Over the past few years an old form of Bible reading and interpretation has resurfaced and made quite an impact. It is known as Lectio Divina. I appreciate David Helms’ critique of this method in in his little book Expositional Preaching. Where others have, I think, come up with novel ways of critiquing it, Helm heads straight to the Bible. Essentially, he says that Lectio Divina often leads us away from the right meaning and right application of a text instead of toward it. Let me explain.

In one of the early chapters he writes about ways preachers can unfairly contextualize a biblical text. Preachers “are increasingly appealing to their subjective reading of the text as inspired. More and more, Bible teachers are being told that whatever moves their spirit in private readings of the Bible must be what God’s Spirit wants preached in public.”

He goes on to say,

One example of this kind of reading strategy has a long history. It goes by the name Lectio Divina. This traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural interpretation was intended to promote communion with God and, to a lesser extent, familiarity with the Bible. It favors a view of biblical texts as “the Living Word” rather than as written words to be studied. Traditional forms of this practice include four steps for private Bible reading: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. You begin by quieting your heart with a simple reading of the text. Then you meditate, perhaps on a single word of phrase from the text, and in so doing intentionally avoid what might be considered an “analytical” approach. In essence, the goal here is to wait for the Spirit’s illumination so that you will arrive at meaning. You wait for Jesus to come calling. Once the word is given, you go on to pray. After all, prayer is dialogue with God. God speaks through his Word and the person speaks through prayer. Eventually, this prayer becomes contemplative prayer, and it gives us the ability to comprehend deeper theological truths.

As Helm says, this sounds wonderfully pious. It even appears to come with solid Scriptural support in a text like 1 Corinthians 2:10 which says, “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” Stating his objection broadly first, Helm says, “Lectio Divina advocates a method that is spiritual as opposed to systematically studious. It substitutes intuition for investigation. It prefers mood and emotion to methodical and reasoned inquiry. It equates your spirit to the Holy Spirit.”

Of course many will object to that final sentence, but from Helm’s perspective, conclusions based on inner contemplation cannot be trusted in the same way as conclusions based on a close and studious reading of the text.

This method has gained popularity in recent years, first in private devotions and increasing in sermon preparation. “And even where it is not practiced by name, it is remarkably similar to the way a lot of young preachers are taught to prepare. They are told to read the Bible devotionally, quietly, waiting upon the Holy Spirit to speak. For you can be assured that what God lays upon our hearts from a text in the quiet of the moment he will use also in the lives of others. So ‘Preach it! It must be inspired.’”

What is the heart of the problem here? It is that the method leads to subjective, rather than objective, conclusions.

When we stop the hard work of understanding the words that the Spirit has given us and work exclusively in the “mind of the Spirit,” we become the final authority on meaning. We begin to lay down “truths” and “advice” that are biblically untenable or unsupportable. We may do so for good reasons, such as our sense of the moral health of our people or a genuine desire to renew the world we live in. But, nevertheless, we begin operating outside of orthodox doctrine. We confuse “thus sayeth the Lord” with “thus sayeth me.” We ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.

Let me repeat that final line: “We may ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.” That may just be the long-term consequence of this kind of preaching. Of course it has begun with the pastor allowing himself to trust himself in place of the Word.

Here is how this sometimes happens:

A lot of preachers—particularly young preachers—go to the text first for their own edification or spiritual growth. This is not an inherently bad practice, and devotional preaching is not inherently a bad thing. We all should be spiritually convicted by and conformed to the image of Christ in the text. The problem is that we are easily tempted to jump from the way the Spirit impresses the text upon us to how the Spirit must be working among our people.

In other words, if we follow Lectio Divina from personal devotions to sermon preparation, we do not preach the text, but preach our interpretation and appreciation of the text. We preach the text as it impacted us, not the text as it is.

