Rick Warren is approaching legendary status as the pastor of Saddleback Community Church, the fastest growing Baptist church in American history. After graduating from Southwestern Seminary in 1980, Warren and his wife moved to Southern California to plant a Southern Baptist church in the suburbs about an hour south of Los Angeles. The deliberately non-traditional church was aimed at reaching people who wouldn't ordinarily come to church. In 16 years, Saddleback has grown to be the largest attended Southern Baptist congregation, averaging over 12,000 attenders each weekend, while at the same time starting 26 other churches. This year's Easter service attracted 21,988 to a service and 1,084 unbelievers registered commitments to Christ.
Warren, who encourages struggling pastors by saying he can remember when the church only had 25 members, has written a book for church leaders outlining Saddleback's evangelism and disciple-making strategy. The Purpose Driven Church has remained on the bestseller list for 1995 and is one of four finalists for Book of the Year by the Evangelical Press Association.
SBC LIFE You're known for saying that pastors need to be more "lost"-centered, looking at their church from the perspective of someone who doesn't go to church. Could you elaborate on that?
Warren The most overlooked principle for church growth is we have to love people the way Jesus did. That's it! The motive behind everything we've done at Saddleback is that we love and care about lost people. The reason Jesus attracted such large crowds is because He loved people. On the other hand, I've heard churches justify their lack of growth by saying, "We're small because we haven't watered down the gospel." But maybe the real reason they don't have a crowd is because they don't want a crowd! They love their own comfort more than they love lost people. To reach unbelievers you have to move outside of your own comfort zone and do things that often feel awkward and uncomfortable to you. It takes unselfish people to grow a church.
Lost people have a lot of problems and their lives are messy. It's not by accident that Jesus compared evangelism to fishing. Fishing is often messy and smelly. So many churches want the fish they catch to be pre-scaled, gutted, cleaned, and cooked. That is why they never reach anyone. If your church is serious about reaching the unchurched, you must be willing to put up with people who have a lot of problems.
The secret of reaching unbelievers is learning to think like an unbeliever. But the problem is — the longer you're a Christian, the less you think like an unbeliever. And if you're a seminary trained pastor, you're even more removed from unbelievers. You think like a pastor, not a pagan. So you have to intentionally learn to think like an unbeliever again. Paul says, "I become all things to all men that I may, in some way, save some." What he meant was that he let his target determine his approach. When with Jews, he communicated like a Jew and when he was with Gentiles, he communicated like a Gentile. I'm sure if Paul came to southern California, he'd learn to communicate in southern California terms.
Some people think that communicating differently in different cultures is just being a chameleon, but actually it is just being strategic. You don't compromise the message. That message is "the faith once delivered for the saints," and we don't have an option to change the message. But the methods of sharing it have to change with every new generation and location. The programs and tools we used when I was a youth pastor in inner city L.A. were different from those I used as a short-term missionary in Japan, and those methods were different from what we're doing now at Saddleback. There is no one way to grow a church! It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. If you're getting the job done — lives are being changed — then I like the way you're doing it whether or not it is my style of ministry.
SBC LIFE In other words, you're not interested in Saddleback clones?
Warren Absolutely not! Not one of the 26 mission churches we've planted is doing it exactly like us. We believe every church must have its own unique thumbprint. That's what The Purpose Driven Church is all about.
If a principle is biblical, I believe it is trans-cultural. In other words, it will work anywhere. But you must filter those principles through the culture of the community, the makeup of the congregation, and the personality of the pastor.
Purpose-driven churches are all committed to the same five New Testament purposes of the church but these congregations come in all sizes, shapes, and cultures. God's purposes for the church never change, but the programs and methods do. Look around and it is obvious that God loves variety. He loves to do things in more than one way!
SBC LIFE What about prayer and dedication? Is the growth of a church based upon the pastor's commitment?
Warren It is a myth that all you need is prayer and dedication to grow a healthy church. Some of the most dedicated prayer warriors I know are pastors of dying churches. It really bothers me that some pastor's conferences promote this myth, leaving pastors feeling discouraged and guilty, instead of encouraged.
