In the wake of Saddleback Church and the purpose-driven pope Rick Warren ordaining so-called female pastors, it is worth a reminder that the franchising of churches under the seeker-sensitive, market-driven model has caused wanton destruction among formerly faithful (but perhaps numerically small) churches all over the world as they became houses of ungodliness, and has resulted in doctrinal downgrade that has compromised the authority of the Word and the nature of the Gospel itself. My former church is such a place.
Note: Normally at Protestia, we don’t write articles directed at smaller churches that have strayed into bad doctrine and methodology. There are simply too many pragmatic, purpose-driven churches out there to not stay focused on the biggest and most influential. Yet my previous church home is a helpful example of the more obvious apostasy that results from allegiance to purpose-driven church growth methodology. Although I am perfectly within my rights (and indeed biblically encouraged) to name names, I am changing them (and the name of the church) to protect my current church and pastors’ ability to engage in this local rebuke as the Spirit leads them. Our church is firmly on the side of biblical truth on these issues, and we trust the Spirit to convict and call those who are truly his.
Why I Am Telling This Story
It truly pains me to write this. To have been fully convinced that my home church was orthodox and faithful to Jesus for so many years only to have my eyes opened to the truth was embarrassing and truly painful, and I have avoided thinking about what happened for a long, long time. Calling out a pastor who I looked up to (and who to this day remains one of my favorite people in the world) is something I approach with a heavy heart, but in the hope that it will be an encouragement to those who have escaped a purpose-driven church or those who know something is wrong with their church but can’t quite identify it. Know that others have been there.
Telling this story will likely cause my wife and me to lose friends, be rebuked for being “bitter” or “divisive,” and possibly face retribution and scorn from some at our present church. It is an unwritten rule that, if you must expose false teaching from a fellow professing Christian, it cannot be someone you actually know or who is near you geographically. If you insist on exposing the false teaching publicly (Ephesians 5:11) you will have Matthew 18 or 1 Timothy 5:19 yanked out of context in an attempt to strong-arm you into taking your issue to this person privately – usually so they can attempt to talk you out of public rebuke, prepare spin control, and avoid the universal church knowing what they are teaching. They insist on having the opportunity to cast you as “harsh,” “unloving,” or “toxic” when you don’t win them over and eventually expose them. They would like your public rebuke seen as the epitome of un-Christlike behavior as if Jesus and his disciples never publicly rebuked anyone nor wrote about it.
No, private conversation will change nothing for a church and a pastor who has diligently studied scripture for over 30 years and yet teaches and preaches in opposition to it. And so I am compelled to share my experience if only to show the doctrinal downgrade and unfaithfulness that results from churches that adopted seeker-sensitive methodology, as well as the grace of the God who opens the eyes of his children and leads them out of such churches.
In 1989, “Trinity” Evangelical Church was started in a living room by two young believers (let’s call them Bob and Frank) in the Denver area. Bob describes the church as something born “in [his] mind and heart” – his dream. Early services featured the two young men in suits leading a small congregation in singing “Victory in Jesus” and Bob now describes how he had a concern that the church could very easily die before it got started due to constantly moving locations. There is every indication that their hearts were for the Gospel, and that they were trusting God.
Fast forward 32 years and a typical Trinity Church service may feature a Taylor Swift song with lyrics like “taking shots at me like it’s Patron” and “shade never made anybody less gay” (a song attacking those who express the biblical belief in the unregenerate sinfulness of homosexuality) before Bob preaches a sermon based around the presupposition that being a practicing homosexual is an unchanging part of a person’s identity and in support of baptizing practicing “married” lesbians into the church of Jesus Christ – an act which he condones under the worldly concept of “love no matter what.” In support of this (and other aberrant doctrines), Bob provides pre-chewed proof texts from Bethel Church’s The Passion Translation, a brainchild of NAR-promoting heretic Brian Simmons that adds 50% more text than an actual Bible, and according to Old Testament professor Andrew G. Snead “by masquerading as a Bible [TPT] threatens to bind entire churches in thrall to a false god.”
The service might feature an appearance by one of Bob’s two daughters that have been ordained as pastors at the church. At the end, a truncated “gospel” will be presented where Jesus is described as a key to “living with purpose” and “free” eternal life, but repentance, obedience, and the true conviction of the sinner are cleverly omitted, after which Bob declares those who raised their hand (Matthew 7:22) to be saved and adds them to the church’s running tally.
