Friday, May 06, 2005

Rick Warren Is Right. . . and Wrong

Where there are people, there is debate and that's certainly the case with Pastor Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Life issue. Face it, brothers and sisters, any big church movement is going to get some scrutiny -- perhaps more than deserved -- by Christians who are naturally suspicious of anything new, and naturally suspicious of anything big. Bill Hybels and Willow Creek went through this a few years ago. Time now to send Saddleback Community Church and Pastor Rick Warren through the gauntlet. And as I read around various Christian blogs I see so many extreme feelings from both sides. That usually means that each side is mentally out-to-lunch and that each side has a pertinent point or two. This very well may be the point with the PD phenomenon.

In my estimation there is good and bad within the PDL movement. What qualifications do I have to blog about it? Well as a pastor, I recently took my church through the 40 Days of Purpose. For those who aren't familiar with it, in the 40 Days campaign the life and teachings of the church are formatted in the same way as The Purpose Driven Life. For seven Sundays the pastor's message focuses on that week's theme. The congregation is encouraged to read the PDL book and small groups meet to discuss the book and a separate PDL video study.

I wanted my church to go through the 40 Days for a number of reasons. Firstand foremost, I felt that this was what the Lord wanted me to do. But beyond that, I wanted to encourage the people to take the process of discipleship more seriously and to begin a few small groups to make God more a part of their everyday lives. Because many in the congregation knew people who had gone through the 40 Days at another church, they were receptive to the idea and it helped many to commit to the whole process. My goal was not to make our church a "little Saddleback" since after all our congregation would likely fit in just one bathroom at Saddleback Community Church! My goal was to encourage the people in their walk with Christ.

So with that background, let me give you my opinion of the whole 40 Days/PDL experience. Remember, these are my opinions. Your milage may vary.

Rick Warren is wrong
First the bad. I could cut and paste from various web sites and present the bad part, but there is so much hyperbole it can become unreadible at times. The biggest problem which stands out to me is the lack of a clear Gospel presentation. Ordinarily in a discipleship ciriculum that wouldn't bother me much, but this is being marketed as a way to bring people to Christ. That's just not right. Absent from the whole presentation is the idea of repentance -- not simply an optional concept, but a requisite. The version of the Sinner's Prayer in the book or on the small group tape makes no reference to being a sinner! That's just a poor presentation of the Gospel. Reports vary on whether it's this way at Saddleback Church, but I doubt that a Baptist preacher could ignore the idea of repentance permanently.

Another problem I had with the material is the use of dozens of translations and paraphrases of the Bible to find just the right wording to proof text a teaching. Some of these texts are used out of context, although the general principle is taught in Scripture. It's almost as if Warren is trying to hard to justify his thoughts through Scripture without producing an extended study of the topic. In the interest of brevity, too much gets left out. Although I will say this certainly informed me of more versions of the Bible than I was previously aware of!

I also didn't like the whole "marketing" feel of the campaign. There is a website to help you out, which is probably wonderful for conducting a huge 40 Days campaign. Ours was run cheaply for a small church, so some of the bells and whistles simply weren't necessary. There are a couple of dozen extras you can buy. These may be quite useful, but when I start to see 40 Days music and 40 Days keychains, and 40 Days this and 40 Days that it all begins to look like the moneychangers in the Temple. I'm sure that's not the intention, but that's the "vibe" it gave off to me.

As a pastor, I set aside seven Sundays to teach the concepts addressed in the book. And I have no problem with preaching about the purpose of life, evangelism, worship, fellowship, etc. That simply is no problem. I also have access to sermon transcripts for the seven Sundays. There is the expectation that the pastor will probably use the outlines for these messages for his own. I tried to stick with that, but sometimes the points weren't clear for me or were a bit repetitive. I used the outlines as an original template, then made changes where I felt they were needed.

Someone asked me if the pastor was supposed to simply read the transcripts of Warren's sermons instead of doing his own. Let me tell you, it's not possible. For one, they are loaded with references to Southern California and Saddleback Church which make no sense to a Midwestern boy. For another, they are loaded with songs and multiple pastors and personal stories and skits that you'd be a fool to attempt it. This in addition to the fact that the sermons had to be at least 45-50 minutes long and I don't get that kind of time on Sunday morning. Something about attention spans. . .

