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On Visiting Saddleback Church

Last week I met Rick Warren. I was in Los Angeles to speak at the Christian Web Conference (where my topic was “Tweeting Truth With Love: Grace in an Age of Instant Communication”) and at the conference I bumped into David Chrzan, Warren’s Chief of Staff. He and I spoke for quite some time—an hour at least—and chatted about some of the critiques I’ve made in the past regarding Warren and his books. With ministries as expansive and important as Saddleback and Purpose Driven, these people are accustomed to dealing with detractors and over the years some of my critiques have reached their ears.

The irony of my talk with David is that I had come all the way to California to speak about the importance of communicating truth with love and there I was, being challenged on doing just that. It was not David challenging me as much as my own conscience. I wondered, had I always been fair to Warren? As David and I spoke it suddenly dawned on me that Rick Warren is a real person. He isn’t a robot or a really clever computer who spits out books and sermons, but a real guy. And as a real guy, he is aware of some of the controversy that surrounds him—including reviews and articles written by the likes of me. And as I’ve often had to do in the past, I had to pause to consider whether I would say to Warren face-to-face what I’ve said about him in my reviews and articles. This is not to say that I’ve ever accused Warren of heresy or torturing kittens. But I have commented on the nature, the completeness of the gospel he preaches—surely a topic that is close to his heart.

Later that day I received a “tweet” (it’s a Twitter thing) from Warren inviting me to come and check out Saddleback. Every time I am in California I think of doing so, but it has never quite worked out. This time, though, it fit my schedule perfectly. So I set out for Saddleback with a couple of friends.

Before I got to Saddleback, I went back and read through some of what I’ve written about Warren over the years, focusing on what have undoubtedly been the three most-read articles: my reviews of The Purpose Driven Church, The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose of Christmas. As I read them, I was actually pleased to see that I was, at least in my opinion, quite level-headed in these reviews. I think they were generally kind and rational, even while disagreeing with some of what Warren communicated. What I have not done is critique Warren to the extent that others have done. I’ve never considered him a pawn of the United Nations who is attempting to bring about one-world government and the downfall of all society. I don’t think I’ve ever accused him of deliberately trying to push a pro-New Age agenda on his readers. I have sought to focus on the message and method he advocates in his books.

My main critiques of Warren and his ministry have been:

His use of Scripture. Most notably, this involves using many translations based, at least from an outside perspective, more on what the translations say than on their faithfulness to the original text.

The completeness of the gospel. In The Purpose Driven Life he says, “Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ” but really goes no further than that in explaining the gospel. And this in one of the best-selling books of all-time. I have often found that the gospel he preaches stops just a little bit short. It is just a little too easy.

His view of conversion. In The Purpose Driven Life he encourages readers to pray this prayer: “Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you” and then welcomes them into the family of God. His view of conversion and his haste to baptize people and welcome them into church membership (you can do all of these in a single day at Saddleback) have often caused alarm.

The role of pragmatism. In The Purpose Driven Church he makes a blanket statement that is really startling when you pause to consider it: “never criticize what God is blessing.” This kind of pragmatism in which faithfulness is judged by our perceived results is a hallmark of the Purpose Driven model of church.

So these critiques were in the back of my mind as I headed to Saddleback, as David kindly gave us a thorough tour of the facilities and as I attended the Saturday evening worship service. And I suppose they were just in the back of my mind as I spent perhaps a half hour with Warren after the service.

A few people have since asked me to describe my meeting with Warren. I don’t really know how or why I would do that. How or why would I evaluate and analyze a half-hour of mostly-random conversation? We sat down with no agenda and mostly just chatted. But what I will say is this: having met Warren and having spent a few hours at Saddleback I was at once impressed with his giftedness and confirmed in some of my concerns about his ministry. As an example of the former, he reads hundreds of books per year and just this year has already completed 18 of 26 volumes of the complete works of Jonathan Edwards (whom he regards as his hero). As an example of the latter, his sermon on Sunday used at least 6 Bible translations, some of which seemed to be chosen at the expense of the true meaning. So I guess I was confirmed in seeing that Warren is a pretty normal guy in most ways and an above average guy in other ways. I can see his passion for what he does—his passion for sharing Christ with the world. At the same time, I walked away realizing that many of my concerns are fair ones.

I want to affirm here, though, that I am allowed by Scripture to disagree with him. None of my critiques or concerns indicate that I think he is unsaved or deliberately doing things contrary to Scripture. Rather, I believe it is primarily that he and I read Scripture differently at certain points. We read the same words and come to different conclusions. If I did not believe my conclusions were the proper ones and if I did not believe they were important, I would have no reason to raise my concerns. Honestly, I feel that Warren is, in a sense, better than his theology—that with his intellect and knowledge of Scripture and expansive knowledge of what others have written, he ought to see a kind of disconnect between some of what he must believe and how this theology works itself out through his church. I wonder if he has paused to ask what Jonathan Edwards would have to say about his church, his books, his methods. So having spent time with the man and his ministry, and while granting that I saw just a brief glimpse of each, I want to affirm that there is much that seems sound but much else that bears a kind of iron-sharpening-iron kind of critique. Warren has thrust himself onto an international stage and therefore he cannot be surprised when he receives critique. If he were a small-town pastor in middle America, no one would be noticing and critiquing him. But as a pastor who prays at Presidential inaugurations and who has the ear of many world leaders, he has to expect that people will dissect his words. After all, as a Christian leader there are times when he represents all of us and there are times when hundreds of thousands of people are listening to his every word.

Somehow just meeting Warren reinforced in my mind the challenge we face as we reconcile ourselves to a fast-paced, digital world in which a person can quickly dash off a missive that can severely impact another person on the other side of the continent. It seems that ethics and morality have been a bit slow to catch up to ability in this new digital world. As I read those three reviews I realized that in each case there would be things I might say just a little differently. I am too often prone to forget that the authors whose books I review are real people and I am too quick to ignore my conscience when I consider whether the things I write and post online for all the world to read are things I would also say face-to-face. I hope this will help me in the future as I seek to be fair and godly in all that I write.

In November Zondervan will release The Hope You Need, the long-awaited follow-up to The Purpose Driven Life and one that is based on the Lord’s Prayer (which, in turn, was the subject of an eight-part sermon series). I intend to review this book as I’ve reviewed each of his other titles. But I think, having met Warren and having met the people who work with him, I can honestly say that this review will be a little bit different. It will come from a new perspective and, I hope, be as fair as I know how to Warren, to Saddleback and to Scripture.