Contemporary Commentary: Purpose Driven Church (2)

Christians have always known the value of understanding the presuppositions of individuals from diverse backgrounds to whom they witness. Clearly the Lord dealt with Nicodemus differently than with the woman at the well. But Warren is not simply recommending that preachers bear this background in mind; he is advocating a change in the technique, style, and form of historical evangelical preaching, and he’ll even twist Scripture to make his point

Concluding their weak gospel presentations, many church-growth preachers lead their audience in a model sinner’s prayer. Warren advises, ” … all you need to do is receive and believe … bow your head and quietly whisper the prayer that will change your eternity: ‘Jesus I believe in you and I receive you.’ Go ahead. If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God.”8 No conviction of sin, no repentance, no counting the cost – just “accept and receive” and the job’s done. Do these men actually understand that sinful man’s first and greatest need is repentance (not self-esteem, as Schuller teaches)? Man needs salvation from sin, deliverance from wrath, and cleansing from guilt. The “consumer” is actually a rebellious, unclean sinner!

The true gospel is not about making people feel better about themselves, but about making people realize they are lost, guilty, and perishing. It does not attempt to bring people to Christ to meet their felt needs – rather it proclaims forgiveness to meet their real need by repentance and faith in Christ. A product that exposes sin, condemns pride, and strips away self-righteousness can never be marketed. It is foolishness to the lost (1 Cor 1:18).

The false gospel of the church-growth movement tells the sinner that Christ died for him because he is so valuable to God. But this is a denial of grace. Nothing in us merits God’s love. The idea that the sinner is friendly toward God but just turned off by the church denies human depravity. Man is an enemy of God, alienated in his mind by wicked works (Col 1:21).

Employing a Worldly Approach

The fourth problem with the purpose-driven church is its creation of a worldly ethos in order to make the church more appealing to the world. Apparently since unchurched Harry has to dress smartly at the office all week, he insists on the casual look during weekends. To make him feel comfortable the saintsmust remove their respectful Sunday best and go for the casual or even the scruffy look. Then there’s the “music problem.” Unchurched Harry hates organs and choirs. So, the music mustbe contemporary and loud.

Herding the flock together three times a week for hymn-singing and Bible teaching doesn’t work anymore. Ministries, programs, and small groups must be introduced to meet people’s needs for counseling about poor self-esteem, depression, infertility, singleness, weight-loss, co-dependency, addictions, and more.

According to Warren, providing the primary issues are in focus (Christ and His gospel) the secondary issues (the church model/methods) can be as varied as you like. What works (pragmatism) is all that matters. “I contend that when a church continues to use methods that no longer work, it is being unfaithful to Christ.9 So just as Jesus targeted the lost sheep of the house of Israel, at Saddleback Warren uses multiple venues to “target” different markets. A jazz service for jazz lovers. A rock-n-roll service for rockers. Based on a mistranslation of Acts 5:42, Warren claims he’s following the apostles who provided different kinds of services in separate courts of the temple.

Warren even claims that God enjoys rock music.10 “I reject the idea that music styles can be judged as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’…no particular style of music is ‘sacred’…There is no such thing as ‘Christian music’, only Christian lyrics.”11 Yet just as clearly as a march tune fits a military scene, jazz fits a night club scene, and rock fits a party scene, so a certain kind of sound suits a prayer meeting! Music that has a corrupt origin, employs sensual rhythms, and is accompanied by a provocative, breathy style of singing is utterly unsuitable for the spiritual praise of God (Eph 5:19).12


At the root of the entire purpose-driven church paradigm is a fatal misconception. As John MacArthur points out: “The notion that church meetings should be used to tantalize or attract non-Christians is a relatively recent development … in fact, the apostle Paul spoke of unbelievers entering the assembly as an exceptional event (1 Cor 14:23). The church at Jerusalem was so holy and God-fearing that no unconverted person dared to join it (Acts 5:11). The New Testament preaching of Paul “kept back nothing” (Acts 20:20) and involved reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with patience and doctrine, bearing in mind a future time when people would no longer “endure sound doctrine, but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth (2 Tim 4:3-4).

The first few decades of the church-growth movement have clearly shown the naivete of those who thought that the true gospel could survive the introduction of a marketing philosophy which says the customer is king. Does style affect substance? It actually does much more. The purpose-driven style has completely subverted the true gospel message.

Doctrine has been trivialized and expositional preaching abandoned, leading to the introduction of multitudes of false converts and shallow members. Even an unconcerned Warren states, “Are there unrepentant pagans mixed into Saddleback’s crowd of 10,000? Without a doubt…That’s okay. Jesus said…Don’t worry about the tares.13 When George Barna surveyed Willow Creek’s weekend participants, 91% stated that their highest value was having a deep personal relationship with God. Of this same group 25% of singles, 38% of single parents and 41% of divorced individuals “admitted to having illicit sexual relationships in the last 6 months.”14

The answer to this movement is to abandon it altogether and return to Biblical truth, Biblical living, Biblical preaching, and Biblical church principles. The idea that these new “purpose-driven” methods will restore the power of God in our midst is a red herring. Warren might just as well say that if only instead of being a preacher of righteousness (2 Pet 2:5) Noah had done some simple market research and built a “purpose-driven ark,” more than eight people would have come aboard. When holy living, Spirit-empowered preaching, loving unity, and faithfulness to truth doesn’t seem to bring results, turning to the new methods advocated by Warren will only spell disaster. There will be results – but all of the wrong kind. A generation ago A.W. Tozer wisely said, “One of the most popular current errors, and the one out of which springs most of the noisy, blustering religious activity in evangelical circles, is the notion that as times change the church must change with them.” Faithfulness to God’s Word, as opposed to what evangelicalism calls success, will be the standard of reward at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor 2:4-5). Obedience to the command to preach and teach, without trimming our sail to the wind of the world, is the most pressing need of the hour.

8. Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p. 58-59

9. Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 65

10. Ibid p. 240

11. Ibid p. 281

12. Further info: K. Smith, Music and Morals, (Enumclaw, WA: Winepress Publishing, 2005)

13. Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 237

14. G.A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1996), p. 236