Purpose Driven Church


This paper seeks to offer a critical synopsis of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church, and to explore the strengths and weaknesses of his argument. In telling the story of Saddleback church, Warren clearly shares with us what he has discovered in success; while all too many people can only depress others with what they have discovered in failure. As Criswell stated: “This book explains the convictions, principles, and practices that have been mightily used by God in building one of the most effective churches on the North American continent.”

In examining the book, we should be wary of two extreme reactions. The first is to criticise the success of a church just because it is successful. The second is to believe that one man’s success is everybody else’s only recipe to work from.

Warren himself pleads with his readers against not to simply copy Saddleback’s methods and not to merely transplant the Saddleback concept into another context and area.

Warren also very wisely warns us never to criticise any method that God is blessing. We ignore this at our peril. Yet every struggling church has at least some of its leadership that criticises what God is doing in growing churches, particularly in North America. The warning not to criticise what God is blessing should be watermarked on every page of his book, because it is all too easy to criticise those who are in the oasis when you are lost in the desert.

We must therefore hear and heed the strong warning that Rick Warren gives when he says that Saddleback’s story of growth is a sovereign act of God that cannot be replicated, though we should extract the lessons and principles that are transferable.  As Warren says, “You can learn from other churches without becoming a clone.”


Whatever else may be said about the Church Universal, it contains a great variety of people! But the Church is no mere institution even though it may be seen as that; rather it is the representation of Jesus Christ on earth. Hollinger said that the church is the “plausibility structure of the Christian life world”. “What it means to be a Christian is inseparable from what it means to be the church,” according to Kenneson.

The issue that Rick Warren has addressed at Saddleback is how the church relates to and reaches out to the world around it. Yet, as Warner has pointed out, it is all too true that the church has often become the greatest hindrance to effective communication of the gospel. “If we are serious about taking the good news of Christ to today’s world, we must face squarely the vast chasm of disconnectedness between the church and an unchurched society.”

In this respect, Rick Warren counsels us to never confuse methods with the message. The message must never change, but the methods must change with each new generation. Warner declared that the church which is true to Jesus and the apostles will always be ready to change its outward forms, without compromising the essential gospel, in order to reach new cultures.

Gibbs has pointed out that “churches cannot stand apart from society and invite people come to them on their terms; rather, churches must go to people where they are and communicate in terms that will make sense to them, addressing the issues that shape their lives and speaking their language.” However, he also acknowledges that traditional mindsets still prevail in many churches of all denominations, whether liberal or evangelical, mainline or independent. This is because the church is an inherently conservative institution. As Warner has said: “The modern world will not be reached effectively by traditional forms of church. Here’s the bottom line: keep up to date, or become obsolete.”

Saddleback church had discovered that starting a church from nothing is an effective way of being church without being enmeshed in traditionalism. The people of Saddleback have learned to do things to a very high standard of excellence and in a way that relates to people where they at. As Stott has said, “For whatever is dull, drab, dowdy, slow or monotonous cannot compete in the television age. Television challenges preachers to make our presentation of the truth attractive through variety, colour, illustration, humour and fast-flowing movement. We are so decorous, we are so controlled, we do everything with such decency and order that there is no life, there is no warmth, there is no power! But that is not New Testament Christianity. Does your faith melt and move your heart? Does it get rid of the ice that is in you, the coldness in your heart, and the stiffness? The essence of New Testament Christianity is this warmth that is invariably the result of the presence of the Spirit.” A long quote, but well worth it.

John Stott’s heart clearly ached over the church in the United Kingdom, and his longing would surely find at least some fulfilment at Saddleback church. To change the church at home will require effort and commitment. Warner pointed out that, if we are not prepared to set high standards, encourage creativity and unusual angles, explore targeting strategies, and spend significant money on sustained promotional campaigns, we will simply not be heard amid the clamouring voices of today’s market place. As communication to the inhabitants of the TV age, some of our Sunday services are just as pointless. As Warner has said quite bluntly about some of those Sunday services, “We are boring people to hell.”

Any methods, any structures grow out of date. Embodiments of the gospel which serve well in one era become obstacles to the gospel in the next. We are not watering down the gospel when we change the church. The gospel absolutely requires such change from us. The trouble is that we have got it all wrong. It is not the church that never changes, but God. The Church has all too often got that wrong.


