"Purpose Driven Church" Book Review
In 1995, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church, wrote The Purpose Driven Church in an effort to help pastors and lay leaders see their churches grow. Warren believes that he can significantly help dying churches recover and church plants take off. It appears that his tremendous success has afforded him credibility from a pragmatic—consumer driven perspective.
W.A. Criswell seems to make this exact point in the forward of the text with a statement that Saddleback’s tremendous growth is “sufficient evidence that Rick Warren knows whereof he speaks” (11). Churches that follow Warren’s model are called “Purpose Driven Churches,” somehow implying that churches that do not follow Saddleback’s model do not have a purpose. Moreover, Warren writes and thinks from a very business-oriented aspect. Warren avoids the tough issues and writes from a standpoint that is not always contextually accurate. The Purpose Driven Church deserves a mixed review. Furthermore, its use must be limited to discerning pastors who will not blindly apply Warren’s model without analysis.
The Purpose Driven Church is a manual of sorts written to teach one how to follow the Saddleback Valley Community Church model of growth. The text has five major sectional divisions beginning with a two chapter introduction, next is a substantial section on how to become a purpose-driven church, then a portion about reaching out to the community, followed by a section on how to attract a crowd, and finally the conclusion that deals with moving the crowd into membership. Each section is easy to follow along, and the text is certainly an easy read. There is not anything theological about Warren’s book. His work is an exciting read—everyone loves to read about success.
Warren is absolutely correct when he writes about God’s sovereignty being “overlooked in almost all current church-growth literature” (14). He wants his reader to understand that Saddleback did not instantly become a large church—Pastor Warren battled from scratch and made, by his own admission, lots of mistakes in developing a strategy for church grow.
Warren believes that a Baptist pastor may struggle a bit as he explains how he went about determining what type of church he would establish. Warren contends that his area already had many strong, Bible-believing churches, yet his list of names of the pastors of these large successful churches makes you wonder what Warren means. A reader with some knowledge of American pastors would know that there is a substantial difference between John MacArthur, Robert Schuller, and Greg Laurie. This insight should alert the reader into what one can expect of the text with regard to the depth of theological application.
In chapter two, Warren defends the development of mega-churches by presenting eight myths concerning things that are not true about large churches. Warren is trying to break through to small church pastors who have an unwarranted bias toward large churches.
Part two is the best section of the book and is a must read for all church pastors and lay leaders. Warren is right when he insists that every church needs a purpose—of course, the church needs a purpose. He writes, “Until you know what your church exists for, you have no foundation, no motivation, and no direction for ministry” (81). There is no real argument to this philosophy because it is clearly biblical. Every church has a purpose. The head of the church Jesus Christ has established the church’s purpose. Warren believes that the “first step in getting a church which is plateaued or declining is to redefine your purpose” (81). Using statistics to prove his point, Warren shows how there is a significant disconnect between what the members of the church and the pastors of that same church believe the purpose of the church to be. Pastors and members are exactly opposite in their understanding of the church—90 percent of pastors believe the church exists to win the lost while only ten percent of members believe this to be true; and then the reverse happens with regard to the purpose of the church being to care for its own (82-83).
In an attempt to guide pastors, the text presents five benefits to having a clearly defined purpose statement. First, Warren believes that the reason Saddleback people get along so well is that they all understand their purpose which promotes harmony and builds morale. Perhaps he is right, but that is a difficult point to prove in so much as Saddleback has had only one pastor and does not have the years of baggage that many other churches have acquired through years of existence. Baggage, which often brings frustration and friction, is supposed to be reduced by this purpose statement. Obviously the statement does reduce the frustration, but strong pastoral leadership must be insistent while leading the church through living in accordance with its agreed upon purpose statement. Next, he builds a strong case on how purpose statements can help the church cooperate and concentrate—which, again, is good. Lastly, the purpose statement assists in evaluating effectiveness. Warren asks “what is our business?” and then “How’s business?” (93). Again, this is a stretch—it is difficult to hear Jesus teaching the apostles to ask, “How is business?”
Based on his tremendous success, Warren presents Saddleback’s purpose statement as an example of what right looks like in the development of a statement. He is especially convinced of this because he believes that each of the five church purposes is articulated in his statement equally well. Warren suggests that Saddleback’s purpose statement is biblical, specific, transferable, and measurable which is the standard by which all statements should be measured. Measuring God’s work is especially difficult. “A great commitment to the great commandment and the great commission will grow a great church” is a true statement, but who measures great (102)? When the author of the text pastors a church of 10,000 members, great is measured numerically. Care must be exercised in measuring success by a non-biblical standard. Can a church of fifty be a great church? Of course it can, but when the author of the text says “great,” the reader is left to wonder how he can measure greatness with something other than numerical growth—especially when the title the book puts such a premium on growth.
