Contemporary Commentary: Purpose Driven Church

It’s a depressing statistic. A majority of Western churches do not see a single addition through conversion in a typical year. So, many are rejecting traditional methods of evangelism and adopting a new “church growth” model. Market research has convinced them that unbelievers stay away from church, not because they reject Christ, but because they reject the church’s boring presentation of Christ. There’s no need to change the product – just the packaging!

The new packaging is all about replacement. A “stage” with a moveable Perspex lectern replaces the old wooden pulpit. PowerPoint graphics replace the hymn books. A rock band replaces the organ. A casually dressed and jovial audience replaces the reverent congregation. A charming minister in a t-shirt and jeans replaces the suited preacher. Fun replaces holiness as the tone of the service. Loud music, side-splitting drama, multimedia presentations, and a humorous “talk” replace hymn singing and preaching.

Judging by numbers alone the new model has certainly proved a success. Prominent church growth pastors like Robert Schuller (Crystal Cathedral, LA), Rick Warren (Saddleback Church, California), Bill Hybels (Willow Creek Church, Chicago) and Joel Osteen (Lakewood Church, Houston) attract thousands to their churches each Sunday, even though a majority of this “growth” occurs by transfer rather than conversion. Small wonder anyone questioning the movement is told, Never criticize what God is blessing.1 Truth never stood a chance against success.

How widespread is this new phenomenon? Consider this fact: over 400,000 pastors from 162 countries have been trained under Rick Warren’s church growth seminar material alone. His book The Purpose Driven Church, which espouses this new philosophy, has sold over 1 million copies in 20 languages and is a standard textbook in hundreds of Bible Colleges. Yet despite the incredible popularity of Rick Warren and others like him, there are problems with the church growth movement:

Origin and History of the Movement

The father of the church growth movement was the relatively unknown missionary Donald McGavran, whose writings had a dramatic impact on Rick Warren. The day in 1974 when Warren first read an article on church growth by McGavran was the day he decided to invest the rest of his life” discovering the principles of “church growth.” McGavran’s best known student and successor at the Fuller School of World Mission in California was C. Peter Wagner, a founding member of the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization. Wagner, a close friend of the late John Wimber (Vineyard), calls himself an apostle and is one of the world’s leading promoters of charismatic signs and wonders. From Fuller Seminary the church growth philosophy spread worldwide.

The first pastor to make it big using modern church growth techniques was Robert Schuller. An undisputed fact is that I am the founder, really, of the church-growth movement in this country…I advocated and launched what has become known as the marketing approach in Christianity.2 How did he do it? The secret of winning unchurched people into the church is really quite simple. Find out what would impress the non-churched in your community [then give it to them].2 Yet Schuller is a false teacher. An unashamed universalist, he rejects Jesus as the only way to heaven. He states that making people aware of their lost and sinful condition is the very worst thing a preacher can do. As for the new birth, to Schuller it simply means changing from a negative to a positive self-image. 

Business and Church Marriage

The second major problem with the church growth movement is its love-affair with the business world. Warren, who partners with marketing agencies like CMS in Covina, California, a company that helps giants like Isuzu Motors and Quaker Oats grow their businesses,3 follows the advice of secular business guru Peter Drucker, who teaches churches and charities to behave more like corporations. Anyone familiar with the ideas promoted in business books will easily spot their cloned Christian versions all through Warren’s writings. Forbes Magazine publisher, Rich Karlgaard said of The Purpose Driven ChurchThis is one of the greatest entrepreneurial books Ive ever read, and if you merely substitute the word business for church, its just a terrific guide that can be taken to a secular and business audience.4

Compare all of this to Paul’s pivotal message to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20). He mentions nothing about marketing but warns them to teach the whole counsel of God, beware of false teachers, and preach faith and repentance – which introduces the third problem in the church growth movement – the corruption of the gospel.

Dumbing Down the Message

Church growth advocate Lee Strobel recommends reaching “un-churched Harry and Mary” by starting with their “felt needs.” (Rather than with righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come as Paul did with Felix in Acts 24). Thus If you discover that unchurched Harry suffers from a sagging self-esteem … you can tell him how your own self-esteem has soared ever since you learned how much you matter to God.5 Or if he’s a thrill seeker tell him there’s nothing more exciting, more challenging and more adventure packed than living as a devoted follower of Jesus Christ.6 In other words, discover what a sinner wants out of life and give it to him “in Jesus.” In a chapter in The Purpose Driven Church entitled “How Jesus Attracted Crowds,” Rick Warren states: The most likely place to start is with the persons felt needs…this was the approach Jesus used … A good salesman knows you always start with the customers needs, not the product.7 Yet simply noting how the Lord dealt with Nicodemus, the rich young ruler, the Syrophenician woman, and Levi, to name but a few, shows Warren’s selective exegesis to be very misleading.

1. Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 62

2. G.A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1996), p. 51


4. CBS News, Early Show, 22 Mar 2005

5. Lee Strobel, Inside The Mind of Unchurched Harry & Mary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), p. 92

6. Ibid. p. 124

7. Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 219 & 225