The Holy Spirit is undoubtedly trustworthy and can, miraculously, implant his intent in us intuitively. But does this possibility absolve us from doing the hard work of exegesis? Why would he have bothered inspiring Scripture in the first place? Is it not possible that the Spirit works through both research and meditation? By pursuing such a subjective approach to interpretation as “inspired” preaching, are we not at risk of ignoring what God intended in his Word in favor of preaching our own? Are we not conforming ourselves to the spirit of the age (of which we are necessarily a part) rather than to the depth of his Word?

This, then, is a danger in Lectio Divina, that it teaches us to approach the text subjectively rather than objectively, and that in this way it leads to unstable, unsupportable conclusions. Though it appears to elevate piety, it may just train us to preach badly.

(Note: Helm anticipates a critique. It is important to note that rejecting Lectio Divina in personal study or sermon preparation is not the same thing as rejecting the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching, and especially expositional preaching. Far from it. “The word of the gospel must be wedded to the Spirit’s work in order for conviction of sin, regeneration, repentance and faith, and lifelong perseverance to come.” Expositional preaching is still fully reliant upon the Holy Spirit, though in a very different way.)

Image credit: Shutterstock

 

Church ServiceThe evening service may well be going the way of the dinosaur. What was once a staple of Christian worship, at least in some traditions, is increasingly being relegated to the past. Or so it would seem. I, for one, consider it a significant loss.

I grew up with an evening service—or an afternoon service, I guess. I spent a good bit of my childhood in the Dutch Reformed tradition which was wholly committed to a second service. Those Christians were very practical, so they worked around farmers’ schedules by having the second service at 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Regardless, there were always two services and very nearly every person in the church attended both. The first was dedicated to preaching God’s Word and the second to teaching through the catechisms and confessions. In my life, an evening service was as natural as breathing.

Not too long ago I wrote about Why I Love an Evening Service and said, “Of all the casualties the church has suffered in recent decades, I wonder if many will have longer-lasting consequences than the loss of the evening service.” While I shared why I love an evening service, I did not suggest why the evening service has fallen out of favor. Recently Thom Rainer speculated on it and offered six interesting ideas:

  • The advent of Sunday evening services in many churches was a cultural adaptation for its time. Its decline or demise is thus a cultural response.
  • The disappearance of blue laws (mandatory Sunday closings) allowed many alternatives to Sunday evening worship, and many church members chose those options.
  • There has been an increasing emphasis on family time. Families with children at home particularly viewed one worship service on Sundays to be sufficient for them.
  • Many pastors simply do not have the desire, energy, or commitment to prepare a second and different sermon. Their lack of emphasis was thus reflected in the congregation’s lack of interest.
  • When many churches began offering services on alternative days, such as Fridays or Saturdays, there was neither the desire nor the resources to keep Sunday evening services going.
  • A number of churches, particularly new church starts, are in leased facilities. They do not have the option of returning on Sunday evenings.

Each of those is intriguing in its own way and I suspect each of them, or a combination of them, is true in many churches. Rainer invited feedback, so I am going to suggest a few other ideas. I believe evening services may also have declined because of:

