There is little doubt that many modern churches are failing to grow and flourish. New churches are planted only to wither and die while established churches are stagnant, growing only from within. Rick Warren, pastor and founder of one of America’s largest churches, Saddleback Valley Community Church, wrote The Purpose Driven Church to address the failures of today’s churches. The book outlines the principles he used to establish his church and seeks to apply these principles to all churches, whether they are established or newly planted. Since it’s publication in 1995, this book has served as a manual to thousands of other churches and Warren’s model has been used across the globe to start a whole new breed of church. Terms you may hear in association with this model are “Purpose Driven” and “church growth movement.”
Warren’s approach centers on something that is startling in its simplicity. Every church needs to be defined by a purpose. Warren states, “Until you know what your church exists for, you have no foundation, no motivation, and no direction for ministry.” (p. 81) Without a clear purpose statement a church is just drifting. This statement of purpose is something the church must devote time and attention to as they seek to find a direction that will steer them. The purpose statement should always be made to fulfill The Great Commission and should be concise and result-oriented. Once formulated, this purpose statement will be the guide to future decisions about the church. When faced with a tough decision, perhaps about a new program or a new ministry, the church leaders need only look to the purpose statement. If the new program or ministry will fulfill one of the purposes, “…do it. If it doesn’t, don’t do it.” (p. 88) Anything in the church that goes against one of those purposes is to be immediately removed. Essentially, the church is like a business. The church has to be molded to appeal to and be relevant to the consumer (the unbeliever).
Once a church has a defined purpose it is time to reach the lost. To do this it is crucial that the church remain relevant to society. This is done by meeting the felt needs of the culture and community. Purpose Driven churches are well known for studying demographics and performing surveys. By understanding their potential audience and knowing the needs of these people, the church can create programs and ministries that will address the specific needs around them. Warren states that it is his “deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart.” (p. 219) After you discover the key to a person’s heart he or she will be drawn to your church. Once that person is attending, it is the pastor’s job to preach to his or her felt needs. This is based on “the theological fact that God chooses to reveal himself to man according to our needs! Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with examples of this.” (p. 295).
A large portion of the book is devoted to the process of moving people from the community (unbelievers) to the crowd (church attenders) and to the congregation (believers) and ultimately to the core of the church where they are leading or participating in one of the church’s ministries. The author lays out many principles that will lead and mentor new believers and help them grow in the their faith and commitment.
Overall, I found this book both inspiring and disappointing. Warren has many, many things to say that are of great value. I have spent many years in churches that had no purpose and no direction. Certainly a purpose has to be of great value. The view that preaching should be relevant and apply to our lives is critical. In the end, though, I believe the book to be predicated on some false and potentially dangerous ideas.
Many of Warren’s ideas are imported directly from the business world. Time and again he refers to concepts found in the marketing and business world. His view is that the church needs to be run like a business. There is a danger here, though, in that in the world of business and marketing the customer is always right. Whatever the customer desires or demands is what we have to give him. In Christianity the exact opposite is true. It is God, not the consumer (unbeliever) who is sovereign. We need, then, to be careful how far we go in shaping our church, as God’s commands have to come before the demands of unbelievers.
Warren is a pragmatist. As such he believes and teaches that the result is more important than the method. Probably the most startling statement in the entire book is “never criticize what God is blessing.” (p. 62) He makes several such statements in The Purpose Driven Church but fails to provide a system to properly discern what God is blessing, other than the results. To place ultimate importance in the results is a grievous error. Numbers are not necessarily indicative of God’s blessing. We need to refer everything to God’s Word. Only by using the Scripture as the ultimate test can we have complete confidence in God’s will.
Finally, the author continuously states that the Bible gives many examples of Jesus and the apostles relating to our felt needs. I see little evidence of this. It seems to me that anytime Jesus preached towards a felt need it was that one great need; namely, the need for us to believe in Him for our salvation. In preaching a gospel based on our needs we need to be careful that we don’t turn the gospel around and make it about us when in reality the gospel is about God whom we have all rejected.
In the final analysis I would recommend this book to any discerning Christian. For a believer who is able to read it with discernment and see beyond the dangerous and false presuppositions there is much to learn. Just do not blindly accept Warren’s formula for a successful church.