There is little doubt that 1989 Bob (by all accounts a good and faithful servant) would be horrified at the kind of God-forsaken, Spirit-devoid, manufactured doctrinal trainwreck that is on display in a typical 2021 Trinity service. So what happened?
The Church In 2001
My family and I began this journey like so many other evangelical Christians. Leaving the church I grew up in due to damaging leadership, we discovered a youthful, non-denominational church nearby that was, well, just different. After decades of Baptist stuffiness and being intimately involved in every single program our church offered, the low-pressure atmosphere was refreshing. The Sunday service was modern, vibrant, and casual. The music was stylish and professional instead of the old-fashioned “churchy” music we were used to. And Bob was cool – the kind of guy you could see yourself in. His sermons were filled with personal stories, everyday humility, and his sermons showed us how the Bible could make every part of life better. I had grown up in church, but I never knew Jesus could be this useful.
Trinity Church seemed to be always growing. People from all walks of life were at home there – not judging each other or getting caught up in silly things like doctrinal differences or head knowledge, but focusing on doing things for God. Tradition was out the window, but these people were real. Every Sunday, people in the service were making decisions for Jesus – we knew because Bob would say, “I see your hand” when he asked people to raise theirs to show that “what [he] said made sense to you” while we all had our eyes closed during the alter call. And in case we forgot, he would routinely announce the number of people who had been baptized, “made a decision” for Jesus, or “put their trust in Jesus” at the last service. Seemingly every week we had a new big thing to look forward to – a new reason to make sure we didn’t miss the action. We focused on metrics – our purpose – but this was totally okay because it proved God was working. I remember being impressed at the efficiency and the professionalism – we had clearly cracked the code of Christian conversion. Finally, we were at a church that got stuff done.
We dove in. My family participated in dramas, music ministry, and became close with many fellow church members and staff. I joined many other young men who admired Bob, who was everything I looked up to in Christian ministry.
In 2002, upon the release of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, Trinity Church was chosen to be one of a select group of churches who would help pilot the program, and our pastors went out to Lake Forest, California to be trained by Rick Warren himself how to implement it most effectively. For most of us in the church, this was the first time we had ever heard of Rick Warren or knew that a church could grow to 15,000, but upon being told that we were blessed to be a part of the innovative next big thing in ministry, we were elated and eager to reform.
When It All Changed
Little did I know as a 23-year-old that the journey we were a part of began years earlier when Bob and Frank had picked up a copy of Warren’s Purpose Driven Church (1995), a manual on growing a church by applying secular marketing strategies to the “business” of church ministry. In the book, churches (just like businesses) are encouraged to define a results-oriented purpose and structure themselves to appeal to the desires of unbelievers. As Warren wrote, he has a “deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart” (emphasis mine). The model stressed the business plan: get members of the community (unbelievers) into the church by appealing to their “felt needs” (the Bible calls this “the flesh”), move them to the crowd (attenders) by remaining attractional to these needs, get them to make a decision for Jesus and become part of the congregation (believers), and finally move them to the core of the church, where they will be serving and leading.
Implement this pragmatic model, and your church will be blessed (grow numerically). Numerical growth was de facto evidence of God’s blessing, and as Warren wrote on page 62 of the Purpose Driven Church, “never criticize what God is blessing.” If it “works,” do it. If it doesn’t, discard it.
Our New Gospel
Gone was the biblical notion that Jesus was the seeker (Luke 19:10) and faithful Christians were to preach a Gospel that was an offense to the lost world (1 Cor. 2:14) and trust that God uses this preaching to save His elect (Romans 10:14-16). In the purpose-driven gospel, it was unregenerate souls (seeking to please themselves) that were actually the seekers, and it was our job to make sure they know that Jesus is the real answer to their fleshly longings – their felt needs. In doing this, churches could manufacturer regeneration and revival by using the right techniques and marketing – much like Starbucks or Apple builds a loyal customer base by appealing to the needs and wants of coffee and tech consumers.
In the purpose-driven church, the seeker was the target of the ministry, and the church must be structured around their needs to succeed. This success was measured by church size and involvement rather than spiritual growth, and purpose-driven churches would often emphasize “deeds, not creeds,” teaching it doesn’t particularly matter what you believe as it matters what you do. Works were the true sign of a Christian, not who or what a person actually had faith in. These churches had all the outward appearances of righteousness (2 Tim. 3-5), and they fooled thousands of regenerate believers (like us) for a time.