We've all heard speakers claim, "If you'll just pray more, preach the Word, and be dedicated, then your church will grow." Well, that's just not true. I can show you thousands of churches where pastors are doctrinally sound; they love the Lord; they're committed and Spirit-filled; and yet their churches are dying on the vine. Currently about 70% of the churches in our Convention are either plateaued or declining. Is that because 70% of our pastors are not dedicated? Of course not! It's a complete myth!
If dedication was all that is needed to grow a church, 99% of our churches would be growing today, because most pastors are genuinely dedicated. But growing a healthy church is not that easy or simple. It involves many different factors and requires certain leadership skills. Anytime you hear a person say, "This is the one key to growth," you can be sure they're wrong because there are many keys to growth.
That's why I'm convinced that the key issue for our congregations in the 21st century is church health, not church growth. Focusing on church growth is the wrong focus. If we'll focus on developing healthy churches, they will grow automatically. All living things grow — if they are healthy! I don't have to tell my kids to grow. They do it automatically.
Now, what makes a healthy church? The answer is "balance," just like in the human body. Your body has a number of different systems: a circulatory system, skeletal system, respiratory system, central nervous system, digestive system, and others. When these systems are in balance, we call that "health." When they are out of balance, we call it "disease" or disease. Likewise, the Body of Christ, the church, is made up of different systems, each fulfilling a different purpose: for worship, fellowship, evangelism, discipleship, and ministry. When you have a healthy system or process for each of these purposes, and these systems are balanced, the church naturally grows!
But here's the catch: Unless you set up an intentional strategy and structure to insure balance between the five purposes of the church, then your church will tend to overemphasize the purpose the pastor feels most passionate about. If he has a heart for evangelism, the church may reach lots of people, but nobody grows up in the faith. If he has a gift in teaching, the church will develop mature believers, but will tend to neglect winning the lost. If he has pastoral gifts, the church will have great fellowship and care, but the church's ministry to the community will suffer or there will be little evangelism. You must set up a purpose-driven structure that allows the church to become more than just an extension of its pastor.
Every church is driven by something: tradition, programs, finances, events, seekers, and even buildings. But to be healthy, it must become purpose-driven. They need a strategy that will help them grow warmer through fellowship, deeper through discipleship, stronger through worship, broader through ministry, and larger through evangelism. Sadly, many churches are personality-driven. This puts the congregation in a very precarious position if the leader dies, moves, or has a moral failure.
At Saddleback, we've built the church on purpose, not personality. If I were to die right now, we'd lose maybe a thousand "fringe" people who come to hear me, but that would still leave 11,000 other people who attend each week. No church is perfect, but you can be healthy without being perfect.
SBC LIFE People might question whether you have a Southern Baptist church because Saddleback has no committees. Can you be Southern Baptist without committees?
Warren That's funny. It's true that we have no committees, but we do have 89 different lay ministries. What's the difference? Committees discuss but ministries do. Committees argue while ministries act. Committees maintain while ministries minister. Committees talk and consider while ministries serve and care. Committees make decisions that they expect other people to implement.
At Saddleback, the implementers are the decision-makers. The people who do the ministry get to make their own decisions about that ministry. We do not separate authority from responsibility. We trust people with both.
Here's a radical question. What do these words and phrases have in common: Majority rule, parliamentary procedures, ballot, boards, board meetings, business meetings, elections, voting, and committees? None of them are found in the Bible! And yet how many churches do you know that are formed on committees, boards, voting, and majority rule? What we have done is taken an American form of government and pressed it upon the church. The result is that often the church is as ineffective and bureaucratic as the government is.
We must remember that the church is a Body, not a business. It is an organism, not an organization, and so God intends for it to operate on the basis of spiritual gifts, not elected offices. There is not a single example of voting to elect a pastor or any other church leader person in the New Testament. Voting was so foreign to the New Testament mind that when they chose Judas' replacement, they cast lots! They were more likely to draw straws than vote.
