The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission by Rick Warren, Zondervan Publishing House, 1995.
Reviewed by Wayne R. Cowell
Every Sunday the traffic streams up the four-lane half-mile entrance to the seventy-four acre campus of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California. Ten thousand people will attend “seeker” services at this fastest growing Baptist church in American history. The crowd was much smaller in 1980 when author Rick Warren started Saddleback in a high school theatre. Two hundred and five people showed up at Easter, attracted by a letter that started, “At last! A new church for those who’ve given up on traditional church services.” With a strong sense of call to discover “…the principles – biblical, cultural, and leadership principles – that produce healthy, growing churches,” the author waited twenty years to write this book while the concepts percolated, developed, and matured. He is now ready to say that
“The principles in this book have been tested over and over, not only at Saddleback Church, but in many other purpose-driven churches of all sizes, shapes, locations, and denominations. While most of the illustrations are from Saddleback, that is only because I am most familiar with our church. It seems that every day I get a letter from another church that has adopted the purpose-driven church paradigm and has been able to ride waves of growth that God has sent their way.” (p. 19)
The biblical principles that serve as fundamental sources for the attitudes and actions described in this book are found in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). The cultural and leadership “principles” in the book are actually, I believe, marketing and management techniques, which is not to deny their effectiveness or their service to the biblical principles.
“Every church is driven by something,” says Warren, “There is a guiding force, a controlling assumption, a directing conviction behind everything that happens.” The guiding force may be tradition, personality, finances, programs, buildings, events, seekers – or purpose. This book is about how to define and articulate a biblically based purpose for a church, and then how to make the church’s stated purpose drive everything it does. The people of the church begin their discovery of purpose with Bible study aimed at answering four questions (p. 98):
- Why does the church exist?
- What are we to be as a church? (Who and what are we?)
- What are we to do as a church? (What does God want done in the world?)
- How are we to do it?
At first Warren seems to be allowing considerable leeway in answering these questions, as long as the resulting statement of purpose is biblical, specific, transferable (i.e., short enough to be remembered and passed on by everyone in the church), and measurable (you must be able to tell whether your church is doing it or not). In fact he is more focused. He holds up as normative for the church the performance of five tasks, which he derives from the Great Commandment/Great Commission texts. Saddleback’s purpose statement captures these tasks:
“To bring people to Jesus and membership in his family, develop them to Christlike maturity, and equip them for their ministry in the church and life mission in the world, in order to magnify God’s name.” (p. 107)
The italicized key words point to the five tasks given to the church, tasks that provide the reason for the church to exist:
- Love the Lord with all your heart
The church exists to worship God. (Magnify)
- Love your neighbor as yourself
The church exists to minister to people. (Ministry)
- Go and make disciples
The church exists to communicate God’s Word. (Mission)
- Baptizing them
The church exists to provide fellowship for believers. (Membership)
- Teaching them to obey
The church exists to edify, or educate, God’s people. (Maturity)
As reductive as this is it shows Rick Warren’s ability to reach out to a generation whose tastes have been shaped by marketing and whose attention span had been conditioned by television. His research has given him a picture of the people of the Saddleback Valley – he calls them “Saddleback Sam and his wife Samantha.” Saddleback Community Church is driven by its purpose to bring Sam and Samantha into its fellowship, first into the “crowd” of believers and nonbelievers who attend the seeker services, and then into greater and greater levels of commitment. When Sam and Samantha “accept Christ” and become members of the congregation they are baptized as a sign of this fellowship. At this point Sam and Samantha may attend the Wednesday night member services. The Sunday seeker services are different because Rick Warren believes that unbelievers cannot truly worship. However, “genuine worship is a powerful witness to unbelievers if it is done in a style that makes sense to them.” (p. 132) Saddleback provides classes for Samantha and Sam to attend, has well-defined expectations, and offers work to do as they mature. They may eventually reach the inner core of lay ministers, of whom there are about 1,500 at Saddleback. Preaching, music, indeed the whole tenor of life at Saddleback Community Church derives from and feeds into this program of growth and maturation, guided and measured by the statement of purpose.
The members, in particular the lay ministers, are very intentional in their invitational strategy. Of course the community will grow! Until they run out of people whose need for a worshiping, working faith community is being met at Saddleback they will grow exponentially – the compound interest law is at work. And I do not doubt that the Holy Spirit is present in the community. One reads about this and wonders whether mainline churches have lost the will to address the lifelong task of forming Christians.
