In Britain, a number of churches which have stood for better things than shallow decisionism are now opening their minds and hearts to these progressive, contemporary music-based church growth methods. To preach and pray for conviction of sin is becoming unfashionable, while the mission to bridge the gulf between world and church, at any price, is in vogue.
Since the beginning of the 1960s the apostles of the modern church growth movement, by a flood of books, articles and seminars, have been sweeping away the old simple trust in powerful soul-winning preaching. Many have made their names inventing gimmicks, entertainment-style techniques and processes designed to improve upon the presumed inability of the Holy Spirit to win souls on the scale they would like to see.
Perhaps the most widely circulated book of this genre in the last decade is one entitled The Purpose Driven Church, by Dr. Rick Warren, Pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Southern California. This book's subtitle promises - 'Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission'. Surprisingly, despite its transparently Arminian and decisionistic character, Rick Warren's manual is currently being recommended in this country by some who claim to be reformed in their theology.
This reviewer is totally committed to the great commission to preach the Gospel persuasively and constantly to the very maximum extent, and to press and encourage others to do the same. But he believes that books of this kind do not help Christians do this as Almighty God wants it to be done, and this is very serious.
A few general comments on this and similar books will curtail the length of this review. There are at least nine points of striking similarity between, pretty well, all modern church growth books. Readers are invited to watch out for these if they find themselves weighing the merits of any of them.
Church Growth Books: What they all have in common
1. The first similarity is a common rule of approach - that successful evangelism is all about bridging the gap between the outsider and the church. No longer should the church appeal to the world from a separate and distinctive platform. The idea is that any visible differences must be reduced to the very minimum in order to make the church acceptable to worldly minds. 'We are the same as you!' we must now cry. 'We have something good to give you, and it will not involve you in any great change. Look at us - with few exceptions we have the same tastes and lifestyle as you. You will be at home with us.' Christians in the West have become increasingly 'worldly' over the last forty years, and the modern church growth philosophy has provided a powerful spur and justification to this trend.
2. The second similarity among church growth books is their underlying rationalism. They all underestimate the work of the Spirit in conversion, believing that rational forces help to influence people to 'make decisions' for Christ, and therefore that the most effective influences must be brought to bear. We should find the best techniques, and press the right buttons to get the response we desire.
3. The third similarity is that nearly all church-growth books go for deliberate imitation of whatever or whoever appears to be successful in evangelism. Biblical principles are thrown aside as they seek to identify models of growth so that these may be copied. Their prize models often include some of the most disreputable (theologically) and compromised churches on earth, the very last places where we would expect to see a genuine work of God.
4. The fourth similarity is that all these books reveal a hideously shallow view of conversion. Any commitment will do. Any kind of momentary and emotional response arising from entertainment style evangelism is fine and valid. (Some even applaud the 'conversions' of Catholics, syncretists, and other non-evangelical groups. If famous people can be claimed as converts, so much the better, even if it is obvious that these people do not attempt to live Christian lives. Commitments to Christ, generated by Social Gospel activities and healing ministries, are also approved by most authors.) The latest books strongly discourage talk of repentance, as this is considered too negative and offensive. To refer to sin as though it were willful and guilt-incurring is particularly disapproved of.
5. The fifth similarity is that these books are entirely preoccupied with quantity rather than quality. For them... evangelism is all about numbers, not holiness of life, personal devotion and service. (In this connection most authors discard child evangelism, regarding it as outmoded and not labor-effective. Sunday Schools for children are to a great extent age-segregated indoctrination tools for long-term ministries, and so there is no heart and concern for them, not to mention, they’re not Biblical.)
6. The sixth similarity is that all these writers are 'modernists' in the sense that they never go back before the 1950s for their models of church growth. For them, the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are all unprofitable times for gleaning help, because those preachers followed the direct-proclamational methods of the New Testament. The great days of reformation and true revival are passed over as irrelevant. Blatant emotional manipulation is today’s method.