The Cracks Start to Show
Absent the true gospel and relying on a purposeful deemphasis on doctrine, these churches are not led by Christ and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, they are driven by slick marketing, allegiance to the flesh, and the false security of easy believism. The more obvious doctrinal aberrations begin to appear when unregenerate church members (attracted through worldly appeal) grow bored with the hype and event-driven pizazz that the church offers. The church has driven off mature believers, created fatigue among the remaining audience members, and now needs to tap into new unregenerate customer bases. Beholden to the morality of the world and blind to the plain truth of God, this new base pushes the church to adopt more of the godless beliefs of the culture (gender egalitarianism and LGBTQ acceptance, for instance). The church willingly does this to keep their nickels and noses (numerical success) and suppresses biblical opposition by watering down doctrine to the point of irrelevance (“love no matter what”).
Biblical ignorance and Spiritual absence abound in the congregation and the leadership, which doesn’t particularly matter as long as whatever is taught is useful in lessening life’s problems. If a particular biblical passage isn’t useful or challenges their teaching, they simply ignore or reinterpret it. Christianity is repackaged and sold as a therapeutic program for improving one’s life and afterlife – no sacrifice, obedience, or denial of one’s desires needed.
The good news of salvation no longer involves bad news for the flesh. Instead, the new Christian is simply receiving the last piece to the puzzle he’s been trying to complete by following his flesh. Now he knows what his true purpose is, and all he has to say is the magic words “I believe in Jesus.” God’s truth is validated by its results and its usefulness, not because it is his Word. Much like claims about the latest household cleaner, we know it is true because it works. The same is true about the new methodology – we know it is true because it fills buildings with people claiming the name of Christ.
Hurting the Sheep
If filling a building with false hope wasn’t bad enough, there’s the damage this kind of “church” does to actual believers. As my wife and my eyes were opened through the blessing of online discernment (particularly men like Ken Silva and Chris Rosebrough), we began to ask questions. My parents and siblings had already left for more orthodox pastures, and we had become disillusioned by the lack of spiritual depth and the (now obvious) synergistic “gospel” preached and had stopped attending. I felt burned by a pastor I had looked up to and trusted, and had become cynical and distrustful of anyone who had the temerity to call themselves “pastor.”
While everyone was perhaps too busy to notice, our church “family” was entirely unaware that our firstborn son was 14 weeks premature and in the hospital for 82 days. They were also unaware that we hadn’t been attending the church for months. Mind you, we were an involved couple. My wife had been teaching children’s Sunday School and I had been visibly involved in music ministry for years. Upon being able to bring our son with us, we returned to a Sunday service and realized very quickly that this was not the church for us – if we could even call it a church by biblical standards.
Regenerate believers, under the ministry of the Spirit, see through this false church system and leave as we did. These believers are actually encouraged to leave if they insist on “going deeper” or being plainly obedient to the Word of God, which they understand instructs them to stand in opposition to the ways of the world (John 15:19). Their God-planted desire to know him more through his Word reveals the hollowness, shallowness, and powerlessness of the “church” they attend, and they leave.
A Mission Field
Ministry that is beholden to the culture – thinking it knows better than God how the church is to be comprised and the Gospel is to be preached – will always slide into more obvious, full-blown apostasy. The culture wants family-destroying egalitarianism and sexual deviancy, so these ministries bend to give it to them by ordaining women pastors and approving “Christians” remaining slaves to the sin of homosexuality. The actual fruits of the Spirit are substituted for good works (which the world can also offer), and a Savior who calls us to repent, obey, and take up our cross is replaced with a Jesus who will accommodate anyone who says, “Lord, Lord.”
While we are praying for repentance for our former church and its leadership, the blatant disregard for the plain instructions of scripture, man-centered ministry focus, and (most offensively) the truncated, false gospel that is the hallmark of all purpose-driven churches are more than enough to conclude that a church like this should not be considered Christian. The people who attend such churches (and there are thousands) are a mission field, and the pastors of these churches are false teachers by any biblical standard. We must pray for our friends and family that may be blinded and trapped in such a place, and humbly preach the truth to them and call them out of this false imitation of Christianity.
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