It has been nearly two years since we left our 'purpose driven' church, an experience that I would not want to repeat, nor do I regret having gone through the experience. In His own way, the Lord used this time to bring us to a more biblical understanding of 'who' He is, and how He wants us to live.Becoming a Purpose Driven Church
Having spent my growing up years in a fundamentalist Baptist tradition, I was probably an unlikely candidate for attending a Purpose Driven church. There were two main reasons for this departure from my roots. The first and possibly most important reason was that I simply failed to comprehend the necessity of approaching my faith in Christ from a purely biblical perspective. Since 1974, I have worked in a number of para-church ministries as part of my career. Along the way, my general attitude toward ministry and Christianity was framed in pragmatism. Within reason, I simply embraced the belief that if something worked, it was being used of God to further His purposes. I often would eagerly await the 'new' thing in ministry, whether it was a new method, book, or the latest speaker or author to emerge on the ministry scene.
In my acceptance of pragmatism in ministry, there emerged a desire to attend churches that were "happening", thus creating the second reason for our attendance at a Purpose Driven church. Our 'purpose driven' diversion was really the end result of a twenty year diversion that took us out of churches that taught the word, to churches that emphasized topical, ear-tickling messages. Of far more importance in discerning a suitable church for our family was the pastor's ability to speak, the friendliness of the people, and quality of the music program. As a musician, the latter was possibly the most important to me.
When we moved to a new community in 1998 to take over the direction of a ministry, the small town atmosphere made our choice extremely limited and obvious. There was only one church that seemed to have anything going. The music was pretty good, the people friendly, and the pastor was very friendly and enthusiastic toward our attendance.
After several years of attending, the pastor took an interest in the Purpose Driven methodology of Rick Warren's Saddleback church. In worship practice or passing conversation, he would often mention something about Warren or Saddleback church. Within months, it was clear that he was sold on this new thing, and wanted to move the church toward being a Purpose Driven fellowship. At first I was somewhat disinterested in our new direction, but I noticed his sermons became more impassioned. I took it upon myself to read the Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren, and initially saw much value in it. Probably my main admiration of it was the acceptance and promotion of a more contemporary service. As a denominational church, our fellowship was deeply divided between the old and the new, with most of this disagreement centering on stylistic issues.
Within months, the church was promoting Warren's five purposes in just about everything, as well as 101, 201, etc. classes. Many people seemed to buzz about all these new things in our church. Warren's 'discovering your S.H.A.P.E.' was emphasized to get people involved with the fellowship. The protagonists of our new methodology seemed to greatly outnumber the dissenters. Unfortunately, the dissenters were not so much interested in returning to biblical teaching, (as that was never really a part of the church), as they were in returning to the old style of things. Many longed for the smaller, more intimate church they once knew. At first, I was a defender of our new methodology. I can recall telling people that we needed to be willing to put aside our own preferences for style so that we could attract unbelievers into the fellowship.
Questions and Doubts
With everything seemingly going so well with the church, there was no reason to doubt that it was all 'ordained' of God. But several troubling thoughts started to occur in the minds of our family. We noticed that the sermons took on a similar repetitive structure from week to week. Seemingly, the thoughts, structure, and delivery of his messages seemed a bit of a departure from the pastor we knew. Each sermon was built around a power point presentation that included points and sub-points, graphics, and scripture references from newer translations and paraphrases. Though not Bible scholars by any stretch of the imagination, my wife and I had enough solid expository teaching in our backgrounds that we quickly realized the stretch and even misuse of many of these scriptural references. We soon learned that much of our pastor's material at that time was actually sermons and notes prepared by Rick Warren himself, and made available to pastors.
While all of this was occurring, my wife on her own began to spend more time reading and studying the Bible. She also began to listen to several Bible teachers on the Calvary Chapel satellite network. These teachers were expository in nature, unlike anything we had received for the past twenty years. I watched as she grew spiritually, it began spreading to our entire family. My sons also began to spend time in the word and listening to expository teaching. Soon I too was listening in and reading my Bible more. It was a great time of spiritual growth in our family. We are felt we were getting to know the God of the Bible better.
