Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Seduced by a conversion to prosperity

We young pastors (and I use the term "young" to refer to church leadership experience as opposed to chronological age!)have a special term we use when we enter into service at a new church which has "Purpose Driven" itself into an identity crisis. We called it "getting Warrened," and see our most immediate and important task as one of reminding the congregation that they are Methodists.

Now, I don't particularly have a "theological hard-on" about Rick Warren and his Saddleback empire, and I can't speak particularly to the "Purpose Driven Church"'s relevancy to other Christian traditions. I do, however, find much of the theology within these books and programs to be somewhat antithetical to Wesleyan theology and practice. And, I have to admit, I was not surprised at any of this (Much of my current interest in Warren's empire was stimulated by this, which I will probably comment on at a later time when my post would be more coherent than the primal scream that wells up from my soul everytime I read this)

From Moriel Ministries:

Warren's book The Purpose Driven Church and the related publications of Saddleback's literature ministry have influenced tens of thousands more who have never attended any of his seminars. As Warren indicated in a closing prayer, the impact of the Saddleback experience is extensive, to say the least: "Thank you that there is a movement, a stealth movement, that's flying beneath the radar, that's changing literally hundreds, even thousands of churches around the world."

What is being changed? Well...

A spirit of compromise must prevail in the church that is to experience dynamic growth. The embrace of contemporary culture and style will most assuredly set the desired mood that totally opposes the Biblical mandate to earnestly contend for the faith and separate from error. What works, what is least offensive and what is positive and uplifting is what should define the ministry, according to Warren. The church leaders who are interested in dynamic growth must embrace the attitude that says, "Don't try to tell me the Bible requires holiness and a style for worship and ministry that is different from that of the world." This "grace-in-your-face" attitude is so prevalent today because of church elders who are not willing, or not aware of how, to instruct ones to behave in the house of God (1 Tim. 3:15).

It is interesting to note, if you haven't followed the link, that Moriel Ministries is an unappologetic "solid, Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, separated and militantly fundamental church." In fact,

mainline denominational churches or middle-of-the-road evangelical churches...are already committed to a course of compromise. It is not surprising that the vast majority of liberal and New Evangelical churches today readily fall for the superchurch growth strategy, for they vehemently reject Bible separation and have long since adopted theologies and ministries that do not insist upon contending for the Faith or for the inerrancy of Scripture.

He has something of a point in his assertion that the "Purpose Driven Church" Saddleback strategy may appeal to some in denominations that look at their falling membership and seek a handy boxed solution. I see it in Methodist churches in my neck of the woods which utilize some of the materials for study groups and church "visioning" exercises. The reason this does not worry me too much is that once the studies and "visioning" are complete, it seldom goes any further. Some small groups are formed that may continue on, usually struggling when they have to cast around to find the real "purpose" of the group once the study is complete. Occasionally, the impetus continues in relatively healthy ways and community bonds are strengthened, but all those other "strategies" for church growth are never seen as very practical, or even as something most members would like to see happen in their church.

However, I have had an experience that concerns me very much. During my internship, that time when I was supopsed to study and experience all aspect of parish ministry, I confessed to my mentor pastor that I was very weak in Evangelism and scarcely knew how to define it in a manner that made it relevant for my understanding of being in ministry to others. Frankly, I hated the whole concept. She very helpfully shared her understanding of evangelism, which was "Sharing the gospel by living it in every circumstance and every opportunity." She also suggested that I make an appointment with the professor of Evangelism at my seminary. Dr. J. was very helpful in explaining various theories of evangelism and rather gracious about it, considering that I hadn't deigned to take his class. I appreciated the basics, but wanted to know more about practical evangelism. He immediately whipped out a book that went into raptures about Rick Warren and the Saddleback Community Church, particularly the assessment of "Saddleback Sam," the target of evangelism efforts. I was appalled, quite frankly. My response, something to effect that it seemed very condescending and anti-Wesleyan, pretty much shut down the conversation from that point on. His parting comment: "Our church is going to die if we do not become successful in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Dr. J. was recently ordained a bishop.

Does "success" mean butts in the pews at the expense of commitment to discipleship? I feel quite certain that Dr. J. would not agree with this sentiment. In addition to being a noted scholar in the field of evangelism, he is also a Wesleyan scholar. Nevertheless, he opined at that time that there was much fruit in Warren's tree. I did not agree then that Warren's model of church was at all Wesleyan and I agree even less now. It is about being seduced by a conversion to prosperity.

Perhaps, it is the sense that Methodism has lost its frontier urgency that drove it to such prominence in America during the 19th century that makes Warren's methods appealing to Dr. J. There is certainly a sense in the church now that the UMC is deeply in need of spiritual renewal. I do not disagree with this and think that this would likely apply across the board with mainline Protestant denominations. There is, without a doubt, a creeping sense of calcification in the church as a whole, and, more particularly, in the individual churches. I've often joked that every Methodist Church should have a banner hanging in the narthex proclaiming "We've always done it this way!" Far more that "Open hearts, open minds, open doors" THIS is the motto that resonates at the local church level.

