The Purpose Driven Life: introductory discernment resources

In this post: Rick Warren; The Gospel obscured; Drs. Sproul and Mohler on the errors of seeker-sensitivity; Hostile church takeovers

In his comment on my article, Dangerous pragmatism – why a transformed life is not proof of salvation, my father expressed unawareness of the Purpose Driven Life movement.

I know that my father’s claim might appear scarcely credible to some. Yet he lives in deepest darkest Dorsetshire, in a small rural village near the south coast of England. It seems that Rick Warren has yet to reach the local Anglican parish church that my father attends there.

Now, despite the impression that some might have from my postings, I am not especially interested in talking about Rick Warren, criticizing Purpose Drivenism, or even in lamenting the problems readily apparent in today’s evangelical church.

I should much rather be proclaiming the true Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners like me, and raised from the dead for our justification.

It’s just that the errors of modern evangelicalism keep intruding upon my ability to do that, and it turns out that addressing those errors can sometimes be a useful foil for talking about the wonderful riches that are ours in Christ.

What follows is therefore precisely not the sort of article that I like to write (more Gospel, please!). Nevertheless, I post this brief introduction to the Purpose Driven Life movement for the benefit of my father, and anyone like him who is as yet unaware of its dangers. I do not aim to be comprehensive: many others have covered this ground more thoroughly than I could hope; it would be futile of me to duplicate their work.

Just before I talk about Rick Warren, let me be clear that he is not the enemy: ‘for we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places’. (Ephesians 6:12, NKJV) By all accounts, Rick Warren is both generous and gracious, and we should be able to differ with him in a like manner.

Rick Warren

Although perhaps somewhat passé and now searching to find the next big thing, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life movement continues to be a huge phenomenon that has had a significant impact both within and without the visible church. This is what the Purpose Driven Life website says about Rick Warren:

Dr. Rick Warren is passionate about attacking what he calls the five “Global Goliaths” – spiritual emptiness, egocentric leadership, extreme poverty, pandemic disease, and illiteracy/poor education. His goal is a second Reformation by restoring responsibility in people, credibility in churches, and civility in culture. He is a pastor, global strategist, theologian, and philanthropist. He’s been often named “America’s most influential spiritual leader” and “America’s Pastor.”

As a pastor, he founded Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., in 1980 with one family. Today, it is an evangelical congregation averaging 22,000 weekly attendees, a 120-acre campus, and has more than 300 community ministries to groups such as prisoners, CEOs, addicts, single parents, and those with HIV/AIDS. Recently, the church fed 42,000 homeless people – three meals a day – for 40 days.

He also leads the Purpose Driven Network of churches, a global coalition of congregations in 162 countries. More than 400,000 ministers and priests have been trained worldwide, and almost 157,000 church leaders subscribe to Ministry Toolbox, his weekly newsletter. His previous book, The Purpose Driven Church is listed in “100 Christian Books That Changed the 20th Century.” Forbes magazine called it, “The best book on entrepreneurship, management, and leadership in print.”

As a global strategist , Dr. Warren advises leaders in the public, private, and faith sectors on leadership development, poverty, health, education, and faith in culture. He has been invited to speak at the United Nations, the World Economic Forum in Davos, the African Union, the Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, TIME’s Global Health Summit, and numerous congresses around the world. TIME magazine named him one of “15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most in 2004” and in 2005 one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Also, in 2005 U.S. News & World Report named him one of “America’s 25 Best Leaders”.

As a theologian, Dr. Warren has lectured at Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Judaism, the Evangelical Theological Society, and numerous seminaries and universities. His six books are known for explaining theology in understandable ways and have been translated into more than 50 languages. Dr. Warren says he teaches theology without using theological terms and telling people it is theology. His latest book, The Purpose Driven Life, has sold 25 million copies and is the best-selling hardback book in American history, according to Publisher’s Weekly.

The numbers are breathtaking. Rick Warren has been incredibly successful at what he has set out to do. He is intelligent and personable, and he has influence.

But even this glowing description itself should begin to make us uncomfortable.

Dr. Warren’s stated goal is a ‘second Reformation by restoring responsibility in people, credibility in churches, and civility in culture’. But hang on, those are all things that we have to do. Where is the Gospel of what Christ has done for us?

And what is Forbes, a secular business magazine, doing describing Rick Warren’s manual, the Purpose Driven Church, as the ‘best book on entrepreneurship, management, and leadership in print’? Surely shepherding a church must differ somewhat from leading a corporation? Why would Forbes, and institutions such as the UN and the University of Judaism even be interested in listening to someone who is boldly proclaiming the exclusivity of Christ and teaching pastors how to make plain the offence of the Gospel?