7. The seventh similarity is the blatant advocacy of emotional manipulation in gaining responses. Commitments to Christ, some say, can only be secured by cultivation of meaningful relationships (and use of the 'right music' !). Friendship evangelism is the key, and peer groups, house groups, teen groups, and so on must be set up so that friendship groups become so important to people, that they will “accept” the Lord. The same policy of manipulation lies behind the proliferation of special 'hurting groups', usually characterized by mutual rehearsing of trials and heartaches. Within each group, emotional catharsis will evoke the sense of belonging that will produce a commitment to Christianity. It is all a matter of reducing that gap and drawing as close as possible to people. Typical groups would be those struggling with the trials of addiction, loneliness, singleness or divorce. Such groups appear well-intended, but their use is prescribed by the church growth experts as a conscious technique of manipulation, or soul management.
8. The eighth similarity is not far removed from the hurting groups just referred to. It is the strategy of class targeting - advocated by all the later church growth authors. We are repeatedly told to aim at the most vulnerable or responsive class (which in the USA is often the young, urban, middle-class professional). Sometimes separate churches are advocated for different groupings to avoid “loving” one kind of person ' turning off ' another. As a church grows it may be able to extend its target further than the chosen main aim. To focus on a particular group enables a church to tailor itself exactly to that group's desires, needs and tastes, thus more effectively reducing the gap between church and world.
9. Rather than coming out from among them and being separate, shaping the church to fit the world is what is popular. Greg Laurie, the “Dapper Pastor”, “Rockin Reverend” and his ‘Rockin Revival’ are held up as models of “the way to do it.” Overall, the church growth books share great enthusiasm for contextualisation, by which almost everything is open to adaptation in the
interest of shaping and molding the church to suit the world. The belief that there is a distinctive Christian culture for churches, taught in Scripture, is generally rejected, and the necessity pressed of conforming to what is acceptable and attractive to unconverted people in any given age or district.
The latest adaptation is the now familiar 'seeker sensitive' service, and though the book to be reviewed did not originate the idea, it builds upon it with total approval. The Purpose Driven Church is the work of a compelling writer, and from its publication in 1995 it has been a bestseller. The author is firmly Arminian and pragmatic in outlook, coming from that wing of the Southern Baptist denomination in the USA. His church in Southern California has been called the fastest-growing Baptist church in the history of America. It is currently situated on a 74-acre, campus, and has over 10,000 people. The style of the book is popular and persuasive, although there is a considerable amount of repetition. Once again, the reviewer feels a need to stress that he believes wholeheartedly in fervent and strenuous activity to reach lost souls for Christ, and the preaching of the of salvation for sinners many, on the largest possible scale. Nevertheless, it must be God's way that we follow, and not humanly devised substitutes. Rick Warren begins his book with a surfing analogy, contending that God makes the waves of church growth, and church leaders must learn to ride those waves. Today, he says, God is creating wave after wave of people receptive to the Gospel, but because of widespread ignorance of the techniques of evangelistic surf-riding, churches are missing out on the blessing. The author believes he can equip the churches to ride God's waves of blessing. If they do not learn the techniques, people will not be saved. Especially emphasized as a vital part of evangelistic surf-riding is the need to be on the front line of progressive and contemporary methods and music. Pragmatism is extolled in the words - 'Stop praying, "Lord bless what I'm doing," and start praying, "Lord help me do what You are blessing. " '
In other words, copy the person who is right up to the minute in riding those waves of success. As the saying goes, if it works it must be right. Rick Warren himself says, 'Never criticize any method that God is blessing.' He also asserts that methods will and must change with every generation. (situational ethics/gospel?) Thin on biblical justification This book is pretty thin as far as biblical justification goes. There certainly are some biblical arguments, but they hardly ever have any connection with the tactics presented. Paul's exhortation, for example, to build on the one foundation of Jesus Christ in I Corinthians 3, is employed as the authority for having a purpose-driven church. But this text gives no support whatever to the details which emerge of Warren's blueprint. If readers are not vigilant they may be satisfied that the book is based on the Bible, but if they look even moderately carefully they will notice that the sense of a text is always bent considerably to fit what the author is advancing. At one point Rick Warren points to Jerusalem and Corinth as being different, thus justifying widely differing techniques in evangelism. But neither church adopted methods anything like those advanced in this book. The author urges us to look at them, but our gaze is then whisked away, lest we should notice that they do not give credibility to his ideas. Much of the use of Scripture is simply preposterous, as when the author tries to prove that the Lord Jesus chose limited targets for evangelism in the way his book advocates. The proof, believe it or not, is that Christ went to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and (initially) refused to help the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15. Equally, He sent the disciples on a mission (Matthew 10) to go only to Israel. But there is a special reason for the initial focus on Israel, as everyone knows. The author's use of Scripture throughout is similarly flimsy.