SBC LIFE It's taken you a long time to get a building erected at Saddleback, and it's an unusual one at that. Tell SBC LIFE's readers about your building philosophy.
Warren First, buildings are to be instruments, not monuments. We would never build a building we couldn't tear down — if we needed to in order to reach more people — because people are the priority, not buildings. Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings and then they shape us." Most churches build too soon and too small. Then a permanently small building shapes a permanently small future. That's why we postponed our building as long as we could. That meant, in order to keep growing, we used 79 different buildings in 13 years. We often joked, "We're the church that, if you can figure out where we are this week, you get to come."
SBC LIFE You also have a strong opinion that churches should not try to mix traditional with contemporary worship styles.
Warren Absolutely. If you try to please everybody, you'll end up reaching nobody. You have to figure out who your evangelistic target is and then focus on it. I do not recommend that established churches try to radically change the style of their existing worship services. Instead, I suggest that they start a second, alternative service or, better yet, start a new mission designed to reach people not being reached with the traditional style.
If they try to change the existing service too much, they'll lose the people who are already there. You don't necessarily have to stop what you're already doing. It's like when you're fishing. Instead of just using one line, throw another hook in the water. You might have four or five different worship styles, if that's what is needed to reach different generations or groups in your community. I'm not against any traditional method that is still reaching people for Christ — I'm just a proponent of adding new ways and services to reach those who will never be reached by the way we've traditionally done it.
SBC LIFE Most evangelical churches would say they're trying to reach everyone. Why do you think that won't work?
Warren The church that claims to reach everybody is only fooling themselves. No single style of church can possibly reach everyone. Take a close look and you'll find that every church has a "culture." This culture is determined by the predominant kind of people who make up the congregation. Whoever your church has right now is who you're likely to attract more of — whether you like that fact or not.
What is the likelihood of a church full of retirees reaching teenagers? What is the likelihood of a church full of urban professionals reaching farmers? What is the likelihood of a church of military personnel reaching peace activists? Highly unlikely. That's why we must start all kinds of services and churches.
Jesus modeled evangelistic targeting in the Bible. He said, "I came for the house of Israel," and when He sent out the twelve and the seventy, He gave them a specific target. Was this to be exclusive? No, to be effective. Likewise, Paul said, "I am the apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter is the apostle to the Jews." Why do you think we have four Gospels? Because they were written to communicate the Good News to different targets. Matthew wrote for Jews, and Mark wrote for Gentiles.
SBC LIFE Some critics might say that to be "seeker sensitive" requires that the gospel be watered down.
Warren "Seeker-sensitive" doesn't mean you compromise the message. It means that you take into consideration people's culture in order to communicate that message. Making a service "comfortable" for the unchurched doesn't mean changing your theology; it means changing the environment of the service — such as changing the way you greet visitors, the style of music you use, the Bible translation you preach from, and the kind of announcements you make in the service. The message is not always comfortable. In fact, sometimes God's truth is very uncomfortable. Still we must teach "the whole counsel of God." Being seeker-sensitive does not limit what you say, but it will affect how you say it.
Imagine a missionary saying to a tribe, "I have the best news in the world, but to hear it, you must first learn my language, start wearing my kind of clothes, sing my songs, and come to my building, at a time convenient for me." We'd call that a strategy for failure, but we do it in America all the time. We say, "You have to hear the good news in our language and through our tunes."
SBC LIFE You started with a clean slate at Saddleback, but what if a pastor at a traditional church wants to make changes. Where would you suggest he start?
Warren What you should do is change the easiest things first, and the things that make the greatest difference. Don't worry initially about the issues that cause the greatest disagreement. The easiest thing to change is the preaching. Any pastor in any church could update his preaching style for the 1990's and see a dramatic improvement. In many churches, we're still using an oratory style that was pre-television.
