The main thesis of this book is that a local church needs to know what its purpose it, and then ensure that all it does is directed towards accomplishing that purpose. Rick Warren is of course founder and pastor of Saddleback church in America that has grown to over 20,000 attendees. He has a particular passion to reach the “unchurched” with the gospel, and this book details how he goes about this.
He is aware that “mega-churches” come under heavy criticism, which he seeks to refute early on in the book. You can grow without compromise. Indeed, he would say that a church that is not growing is actually dying. He also reports that Saddleback has not grown through “transfer growth” (Christians changing churches). In fact, 80% of their membership were baptised at Saddleback, and they saw 7,000 conversions in their first 15 years. This is certainly impressive, though sadly I imagine that not many mega-churches would be able to offer statistics anywhere close.
Another “myth” he attempts to debunk is that you can’t have quantity and quality. Of course they are not mutually exclusive, but McDonalds teaches us you can have quantity without quality. There is a real danger that the church grows wide and shallow.
One of his key strategies is being “seeker sensitive”. This involves two things. First of all, he simply means that churches should not do things that make visiting unbelievers feel awkward, confused, unwelcome or embarrassed. The language should be understandable, the welcome should be warm, the music should be of a good standard etc. In many ways, he is arguing for things that most evangelical churches have now taken on board (the book was published in 1995).
But there is a second side to being “seeker sensitive”. The Sunday meeting is actually specifically designed with unbelievers in mind. They still have worship and a sermon, but of primary importance is that the visiting “unchurched” will enjoy the worship and find the sermon useful. Saddleback run services directly targeted at believers on a different night.
It is worth considering the unique culture of America here. Rick Warren got over 200 people to attend his first meeting simply by mailing invitations and promising a church that would not be boring and irrelevant. And these were not Christians who came. Such a thing is unheard of here in the UK, and this fact should give pause for thought for anyone who would seek to copy his methods (Warren himself is insistent anyway that it is only the principles that should be copied – the particulars will differ). Evangelism in a “post-Christian” culture will look very different to this.
Warren claims that though the sermons are aimed at people’s “felt needs” this does not mean that the gospel is watered down. He argues that Jesus himself used this method. While I agree that Jesus was a good communicator, I was not entirely convinced that his messages were all as upbeat as Warren makes them out to be. For example he portrays the Sermon on the Mount as starting with “eight secrets of genuine happiness” and ending with a nice story about the importance of putting the teaching into action. It strikes me as a remarkably positive spin on some very challenging teaching!
Saddleback are very intentional about who they are targeting. They even have a name for their ideal customer (yes Warren even calls church attendees customers at times!) – Saddleback Sam is a well-off, middle-class, professional, husband and father. They design their services to be exactly what he wants. If someone objects that this is pandering to his ego-centric consumerism, Warren responds that these attitudes will be challenged after they become a believer. If people came to church with the mindset that it was merely a dispenser of religious goods and services, then we would hope that that idea would be challenged almost immediately as they find the church not to be a mirror of their culture, but a counter-cultural community.
We might also wonder why such a “nice” person was chosen, when the gospel is surely for all races and social classes. Warren seems to think that other churches can target other types of people, but that you can’t simply try to reach everyone, so you should go for the people you “most easily” reach. I found this approach uncomfortable – if every church thinks like this, who will reach the poor, Muslims, alcoholics? The fact is that the Christian population is predominantly white middle class both in the UK and in America. We cannot avoid “cross-cultural” mission even in our own cities. Having said that, it does appear that Saddleback has developed some other ministries to reach different types of people, even if the seeker service is not aimed at them.
Also slightly odd was their discipleship program. This involved people graduating through four stages, each complete with its own covenant (for example the first one is to tithe, have a quiet time, and attend regularly). This sounded a little formulaic and even verging on the legalistic, but it has to be said that it is way beyond what most churches require of new members and does at least demonstrate a genuine commitment to spiritual growth rather than merely an infatuation with “numbers” that many mega-churches are accused of.
In fact the chapters on helping members mature and minister to others are perhaps the strongest in the book. They take seriously the importance of commitment, and one of the things I liked best was his aversion to bureaucracy and committees. He would much rather people spent their time in ministry. He also believes that members should be empowered to initiate new ministries as they have a heart for them, rather than leaders coming up with ideas and looking for staff.
Rick Warren is certainly a pragmatist. This will leave some readers wondering whether he puts results before uncompromising faithfulness to the gospel. This is the first of his books I have read, and to be honest I wish he had taken the time to articulate what he understands the gospel to be. I appreciate his passion to see people saved, and to see them become mature. There is undoubtedly much to be learned from this book. But at the same time there is much that should not be copied, even if it is working at Saddleback.