Church Education Trust

5.1 Saddleback changes the substance of the Gospel message.                     

Warren clearly argues that while we may be “innovative with the style of ministry, we must never alter the substance of it”.[1] Some would suggest that Warren radically changes the substance of the message. Saddleback’s ecclesiology reflects a de-emphasising of essential truth which re-defines the Christian message to suit the method of delivery.

Warren’s hermeneutics corroborates this conclusion. Historically evangelical theology can be defined and assessed by Biblical inspection, no longer is that the case for the PDC ecclesiology. Warren has set out to re-define Christian message in a way that only pays loose attention to biblical teaching.

His approach to evangelism is summed up when he said that,Church programmes must compete with everything else in our entertainment – obsessed culture. The only way a church can capture the attention of the unchurched culture is by offering them something they cannot get somewhere else.[2]  

That approach, allows Warren to be selective in how and what he uses to support his idea of ministry and to be able to de-emphasise any teaching that would hinder his ministry’s success. This pragmatic approach could be classified as no more than a redefined liberal attitude to biblical truth.

Warren’s journey from evangelical belief to a liberal ministry practice which is seeker sensitive is developed as Schuller suggests by placing humankind in the centre of the church and removing God to the periphery.

There are a number of serious criticisms that have been made against Warren, Saddleback Ecclesiology and his books, “The Purpose Driven Church and the Purpose Driven Life”. Some of the criticisms are recorded in a book entitled, “Rick Warren and the Purpose that Drives Him” by Richard Abanes, who worked for Saddleback and is a personal friend of Warren. Warren has been directly accused of “heresy” and a “dispenser of poison”.[3]

Others argued that Warren promoted a false spirituality. Abanes[4] who has been given permission by Warren to read all relevant materials concerning the Ecclesiology of Saddleback which have been recorded in transcripts, sermons notes, seminar materials and other documentation paints a completely other picture.

Abanes assessment of those materials caused him to conclude, that “Warren has expressed his absolute dedication to defending the faith, his unwavering commitment to the purity of his historic Christian Gospel and his love for his fellow pastors”.[5]  Warren suggested that Saddleback was a new paradigm in ecclesiology and yet in speaking to Abanes he suggests that “I am calling for a return to 19th century evangelicalism”[6] of Spurgeon and Booth for they stood for the “whole gospel, for the whole man, for the whole world”.[7]

Warren argues that the New Reformation that is seen in Saddleback’s ecclesiology “is not about creeds, it’s about deeds. It’s not about beliefs it’s about behaviour”.[8] He goes on to say we have the doctrinal beliefs, now we need a reformation of behaviour. Warren’s approach is clearly based in evangelical belief and practice.

Others have accused him of only caring about numbers but he categorically suggests that the most important church experience is that of church health. Another challenge for Warren was to live in the light of the critics who linked him closely to Schuller. Abanes in conversation with Warren suggests, there has been a real problem for you over many years, that Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller are your mentors, Warren categorically refuted this and said, “No, never has been, never would be”.[9] 

When asked if there was anyway to be saved outside of a personal faith in the historic Jesus Christ of the Bible, Warren immediately answered, “absolutely not”[10] he goes on to quote John 14:6 , “I am the way, the truth and the life no man comes to the Father accept through me”. While all this information is positively supportive of Warren’s evangelical credentials, he does have difficulties with his hermeneutics and that causes considerable doubt over what he may believe in private with what he preaches in public.

From the beginning Warren would have known that Saddleback’s seeker sensitive process would eventually clash with the traditional evangelical practices of mission. The area of dispute had to be message and method. Warren certainly has an obligation and responsibility to face his legitimate critics. It is unfortunate that Warren does not exonerate his ecclesiological message and methodology with a real sense of openness.

It may well be that Warren is a much better pastor and leader than he is a theologian. He admits that Saddleback “has been dissected, scrutinized, analysed and summarised by minds far better endowed than mine”.[11] Ultimately Warren’s Purpose Driven Church is measured by its faithfulness to biblical and hermeneutical interpretation and its orthodoxy.

5.2 Hermeneutical Challenges.

There are a number of important points which need to be made with regard to Warren’s hermeneutical processes. It must be noted that Warren draws conclusions and applications from scripture even though the text does not support such a conclusion.The key issue for Warren was how to balance the commands of scripture with the demands of pragmatism.

