Getting rid of parishioners . . . on purpose

Rickwarren 01Rick Warren, who pastors the Saddleback megachurch in California and has sold a gazillion copies of Purpose Driven books, is frequently named a top evangelical by a variety of publications. He advocates using business practices to drive church growth and his teachings are widely followed by fellow Southern Baptists and folks from all denominations who want to increase their church rolls. He encourages pastors to preach about day-to-day problems rather than the historic Christian themes of sin, redemption and atonement. Warren could not be more popular. Wall Street Journal religion reporter Suzanne Sataline came up with an interesting angle for her story on the Warren empire. She spoke with evangelicals who disagree with Warren's business-minded approach:

But the purpose-driven movement is dividing the country's more than 50 million evangelicals. Some evangelicals . . . 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.

purpose driven booksWhen President Bush made his curious Supreme Court selection a year ago, it seemed like the story of Ms. Miers' church split would be interesting. I wouldn't have suspected it had to do with Rick Warren.

Anywhoo, Sataline looks at several churches whose experiences with Warren's methods have had varying degrees of success. I liked how she explained the core beliefs and rituals of this modern American Protestant approach:

Mr. Warren preaches in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt, and he encourages ministers to banish church traditions such as hymns, choirs 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.

The most interesting part of the story, though, was how conflict is considered part of change management. Difficult customers are expected, and you may be surprised how they are dealt with:

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.

I don't know how Sataline got those quotes, but they confirm that she had a good story on her hands. Baptist Press had a complaint, though.

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