But does Rick Warren provide a model for Lutherans? To answer, let’s start from common ground. The Saddleback purpose-formers would agree with the sixteenth century reformers that “…it is God’s will to call men to eternal salvation, to draw them to himself, convert them, beget them anew, and sanctify them through this means and in no other way—namely, through his holy Word (when one hears it preached or reads it)…” but the reformers added “and the sacraments (when they are used according to his Word)”. (Emphasis added) Let’s imagine a Lutheran congregation that wishes to write a purpose statement that will guide the members in their evangelism and their Christian education efforts. If they ask Warren’s four questions and give answers true to their heritage they will speak about what the church is and does in terms of word and sacrament. A wonderful reference for such a congregation is the ELCA statement The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament. For example, from that statement:
“In a world of yearning, brokenness, and sin, the Church’s clarity about the Gospel of Jesus Christ is vital. God has promised to come to all through the means of grace: the Word and the sacraments of Christ’s institution. While the Church defines for itself customary practices that reflect care and fidelity, it is these means of grace that define the Church.”
Another outstanding reference is The Witness of the Worshipping Community: Liturgy and the Practice of Evangelism by Frank C. Senn. The congregation writing a purpose statement would find:
“God’s mission is to reconcile the world to himself. God has pursued this mission by calling and forming a people who shall be God’s people. The means of calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying God’s people has been through the proclamation of the word and the celebration of the sacraments.” … “The proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments are the means by which God accomplishes his mission, because Christ is present in the word and sacraments and the Spirit works faith in those who hear and receive. Worship is not only what the people do, it is also what God does through the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments.”
This is not the same understanding of God’s people that is presented by Warren. The Saddleback Community is bound together as a people to whom Christ is present through their individual conversion experiences. The principal focus of their church life, their proclamation and their worship, is the encouragement of “decisions for Christ” by unbelievers. Baptism and Communion are “symbols of salvation.” (See the outline for the course in “Discovering Saddleback Membership” on p. 318.) It is fair to say that the people of Saddleback regard the sacraments as signs of grace but not as means of grace. They lack the fullness of the God-given means of grace in their ecclesial life.
At Saddleback the Bible is “God’s inerrant guidebook for life.” (See the outline for the course “Life Perspectives I” on p. 354.) Warren has a talent for interpretive reading of Scripture under the rubric of guidance for practical church life and much of this could be helpful to pastors and lay leaders. However, he gives short shrift to the ordination of people with special oversight for the preservation of the apostolic witness through history: “There are no laypeople in a biblical church; there are only ministers. The idea of two classes of Christians, clergy and laity, is the creation of Roman Catholic tradition.” (p. 391)
Woven into the fabric of The Purpose-Driven Church is a view of salvation and holiness that is in tension with a Lutheran appropriation of the Great Tradition of the church. Tempting as it is to be impressed with the successful growth of a megachurch I cannot recommend to Lutherans that this book be used uncritically as a plan of action for congregational growth.
However, there is more to be said. The 2001 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA adopted a new evangelism strategy (by a vote of 965 to 9), which provides guidance to Lutherans to “clarify their sense of purpose and mission, seek new ways to be open to innovation and change, and share new or existing evangelism plans with the whole church prior to the 2003 Churchwide Assembly.” This is the right time for Lutherans to ask Rick Warren’s four questions.
This may, in fact, be the right time for Lutherans and Evangelical Protestants to take counsel together. Examining that idea is well beyond the scope of this book review but I will suggest a model. A distinguished group of Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics began a consultation in September, 1992, which resulted in the publication in 1994 of the statement “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” The statement does not speak officially for the two communities but it speaks responsibly from and to them. The consultation was a journey of discovery about unity and differences, about what the participants believed their communities could affirm and hope for together, what they searched for together, what they contended against together, and how they might witness together, knowing that the church “lives by and for the Great Commission.” They acknowledged their differences and the “need to challenge one another, always speaking the truth in love building up the Body.” Lutherans would do well to study this statement as they ponder a strategy for evangelism.
Both Warren (p. 106) and Senn hold up the model of the Jerusalem community of God’s new people who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Exploring that text together would be a good way to start a consultation.
 The author’s use of the word “church” usually refers to a local church and could be read “congregation.” It is clear in context when he is speaking of the universal church.
 It is not clear how many of the “unbelievers” and “unchurched” who convert at Saddleback are lapsed Christians. Rebaptism is common Evangelical Protestant practice.
 See Solid Declaration, Article II, Tappert Edition 530.49-530.50.
 Adopted for guidance and practice by the Fifth Biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, August 19, 1997.
 The Use of the Means of Grace, p. 7.
 Paulist Press, 1993. See the review by Philip H. Pfatteicher in Lutheran Forum, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Fall, 1997), p. 58.
 Frank C. Senn, The Witness of the Worshiping Community, p. 61 and p. 62.
 We Lutherans could join our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican sisters and brothers in saying that bishops have a special teaching responsibility for the preservation of the faith. See Frank Senn’s column “As I See It…” in this issue.
 ELCA News Service, 12 August 2001.
 First Things 43 (May 1994), pp. 15-22.
 Senn, ibid. p. 61.