Monday, March 27, 2006

Can it ever be right to be 'purpose-driven'?

Our church is running the American mega-church course 'The Purpose Driven Life'. This is after a year in which the church has become progressively more structured: the leadership has changed, the constitution has changed, and for every role or job in the church formal job descriptions and aims/objectives have been defined. We have not been comfortable with this, and the Purpose-Driven Life feels like the last straw. Even putting aside the American hype, something feels very wrong about it.

As a disclaimer, I should say that I realise many people have found the book to be a blessing. If it were simply treated as another Christian book, with some good points and some not-so-good, then fine. Of course God can use anything for good. Some people may have felt stuck in a rut, and needed to hear about God having purposes for them. In some churches, new house groups have sprung up as a result of this course, and that's great.

I also know that there are churches which have studied this book critically. They've read it in their house groups, looked at the pros and cons, checked some of the dubious Scripture references, and learned how to distinguish valid and invalid use of the Bible. They've read articles for and against Rick Warren's teachings, and they've discussed what he says with open minds.

But our church has adopted the full 40-day campaign structure. That means that all existing house groups are supposed to close, and new 'cell groups' formed. The leaders of these have to be trained in Rick Warren's methods, and each meeting is supposed to start with a video of Rick Warren, saying the same as was said in the sermon on Sunday - which was the same as is said in his book. There are memory verses which everyone's supposed to learn each week. And right at the beginning of each cell, members were supposed to sign a 'covenent' committing themselves to the group and to each othe for the 40 days of the course.

More than that, all ministry groups are supposed to close, or use the course in some way. Even the mother-and-toddler groups, the outreach groups, the youth groups. Since many of our groups are inter-church, or meeting important needs in the neighbourhood, they haven't all closed, but some have. Some may never regain their momentum. And many of those who were involved in service within the Body (something Rick Warren insists is one of God's purposes) find themselves without anywhere to be of service during the campaign.

I wouldn't go so far as to say it's intended to brainwash, but it has much in common with brainwashing techniques. Such as removal of current support, and frequent repetition of certain fixed phrases. Oh, and the Sunday services start with half an hour of mostly rather trite songs, but there's no prayer time - just a long sermon which is supposed to be Rick Warren verbatim, read by the current preacher. Our preachers have slightly cut them down (they're supposed to be an hour long! Who can listen to someone talking for that length of time?!) but they're still tedious. Or so I gather - I've managed to volunteer in children's work or stay away. The book was more than enough for me. It taught me nothing new, and was irritating with all the misquotations, and many different paraphrases of Scripture.

Here I add another disclaimer. I'm not someone who believes the only inspired translation of Scripture is the Authorised Version (or King James Version, as they call it in the USA). I believe that as language changes, and further original scrolls are found, and Greek and Hebrew scholarship improves, more accurate translations have been made. How amazing it is that so much was accurate, even with the poor techniques and lack of documents available in the Middle Ages - God certainly ensured that his Word was always available, and that what was important has remained. Had Rick Warren chosen to use only the New International Version, or the New King James, or another accurate modern translation, I would have had no problem. But he doesn't use any single translation. He uses a mixture, including some paraphrases (such as the Living Bible, or the Message, neither of which is supposed to be taken as authoritative) and quotes them as freely as he quotes more accurate translations. He often seems to choose a particular version to 'prove' what he is trying to say; a cursory glance at another version often suggests that he's missed the point entirely.

Is Rick Warran a false prophet, one of those predicted in the Gospels, who would - if possible - 'deceive even the elect'? Many seem to believe that. Or is the course simply a mistake? I'm usually happy to give anyone the benefit of the doubt; perhaps Rick Warren's church was struggling with nominalism, or (as a friend suggested) extreme consumerism. Perhaps they did need to stop, and focus on God's purposes for them. Perhaps the five purposes that are outlined in the book were absolutely appropriate for Saddleback church, and the members needed to hear this message. Maybe the same is true for some other churches too - there are certainly reports of great things happening in churches who have followed this course, although I don't know how closely they followed it. Of course God can do great things anyway. Merely because something good results from something does not mean that the something was in itself good.

