A recent article appearing in Christianity Today offers a small peek into Rick Warren’s strategies for success. Excerpted from the book, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, the article, “How Rick Warren Harnessed the Power of Social Habits” provides interesting insight into the inner workings of Saddleback Church and its leader.
First, the reader is informed that God directly told Rick Warren to plant his church in the Saddleback Valley of Orange County, California:
“In the dusty, dimly lit basement of that university library, I heard God speak to me: ‘That’s where I want you to plant a church!’” Warren later wrote. “From that moment on, our destination was a settled issue.” Source
Later, this same recollection is referred to as an “epiphany,” yet it nevertheless is inferred that God spoke to Rick Warren, not only in this “dimly lit” library basement, but also later in his ministry, while visiting the desert of Arizona:
Warren, as befitting a pastor, is a man prone to epiphanies. They had occurred when he found the magazine article about McGavran, and in the library in Texas.
Walking through the desert, another one struck.
“You focus on building people,” the Lord told him. “And I will build the church.”
Such bold declaration of direct revelation from God naturally presumes that whatever else Rick Warren has done to follow these words of the Lord cannot be questioned. After all, to do so would be akin to questioning God Himself.
So it is that one must wonder if what follows is something that would be encouraged, commanded or enjoyed by God?
Warren’s focus on building a congregation among the unchurched had begun five years earlier, when, as a missionary in Japan, he had discovered an old copy of a Christian magazine with an article headlined “Why Is This Man Dangerous?” It was about Donald McGavran, a controversial author focused on building churches in nations where most people hadn’t accepted Christ. At the center of McGavran’s philosophy was an admonition that missionaries should imitate the tactics of other successful movements— including the civil rights campaign—by appealing to people’s social habits. “The steady goal must be the Christianization of the entire fabric which is the people, or large enough parts of it that the social life of the individual is not destroyed,” McGavran had written in one of his books. Only the evangelist who helps people “to become followers of Christ in their normal social relationship has any chance of liberating multitudes.”
That article—and, later, McGavran’s books—were a revelation to Rick Warren. Here, finally, was someone applying a rational logic to a topic that was usually couched in the language of miracles. Here was someone who understood that religion had to be, for lack of a better word, marketed.
Yet, does our Lord tell us that His Gospel must be “marketed”? Does He instruct His followers to make His truth as appealing as possible, as much like the world as possible, as a means of luring them into the faith?
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 1 John 2:15–17
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Rom. 12:2
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. John 17:14–19
This final verse especially teaches that true Christians, though in the world, will be hated by the world because of Christ and the very message that they proclaim. What, then, would lead one to think that the Gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be “marketed” in order to be more appealing?
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. John 15:18–21
The article further elaborates:
McGavran laid out a strategy that instructed church builders to speak to people in their “own languages,” to create places of worship where congregants saw their friends, heard the kinds of music they already listened to, and experienced the Bible’s lessons in digestible metaphors. Most important, McGavran said, ministers needed to convert groups of people, rather than individuals, so that a community’s social habits would encourage religious participation, rather than pulling people away.
Does the Word of God indicate anywhere that “groups of people” must be converted over individuals? Is repentance and faith a group effort, or an individual one? Does the Holy Spirit save people or communities? Should we seek to alter a “community’s social habits” that it might “encourage religious participation,” or should we desire to see people, even if only one, brought to repentance and faith in Christ alone?
Surely the message of salvation may be preached to the multitudes, and many may believe at one time, but conversion is not a group activity. To be humbled and broken before God, to be brought to repentance and faith in Christ alone for salvation, is something that may only be accomplished on an individual level. The gate of salvation is narrow not only because it is walked through at a cost, but also because it is walked through individually.
The Christianity Today article continues, explaining how it is that Warren came to develop small groups in his church as a means of taking some of the responsibility off of himself as pastor. Warren shares his methodology for small groups, which ultimately seems to reveal that they are little more than a means of producing small cells of whitewashed tombs.
“If you want to have Christ-like character, then you just develop the habits that Christ had,” one of Saddleback’s course manuals reads. “All of us are simply a bundle of habits. … Our goal is to help you replace some bad habits with some good habits that will help you grow in Christ’s likeness.” Every Saddleback member is asked to sign a “maturity covenant card” promising to adhere to three habits: daily quiet time for reflection and prayer, tithing 10 percent of their income, and membership in a small group. Giving everyone new habits has become a focus of the church. Source
Again, one may be led to ask, is this what Christ taught us in His Word? Or is this mere moralism? If a person lives a moral life, is he necessarily saved? If so, Jesus may have rebuked the Pharisees in error, as they were chief among men when it came to outward moralism and pious behavior.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matt. 23:25–28
Who needs regeneration and sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit when it is just as easy to write a check every week? Who needs the perfect work and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ and faith in Him alone for salvation when signing a “maturity covenant card” will also do the trick? Who needs these things? Every man needs these things if he is to be genuinely saved by Christ.
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. John 3:3–6
While Duhigg’s article does not delve into the intricacies of things such as the influence of Peter Drucker upon Rick Warren (for further study on this, it is suggested that the reader listen to apologist Chris Rosebrough’s presentation, Resistance is Futile: You Will Be Assimilated into the Community), or further pragmatic practices that have been introduced by Warren to the detriment of the visible church, it nevertheless reveals a troubling reality. Here is a man who has been deemed “America’s pastor” and yet, based upon what is revealed in Duhigg’s paragraphs, many of Warren’s ministry practices do not seem to be based upon Scripture, and some even appear to contradict the Word. Sadly, this is greatly representative of the state of the visible church today. As it continues to slide downward, with its leaders beginning to proudly flaunt their reliance upon worldly methods over the Word of God, let us rest and hope in the truth that our Lord warned us such things would happen, and it can only mean that He is that much closer to returning for His own.