Pragmatism vs. Biblical Preaching

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Interesting thoughts on pragmatic preaching by John MacArthur's editor, Phil Johnson. – Greg

 

Thoughts on The Purpose-Driven® Church (18 years late)
by Phil Johnson

In 2005, a little more than a week after I started blogging, I posted an item about Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven® Life. It was literally just a photograph and transcript of some marginal notes I had jotted in the flyleaf when I read the book, not anything like a full review.
Then almost exactly two years ago, when the blogosphere was abuzz with controversy over the lineup for 2010's Desiring God Conference, I posted my thoughts on the Piper-Warren connection.
Aside from those two posts, I can't think of any other blogposts I've written that deal with Rick Warren and his deleterious influence—which has been considerable. That seems like a major omission on my part, so today I'm going to post something I would have posted in 1997 if I had been blogging then. At the time, Warren's book on the church was required reading for evangelicals. To this day, countless evangelicals uncritically accept the Purpose-Driven® philosophy as received wisdom—and far too many pastors regard The Purpose-Driven® Church as virtually canonical. Warren now even has John Piper's seal of approval.
I have a different point of view, and I'd like to share it with you.
This post, like that first one, is not meant to be a thorough review; it's just some thoughts on preaching that were prompted by the claim Warren makes in his book's subtitle.

r13ick Warren's The Purpose Driven® Church is now 18 years old. It is the best-selling book on church ministry philosophy ever.

Warren is sensitive about complaints that his overtly pragmatic strategy for church growth leads to doctrinal compromise, so he subtitled his book, “Growth Without Compromising your Message & Mission.” He insists throughout the book that you can follow his “seeker-sensitive” model of ministry without compromising or watering down your message. On page 244, he writes, “A worship service does not have to be shallow to be seeker sensitive. The message doesn't have to be compromised, just understandable.”

But then, just a few sentences later, he writes, “The unchurched . . . do want to hear how the Bible relates to their lives in terms they understand and in a tone that shows you respect and care about them. They are looking for solutions, not a scolding.”

Notice how quickly Warren undermines his own commitment not to compromise the message. People don't want to be scolded, he tells us. And yet Paul told Timothy that Scripture is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). How do you preach reproof and correction—not to mention instruction in righteousness—without someone feeling scolded?

I frankly don't think it's the business of the preacher to trouble himself with whether people feel scolded. The preacher's task is to unfold the meaning of Scripture in a clear, authoritative, and persuasive manner—and if people feel scolded when Scripture rebukes them (as they inevitably will), then that is between them and the Lord. As a matter of fact, as preachers, we are instructed to reprove and rebuke, as well as exhort—with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Timothy 4:2).

Doctrine?

Doctrinal preaching also takes a hit from Rick Warren. Notice in that quote that I cited above, he says, “The unchurched . . . want to hear how the Bible relates to their lives.” He makes clear throughout the remainder of the book what he means by this. He is arguing for an emphasis in our preaching that is practical rather than doctrinal—more “emotional, experiential, and relational” than didactic. He is dismissively critical of what he calls “classroom churches.” In Warren's words: “Classroom churches tend to be left-brain oriented and cognitive focused. They stress the teaching of Bible content and doctrine, but give little, if any, emphasis to believers' emotional, experiential, and relational development” (p. 340).

Now I happen to believe that all doctrine is inherently practical—or at least I would say that there is inherent practical value in understanding and defending sound doctrine. Furthermore, all legitimate religious emotions, experiences, and relationships are a believing heart's response to biblical truth soundly taught: doctrine.

So I don't quite agree with the dichotomy that is typically made by advocates of “seeker-sensitive” ministry. But they make this dichotomy nonetheless. They suggest that there is a significant distinction to be made between truth that is doctrinal and truth that is practical. And according to them, any style of ministry that is too didactic—more “doctrinal” than “practical”—is inappropriate for seeker-sensitive worship.

For example, a defense of the deity of Christ or a systematic presentation of justification by faith might have some academic interest, but doctrinal messages like that aren't deemed sufficiently practical and felt-needs oriented for the seeker-sensitive church environment. You are not at all likely to hear such truths dealt with from the Purpose-Driven® pulpit.

Newsweek once quoted a seeker-sensitive megachurch pastor who said it like this: “People today aren't interested in traditional doctrines like justification, sanctification, and redemption.” What people want to hear, this pastor believes, are sermons that address their “felt needs”—how to improve our relationships with other people, how to have success in business, how to find peace of mind—and other things more instantly relevant to busy lives than academic doctrines like justification and sanctification.

Rick Warren is one of the foremost advocates of preaching to people's “felt needs.” That is the expression he prefers: “felt needs.” That's what he says should determine what we preach. He claims that is how Jesus Himself preached, and he even implies that the didactic content of Paul's epistles contrasts unfavorably with the more practical preaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of urging preachers to declare the whole counsel of God, Rick Warren expressly encourages preachers to consider what the audience wants to hear and let those “felt needs” determine what they preach.

Naturally, Warren attempts to argue that this approach in no way compromises the message. On p. 228 of his book, he writes, “The crowd does not determine whether or not you speak the truth: the truth is not optional.” But then in the next breath he says, “Your audience does determine which truths you choose to speak about. And some truths are more relevant than others to unbelievers.”

If that sounds like double-talk, it's because that is precisely what it is. The truth itself is not optional, but some truths are optional in practice, because they are not relevant? So much for the whole counsel of God.

Now, I realize that most evangelicals who have bought into the Purpose-Driven® philosophy wouldn't dream of attacking the doctrines of justification by faith, or the deity of Christ, or the absolute authority of Scripture. But they ignore such doctrines rather than risk boring people with academic teaching. The long-term effect is the same as a full-scale assault against those doctrines.

In short, although Rick Warren claims his brand of pragmatism doesn't compromise doctrine, it absolutely does. From the very start, pragmatic considerations determine what he will preach and how he will preach it. And because pragmatism establishes the value system by which he assesses everything, he is not even capable of appreciating how man-centered and watered down his message has become.

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