However, the contrast to what was happening at home and what was happening at church grew quite stark. We were immersed in deep study of the word during the week, only to hear neatly packaged five-point sermons on Sunday morning that contained very little of the word except in the context of 'proof-texting' to affirm the pastor's (or Warren's) points. Everyone was handed a sermon outline that contained empty blanks to be filled in during the sermon. The juvenile nature of this exercise became obnoxious to us. Even my teenage sons thought it all silly and boring. We began to question even the legitimacy of the five purposes, and other structural methods of the Purpose Driven church…the classes, the S.H.A.P.E. gift ascertainment, membership requirements, numerous diagrams of church structure (baseball diamonds, core circles, etc.) and many other structural components. What was billed as "simplicity" was really an arduous and ponderous structure of church methodology that existed in stark contrast to the truly simple and living church as exhibited in the Book of Acts.
As our discontentment with the church grew, we contemplated either finding another church or seeing if someone would start a Bible study where we could be taught the word verse by verse. We were very careful to not broadcast our disagreement with our church. On the one hand, we were motivated by a sense of doing what is right before the Lord. On the other hand, these people were our friends and we didn't want to see anyone hurt. Publically disagreeing with a church, or ultimately leaving a fellowship always causes pain. The dialogue in our minds became excessive as we sought the Lord for His will. The answer would come very soon.
Purpose Driven Life Campaign
As an integral part of the worship ministry at our church, I was asked to create worship sets for an upcoming campaign called "40 Days of Purpose" based upon Warren's latest book. I was given the promotional material from Saddleback for this new campaign, which looked all too much like some church 'dog and pony show'. Already I was so tired of the whole PD thing, and most turned off by the lack of teaching the Bible. When I was handed this assignment, it was all I could do to hide my indignation. Dutifully, I came up with a worship set for each of the seven Sundays of the campaign. In the process, I was given a copy of Warren's Purpose Driven Life. It exceeded all my expectations of Warren, craftily building 40 days of devotionals that seemingly had little to do with the whole counsel of God as written in the Bible, and much to do with Warren's personal agenda for the church.
As the campaign began at our fellowship, I noticed everyone carrying around the PDL book as one might have carried a Bible in the past. But there was no need for a Bible in our fellowship, as any verses the pastor might reference were conveniently displayed on the projection screen. Each Sunday, people's conversation was centered on various chapters in the book, and those things that were the most meaningful to them. I did my level best to avoid talking about the book or campaign, so as to not betray my non-participation in the event. I was hoping to just get through the seven weeks without notice. However, on the second Sunday of the event, one of the worship team members turned to me and asked in front of everyone, including the pastor, what I thought of Tuesday's devotion. My charade was over. I simply said I hadn't read it. "What?" he exclaimed, "are you not reading the book?" "No, I'm not" I said. Nothing more was mentioned in that moment, but the pastor took note of my answer.
The next day, he came to our house to talk. It seems he had heard rumor that we were trying to start a new church. Actually, we had inquired with a church in a nearby town about starting a Bible study up in our region so we could be taught the word. In reality, our intention was to continue going to our church while attending this new Bible study. While there may have been concern that we were trying to initiate a church split and siphon off the disgruntled among the congregation, nothing could be further from the truth. After what became a five hour meeting with the pastor, and many painful events that unfolded in the days and weeks to follow, there was no way that we could stay at the fellowship.
A Quick Departure
It is not my intention to detail all of these events. There were many people outside of church leadership that embraced us. There were many who didn't. Though my wife attended one more Sunday, I was never again to return to the church. We had a subsequent meeting with three of the elders of the church two weeks later. Though it was fairly amiable, the meeting seemed to focus more on the aspects of our leaving than the actual reason itself. It was difficult, if not impossible for them to see any of our reasoning. During that meeting, the elders seemed concerned that people were getting the wrong idea about our leaving, and they wanted to do a little damage control to make sure people knew we weren't trying to cause a split. They suggested some sort of communication with the congregation, such as a letter. We agreed only as far as being able to see the draft of the letter before it would be posted at church. When we finally got a copy via email, it went far beyond anything we talked about. I immediately raised several objections to the content, and then asked them not to proceed with it altogether.