Another simple improvement is to change the way your church welcomes visitors. We don't realize that the traditional way of welcoming newcomers actually makes them more uncomfortable! Studies show that the three greatest fears people have are, one, the fear of speaking in front of others, two, the fear of being singled out, and, three, the fear of being different. Yet we welcome visitors by saying, "Stand up, tell us who you are, and put on a sticker that says you're different." Welcome to your three greatest fears. There are a lot of simple, practical changes that any traditional church can make in order to be more sensitive to the needs and fears of unchurched visitors.
SBC LIFE John Maxwell has said something like, "In the New Testament, Jesus was so human that people had trouble believing He was divine. Yet, there are a lot of pastors who are so formal that people have trouble believing that they're human." You also champion informality. Tell us about that.
Warren I think one of the biggest barriers to effective ministry is that we take ourselves too seriously and don't take God seriously enough. The most important confession in the New Testament is Peter's confession where he says, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," but the second most important confession is Paul's confession when he says in Acts 17, "We are but men!"
You have to decide in life whether you want to influence people or impress them. You can impress people from a distance, but you can only influence them up-close. We desperately need authentic leaders today, who are real and vulnerable. Our greatest life messages actually come out of our weaknesses, not our strengths.
I don't think it's by accident that the words "humor" and "humility" come from the same root word. Self-deprecating humor is the quickest way to turn a hostile audience into a friendly one. It endears people to you. Anyway, if you learn to laugh at yourself, you'll always have plenty of material. People like being around someone who isn't trying to put on airs or act pompous.
I've got three doctorates, but I never let anybody call me "Doctor." In fact, my people just call me "Rick." And I sign all letters to visitors with just "Rick," not even "Pastor Rick." Why? Because I want them to feel they can relate to me on a first name basis. None of my degrees are hanging on the wall. Instead, I've got pictures of my kids up. That's what people relate to — "Oh, you're normal."
SBC LIFE Does that contribute to an openness within the congregation where people are willing to share their struggles.
Warren One unique part of our service every Sunday is a testimony of someone working through a real-life problem with Jesus' help. Some churches are now using drama to illustrate the message, but I thought, "Why write a fake story, a drama, when I've got a real life story sitting out there in the congregation?" So every week, in the middle of my message, I have a person or couple share a 5-minute testimony. These are never "Thank God I've never sinned stories," but gut-level stories about overcoming adultery, mental illness, alcoholism, promiscuity, abortion, abuse, and relatives dying of AIDS. We've covered every issue you could think of.
These testimonies have brought about two wonderful results: First, they have created a climate of authenticity and openness in our fellowship. People realize it's okay to have problems now. You don't have to talk about them only in the past tense. Second, it has mobilized hundreds of people for lay ministry. As it says in II Corinthians, God allows us to go through these problems, and then comforts us, so then we can have a ministry of helping others.
SBC LIFE You're known as a visionary. What do you see as the number one challenge facing churches over the next five years?
Warren The greatest challenge churches will face in the next five years is developing and adapting our ministry methods to the massive needs of the 21st century. We can't just keep on "doing it the way we've always done it."
The world has changed — permanently — and we're never going back to the 1950s. In the SBC, we MUST start thousands of new churches and services. It will take new churches to reach a new generation. But more than that, we MUST develop a clear, practical strategy that helps all our existing churches through what I call the four types of renewal: personal renewal, corporate renewal, mission renewal, and structural renewal. If we don't, thousands of churches are going to be closing and boarding up for good. That's sad, because it doesn't have to happen! All it takes is leadership with the vision and courage to make tough decisions.
I think the greatest days of our Convention are ahead of us. I have never seen pastors more open to learning and growing. We've had over 26,000 pastors and church leaders attend the Purpose-Driven Church seminar. I'm a big fan of pastors, especially bivocational ones who support themselves while serving a church. I think pastors are the most underrated change agents in America. Anything we can do as a denomination to strengthen their families, encourage them personally, and equip them with the new skills necessary for ministry in the next century will be the wisest use of resources we can possibly make.
Broadman & Holman books about non-traditional methods for reaching the lost:
Out of Their Faces and Into Their Shoes
by John Kramp
The Antioch Effect
by Ken Hemphill
The Issachar Factor
by Glen Martin and Gary McIntosh