Using the “Nehemiah Principle,” pastors learn to continually put before the people the purpose of the church in as many different ways as possible. According to Warren, “once you have defined the purposes of your church, you must continually clarify and communicate them to everyone in your congregation. It is not a task you do once and then forget about it” (112). Statements like this are so true that, in spite of the some of the less desirable parts of the text, The Purpose Driven Church should be read in conjunction with other church growth books by discerning leaders. Warren rightly suggests that vision and purpose can be communicated through scripture, symbols, slogans, and stories (112-3). The text is full of profitable examples.
About midway through the text, Warren moves to application of the purposes of the church. Overusing the word “purpose,” Warren gives ten ways to become a purpose driven church. First, churches are to consciously focus on assimilating new members into the church. Using the five purposes of the church: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism- Warren shows how Saddleback brings the unchurched (unsaved) to church, moves them into the congregation, then into a small group, then into a core group and then back out to the community for evangelism (136-8). The application of a purpose statement in a meaningful way is a solid message, but the reader must remember that this is only one model.
The value of Warren’s work is without question, but there are definite reasons why readers must be discerning as they work through the application of his purpose driven model. First, Warren is very loose in his uses of multiple paraphrases of the Word of God in order to make his point. Warren has no apparent conviction toward an essentially literal translation of the Word of God. Moving from paraphrase to paraphrase, the lack of continuity reveals perhaps a willingness to search for a proof text and then go with it. Warren gives advice about the translations and paraphrases as though there are no issues with different Bibles and the profitability of using a text that is not faithful to the original languages. Often moving a church from one translation to another can be an exceptionally hard task, and Warren offers no advice on how to make a transition like that happen. Furthermore, Warren tells pastors to “select Scripture readings with the unchurched in mind” (297). Warren uses a ridiculous example of what to read and what not to read but does not provide enough guidance to be of any real value. Certainly one wonders where the Scriptural support is for such guidance. How does one preach the gospel and not offend the unchurched? (Warren is careful not to refer to people as “sinners” or “lost” in his text.)
Pastor Warren believes that God does not have a preference with regard to felt-needs preaching and expository preaching. He writes, “I honestly don’t think God cares at all whether you teach the Bible book by book or topic by topic, as long as you teach the Bible. He doesn’t care whether you start with the text and move to applying it to people’s needs, or start with people’s needs and move to the text” (295). Warren adamantly defends his felt-needs technique; he suggests that the preacher should decide what the people need to hear and then find supporting verses from the Bible which justifies the truth. This is nearly the same thing he does with his purpose driven books. This technique is an exceptionally slippery slope that has the potential for theological disaster. The pastor of a church with a large homosexual contingent would never get to scriptures that condemn homosexuality in a seeker-sensitive perspective based on felt-needs. Yet the student of the Bible knows that God sent His prophets with messages that were anything but seeker-sensitive.
The god of church growth cannot become an idol that influences what one preaches. Certainly Warren is not suggesting anything like that, but it appears that this is not beyond the realm of possibilities when Paul predicates a latter day when people will accumulate to themselves preachers and teachers that suit their own passions (2 Timothy 4). While Rick Warren is writing about church growth, Dr. David F. Wells is writing just as prolifically about the decay of truth within the greater protestant community of believers with a book like No Place for Truth. Also, Wells is not alone, it appears; for every church growth book, there is a book encouraging pastor to not compromise on the truth of the Word of God. It takes a discerning pastor to read a church book with a seeker-sensitive model and not be influenced to compromise to build a “work for God.”
A third area where pastors will need to be discerning is whether they will choose to embrace Warren’s method of handling a call to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Pastors should “be creative in inviting people to receive Christ” (304) is what Warren suggests. The pastor truly seeking to be as Biblically correct as possible struggles at determining exactly what Warren means by this guidance. Moreover, the purpose-driven pastor is instructed to lead people to Jesus with a model prayer (304). Once again Warren does not provide apostolic precedent for creative invitations or model prayers which teach people to “ask Jesus into [their] hearts.” This is very problematic because a Biblical message of “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” is not very creative—it is prescriptive not descriptive. Therefore, the apostles have tied the hands of pastors and evangelists seeking to follow their example.
The Purpose Driven Church is not the kind of book a pastor can wholeheartedly suggest to all the members of his church to read. Warren’s work must be examined and reexamined from a critical perspective. In light of the reality that Warren began his church in a substantially less postmodern perspective, church planters will have to critically examine whether they want to follow his model of surveying the unchurched, appealing to the crowd, and then turning the crowd into a church. While this model obviously worked, it remains to be seen whether Pastor Warren will remain committed to orthodox, uncompromising, evangelical Christian truth. Although clearly beyond the scope of this review the handwriting on the wall seems to suggest that Warren may not remain as committed to Biblical standards of morality as he once was, but this is not to suggest that there is not much that can be learned from Warren’s monumental work. However, in an age of doctrinal compromise and wavering on the exclusivity of Christ by pastors of mega-churches, it appears that now more than ever churches will need to know what their purpose is and what core Biblical values will guide them into the future.