A few weeks later, the letter was sent (not posted as we thought it might be) to the entire congregation. Though it was laced with spirituality, the letter misrepresented our family, our reason for leaving, and made a vague reference to someone's "sin", presumably ours. The letter stands as the most painful part of our leaving. While it was public humiliation of our family, it was also meant as a vehicle to convince the fellowship that all is going okay, and that the fellowship is heading in the right direction. The letter was never signed; only the names of the elders were printed at the bottom. It became apparent to us that this was probably not the work of the entire elder board. There were some in the congregation who were quite upset at the leadership for this action.*
In all of these events, our conscience is clear that we did not stir controversy or contention in this fellowship, and that we had no intention of creating division or split in the church. Had that been our intention, we would not have been so secretive of our misgivings and disagreement with the church in our last year of attendance there. In fact, some of our friends were absolutely shocked to find out these things. We never tipped our hand of what was in our hearts. Perhaps we should have. Our lack of vocal disagreement was in part based upon the fact that we had witnessed the character assault upon others who had disagreed with church leadership on various issues. I was unwilling to see that happen with our family. As it turned out, it happened anyway.
What Man Meant for Harm…
Clearly, the Lord used this experience in many ways and dimensions. For one, it was an admonition to us to warn others of the inherent dangers of the Purpose Driven methodology. Though I was able to find only a few articles warning of this new thing in the church back then, there are now many articles and organizations who are competently warning of the PD dangers. When possible, I turn people toward some of those resources. The church must understand that it is Jesus who builds the church, and not anything of our efforts. We have such a simple role. Acts 2:42 explains it best: "And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer". There was no carefully devised church system in that. And we see the fruit earlier in the same chapter. Peter teaches the word, shares the Gospel, and 3,000 people get saved. And whether that number is 1 or 3,000, God still gets the glory. Now that is simplicity. Read I Corinthians 2:1-5. Would that Rick Warren and his supporters could embrace Paul's total abandonment of self-importance and stop promoting themselves and their gospel.
However, our lesson from God and warning to others goes beyond merely the PD methodology and current fad in church growth. Our experience opened our eyes to many things. As we previously went with the flow of Christianity, taking care to not make waves, it was somewhat shocking to see what happens when you stop and make a stand. We suddenly found ourselves on a collision course with those we previously floated along with so peaceably. This truth would become evident far beyond the context of our former church. As we began to take refuge in scripture alone for our source of truth, adversarial relationships developed with those who don't. There have always been new fads to follow in the church. The Purpose Driven machinery is only one of the latest fads to hit the church. There will be others. The child of God will be careful to avoid such fads in all things, and embrace the word of God.
The Lord used some painful events to show me the inherent dangers in following men's methodology in regards to church or life. The simplicity and righteousness of scripture has become so abundantly clear to me in regards to all things. I refuse to follow after the self-appointed Christian leaders of our time who always seemed to be creating a new book or a new thing to sell to the Christian masses. Psychology, marriage, family, Christian life, manhood, and a host other topics are the subjects of a constant and steady stream of books. Take no heed of them. The word of God is sufficient.
*In this article, I have chosen to not go into much detail regarding the response of some of the church leadership. In the nearly two years that have elapsed, we've heard very little from them regarding this event. Perhaps in their minds, it is a done deal. There was one person in a leadership position who told us that the church erred in sending the letter. We've heard reports that another in leadership also thought it was a mistake. At least a dozen adult members of the congregation on their own contacted us to show their support and criticize the letter. Though we would have appreciated some sense of regret from the church leadership for sending this inappropriate letter, we have also chosen to move on. For the most part, the people and leaders of our former church have been polite toward us.
We pray that some sort of healing will occur. In the meantime, the focus of our hearts is to encourage individuals, ministries, and churches to return to biblical teaching in our various callings.
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