Something doesn’t seem quite right. And that something goes to the heart of the problems of the Purpose Driven Life movement.

The Gospel obscured

I have sent my father a copy of Bob DeWaay’s excellent book, Redefining Christianity: Understanding the Purpose Driven Life Movement. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand the problems with the movement. (I think I must now hold the record for the most endorsements of that book on a single blog.)

Perhaps you are eagerly awaiting the arrival of your newly purchased copy? The following brief article, also by Pastor DeWaay, is a helpful introduction to the biggest problem with the Purpose Driven Life (and several others):

Here is a pertinent quotation:

[Rick Warren’s] teaching is in keeping with popular, American, evangelical pietism so it is no wonder most evangelicals cannot see what is wrong with it. It comes from a stream of theology that can be traced back to Charles Finney who popularized a methodological “how to” approach to the gospel that puts spiritual revival in the hands of man to work at will. In doing so neither the message nor the method of Jesus Christ and His apostles is followed.

What Pastor DeWaay says about American evangelical pietism is equally true of evangelicalism in the British Isles (where I was born and still live). Those of us brought up in evangelical circles often find it hard to fault what Dr. Warren is offering. This isn’t because Warren is correctly teaching Biblical doctrine, but because so much of evangelicalism is following ‘neither the message nor the method of Jesus Christ’.

There are, of course, many other resources out there that warn of the dangers of the so-called ‘seeker-sensitive’ Purpose Driven Life movement. I picked Pastor DeWaay’s book and the article above because I find him to be a balanced, readable and insightful observer of the movement.

Drs. Sproul and Mohler on the errors of seeker-sensitivity

The views of two other heavyweights, Dr. R.C. Sproul and Dr. Al Mohler might also be appropriate to include here. They highlight the nonsensical nature of the term ‘seeker-sensitive’, the foolishness of making church attractive to unbelievers, and the misguided notion of catering to ‘felt-needs’ as a means of evangelism:

Aside: The only thing that I’d add to what Dr. Sproul says in the video clip about the gathering of believers for worship is that this is also where we go to be fed with the Word and through the Lord’s Supper. We hear the Law to convict us of our sins, and then the sweet balm of Gospel, assuring us that our sins forgiven in Christ. (Some of us who lean slightly towards the Reformed camp of the Reformation traditions can so easily overlook this, and instead start to see the gathering of the local church as a duty that we are supposed to do for God, rather than a feast-laden table where we go to be fed by Him. But it is an error to make the Gospel benefits of our gathering together into a mere duty of the Law.)

It is self-evidently unhelpful to take our church gatherings – something intended by Christ to feed, equip and edify the body of Christ (cf. Ephesians 4) – and turn them into spectacles designed to entice unbelievers. It is no wonder that so much of the visible church is spiritually impoverished – it has been on a starvation diet.

Hostile church takeovers

One particularly pernicious aspect of the Purpose Driven Life movement is the way that it trains pastors to ‘transition’ their churches to the Purpose Driven model. There are numerous testimonies available online of faithful Christians who have been forced out of their churches by this process. For a flavour of how this works, I recommend listening to this episode of Fighting for the Faith radio program:

Concluding remarks

As with the rest of the Church Growth Movement, Purpose Drivenism obscures the gospel and applies modern marketing methods to the church.

It endeavours to engineer church growth by human techniques, rather than by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of Law (to convict people of their sin and to show them their true state before God) and Gospel (to direct broken sinners to Christ for forgiveness and justification).

The people behind the movement are smart and well trained. Their techniques work and their congregations consequently swell (at least to a point).

Yet we remember that it is not we who build the Church, but Christ Himself – even He who loved her, and gave Himself for her on the cross. In Christ, therefore, is forgiveness of sins for everyone who believes.

I’ll throw open the comments here, and invite you to provide links to any further resources that you might have found helpful on this topic. Please don’t be bashful about posting relevant links to your own articles and blogs.

5 thoughts on “The Purpose Driven Life: introductory discernment resources”

  1. PS Daniel, watched the Sproul Mohler comments (didn’t first time, my bad).
    WOW yep, that’s it.
    1. The lost don’t seek God. Rom 3
    2. The saints gather for worship (with regard to, but not deference to the tares)
    3. Meeting felt needs to ‘earn a hearing’ doesn’t work and we sometimes never get to the hearing part.
    4. It is a presupposition of disbelief. The word of God has power, not our schemes to fill the seats.

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