  • A diminished view of preaching. More than anything else, an evening service provides a second opportunity to sit under the preaching of the Word. When preaching goes into decline, and when people demand and expect more of a service than preaching, it stands to reason that the evening service will no longer prove a significant draw. Not only that, but a pastor is far less likely to dedicate himself to preparing a second sermon when preaching has fallen out of favor. Where the pastor’s job description used to have preaching at the very top of the list, today preaching tends to be just one of many important tasks that consume his time and energy.
  • The growth of amateur and professional sports. Sports dominate life in North America. Amateur sports have migrated to Sunday (a relatively new development) while professional sports are a Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening staple for many families. I sometimes wonder if Superbowl parties held at churches marked the beginning of the end, proving the ascendency of sport and the decline of church. Either way, unless you determine that you will not allow sports to interfere with church, sports will likely win at some point.
  • A diminished view of Sunday. Blue laws have been rescinded, and this is important, I’m sure. But I think we can dig a little deeper. There was a time in both Canada and America where Christian influence pushed a form of Sabbatarianism into the wider culture. Even though few people were convicted by Scripture, there was enough Christian influence to carry the day. As a result, sports, leagues, activities, and other entertainments tended to be held six days per week rather than seven. As Christian influence has waned, many of these activities have pushed their way into Sunday. Just about every league, every activity, every hobby, now has a Sunday component.
  • A diminished Reformed influence. While the number of Evangelicals may be increasing, the number of traditionally Reformed Evangelicals (by which I especially mean those forms that hold to a form of Sabbatarianism) has declined. The greater your commitment to a Christian Sabbath, the greater the likelihood that you will advocate an evening service as a means of redeeming the entire day. As Evangelicals have become less convinced about the Sabbath, many have become less convinced about making all of Sunday the Lord’s Day.
  • An amusement culture. Our culture is increasingly driven by a desire for entertainment. Evening services are not fun and, therefore, cannot compete with the growing entertainment options. If we measure what we do by entertainment value, an evening service will rarely win.

I want to add one more factor, separate from the others. I have seen that a lot of churches make their evening services drab. Coming to church a second time in a day is a significant commitment, and especially so for families with young children. The commitment only feels heightened when most other Christians have already stopped attending on Sunday evenings. While we should not measure our services by their entertainment value, there are things we can do to make those evening services interesting and applicable. A good evening service is a delight; a boring evening service is a chore. Many churches have undoubtedly had their evening service disappear because it did not receive enough love and care to keep it vibrant.

Is there anything you would add? What is your sense about the decline and the future of the evening service?

 

by Dan Phillips

Last week I launched a few Tweets on a theme I've hit in the past and mean to develop more in the near future. You may have heard of it: the sufficiency of Scripture.

The specific point I was making was that, if we really believed it, we'd start there, rather than making stuff up and then testing it by Scripture. Here was one of my tweets:

Someone who doesn't follow my account (and thus understandably may not “get” where the shorthand of my tweet was coming from) responded, “So then why do we hear sermons in church instead of just Scripture readings?”

I take it that the idea is, if Scripture is enough, why say anything else? Why not just stand up and read it, and be good with that?

The question itself makes my brain itch. But the calmer DJP says “Teaching opportunity!” so, here we go.

The truth of the sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contains everything for which we need a word from God. That's what it does mean. It doesn't mean that, whenever we have a need, we whip out a Bible and read a passage at random without a moment's thought (before or after), and call it good.

The life of faith and obedience that the Bible (the Bible, the words in the Bible, the contents of what Scripture teaches) calls us to means that we read it, study it, understand it, think about it, and apply it.

So here's this “church”-thingie. What's it for? What am I supposed to look for in it? Who leads it? If I'm one of those leader-people, what am I supposed to do?

From what Scripture teaches me, I should start with the assumption that I don't have one clue, no idea whatever — unless I get that idea from Scripture itself. (If you're not clear on why that is, I can recommend something that goes to the literal heart of the matter in great Biblical detail.) So I consciously set aside my assumptions and biases and preferences, and go to the Bible, God's Word, believing that it contains everything for which I need a word from God.

So, let's fast-forward through decades of study and all, and get to the bottom-line: if Scripture is sufficient, then why do we preach sermons, in church?

Because that sufficient Scripture tells us to. See, for instance, 1 Timothy 3:2; 4:13; 5:17; and 2 Timothy 4:1-2; Titus 1:9.

See? That's how it works. It won't teach anyone who is unteachable — nothing does that. But it does give us everything for which we need a word from God.

Like to hear that opened up even further, live and in person? I know this conference that's coming up. We'd love it if you came!

