In an interview with Preaching Magazine, Rick Warren answers: How did the concept of the purpose-driven church come to be a part of your ministry?
Warren: It actually started when I was a short-term missionary in Japan being sent out by the Baptist Student Union years ago in college. While I was there, I began to say, “What is it in our churches that is cultural, and what is really biblical?” As I looked at the Japanese churches, I saw they were adopting a lot of the things that were not working here, so it just got my mind thinking. So I began — while I was in Japan — a lifelong study of what is it that makes a healthy church – not necessarily a growing church, but a healthy church.
I believe health creates growth. I don't have to tell my kids to grow. If they are healthy, they grow automatically. So the focus is often on the wrong thing — on growth. I began several things: First, I read through the New Testament over and over looking for principles of what is a trans-cultural principle. If it is biblical, I believe it will work anywhere. American principles only work in America, but if it is biblical I believe it is trans-cultural. So, I read through the New Testament over, and over, and over. I've read every book in print that I could find on the church, or church growth, or church structure. At that time it was about 80-something books.
Then I also wrote to the 100 largest churches in the United States. I researched them, personally wrote them a letter, and did my own personal research project. I discovered that, of course, it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. There is more than one way to grow a church, and I say if you are getting the job done I like the way you are doing it. The only wrong way is thinking everybody should do it your way.
What I began to see is that God uses all kinds of styles, all kinds of methods, all kinds of formats to reach all kinds of people. The common denominators were: Every church that is going to be healthy has to worship, has to evangelize, has to help Christians grow, (teach) discipleship, has to do ministry in the world, and has to have fellowship. I began to see these over and over in the New Testament — I really saw them in the great commandment and the great commission.
The great commandment gives us two purposes; the great commission gives us three. The great commandment: Love God with all of your heart; that is worship. Worship is expressing my love to God. Love your neighbor as yourself; that is ministry. So, two purposes of the church (worship and ministry) come from the great commandment.
Three of the purposes of the church come from the great commission, which says to go make disciples; that's evangelism. It says to teach them to do everything I have commanded you; that is discipleship. Right in the middle it says to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Now why did God put baptism between these two great purposes of worship and evangelism? I think because of what it represents. Baptism does not just represent new life in Christ; it represents incorporation into the body. The Bible says we are baptized into the body of Christ. So, I think baptism is a symbol for fellowship or incorporation. Baptism says, “I am not ashamed to say I am a believer. I have identified myself as a Christian,” and the point there is we are called not to just be believers but belongers.
I finished Southwestern Seminary in December 1979, moved here with no money, no members, no building. All I have ever had really was a bunch of ideas and knew I was going to build it on the five purposes, really nothing more than that. Of course, in time the vision became clearer, and clearer, and clearer. I have what you call Polaroid vision. That is, you take a picture and you hold it. The longer you look at it, the clearer it gets. So when I was 25 years old, all I knew was I wanted to build these five purposes into the church. During the years I have learned you have to have a strategy and structure, and there are certain things you have to do to make that happen.
If you don't have a strategy or structure to balance the five purposes intentionally, the church tends to over-emphasize the purpose the pastor is most passionate about. For instance, if I am gifted in teaching I tend to produce a classroom church that has Christians growing but maybe nobody is coming to Christ. If I have gifts in evangelism, I tend to produce a soul-winning church where lots of people come to Christ, but there is no depth. I may have gifts in the area of ministry; we’ll have what I call a “family reunion church” with great fellowship, great koinonia, but no evangelism, no discipleship. Or, you can have gifts in the area of worship and build what I call an “experiencing God” church — God comes down, the Holy Spirit falls, maybe there are signs and wonders. It’s great worship, but no ministry or no fellowship, or no evangelism. So, I need a strategy and structure to keep me from killing the church!