We understand, however, that Dr Rick Warren's personality is so earnest and warm that he wins over thousands of pastors to his ideas in seminars all over the world. Extreme Arminian “theology”, actually humanism, Rick Warren tells us that he researched the 100 largest churches in the USA to form his views, and then founded one in the fastest-growing bit of the USA. He considered carefully which style of worship would be the best for his area. At the very first event 60 people attended and five gave their lives to Christ. At the first public service 205 attended and 82 professed Christ. On one occasion 367 were baptized in a high school pool. The huge numbers of instant conversions surely reflects the author's extreme Arminian theology and his shallow notion of a decision for Christ. Much emphasis is placed on the need to explain and keep before the congregation the church's ' mission statement ', which, once you get to the details, is an extremely subjective, person-centered affair. The book then launches into a system to carry out the mission statement. Amidst a jumble of wholesome - if rather obvious - statements, 'big secrets' abound, along with anecdotes of success. Much is argued from a kind of 'natural theology', such as earthly fishing techniques. The author's keenness to proliferate charts and tabulated approaches is seen throughout. Great importance is attached to stratifying a church into five categories, namely
1. Contacts (unchurched, occasional attendees)
2. Regular attendees
3. Official members (baptized and committed)
4. Seriously committed
5. Dedicated leaders and workers.
The author seems to present this as something hugely innovative, but so far as this reviewer is aware, most pastors would think in these terms naturally. The startling thing about Rick Warren's categories is the difference between No.3 and No.4 - members and seriously committed. The latter, category No.4, is made up of people pledged to have quiet times, tithe, and be active in one of the church groups. This is one of the great 'giveaways' in the book. Baptized members make no such pledge. They are not even expected to ensure that they have a quiet time. They do not have to be even moderately serious in their Christian life. Small wonder they can baptize so many if so little is expected of 'converts'. The chief methods advocated by the book involve group evangelism, and 'bridge' events (which may be anything from anniversary and harvest
festival events, ala Greg Laurie, to seeker sensitive services).
Dr? Warren tells us that we should target people like ourselves. He believes that pastors each have a uniqueness and suitability for a certain kind of person. If there is no culture match for us in our neighborhood, then we should move on. We will attract, says Warren, people like ourselves. Cultural match is regarded as extremely important. It is not so much the Word, or the power of the Spirit that matters, but that our personality matches that of our target group. Sow only in fertile soil, says the author. Aim at people in new marriages, with new babies, or a new home, or a new job, or new school. God, it is claimed, uses change. High-touch ministry Exercise a high-touch ministry, says the author. Put an arm round many a shoulder, and touch many hands. There are even woman-hugging anecdotes.
To Warren it is all good emotional manipulation, even if it transgresses the rules of caution concerning over-familiarity across the sexes. Rick Warren's decided Arminianism shows constantly, especially in such comments as - 'Anyone can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart.' His methods may not be in the Bible, but with Dr Warren there is always powerful anecdotal proof. Many who have taken his advice, he tells us, have had their lives and ministries turned round.
Will readers, we wonder, believe the chain of amazingly triumphant anecdotes? For this reviewer they are all too perfect, too wonderful, too self-justifying, and too rose-tinted. Rick Warren tells us that at his church, 'We remove hundreds of names from our membership each year.' He must often have been challenged about the high rate of falling away in churches following his easy-believist methodology, but he steers round that with a classic misuse of the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13. To be superficial is a-okay, he tell us, for Jesus said, 'Don't worry about the tares mixed in among the wheat. One day I'll separate them.' Warren wrongly interprets the field as standing for the church, whereas, if he were to read Christ's own explanation of the parable, he would learn that it represents the world. However, he dismisses any effort to be careful about professions, and to be concerned about building a regenerate church membership. In other words, he has no fear of building a church of wood, hay and stubble, contrary to the apostolic warning.
Is this really the counsel soul-winners want to heed? Like many advocates of progressive methods in evangelism, the author equates 'traditionalists' with Pharisees. All non-Pharisees, he assumes, will welcome the central feature of his church growth policy - entertainment. Having organized seeker sensitive services so that decor, atmosphere and everything else is just right, music then becomes a key factor. Match music to targeted people It is important that people should not be put off, and therefore the style of music must be selected to match the taste of targeted people. If other potential attendees want a different style, then a separate service will need to be organized for them. The ideal is to have different services to suit different tastes. The author tells us he has employed jazz, country, rock, reggae and rap on the basis that there is no such thing as sacred music.