Dan Phillips's signature


A few days ago I tried to demonstrate how a church self-destructs. There is a sad progression that begins with the people growing weary and ashamed of truth. No longer able or willing to endure sound teaching, they get rid of the truth-tellers and accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions. Inevitably, they soon turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. All of this is laid out in chapter four of 2 Timothy. In the face of this kind of assault, Paul juxtaposes the simplest solution: Preach. It’s as simple as that one step, that one commitment. The church that remains faithful to God is the church that remains faithful to the Word of God. The healthy church is the preaching church. Here, as I see it in 2 Timothy 4:2, are Paul’s specific instruction for the kind of preaching that glorifies God and protects the church.

Preach Expositorily

“Preach the word.” It is not enough to simply preach; we need to preach the Word. Preaching is only as powerful as its faithfulness to the Bible. There is no innate power in the form of preaching; the power in preaching comes from the source of the preaching. I believe the most faithful way to preach the Word is to preach expositorily or expositionally, to ensure that the point of the text becomes the point of the sermon. More than any other form of preaching, this constrains the pastor to God’s Word. Not only that, but it allows the congregation to ensure that every word is drawn faithfully from God’s Word. Expository preaching depends on a preacher with an open Bible, and a congregation with open Bibles.

Preach Persistently

“Be ready in season and out of season.” There is a call here for persistence in preaching. Preaching comes and goes in the church. There are times when preaching is loved and times when preaching is hated. Expository preaching comes and goes as well, and we are never far from the so-called experts telling us that this form of preaching will cause a church to collapse. “People don’t want to know what Philippians says, they want to know how to solve life’s problems!” But this kind of faithful, Word-based preaching needs to done in season and out of season, when it is popular and when it is woefully unpopular.

I want to pause here for one moment to speak to the New Calvinists. We love our preaching. We will tolerate nothing less than expository preaching in our pulpits and at our conferences. But I believe we need to ask whether we love it because God says it is good, or whether we love it because, at least for now, other people say it is good. When the trend runs its course and expository preaching has lost its lustre, will we still love it then?

Preach Practically

“Reprove, rebuke, exhort.” Preaching is to have a practical dimension. Though preaching teaches us about God, it does more than that. It also teaches us how to honor God and how to live for his glory. Knowing about God is good, but insufficient. Preaching is meant to save souls, to transform lives, and to spur us on in holiness. Our preaching is to reprove, to confront and correct false doctrine; it is to rebuke, to confront and correct sinful patterns of living; it is to exhort, to train and encourage in those things that honor God. Preaching is not just lobbing holy hand grenades into people’s lives, but encouraging them and caring for them.

Preach Patiently

“With complete patience…” There is to be an element of patience for preaching, and element of patience in preaching. The pastor must be patient with the form of preaching, never grow tired of it and never losing his confidence in its goodness and effectiveness. And all the while he should preach with great patience for his congregation. The best teachers are the ones who are kind and forbearing, who know their students, and who will endure for a long time with patience and understanding. The best preaching comes alongside Christians, leads them on, encourages them in growth, week after week and year after year. The best preaching models the patience God has with us as we slowly, so slowly, grow in knowledge and holiness.

Preach Doctrinally

“… and teaching.” Our preaching is to be full of Christian truth. Paul insists that people who turn away from God will not endure sound teaching or sound doctrine, the very thing Paul calls for here. The best preaching is consistent with sound doctrine and teaches sound doctrine. This kind of preaching is not sermonettes for Christianettes, but the whole counsel of God, drawn from the Word of God.

Looking to a future in which people will not tolerate the truth, Paul tells Timothy to remain faithful to his central calling: To lead the church with and through the Word of God. It was Paul’s charge to Timothy 2,000 years ago and today that same charge goes out to you and to me. As God’s people living in that age of itching ears, we must remain confident in and committed to nothing less than the faithful, week by week preaching of God’s precious Word.

 

 

PreachingI am one of those New Calvinists, I guess, which means I am part of a crowd that values preaching, and expository preaching in particular. Of course I was an Old Calvinist before I was a New one and was raised in a tradition that valued preaching just as highly. For my whole life I’ve been around preachers and preaching.