Is there a danger of the 'purpose-driven life' becoming cultic? Absolutely. There are various lists showing standard 'marks of cults' - one of them is shown at this site. Of them, the PDL campaign displays:

Extrabiblical authority - yes. It doesn't deny anything in the Bible, but Rick Warren's book is taken as the authority during this course. Here's a report of people actively discouraged from taking Bibles to purpose-driven cell groups, because a Bible might confuse the issue...

Legalism - absolutely. Everything we do is supposed to fit in with one of Rick Warren's purposes (which, he claims, are God's purposes).

Guru-type leader - that's obvious. Rick Warren is on all the videos, his sermons must be preached, his book must be read, his course - and other courses - must be followed. Pastors can even download more of his sermons from the Saddleback web-site, if they're so uninspired that they can't preach their own.

Claims of special discoveries - yes, that's what the whole book seems to be about. At best, it's stating the obvious. But it markets itself as a new revelation, something that - it promises - will change our lives. And there's his whole dubious theory of 'exponential growth'. He even redefines the word 'exponential'.

Out of context Scripture used as proof texts - yes. Frequently. Here's a very useful 'discernment tool' that shows, for each chapter of the book, what Rick Warren says, and what an accurate translation (the NASV in this case) says.

Pseudomystical/occult influence - perhaps not that, exactly. But there are strong influences from the business world, from the dumbed-down gospel of Robert Schuller, and - apparently - from the New Age movement. Here's a page which explains how the whole movement departs from Biblical teaching.

Six out of fourteen seems a bit worrying, if any one of those could imply a cult.

Some more useful articles:

Examining 'purpose driven' or 'purposeful and Spirit-led'

Another clear examination of this movement

One family's clear descriptions of why they left a purpose-driven church

Slice of Laodicea - how Rick Warren teaches his principles to Jews

A bit heavy - but this shows the official stance on those who resist these teachings

Saturday, March 11, 2006

About worship and music

There's an oft-quoted phrase of Rick Warren's: "There's no such thing as Christian music, only Christian words." It's become a catchphrase, and in the context in which he brings this up in the book, I don't disagree. There is no single style of music that can be called 'Christian'. Some like hymns, some like psalms, some like 1980s worship music, some like 1990s Vineyard music, some like Taizé music... all can be used to worship God. To suggest that we can only worship God by singing Psalms, or - at the other extreme - that we should reject all music written before the 21st century as out-of-date - is unbalanced. God loves variety, and has created people with huge diversity of musical tastes and talents. So by all means, let's worship him in many ways: with all styles of music, and in other ways. Warren's point about worship being a lifestyle is also valid, of course.

But... 'Only Christian words'. What does he mean by that? The implication is that if a song contains Christian concepts, then it's a Christian song and can be used for worshipping God. If it doesn't, then it can't.

Is that the case? Many would disagree. Amongst the songs to be found in most current Christian songbooks, there are some which are clearly worshipful, some which state theology rather than expressing any kind of worship, and some which are trite in the extreme. Merely because a song mentions God, and is written by a Christian, does not mean it's going to be worshipful. I think of Adrian Plass's fictional diaries... someone wrote out the most appalling pseudo-Christian doggerel and insisted God had given them the song. Plass's wry comment was that God was probably glad to get rid of it. Is God worshipped by 'vain repetition' of religious phrases? Or, indeed, by the heavy and rather severe theology of some of the old hymns?

I don't say that he can't be. God enjoys our worship however it's expressed, and I'm sure that even the tritest (or heaviest) of songs can be song with a reverential and worshipful heart. But they can also be sung by people who think they're dreadful, or boring. When I was a teenager, visiting a rather dull church, I noticed the word 'assuage' in a hymn we were singing, and spotted that it's an anagram of 'sausage'. I tried in vain to suppress the giggles, which ensured my rendition was far from worshipful.

Then there's the other side: music without words can undoubtedly be worshipful. A musician playing a clarinet, or a trumpet, cannot sing the words at the same time, but can certainly give worship while playing, either alone or as part of a church service. If worship is showing God's worth (as the word means) and expressing our love, then the words as such are almost irrelevant. What matters is our heart and our attitude.