Warren’s book shows us that there is one crucial principle at the heart of how we do church: “Every church must eventually decide whether it will be structured for control or structured for growth.” In structuring for growth, one of the keys is to release the power of creativity within God’s people.

Warner said that: “Human creativity is a reflection of divine creativity, and to express our creativity is itself a form of worship before our creative God.” The excellence of creativity should never become an end in itself, but Warren was nevertheless far more concerned about quality than he was about quantity.

Stott emphasised the necessity and importance of imagination in what we do in church, and he emphasises also that imagination must be used in the context of relevance, or it is wasted: “Effective communication requires that the speaker and hearer share a common mode of discourse. The gospel must always be communicated within a particular cultural context.”

There is no doubt that Saddleback Church is succeeding in this. Releasing the creativity of people and creating the right environment in which God can exercise his re-creativity highlights one of the most important and critical aspects of Saddleback that Rick Warren shares with his reader: “Turning members into ministers.” How many pastors in how many churches would love to do just that in their church!

The success of Saddleback is centred around Warren’s revolutionary insight that the critical issue facing the church is not church growth, but church health. As a healthy baby will grow, so a healthy church will grow. But only God makes the church grow. For Warren, the critical question any church should ask itself is: “What is keeping our church from growing?”

Since the church is a living organism, it is natural for it to grow if it is healthy. The church is a body, not a business. It is alive. If a church is not growing, it is dying. Saddleback is clearly alive and effective as it reaches out to people, brings them in and then sends them back out again.

The centripetal nature of God and his church at Saddleback is clearly seen in the drawing of unbelievers into the church and the centrifugal effect is seen in the sending back out (after discipleship) of these believers to reach to unbelievers. The amazing number of churches that Saddleback has planted is itself testimony to the centrifugal force of the church at Saddleback. To believers, Jesus says, “Go!” But to the lost world, Jesus says, “Come!”


“A clear purpose not only defines what we do, it defines what we don’t do.” This statement by Rick Warren gives me a starting point for my plea to exercise caution and not just to quickly eat as a whole what he has given to us in his book, but to carefully digest it. This is in no way to criticise Rick Warren or to make light of what Saddleback has achieved, but it is to observe that every success story has its limitations.

Saddleback was a church literally started from nothing by Rick Warren. Nevertheless, the financial and practical support of other churches and people was critical to the success of the church at Saddleback. This vital support from others highlighted very clearly the fact that Rick Warren was never a go-it-alone pastor. Traditional church has much to learn from this, if it still believes that the pastor should do everything, while the rest merely spectate.

However, since traditional churches are already established, care is needed in what and how they learn from Rick Warren. Principles needed to begin a church are not necessarily the principles needed to change a church. Warren’s model is nonetheless a valuable one, and the best models ensure that theory and application go hand in hand. Theory informs practice, but equally important, practice develops new theories. This ‘practising development’ means that The Purpose Driven Church should not become an (unchanging) textbook to which all problems and issues are referred. In fairness, Warren never meant it to be.

Since Saddleback is in an upper class setting in North America, those wanting to learn from Rick Warren must be careful to distinguish between excellence in creativity and excellence in affluence. The very fact that the people that Saddleback targeted were very materialistic, means that winning them brings financial resources into the church. Those churches seeking to reach poor neighbourhoods can excel in creativity, but they cannot always excel in affluence. As the Saddleback story demonstrated clearly, money is a very useful asset to a church. Those who would learn from Saddleback need to be careful not to believe that money is the answer. There are many pastors who would love to have rich people in their congregations! Having said all this, there is much to learn from Rick Warren and the church at Saddleback. With wisdom in their right hand and discernment in their left hand let the hungry go to be fed. They will not be disappointed.


Eddie Gibbs, Church Next, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2000

John Stott, I Believe in Preaching, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1982

Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, Michigan, ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1995

Rob Warner, 21st-Century Church, (Revised & Expanded Edition), Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications, 1999

(Various Contributors), Editors: Timothy R Phillips & Dennis L Okholm, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, Illinois, Inter-Varsity Press, 1995