I spent a good bit of time last week pondering the nature of God’s Word and thinking specifically about Paul’s mandate to Timothy: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” That’s a passage about preaching, but it’s also a passage about just plain reading the Bible out loud. It intrigued me.

I travel a fair bit these days and often enjoy worshiping in other churches, and here is something I’ve noticed: We tend to be far more committed to the second part of that command than to the first. We love our preaching, but what about the public reading of Scripture? Most churches I visit will read the Bible immediately prior to the sermon, and some will read a text in sections during the sermon, but few just dedicate themselves to reading the Bible aloud. Conferences, too, are known for their preaching, but not necessarily for their emphasis on reading the Bible. Last week I found myself wondering why this is. I wonder if our emphasis on preaching has inadvertently nudged it out.

Paul’s command to Timothy that he devote himself to the public reading of Scripture can be better understood by looking to 2 Timothy 3 where Paul speaks about the nature of God’s Word. When we understand what God’s Word is and does, we better understand why we ought to read it. Paul tells Timothy that the Scriptures are “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Paul isn’t talking about the Scriptures as they are preached here—not yet—but the Scriptures as they are, as they are read, as they are understood, as they are absorbed by the Christian.

Paul uses two groups of two words to explain how the Bible functions and what it accomplishes. The Bible is profitable for teaching and reproof. These are words related to doctrine, to the positive teaching of truth and to the correcting of falsehood. The Bible teaches us truth and it convicts us of error. The Bible is also profitable for correction and for training in righteousness. These are words related to living, to the correction of unrighteous ways of living and instruction in godliness. The Bible teaches us how to live and convicts us of sinful habits and patterns.

And because it does all of these things it completes us, it grows us in Christian maturity and prepares us to do those good things—those good works—that God means for us to do. It prepares us to do good things that are done not to make us look great, but to make ourselves diminish so that God can increase all the more.

Once more, the Bible does not need to be preached in order to do this. It just needs to be read. God’s Word alone has the power to do this because those words have been breathed out by God; in that way it has a supernatural power no other words can have. Preaching has a role, to be sure, but preaching only does what it does because the Bible is what it is. God allows us to preach and even tells us to preach, but he does not need preaching in order to change us and mature us. The Bible alone can do this. The Bible is its own preacher, its own counselor, its own teacher, its own evangelist. If we have de-emphasized the public reading of the Bible because of our love for preaching, the solution is not to diminish preaching, but to re-emphasize the reading.

So here’s the question: Do you commit yourself to the public reading of Scripture? Do you read it in your church, even if you cannot explain it at the time? Do you read it in your home, with your family, even if you do not have a lot of opportunity to explain and apply it? If the Bible is so powerful, and if the Bible accomplishes so much, it would be ridiculous not to read it, not to read it faithfully and consistently and expectantly.

And here’s another question: What do you expect when someone reads the Bible to you? Do you expect that it will teach and train you? Do you expect that it will admonish and correct you? Do you expect that as the Bible is read, God himself will speak to you and convict you of sin and unrighteousness and teach you about himself and how to live in a way that honors him? You should expect nothing less.

 

Son of God the Movie

In late 2003 and early 2004, we were told that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was going to change the world. We saw breathless slogans like, “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.” Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life had made him a household name, predicted “a spiritual tsunami” would hit when the film released. When he saw this tsunami coming, he planned a two-week preaching series leading up to the movie’s release, booked 47 theatre screens so members of his church could attend with their lost friends, invited a long list of celebrities and billionaires to a premier showing, and prepared a three-week small group curriculum for follow-up. He claimed that his church rode this tsunami to incredible results: “Over 600 unchurched community leaders attended our VIP showing; 892 friends of members were saved during the two-week sermon series. Over 600 new small groups were formed, and our average attendance increased by 3,000.”

It is hard to overestimate the buzz, the excitement, and the anticipation prior to The Passion. Do you remember it? I do.

