The Purpose Driven Problem

by Rick Shrader

President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Wisdom is nine-tenths a matter of being wise in time.  Most of us are too often wise after the event.”1 However true this is of all of us, it is still better to be wise late about something than not wise at all.  When I first read Rick Warren’s “Purpose” books I set them aside for lack of interest.  When The Purpose Driven Church came out in 1995 I wrote a review of it in this paper as another “nickels and noses” church growth book (which it truly is).  Having grown up around large churches, I didn’t see new concepts, just new methods put to the same old philosophy.  I still would argue that this first book is much more definitive of Warren’s philosophy of church growth than the second.  When The Purpose Driven Life came out in 2002 I wrote a shorter review in this paper (both of which can be read online), not thinking at all that it would be as popular as the first.  I saw it as a sort of large religious (I don’t say “gospel”) tract that didn’t need 40 days to read but for some reason was making that request.  There were much better explanations of the Christian life and of Christian doctrine on my book shelf than to spend too much time on this.  I was greatly surprised to see the enormous popularity of this obviously mundane book, not just among Christians but non-Christians as well.

Therein lies part of the reason for my late re-thinking about The Purpose Driven Life.  Why had this book become so widely popular with “Christendom” of all stripes and of all levels, but more intriguing, even with “non-Christendom” people such as Fidel Castro, who requested an autographed copy, which I suppose he received, or the president of Rhawanda (though a professing Roman Catholic)?  Upon a second reading of the book and after reading several other opinions (and having the advantage of hind-sight) my view of the book has been refined.  I believe it is a self-centered, self-help version of Christianity that is obviously palatable enough even for unbelievers, and is something like the old Mother-Hubbard dresses that cover everything and touch nothing. The best example is the only explanation of salvation in the book (p. 58).  It is a short paragraph and, ironically, requires much previous Biblical knowledge if one is to respond with any cognitive understanding of the gospel (of course, this gospel sleight of hand allows the reader to read into it anything that suits him).  I have heard others say that the salvation explanation at Purpose Driven conferences is no better.

It ought to make us cautious when the most spiritually immature among the church desire a certain thing.  It is not insignificant that in churches where the Purpose Driven philosophy is “taking over,” the older people are being driven away or asked to leave, and the younger people are taking ownership not just of the worship service but also of the facilities and assets.  It ought to make us even more cautious when lost people desire a certain thing because it makes them comfortable in the church and makes them even more emboldened in their unbelief.  Today’s Evangelical love-affair with Roman Catholicism is one of the most obvious examples.  From the ECT document to Promise Keepers to The Passion, Evangelicals have tried to convince themselves that Catholics are born again.  It is not politically correct to say otherwise (which will be proven by the response I’ll get to these few lines).  The point is that when these phenomena are present, the offense of the cross is absent, and where the offense of the cross is absent, the natural man gravitates especially in religious matters.  Self-help and self-esteem are the religions of the natural man and if you couple those with self-revelation tailor-made for the individual’s life-style and belief system, well then, you have yourself a big winner in this world!


It is this point that I think is most potentially dangerous to the gospel and Christianity in general: the specific revelation of God to individuals apart from the Scriptures.  This is largely seen in the flippant use of “Purpose” and other words  such as “Vision” and “Dream” or even “Heart.”  Slight equivocation with words has never seemed to bother us much.  We can call any amazing thing a “miracle” and not care that the definition has been violated; we can say that “God told us” something and not be bothered that, had this really been true, it would legitimize everyone from Mohammed to Joseph Smith.  But the “beauty” about such uses is that anyone can attach whatever nuances one wishes to the meaning.  In Rick Warren’s world, “Purpose” is a mile wide and an inch deep.  And it fits with a growing list of words that the natural man loves.

I have long objected to the popular use of the word “vision” to mean the particular direction God has given to some leader.  If we could use this word “in-house,” so that the nuances never strayed from orthodox theology, we could excuse the liberties taken.  But this word has come to mean that God gives leaders their own individual revelation about what He wants them to do.  This becomes the mark of a gifted leader and followers are supposed to fall in line because, of course, this is the will of God!  Those who disagree are acting contrary to what God wants.  George Barna has made this tact popular more than any contemporary writer even titling one of his books, The Power of Vision.  In almost all of his writings he pushes this leadership quality.  For example he says, “When God raises up leaders, He has a specific vision for the people those leaders have been called to mobilize.  Knowing God’s vision for the ministry is the starting point for effectively leading people forward.”2 From this we develop “vision statements” (like every hamburger joint in town!) that, transcending previous doctrinal statements, become declarations of what God has told this particular leader to do.  The natural man loves this kind of talk.  It releases him from the unchangeable Scripture which everyone must follow if they are to be right with God.

