Monday, September 11, 2006

Purpose-Driven Ponderings

Scot McKnight's blog directed us to this news article about the impact Rev. Rick Warren's bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, is having on many congregations that seek to implement its principles. McKnight has invited people to discuss questions related to using Warren's model in this way (What are its strengths and weaknesses? How appropriate or biblical is the model in the first place? What alternatives might one suggest?) over on his blog, but I have some comments about the news article itself.

First, a disclaimer. I have not read The Purpose Driven Life, perhaps largely because it reached such "cult status" so quickly. Such fads make me uncomfortable in the extreme. However, I will attempt not to comment on Rev. Warren's principles themselves, nor the book itself, out of such ignorance. I'm merely attempting to comment on what I glean from the news article.

The article notes that this movement is "dividing the country's more than 50 million evangelicals." I'm starting to become even more aware that there is a confusion about what the definition of "evangelical" is. I attempted to deal with some of this in the series of posts I started some time ago (I may at some point return to this, but I've had trouble figuring out what to say that wouldn't be absurdly obvious about the remaining points). But I had a conversation just this past weekend that demonstrated the popularity of the viewpoint that "evangelical" worship is seen by many as worship that takes place in a kind of sterile environment (often meeting in warehouses or other buildings devoid of traditionally Christian symbolism, even to the point of having no visible cross available in the worship space), singing a lot of praise songs or "Christian pop wannabees" to the exclusion of hymns, and that often espouses very conservative or literalist interpretations of Scripture. Despite the fact that I remain convinced that such churches are, at best, only a subset of "evangelicalism," this perception remains. And, although the news article does not indicate whether or not this kind of church represents the majority of the "more than 50 million evanglicals" it cites, it does seem clear that the specific congregations the article talks about tend to fit this rubric.

The focus of the article is a trend in which churches that seek to implement Rev. Warren's teachings are finding opposition from members within their congregations. Some members have left these churches. Others have been actively pushed out by their ruling bodies. Some churches are actively being split over these divisions. Although I am concerned about this phenomena, I do not claim to know enough at this time to comment on whether these divisions are, in and of themselves, the real problem.

Some specific comments in the article, however, do strike me as dangerous:
  1. "One goal [adopted by a particular church in Dallas, Texas] was to make sure more than 19% of the church's members were adults in their 20s and 30s."
I find this very troubling. Congregations should not be engineered to meet some "ideal" for meeting missional goals, however valuable the goals themselves may be. You work with the people you have. Recruitment is good, to be sure, but quotas are not. People should never be seen as pawns on a chess board.
  1. "During a session titled "Dealing with Opposition," [one of the seminar leaders] 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, [the seminar leader] instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role."
Wow! This is creepy beyond belief. Leaving aside whether or not it is appropriate to suggest that a problematic church member should leave your congregation, it is totally uncool to sabotage that member's chances of involvement in another church! (Note: I would understand if we were talking about suspected criminal behavior, such as abuse. Too often, abusive pastors or church leaders are merely kicked out of a congregation, but since no criminal offense has been proven, no warning is on record for potential future churches to be aware of, thus perpetuating the abusive cycle. However, there is absolutely no indication that this is the kind of "trouble" that this seminar leader is referring to.)
  1. "There are moments when you've got to play hardball[...] You cannot transition a church...and placate every whiny Christian along the way."
This may, in fact, be true, but this kind of defensiveness, and this attitude toward one's potential church members, strikes me as very unbecoming of a pastor. A pastor should seek to meet the spiritual needs of all Christians in the pastor's "flock," not "write off" some members as "whiny."

I'm not sure how much in these statements reflects Warren's own intentions for promoting change within churches. They may simply be the ways in which over-zealous followers have adopted Warren's teachings. Still, this one quote regarding Warren himself is mildly troubling:
His sermons rarely linger on self-denial and fighting sin, instead focusing on healing modern American angst, such as troubled marriages and stress.
Maybe there's no real problem here, but I personally do expect biblically-based sermons to call people to change from lives of sin. It's not that dealing with "modern" problems is bad. In fact, pastors should seek to help people in such areas of real need. But self-denial and sin are essential teachings of the Bible, and should not be left out.

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