Peter Wagner’s words would give encouragement to Warren,The CGM has always stressed pragmatism and still does even though many have criticised it. It is not the kind of pragmatism that compromises doctrines or ethics or the kind that dehumanises people as a means to an end. It is, however, the kind of consecrated pragmatism which ruthlessly examines traditional methodologies and programs asking the tough questions.[12]   

5.2.1 Seeker Sensitive Credibility.

The PDC`s seeker sensitive ministry is absolutely key in the construction of Warren’s ecclesiology. Warren’s belief that he needed biblical support to give credibility to his seeker sensitive model caused him to search for suitable biblical examples which would support and give validity to his ecclesiology.

Warren interprets Jesus’s interaction with a group of people as seeker sensitive, “what do you want me to do for you?” Warren taught that Jesus questioned the crowd to gain an understanding of their felt needs. In discovering those needs Warren believed that Jesus had found a “key” to bring them to salvation. His logical conclusion was that “anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart felt needs”.[13]

This type of interpretation of scripture is common with churches who practice the “seeker sensitive” approach but in reality the use of scripture in this way is flawed. To suggest that Jesus was searching for people’s felt needs is to miss interpret the miracles stories of the gospels. In almost every case, the miracles stories are concerned with revealing not felt needs of his hearers but revealing Jesus as the Messiah. Miraculous interventions such as healings or exorcisms happened to reveal the identity of Jesus.

After Jesus carried out miracles of healing, Matthew immediately reminds his readers, that this was carried out to fulfil what spoken by Isaiah the prophet, “He himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases”.[14] The miracles that Jesus carried out were not to meet the felt needs of those around him but to announce to the crowd who He was. This is a key mistake and an intentional interpretation that Warren seems to make in his search of scripture to validate his seeker sensitive ecclesiology.

5.2.2 Seeker Sensitive Preaching.

The PDC model claims that Jesus attracted people because of the practical and interesting way he preached. Warren supports this proposition by using passages found in Matthew’s Gospel ch. 7:28 and 22:23, but in reality Christ’s preaching was not just interesting and practical it was totally authorative and at times people were greatly offended by his words and to such a degree that some wanted to kill him.

Warren had to find a way to justify presenting only the positive benefits of following Christ at the expense of not clarifying the offence of the gospel. At best this is bad hermeneutics at worst de-emphasising truth to cater for the felt needs of the hearers.

5.2.3 Seeker Sensitive Worship.

Warren uses 1 Cor.14:23 to support sensitive seeker worship.  Paul encourages the believers to refrain from speaking in tongues, for if unbelievers come into the fellowship they will think that you are mad. Warren suggests that, “God tells us to be sensitive to the hang ups of unbelievers in our services. Being seeker sensitive in our worship is a biblical command”.[15]

Warren needed to remember what he demanded of those who would assess Saddleback’s ecclesiology, they must take time to understand Saddleback’s context.[16] If Warren had applied his own advise to himself and tried to understand the context out of which these words of Paul were written, he would have seen that it was the edification of the church and that he was teaching that prophecy or preaching had a more important role to play in the church than tongues.

Paul was not advocating seeker sensitive worship nor was he encouraging the accommodating of the spirit of the age, he was encouraging the believers to glorify God in their worship practices.

5.2.4 Seeker Sensitive Methodology. 

Luke 5:38 (new wine skins) is used by the Purpose Driven Movement suggesting that this scripture proves the need for new methods of communicating the gospel. In actuality Jesus is making a distinct point concerning his Messianic identity and also about his Incarnation. His physical presence was a time of feasting, not fasting, that is what Jesus was teaching and not that the time had come for new ministry methodology.

Warren has tried to defend his seeker sensitive model but his hermeneutical approach to the scriptures ignores the context of the text, thereby making the scripture to mean what he wants as opposed to what the writer intended. Warren’s hermeneutical approach to the scriptures had to change simply because as a seeker sensitive church the audience needs were optimum, therefore of necessity he had to replace exposition of the scriptures with need meeting messages. 