There's nothing new here. We've been there before. When John Wesley was 83, he undertook his last, arduous circuit around all the Methodist societies and chapels in England, Ireland, and the Channel Isles. He discovered that the people had cooled off a bit. They had succumbed to what Max Weber refers to as a "routinization of the Spirit" and had lost that sense of being driven by grace and, indeed, were experiencing a crisis of grace. Why had this happened? That "grand poison of souls" had taken its toll-"the increase in goods," "the love of the world," "the taking pleasure in the praise of men," "laying up treasures on earth." (James C. Logan, "After Wesley: The Middle Period (1791-1849)." Grace Upon Grace: Essays in Honor of Thomas A. Langford.) As I referenced in my title: "seduced by a conversion to prosperity."

The more successful the people called Methodists were in their personal lives, the less successful was the church. How does "butts in the pews" address the issues facing all mainline Protestant denominations: Identity-Who are we called to be as church? Purpose-What are we called to do as church? Praxis-How do we do it? The Church in general, and the Methodist Church in particular for me, must struggle with these issues every generation. We are not called to preserve the Methodist Church, but "to produce people who live by grace and manifest such living as a life of love for God and neighbor." (Logan) How is this accomplished by:

A contemporary-styled "Seeker Service" aimed at drawing in the unsaved and the unchurched from the community must replace the traditional Sunday worship service. To do this successfully, the church service must be non-threatening, familiar and comfortable to the "seeker" (the unsaved visitor).
The dress must be casual. The typical "Saddleback Sam" (a researched composite of the unchurched yuppie commonly found in Saddleback Church's surrounding community) dresses up for work all week, and he wants to "dress down" on the weekends. (As we shall see throughout this article, Saddleback Sam's likes and dislikes are what determine the style of the church service.) Attendees and church staff alike shun any ties, suits and dresses. Warren, dressed in a casual shirt, khakis and loafers told his seminar audience, "Get comfortable. This is as dressed up as I get in this church. My idea of winter is I put on socks, and obviously I don't think it's winter yet."
The music must be contemporary. Not only must the lyrics of the music be more recent, but the style of music should be that which the unsaved hears on a daily basis. The entertainment composite of the Saddleback sound system, band, singers and presentation would rival that of any secular rock concert. Warren stated that one of the first things a church should do is "replace the organ with a band." But he went on to say that if a band was not feasible, then at least a church could purchase a keyboard that will incorporate midi disks in order to give the sound of a band. Furthermore, the purpose of the church choir should be "backing up the soloist. That's the 90's way to use a choir rather than just having them sing."
The message must be only positive. We consider this to be the most flagrant flaw. Yes, the saved and unsaved alike can feel better about themselves after a message that often mixes psychology and an uplifting Scripture text. Such topics as dealing with guilt, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, mood enhancement or motivation for success will encourage the worldly, weary individual. But what is God's command to the faithful undershepherd of the flock? Far, far different.
The ministries of the church must be geared to meeting the needs and special interests of the thousands who attend. Support groups for depression, eating disorders, infertility, family and friends of homosexuals, post abortion, and separated men and women were abundant. Many ministries were intended to bring together ones with similar business or professional interests, common recreational interests and so on. We could not find one single ministry listed in Saddleback Community Church's bulletin that involved the taking the Gospel message out to the lost in the community. In fact, Warren scoffed at the idea of passing out tracts or going door-to-door since "Saddleback Sam" is offended by such old-fashion, out-moded forms of evangelism.
Doctrinal instruction is not given to the church as a whole on the Lord's Day. Despite the fact that the early church clearly sets forth the example that doctrine is to be taught on Sunday to all the church body, at Saddleback, doctrine is only taught to sub-groups of the congregation apart from the regular church services. Warren emphasized Saddleback's strategy of moving new members "around the bases" by having interested Christians take special classes to prepare them for service. Although Bible study groups also meet together, our question is this: Why is not the pulpit used to proclaim the "whole counsel of God" to the whole congregation assembled before it on the Lord's Day (Acts 20:20-31)? Why make serious, systematic Bible instruction an option, heard only by the relatively few in the crowd who desire to "round the next base"? The whole counsel of God is to be proclaimed, to all seated before the pulpit, all the time!

Yes, we are losing members. We are also gaining members through baptism, confirmation, transfer from other Methodist churches, transfer from other denominations, and by profession of faith. We are gaining members who are moved by grace to be there, to participate in the means of grace with this family of God, to grow in grace and faith in discipleship with us.

It's too bad we're not successful. That's what happens when you avoid being seduced by a conversion to prosperity. I think I'd rather stick to a conversion "by grace and grace alone."

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