Some of his approaches are justified by hit-and-run references to various historical figures, but these are usually superficial and deeply flawed. One has fears that less well-informed readers may trust the wild statements the author makes about past worthies. They are usually dashing, and amusing, but never accurate. Repeating myths is his methodology. The author, for example, ridicules all resistance to contemporary music in church by claiming that what is now traditional was once rejected as innovative and worldly. To prove this we are given glib statements such as the assertion that Spurgeon despised the contemporary worship songs of his day - the very items now revered as traditional. Needless to say no references or examples are given, and not surprisingly as the statement is completely untrue. The hymns and tunes we receive today, as being in line with the age-old standards of reverent worship, were not criticized by Spurgeon. The idea is invented. We also find the old chestnut repeated that revered tunes were originally
tavern songs. The case for contemporary music is too often based on such myths, and on slipshod homework. The promoters of progressive worship always seem to take this course to ridicule the biblical standard of separation between sacred and profane. At all costs the format of the seeker sensitive meeting must get away from a traditionally reverent church service. 'Silence is scary to unchurched visitors,' says Warren. There should be much talking and hubbub among people at the beginning encouraged by loud background music. A 'bright, upbeat number' must launch the service.
The author's church boasts a complete pop/rock orchestra, and he advises churches that cannot assemble high-standard instrumentalists to use 'midi' technology through a synthesizer, so that drums and bass, or anything missing, can be added to live musicians. In seeker services he advocates the use of more performed music than congregational singing. A short chapter of Rick Warren's book is given over to the rather secondary matter of preaching. The method he advocates is to begin every sermon with a need, hurt or interest, moving on to 'what God has to say about it in His Word'. Beyond this, he gives no advice about content and method, only about peripheral matters such as making printed sermon outlines available, and choosing speakers carefully. This chapter moves swiftly to the need to offer believers an opportunity to respond to Christ. 'Too many pastors,' says the author, 'go fishing without ever reeling in the line or drawing up the net.' (The fishing analogy theology is seldom far away.)
A portion of the book entitled, 'How Jesus Attracted Crowds', contains hardly anything about the Lord apart from a few superficial comments. It is all about common-sense tips, some conventional and sensible, others gimmicky and emotionally manipulative. The longest passage about the Lord is a brief presentation of the Sermon on the Mount as a model of evangelistic address, but shorn of any note of repentance and focusing only on the availability of happiness. This hardly reminds one of the first public words of the Lord's ministry: 'Repent ye, and believe the gospel' (Mark 1.15).
Even though the author comes out of the apostate Southern Baptist Convention, Rick Warren has veered away from the Charles Finney/Billy Graham altar call, but only in method, not in principle. When the decision call comes, as the supreme object of the service, a model prayer is prayed, and people are asked to mark decision cards. The necessity of securing an immediate card response is stressed, and imaginative techniques suggested. Rick Warren's book, curiously, is full of 'fives'. Five elements appear repeatedly in the various charts of church conduct processes (presented in the style of an elementary business-studies course). It seems almost trivial to notice a missing 'five', namely the doctrines of grace.
This review has been very selective and sketchy (Rick Warren's book is almost 400 pages long). We have already observed that the author is apparently, a most attractive and persuasive speaker at seminars and conferences, possessing the ability and personality to win people to his ways. To a large extent this capacity comes through in print, but ...this material is nevertheless unbiblical, and harmful to true, God-honoring evangelism.
If it works at all in the UK and the US, it will only bring into churches unchanged, worldly-minded people, deluded into thinking they are born-again, trusting and resting in carnal security. We have seen this result already in many places, with churches ruined as a result. We can think of so many churches where the entertainment culture has so changed the character of the fellowship, that there seems no prospect of a sane, sound, truly spiritual witness being found in them again. Spiritual tragedy beckons When these methods began to appear in the 1960s we called them 'evangelism by entertainment', and sounder Christians rejected them. Their successors are now changing their minds, and spiritual tragedy beckons. Chuck Smith uses this methodology quite well. Lord help us.