to different kinds of audiences (seekers, believers, etc.), using multiple services, if possible; avoiding jargon (and thankfully, adding that you can offer that kind of thing in places like discipleship training, with which I agree to a goodly extent); be welcoming to visitors, and do nothing to make them feel uncomfortable; place signs around so that people know where the restrooms and such are; have an information booth outside; teach messages that are practical as well as doctrinal; get some good lighting and keep your facilities clean and neat; look for and use talented people in your congregation, and give them the trust and the power to start ministries on their own.

The programming method advocated in PDC was also just fine; much of the content related to that reminded me of The Simple Church (and I would also have the same reservations): Make sure you have a clear statement of purpose; get rid of anything that does not fulfill that purpose; be willing to delegate responsibility, and bring people through a clear process of growth and discipleship. It was also nice to see that Warren clearly stated that truth was not open to compromise [53], but I would never have thought that Warren ever intentionally watered down the Bible's message. It's also nice to see that Saddleback, Warren's church, dismissed a speaker who had been set to preach multiple services, after only one service, when it became apparent that he was teaching false doctrine. [301-2] (Though it does raise the question: Why didn't Warren's people look into this "well-known Christian speaker" and find this out to begin with?)

But with the praise said, we now come to the most serious underlying problem with the concepts of PDC, which can be expressed by example to start. Warren advises churches large enough to offer mutiple services to tailor each one for different groups as much as possible. Seeker services should be one way; services for believers, another. The problem here is not so much with the directive itself, which is overall sound. The problem is one I have found in Warren before, and that is, as mentioned, decontextualization. Warren does not seem to be aware (or may be aware, but does not understand the relevance of) the fact that, as has bearing on this case, the idea of a "seeker service" comes of the particular nature of the modern world. And this is a problem scattered throughout PDC. (It is the same problem also found in PDL, but was more prominent there.) Warren regularly decontextualizes the Biblical text so that it reads as though it were Made in America:

  • Warren believes that when Jesus healed people, it was because he had an "emphasis on felt needs and hurts." [108] No, not really: The emphasis was on bringing honor to God by performing such deeds; here as in many places, Warren reads the text in terms of individual experience rather than the "big picture" which the collectivist society of the New Testament world would have understood. Sometimes, Warren reads modern, Western emotionalism into a text, and uses this as a basis for a specific value in the PDC program.

    (Admittedly, some of my reservations have to do with my own type of personality. Warren lists the three greatest fears of Americans as being surrounded by strangers, having to speak in public, and being asked a personal question in public. [260] I have no fear of any one of these and little understanding of why anyone else would. I don't care if a pastor wears a tie or not, and I don't gauge a church based on how many hugs or handshakes I get. I don't listen to the music and would rather there not be any, to be perfectly honest! But in other cases, like the ones above, Warren is badly decontextualizing.)

  • Warren makes use of a poor translation of John 12:49 ("The Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it") to justify a simple model of preaching to unbelievers. While I would not discourage such preaching, the verse simply does not support such a view. At the same time, he speaks derisively of books on preaching that "pay more attention to Aristotle's methods and Greek rhetoric than how Jesus taught." Is Warren not aware that Paul used the methods of Greek rhetoric in his letters?
  • Warren says of Acts 2 [241-2] that "God's presence was so evident" on Pentecost "that it attracted the attention of unbelievers throughout the entire city" and the 3000 were converted "[b]ecause they felt God's presence, and they understood the message." God's presence was not what attracted people's attention; it was a miracle of hearing foreign languages, which was in fact mistaken for drunkenness, not "God's presence." Conversion was not effected on this basis, either; the message was one of historical fact: Of the Resurrection, fulfillment of prophecy, and the evidence of miracles. In light of this, Warren's comment that few are converted "on purely intellectual grounds" is precisely another case of him reading Acts 2 through a modern lens.

By now the reader may ask, "Well, does this make any difference? Does this mean his programs will fail?" Probably long as Warren insulates them from critical pressures which may expose inconsistencies in the paradigm. And therein does lie a potential apologetics problem. Warren has uncomfortably instituted an insulation against criticism that sounds too much like Joel Osteen: "If lives are being changed by the power of Jesus Christ -- then I like the way you are doing it!" To tell us to "never criticize what God is blessing" [62] would be fine with plenty of discernment attached -- much more than Warren is currently advocating. Yes, he would probably acknowledge that the Mormon church has to be excluded as a caveat. He might also raise questions about someone like Osteen when they teach about prosperity (per above). But how much more careful would he be? The fact that Warren appeals to changed lives and personal testimony as "hard for skeptics to argue with" [247] (he doesn't know very many skeptics, apparently) and when he says things like, "Music can bypass intellectual barriers and take the message straight to the heart" [279] it makes me cringe internally. I can only hope that Warren's normal method of dealing with intellectual barriers is to provide answers to them first. (The fact that Lee Strobel was once on staff at Saddleback thankfully does suggest this.)

There is one other major reservation, one with a certain irony in this as well. Warren rightfully bemoans the fact that in a survey, nearly 90 percent of church members thought that the church existed to "take care of my family's and my needs." [82] Yet from the other side of PDC, he applauds a church that went so far as to provide a course in potty training [221] simply because this was described as "the number one felt need" in that community. Aside from pondering the wonder of a community in which such a thing is the "number one felt need," we have to ask about the obvious contradiction here -- and whether in the long term, doing things like this for people who evidently won't help themselves is a good idea. (There are literally over a thousand books on toilet training listed in the OCLC database.)

It is certainly well to have a lot of hugs and handshakes under the rationale that "[o]ur world is filled with lonely people who are starving for the affirmation of a loving touch." [214] It is certainly fair to make your service times accessible to more people by starting at a different time. It is quite too much, however, to cater to the unique deficiencies of a society when that society ought to know better. How ironic that Warren refers to the American "idolatry of individualism" [338] and then offers some programs that pander to that very individualism to an extreme. Is this not enabling the sickness rather than helping people out of it? (In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.")

It is not enough to argue, as Warren does, that "God chooses to reveal himself to man according to our needs!" [295] "Needs" cannot be broadly defined to include every possible deficiency in behavior, and Biblical examples used by Warren do not say as much. (E.g., he vaguely says, "to those who needed comfort, God revealed himself as Jehovah Shalom [I am your peace]" but I am quite sure God didn't reveal himself as "Jehovah Toiletrainus" to parents too out of sorts to do the job themselves.) In PDC, needs versus wants are not well distinguished -- and the church won't serve effectively if it is waiting tables that it shouldn't.

But let me not be too bleak: PDC is, as a whole, an excellent resource for church management, if used with caution, which of course it will not always be. I experienced this firsthand, as at one point my former church had initially refused to announce my apologetics class in the service, on the grounds that they were getting away from making special announcements. It turns out that this is a distorted version of Warren's advice [274] to avoid making announcements of use to the believers in the church in a service you designate for seekers, and/or have to do with only one segment of the church (e.g., youth). Pastors who use PDC critically will find it beneficial, and lay readers can learn a lot from it too -- even from that which it gets wrong.

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