He de-emphasised doctrines on Judgement, holiness and righteousness, while heavily focusing on the parental love of God and interpreting scripture to support the existence of seeker sensitive approach.[17] This is very dangerous hermeneutic and has consequences for the development of any ecclesiology. Warren’s strategy in developing his seeker sensitive ecclesiology was to reconstruct his approach to preaching, worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism.

5.3 Methodological Difficulties.

Warren advocates that the church should not be driven by personalities, programmes, finance, buildings, seekers or events[18]  but driven by purpose. He suggests that “absolutely nothing will revitalise a discouraged church faster than rediscovering its purpose”.[19] The Bible does not ascribe that the growth of the church happens because of the purposes of God, it happens because of the power of God.

In Isaiah 55:10-11 the distinction between God’s word and his purposes is clarified. Isaiah taught that it is God’s word that accomplishes his purposes and that Isaiah understands God to clearly distinguish between the two.

Paul underlines this is the New Testament when he says “that I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe”. While the purposes for the church that Warren highlights are sourced from the Bible, they in themselves are not the driving power for the church.

God’s word supplies the power for His purposes, while Warren over emphasises the purposes of God at the expense of `Word and power.` As we have seen he places his purpose principles above the word for he returns to the word to find scripture to support his ecclesiological model.

5.3.1 Message and Method.

Warren suggests, “never confuse methods with message. The message must never change, but the methods must change with each new generation”.[20] Reverting back to Isaiah 55:10-11, the writer indicates as this thesis has already suggested that message and method cannot be separated.

This conclusion is based on the fact that God is committed to accomplish that which he purposes and he does so by means of his word which logically concludes that method and message are inseparable. If one advocated that possibility of separating message from method then one arrives at the point of suggesting whatever method works best in promoting the gospel that method should then be used.

Warren takes that position, “you must figure out what works out best to reach seekers in your local context”.[21] This is a real area of contention and criticism of Warren’s method of delivering the gospel. In following this model Warren has to measure success by numbers, if numbers equal success, then it is logical to conclude that numbers justify the use of a particular method, be it Biblical or not.

The Seeker sensitive model is all about numbers; it is designed to increase the size of your congregation. Method then determines the quality of your message and its effectiveness in a given community. By uniting around Saddleback’s purposes as opposed to the scriptures the possibility of a pure delivery of the gospel is lost to a delivery of “purpose”, which becomes the replacement for the gospel.

The outworking of this is a more liberal position which indicates theological weakness and undermines the uniting around the gospel as it unites around perceived purposes of God.

5.3.2 Ecclesial Unity or Disunity

In the 20th century many evangelicals placed “purpose” as a priority above the understanding of the scripture and by so doing found themselves embracing a false ecumenism with liberal churches.[22]Church history reflects that when the purpose of evangelism replaces the gospel itself, then the very message of the gospel can no longer regulate the purpose.

When evangelical Christians unite with liberal Christians their unity became a false unity for they were united in purpose only and not united through the message. Warren’s over emphasis on purpose may well develop what may be considered as a false unity and there by be contrary to biblical principle.

[1] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 99.
[2] Warren, TPDC, 227f.
[3] Abanes, Rick Warren And The Purpose That Drives Him, 13.
[4] Abanes, Rick Warren And The Purpose That Drives Him, 13.
[5] Abanes, RWATPTDH, 14.
[6] Abanes, RWATPTDH, 25.
[7] Abanes, RWATPTDH, 25.
[8] Abanes, RWATPTDH, 25.
[9] Abanes, RWATPTDH, 29.
[10] Abanes, Rick Warren And The Purpose That Drives Him, 31.
[11] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 21.
[12] C.Peter Wagner, Leading Your Church to Growth, Ventura, California, Regal, 1984, 201.
[13] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 220.

[14] Matthew, 8:14-17.

[15] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 243.
[16] Warren, TPDC, 27.

[17] Kimon H. Sargeant, Seeker Churches, New Brunswick, NJ., Rutgers University Press, 2000, 93. 

[18] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 75.
[19] Warren, TPDC, 82.
[20] Warren, TPDC, 61.
[21] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 248.
[22] Ian Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, Carlisle, PA, Banner of Truth, 2000.

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©2008 Church Education Trust