The ‘Purpose Driven Church’ Splits Believers

Veneration Gap
A Popular Strategy for Church Growth Splits Congregants

By Suzanne Sataline
September 5, 2006

IUKA, Miss. — In April, 150 members of Iuka Baptist Church voted to kick Charles Jones off the deacons’ board. The punishment followed weeks of complaints by Mr. Jones and his friends that the pastor was following the teachings of the Rev. Rick Warren, the best-selling author and church-growth guru. After the vote, about 40 other members quit the church to support Mr. Jones.

Mr. Warren, the effusive pastor of stadium-sized Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., is best known for his book “The Purpose Driven Life,” which has sold 25 million copies and urges people to follow God’s plan for them. He has spawned an industry advising churches to become “purpose-driven” by attracting nonbelievers with lively worship services, classes and sermons that discuss Jesus’ impact on their lives, and invitations to volunteer.

But the purpose-driven movement is dividing the country’s more than 50 million evangelicals. Some evangelicals, like the Iuka castoffs, say it’s inappropriate for churches to use growth tactics akin to modern management tools, including concepts such as researching the church “market” and writing mission statements. Others say it encourages simplistic Bible teaching. Anger over the adoption of Mr. Warren’s methods has driven off older Christians from their longtime churches. Congregations nationwide have split or expelled members who fought the changes, roiling working-class Baptist congregations and affluent nondenominational churches.

Last summer, the evangelical church of onetime Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers split after adopting Mr. Warren’s techniques. That church, Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, wanted to increase membership and had built a huge sanctuary several years ago to accommodate hundreds of people. Church leaders adopted a strategic plan built around Mr. Warren’s five “fundamental purposes”: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. One goal was to make sure more than 19% of the church’s members were adults in their 20s and 30s, says the pastor, the Rev. Barry McCarty.

The Rev. Ron Key, then the senior minister, says he objected to the church’s “Madison Avenue” marketing. “I believe Jesus died for everybody,” Mr. Key says, not just people in a “target audience.” He says the leaders wanted church that was more “edgy,” with a worship service using modern music. Mr. Key was demoted, then fired for being divisive and insubordinate.

About 200 people, many of whom had left the church earlier because they thought it should give more money to mission work, began worshiping in a Doubletree Hotel, and later in a college gym, with Mr. Key as pastor. Ms. Miers, the White House counsel, worships with them when she comes to town, a White House spokeswoman says.

At a time when many churches are struggling with declining or aging congregations, advocates of the purpose-driven movement credit it with energizing congregations, doubling the size of some churches and boosting the number of “megachurches” of more than 2,000 members. Mr. Warren says his church and nonprofit arm have trained 400,000 pastors world-wide. He reaches many more through sales of his sermons, books and lessons on the Web. Mr. Warren says he donates 90% of his money to fund philanthropy and overseas training.

Mr. Warren preaches in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt, and he encourages ministers to banish church traditions such as hymns and pews. He and his followers use “praise team” singers, backed by rock bands playing contemporary Christian songs. His sermons rarely linger on self-denial and fighting sin, instead focusing on healing modern American angst, such as troubled marriages and stress.

As membership in Protestant churches stagnated in the 1980s, Mr. Warren, a Southern Baptist in Orange County, Calif., learned from surveys that the region’s Reagan-era baby boomers said they didn’t connect with their parents’ churches. He figured they might find God if they could sit in a theater-style auditorium and listen to live pop music and sermons that could help them with ennui and personal problems. Through Mr. Warren’s Internet marketing savvy, tens of thousands of subscribing pastors learned about his church, which draws 20,000 people each weekend. In the past decade, many pastors jumped to replicate his methods, creating new churches and transforming existing ones.

Christians have long divided over efforts to adapt and modernize their faith. Some believers worry that purpose-driven techniques are so widespread among Protestant churches that they are permanently altering the way Christians worship. Some traditionalists say Mr. Warren’s messages misread Bible passages and undermine traditions. Mr. Warren is “gutting” Christianity, says the Rev. Bob DeWaay, author of a book critical of the approach. “The Bible’s theme is about redemption and atonement, not finding meaning and solving problems,” the Minneapolis pastor says. A spokesman said Mr. Warren believes the Bible addresses sin and redemption, as well as human problems.

Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops. Speakers at Church Transitions Inc., a Waxhaw, N.C., nonprofit that works closely with Mr. Warren’s church, stress that the transition will be rough. At a seminar outside of Austin, Texas in April, the Revs. Roddy Clyde and Glen Sartain advised 80 audience members to trust very few people with their plans. “All the forces of hell are going to come at you when you wake up that church,” said Mr. Sartain, who has taught the material at Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church.

During a session titled “Dealing with Opposition,” Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don’t stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

“There are moments when you’ve got to play hardball,” said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions’ president, in an interview. “You cannot transition a church . . . and placate every whiny Christian along the way.”

Mr. Warren acknowledges that splits occur in congregations that adopt his ideas, though he says he opposes efforts to expel church members. “There is no growth without change and there is no change without loss and there is no loss without pain,” he says. “Probably 10% of all churches are in conflict at any given point, regardless of what they’re doing.” That, he contends, “is not just symptomatic of changing to purpose-driven. It would be symptomatic in changing to anything.”

Despite successes elsewhere, the exodus at some churches adopting the purpose-driven approach has been dramatic. Since taking the job of senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lakewood in Long Beach, Calif., seven years ago, the Rev. John Dickau has watched attendance slide to 550 from 700. “I’ve often wondered, where’s bottom?” he says.