Finally, the whole PDL movement is proclaimed a success by many people because of the sheer number of people at Saddleback, the sheer number of churches participating in the 40 Days and the sheer numbers of reported conversions and recommitments from the program. This touches on my discomfort with the idea of numerical increases equalling true success. If this were true, we'd all be Latter-Day Saints, as the Mormons continue to grow despite anti-Christian doctrine. Numbers do not always equate with God's blessing.

Rick Warren is right
For all the trashing that Rick Warren and the PDL program takes in the blogosphere, I think it's important for me to point out some of the opposite point of view. The most important thing about the PDL material is that it actually gets people who have been spiritually stagnant to consider something more than just what's in it for them. The opening chapters of the book emphasize the point "It's not about me," over and over. And frankly, that's what much of the Christian church needs to hear. We can become such whiny, self-indulgent creatures that we are indistinguishable from the outside world. Some wear that fact like a badge of honor instead of the scarlet letter of shame which it should be. Christians are called to be in the world, not of the world. The Purpose Driven Life would be a success in my book even if it only addressed the topic most need to hear yet refuse to listen to -- selfishness.

The topics which Warren brings out, the five purposes, are all valid. Most of these have been ignored by the people in the pews for their entire lives. We know we are to worship, but we stupidly think an hour or two a week is plenty. We hear about fellowship, but we are too private to have really deep relationships. We read about discipleship but are too obsessed with our own lives to make any real time commitments. We hear the call to do ministry, but we keep ourselves spiritually inept enough to where we can say "no" to any opportunity in our path, claiming, "I don't know how to talk to those people," or "I'm not gifted to do something like that." We know the call to do evangelism, but we push that off on the pastor because he's the one getting paid for it.

I've read many people rake Warren over the coals because they consider PDL too simple or too elementary. Guess what? Apparently there is a huge segment of people sitting in churches on Sunday mornings who need it to be simple because they haven't picked up on it any other way! If your walk has progressed beyond all these principles, congratulations. Now, how about stooping down and helping your brothers and sisters who are still unable or unwilling to get the basics? Many people understand the significance of the Resurrection, yet I still speak about it every Spring. I've read the whole Bible, but I'll be dogged if I don't keep reading that thing! The concepts which are presented as Warren's five purposes are important to be taught and retaught for the edification of the Body.

Warren's initial question of invitation into the whole process is very valid. "What on earth am I here for?" The question of life's meaning has hounded philosophers since ancient times. It is no less perplexing for the unbeliever today. Death is scary to many not just because of the unknown nature of what is beyond, but also because all that they have toiled to achieve ends at that point. Your priorities must change. That's scary. To delight in the temporary pleasures of this life in an attempt to take one's mind off the dilemma is futile when the reminders of death are everywhere. Any attempt to get people to consider the whole idea of the meaning of one's life is well worth the effort.

Also the entire concept of getting the whole congregation concentrating on a goal helps to encourage fellowship and mutual growth within the body of the church. The principle of accountability can be a motivating factor for many people. You are not studying these things alone, you have company on your journey. That is a comfort and an encouragement. And when it comes to moving away from selfishness, we can use all the comfort and encouragement we can get. Plus the community of believers coming together in small groups is promoted throughout. This is not only another way to bring new people into the church fellowship, it provides a bit of the accountability factor to those who become a part of a group. My main goal from the 40 Days was to see these groups continue, and that is what is happening.

As is often the case, the extremes are wrong and the truth is found somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed the first incarnation of this material in The Purpose Driven Church more than ten years ago. The tailoring of that material to a personal level is not an exact science. Overall though, I think the PDL and 40 Days program are useful provided you understand what they are. This is not an evangelism program in itself. You must supplement Warren's material for it to accomplish that purpose. This is not a complete discipleship formula. There is more than PDL, even in Warren's own church. This is not the most incredible thing to hit the church in years. But it is a very useful tool to encourage people to break out of the self-centered lifestyle we all tend to fall into and truly take some time to consider what God wants from you. We don't stop with Day 40, but we continue on the rest of our lives growing more and more in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Taken at face value, Warren's book has some fundamental problems that cannot be overlooked. These are not insurmountable though. They can be and should be corrected. Once you hit that understanding, the PDL material can be very helpful to your church and to your life.

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