Rick Warren is arguably the best known Southern Baptist in America and maybe the world. As founding pastor of Saddleback Church, he has been on the leading edge of innovation of ministry in our day. His books The Purpose-Driven Church and The Purpose-Driven Life have impacted millions. He is an effective and articulate spokesman for evangelical Christians. His recent prayer at the presidential inauguration was handled with grace and truthfulness. I have learned much from him and expect to continue.
Last week, Rick and Saddleback did something that really disturbed me. In honor of their 30th Easter as a church, they made a push to have a huge number of people compete their new members’ class. OK. As with many churches, they present the gospel for those who may not know Christ and encourage people to trust Him. OK.
This promotion just went too far. Listen to some of the wording:
Which of these requirements do you need to complete this Saturday?
1. Open your heart to Jesus Christ.
2. Attend Class 101: Discovering Your Church Family.
3. Sign our membership covenant (explained in class).
4. Be baptized the way Jesus commanded and modeled for us.
YOU CAN FINISH ALL 4 REQUIREMENTS IN ONE DAY – THIS SATURDAY!
I understand this is shorthand for Saddleback’s entire church membership process. I know Rick doesn’t believe or teach this in the class, but the implication is that trusting Jesus as Savior and Lord is equivalent to attending the class and signing the covenant.
It gets worse. Rick gives eight reasons not to procrastinate on this. His personal involvement leads the list. The promise of a photo, certificate and magazine subscription is next. You get your name on a commemorative list. The class is an hour shorter than usual. This class will be part of Christian history by being the largest membership class ever. (Really? In the global scheme of things Christian in our generation, this is what makes history?)
Note there’s no mention of gospel or eternal realities. No Biblical pleading for souls. It’s all organizational.
By all measures, it was a successful event. Saddleback baptized 800 people last week. We can celebrate that and pray for the eternal reality of those professions. But even their own press release gives pause. Six members from one small group were baptized together and it was described like this: “It’s good to see God at work in so many people’s lives… This is what the small group community is about and what Pastor Rick is always talking about. It’s amazing to be able to live and participate in the reality of it.” How does an individual response to the gospel connect with this sort of shared group response?
Now, the point of this is not to slam mega-churches; nor is it a condemnation of those who embrace church growth methodologies or purpose-driven ministries. I have seen Class 101,and have no doubt that the gospel was presented clearly. Saddleback also has one of the most clear (and practiced) church membership covenants among Southern Baptists, who are generally very soft on meaningful membership.
Here is my concern: the manner in which this was promoted to the church body dilutes and confuses significant doctrinal issues around salvation.
+ It confuses the solitary call of the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9), by connecting “open your heart to Jesus” with other actions.
+ It makes the gospel seem like a check-list to complete rather than a miraculous response of the soul to the Spirit’s power described in John 3
+ It dilutes the broken-hearted repentance for sin that is essential to response to the gospel by making it sound like part of a great deal that won’t take long on a Saturday morning.
+ It feels too much like a sales pitch than a pleading for a soul.
With all the Kingdom good they do and influence they hold, I just wish Saddleback would be more careful and precise with their language in discussing the gospel.