Mr. Dickau has emulated Mr. Warren by favoring sermons about marital and family issues. He says he has attended several Church Transitions conferences to glean new insights and is personally coached by Mr. Sartain. Still, Mr. Dickau says, he made plenty of missteps, mainly, moving too fast. He proposed that the church drop the word “Baptist” from the name, to reach people who wouldn’t identify with a denomination, but the congregation vote failed.

He jettisoned the piano for a guitar. And still people left, he says — because the music is modern, because the congregation no longer uses hymn books, because the center screen that displays the song lyrics obscures the cross. Having a smaller congregation has meant trimming the $1.7 million budget to be able to afford adding to the sound system and new stage lights, which cost $150,000, Mr. Dickau says.

Still, he says he doesn’t regret adopting a purpose-driven approach. “This church won’t be here that much longer if we don’t make these changes,” he says.

The Rev. Bob Felts, pastor of Brookwood Church in Burlington, N.C., says his former congregation seemed enthusiastic about the purpose-driven approach in the 1990s. So he eagerly introduced the concepts to his new church starting in 2001.

Half the members, he said, balked at his decisions to dress casually, restrict choir performances and use electric instruments. Services now may start with a piercing electric-guitar solo, boosted with amplifiers from the $50,000 sound system. Nearly five years into the process, Mr. Felts says he has more young people than in years past: 40% of those who attend are under 22, as opposed to 20% years earlier. But attendance shrank to 275 this summer from 600. (He expects returning students from the area college to swell the rolls by 70.) Mr. Felts says he had to cut tens of thousands of dollars from the annual budget, which is now $600,000. He says some departing members have accused him of “ruining the church.”

Mr. Felts says that despite his church’s troubles, most churches that follow the purpose-driven way are growing. “It takes time and persistence,” he says. “You’re talking about a new paradigm.”

Mr. Warren’s philosophy has become such a lightning rod that some church leaders are reluctant to declare that they are using purpose-driven methods — and some congregants see hidden agendas in the smallest changes at their churches.

Since Iuka Baptist’s founding in 1859, its services had remained much the same. Sunday morning began with hymns such as “How Great Thou Art” and “O Worship the King,” followed by prayer and a lengthy sermon. Many of the white working-class families who attend the church have known each other since high school.

But the church was in debt and wasn’t growing. After Iuka’s pastor moved to another church in 2003, a search committee recruited the Rev. Jim Holcomb, 48. He preached with gusto, liberally salting his sermons with personal stories and jokes. Changes were coming, he told members, and he warned that the church could lose some members because of it.

Mr. Holcomb says he partially read an earlier Warren book called “The Purpose Driven Church” and read Mr. Warren’s essays in the Ladies’ Home Journal. He says Mr. Warren’s teachings were never part of his agenda. He was promoting “aggressive, evangelistic outreach” to bolster the church. “If that’s purpose-driven, then I’m purpose-driven,” he says.

Innovations that are hallmarks of many purpose-driven churches soon began rippling through Iuka Baptist. Mr. Holcomb began a second worship service at 8:30 a.m. Sundays with a “praise team” that sang hymns as well as Christian pop songs with lyrics beamed on a screen. In 2005, Iuka Baptist adopted its first mission statement, a tactic that Mr. Warren says helps the church focus on its objectives. One of the school’s adult Sunday school teachers bought each of his 12 students a copy of “The Purpose Driven Life.” The church’s youth minister assigned the book to his 60 middle-school and high-school students.

The church began to grow. Membership this spring was 694 local members, up 170 since Mr. Holcomb became pastor, according to church staff. But the changes dismayed several older members. Charles Jones, 67, had belonged to Iuka Baptist for 59 years and was one of 15 deacons, or lay officers. He and his wife, Nena, were married at the church, as was their daughter.

The Joneses grew disappointed that they rarely heard Mr. Holcomb deliver messages from the pulpit about God’s wrath or redemption. “He didn’t preach on somebody going to hell,” says Mrs. Jones, 61. Mr. Holcomb says he has always preached sound biblical messages.

Mrs. Jones began scouring the Internet to investigate all the changes taking places at Iuka. Her searches led her to Web sites run by critics of Mr. Warren as well as to Mr. Warren’s own Web site.

More than a dozen church members, including the Joneses, began meeting privately to complain about changes. Church leaders became angry. “The Rev. Jim Holcomb has been slandered and insulted by some of you,” the church’s minister for education, the Rev. Kim Leonard, thundered at one service. Mr. Holcomb and Mr. Leonard deny that Iuka Baptist was becoming purpose-driven. Mr. Leonard says it was “coincidence” that the new initiatives resembled strategies advocated by Mr. Warren and his movement.

Then a Web site run by a critic of Mr. Warren posted a letter from Mrs. Jones describing her worries about Iuka Baptist and comparing the congregation’s admiration for Mr. Holcomb to the cult followings of Jim Jones and David Koresh. The posting sparked angry emails from church members. A church meeting was soon called. Hundreds of people packed into the pews. After heated arguments, the congregation voted 150-to-41 to throw Mr. Jones off the board. The members also accepted the resignations of two other deacons, friends of Mr. Jones who had been asked to leave the board. In the weeks that followed, 40 church members quit.

With no church to worship in this spring, Mr. Jones led 30 former Iuka members in prayer one May night at a public park. He asked God to bless their former spiritual home and those who had forced them from it.

“Keep your eyes on Iuka Baptist Church, Lord,” Mr. Jones said, his head bowed, “that you may open their eyes and their hearts.”

Mr. Holcomb, the pastor whose changes at the church started the controversy, has left Iuka for another church. A search committee continues to look for a new pastor. Deacon Kenny Phifer said the committee won’t hire a pastor who will make Iuka purpose-driven.