Back in 2004, I was a member of a Southern Baptist church that tried to ride the Passion wave by mimicking just about everything Rick Warren did. The pastors raised tens of thousands of dollars from the congregation, then bought movie passes, booked theaters, distributed tickets, formed small groups, bought Warren’s follow-up curriculum, and waited to transform the city. Giving away the tickets was the easy part—people gladly accepted free movie passes to the film everyone was talking about. All the tickets went, but as far as I know, not a single person—not even one—came to any of the follow-up studies. No one was saved. Nothing happened. All the time, energy and resources gained nothing.

In the film’s aftermath George Barna got to work and found that the results we saw were far more typical than what Warren reported. “Among the most startling outcomes is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content.” Either The Passion was not actually a great opportunity for evangelism, or most churches botched it.

Ten years later it is indisputable that all the talk of The Passion of the Christ being a powerful tool for evangelism was far more hype than reality. The marketing slogans earned Mel Gibson hundreds of millions of dollars, and brought lots of money to marketers and merchandisers. But the claim that it was the best outreach opportunity since Pentecost is downright embarrassing. For all the good the movie did, we may as well have just written checks to Mel Gibson and skipped the movie.

Yet here we go again. We are just a couple of weeks away from the next The Passion of the Christ: Mark Burnett’s Son of God. Based on the 2013 miniseries The Bible, it is being marketed much like The Passion before it. B&H has just announced a new small-group Bible study from Rick Warren titled Son of God: The Life of Jesus in You. The press release quotes Warren as saying, Son of God is “the best movie I’ve seen on the life of Jesus in years.” The release also says, “The film has made headlines in the build-up to its Feb. 28 nationwide release as churches and organizations across the country have been renting out cinema multiplexes to show the film on every screen the night before its official release.”

As far as I can tell, and measuring two weeks prior to release, there is far less enthusiasm for Son of God than there was for The Passion of the Christ. I expect the reason is largely attributable to the old phrase, “once bitten, twice shy.” There’s a feeling of deja vu about this film. Still, I see marketers applying pressure and I see some churches buying in.

I want to urge caution, and I can draw these cautions directly from lessons we learned—or should have learned—from The Passion of the Christ.

The first caution is that The Passion caused us to look away from Scripture. This is ironic, of course, since The Passion was based on Scripture (plus a bit of imagination and a dash of Roman Catholic tradition). The fact is, though, that God saw fit to give us the Bible written, not displayed. He choose to give us a book, not a film. Those who pushed churches to embrace The Passion as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made all kinds of promises, and many of those promises were based on the media. They claimed that by putting the old message into a new media it would come alive to a whole new generation and would do what preaching would not or could not. Many churches looked away from Scripture, even if only for a few weeks, and put their hope in a film.

The second caution is that The Passion took us off-mission. There is nothing more central to the church than the preaching of God’s Word. There is nothing that cuts deeper or builds stronger than the Bible faithfully taught. There is nothing we should expect God to use more powerfully than the preaching of his Word. Every revival in days past—every true revival, at least—has been a revival sparked by and carried on through preaching. We should have no expectation that God will accomplish through a film what he has only promised to accomplish through preaching. Too many churches veered off-mission when faced with the opportunity of The Passion of the Christ.

I have not seen Son of God. It may be a powerful film that is faithful to Scripture. I hope that is the case. It is entirely possible that God may choose to use Son of God to call people to faith. He may use it to generate interest in himself. He has used stranger means than this to work his will. Rick Warren’s follow-up Bible study may be excellent and may drive people from the screen to the Book. Lots of good may come. But still, both of these cautions apply to Son of God just as they did to The Passion. Don’t look away from Scripture and don’t get off-mission.

As you consider this new film, remember that we have been here before. Remember that there are a lot of people hoping to make a lot of money from this film. Remember that God promises to bless the preaching of his Word, not the display of that Word on the silver screen. Don’t expect a movie to do the Word’s work.

TeamPyro

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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