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Veneration Gap

A week ago Suzanne Sataline published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Veneration Gap: A Popular Strategy For Church Growth Splits Congregants.” The article examines several examples of churches that have experienced great trial and turmoil as a result of attempting to become Purpose Driven. The article does not seem to be an attempt to prove that Purpose Driven principles are inherently evil or that they always cause conflict. Rather, it seems that Sataline is attempting to show that the transition from traditional to Purpose Driven can be a difficult one and is not always as easy as people may believe.

Through the article she discusses four churches:

Iuka Baptist Church in Mississippi is a Southern Baptist congregation that lost 40 members after voting to throw a deacon off the board for publicly taking a stand against a transition; Valley View Christian Church in Dallas expanded their sanctuary five years ago to accommodate an influx of new members that would follow their decision to adopt the five Purpose Driven principles. About 200 people refused to get on board with the transition and left to form a new church; First Baptist Church of Lakewood in Long Beach, California has seen attendance fall from 700 to 550 after the pastor led the church through a transition about seven years ago; Brookwood Church in Burlington, North Carolina has had attendance fall from 600 to 275 since becoming Purpose Driven.

Sataline mentions an organization called Church Transitions Inc., which exists to help churches move through the transition from traditional to Purpose Driven. She seems to target them as a cause of many of the problems. While it is not directly affiliated with Purpose Driven, Rick Warren does endorse this organization. Warren wrote the foreword to Transitioning, a textbook for the transition written by Dan Southerland who serves as President of Church Transitions. Warren writes, “This is a book to be studied, not just read. To get the most out of it I encourage you to purchase a copy for each of your staff and study it together, one chapter at a time, as many have already done with The Purpose Driven Church. … If you are a pastor or a key leader in an established church—this manual will help you implement the principles of being purpose driven. So go for it!” Here is what Sataline writes about the organization:

Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops. Speakers at Church Transitions Inc., a Waxhaw, N.C., nonprofit that works closely with Mr. Warren’s church, stress that the transition will be rough. At a seminar outside of Austin, Texas, in April, the Revs. Roddy Clyde and Glen Sartain advised 80 audience members to trust very few people with their plans. “All the forces of hell are going to come at you when you wake up that church,” said Mr. Sartain, who has taught the material at Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church.

During a session titled “Dealing with Opposition,” Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don’t stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

“There are moments when you’ve got to play hardball,” said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions’ president, in an interview. “You cannot transition a church…and placate every whiny Christian along the way.”

Philip Ryken, pastor Tenth Presybterian Church in Philadelphia, having read this, writes: “While I am sensitive to the difficulties of dealing with whiny Christians, and while I recognize that there are times when Christians need to go separate ways for ministry, I also seem to recall that there are biblical guidelines for dealing with differences in an open, honest, and charitable way.” Surely there are, but the methods outlined in Transitioning are not all that conducive to reconciliation or negotiation. A person is offered only two choices: get with the program or get out.

I found it interesting that Sataline’s article revolves around numbers. She proves that the Purpose Driven method is fallible by citing statistics showing church memberships falling, sometimes drastically. This is largely the same methodology used by Purpose Driven and Church Transitions to measure success. As if to emphasize the concerns of those who believe that the church growth movement is driven by pragmatism, the author’s bio in Transitioning says “Dan Southerland is the pastor/teacher at Flamingo Road Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—a purpose-driven, contemporary congregation that has grown from 300 in 1989 to over 2,300 today and launched seventeen other churches.” The author’s sole credential is that he has made the Purpose Driven principles work by seeing the requisite numerical growth. For many who are eager to adopt Purpose Driven principles, this is enough.

That there are churches struggling with a transition to Purpose Driven methodology does not surprise me, for I read the textbook to transitioning a couple of years ago. If The Purpose Driven Church is the “what” and “why” of the church growth movement and all things Purpose Driven, Transitioning represents the “how.” “If the thought of switching from a traditional church to a purpose-driven church leaves you with mingled feelings of excitement and fear, good! It means that, as a pastor, you know the incalculable worth of aligning your church with God’s vision…Transitioning is written for you.” (From the back cover). We also learn from the cover that the book will help a pastor and congregation navigate change and attain rewards that far exceed the risk. Essentially, this book is a how-to guide for changing an existing church from program-driven to purpose-driven. It is written by Dan Southerland, but endorsed by Rick Warren who says that Southerland’s church is “one of the most exciting and encouraging examples of transitioning from being program driven to purpose driven.” (From the foreword) In my review I outlined several concerns with the book and the methodology:

First, the principles within this book are steeped in pragmatism. What works is elevated far above what Scripture teaches. If it works, in the author’s view, it must be good. This is, of course, consistent with The Purpose Driven Church which is modeled as much on Peter Drucker as on the Bible.

Second, the author misuses Scripture. The web site for Church Transitions says the model is “Biblical—based on the book of Nehemiah.” In a vain attempt to lend Scriptural credence to the book, the author bases the process of transition on the model of Nehemiah, who led the Israelites in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Many of these parallels are forced and the Scripture simply does not support the conclusions. For example, when discussing the reality and inevitability of opposition, Southerland writes about Sanballat and his opposition to Nehemiah’s work (see Nehemiah chapters 2 and 4). Of course there is vast difference between opposition raised by a hostile unbeliever and a concerned believer! Southerland, though, groups all those who oppose change as Sanballats. In the Church Transitions model there is little room for the concerns of other believers.

Third, the author does away with biblical models of leadership. One of the necessary steps in moving to a Purpose Driven church is to make the church staff led instead of committee/deacon led. Rather than having a plurality of elders, a church should have a vision team which is composed of dreamers and power brokers, so that the church becomes led by those who dream big and those who have the money and power within the church. But what of the biblical qualifications for leadership? What of elders, deacons and proper church government?

Fourth, the churches the author proposes are custom-built to appeal to a very limited element of society. It is not mere chance that the author’s church had the average age of attender fall nearly 20 years over his transition period. The church was custom made to appeal to a certain element of society at the expense of others. Who is building and planting churches designed to appeal to the elderly? This model would deem a church successful that has driven away the elderly and replaced the pews with people in their teens and twenties.

Fifth, there is little consideration given to whether this transition is right or biblical. We are to blindly accept that it is the way to do church and to begin the process, regardless of what other church members may desire. The first step in transition is creating a vision. This teaching about vision is something that is in-line with the teachings of Schuller, Warren, Wilkinson, Blackaby and the New Age - we are to dream a big dream, call it vision, and raise that up as our standard. Decisions are made and programs are accepted or rejected based on their conformity to this vision. Yet this vision is created by a man. He may ascribe it to God and it may be biblical, but it needs to be regarded as a lower standard than the Word of God!

Sixth, the method is brutal in its dealing with opposition. There is no latitude given for those who oppose the change, even if they object on biblical grounds. Criticism is viewed as inevitable and unfortunate, but ultimately an attack on God Himself. The pastor is cautioned to remain on track with the change and not allow opposers to derail the process.

I wrote these six concerns after reading the book and evaluating Southerland’s methodology and his supposed biblical support for it. It seems that Sataline’s proves these concerns to be valid, for all of them are illustrated in her article. While Purpose Driven principles may seem innocuous, wise pastors and leaders will count the cost before dedicating themselves to them.