Bruce Wilkinson is now trying to develop the word “Dream” in the same vein with his book, The Dream Giver.  The believer is encouraged to seek the dream God has for him.  When he accepts this, he finds that his dream is merely part of the larger dream that God Himself has.  The “dreamer” is supposed to pray, “Please make me into the person I need to be to do the Dream You have created me to do.”3 This should be no surprise from the man who gave us The Prayer of Jabez, the prosperity-gospel book on prayer.  These kinds of books are so popular because they make man the receptor of his own divine revelation.  The Scriptures are still there but, as in the Catholic Church, only as another revelation.

Another popular book has been John Eldredge’s, Wild at Heart.  Here, a man’s “heart” becomes the receptacle for God’s specific purpose and revelation.  Again, in an equivocating but unapologetic manner, he writes, “There are no formulas with God.  Period.  So there are no formulas for the man who follows him.  God is a Person, not a doctrine.  He operates not like a system—not even a theological system—but with all the originality of a truly free and alive person.”  Eldredge then quotes Archbishop Anthony Bloom, “You must enter into it and not just seek information about it.”4 This is more great news to the sinner running from God.  The conviction of his heart may only be God revealing a new and better direction.

Warren has hit upon this natural desire in a popular way.  What better word than the seemingly innocent word “purpose?”  Throughout his book this theme reoccurs:  “Your purpose becomes the standard you use to evaluate which activities are essential and which are not” (p. 31); “God wants you to use your natural interests to serve him and others.  Listening for inner promptings can point to the ministry God intends for you to have” (p. 238); “Celebrate the shape God has given you” (p. 252).5 Warren has some good Baptist roots, and his use of “purpose” is sometimes directed toward Scripture, but not always and not clearly.  I am afraid that, to the sinful world, “The Purpose Driven Life” is another name for “My” purpose and God’s special revelation to “Me.”

Self-Help, Self-Esteem

A second danger in Warren’s (and others’) writings is the definite belief that people are not as bad as “mean-spirited” preachers have made them out to be, and that whatever their heart desires and expresses is simply an expression of how God made them, not of some sinful bent.  Warren says, “God doesn’t expect you to be perfect, but he does insist on complete honesty.  None of God’s friends in the Bible were perfect” (p. 92).  “The best style of worship is the one that most authentically represents your love for God, based on the background and personality God gave you” (p. 102).  John Eldredge says, “The Big Lie in the church today is that you are nothing more than a ‘sinner saved by grace’ . . . In the core of your being you are a good man” (p. 144).  Now, anyone who dares challenge such positive language, Eldredge calls a “Poser” and Wilkinson calls a “Boarder Bully” and Warren says, “Holds things up.”

The equivocation comes when people who know both sides of an issue only write about one side.  Warren knows (I assume) that man is a sinner; that his heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.  He surely knows that sinners don’t choose the things of God by nature and that the imagination of man’s heart is evil continually; that this is because of the Fall into sin which changed the whole relationship of the original creation into what it is today.  But this part of Biblical information is almost entirely absent in the “Purpose” books.  Man is seen as basically good in his nature and sin is only a minor glitch in the human personality.  Salvation then becomes a discovery of the real “you,” the real “purpose” that God has given you, the “dream” that needs to be realized.  I heard Dr. Kevin Bauder say not long ago, “Pelagius denied the good news by denying the bad news.”  I am afraid, for whatever good may be in the Purpose Driven material, the real Good News is woefully lacking because the bad news cannot be admitted.

The appeal to the natural man is nowhere seen more today than in the area of “redeeming the culture.”  This has become an excuse for anyone to participate in any questionable thing he chooses while confessing that he is simply trying to redeem the good cultural qualities.  If a cultural “mandate” can be added, then there is also even a command from God to change the social structure, the political climate, the arts and entertainment, and so on.

Where will this “cultural relevancy” take us?  One advertisement from Branson, MO invites church groups to a Rock concert with this explanation:  “Respect yourself, be generous, be diligent in your craft, and celebrate the good of what rock represents.  Don’t concentrate on the anger and rebellion, appreciate the freedom rock brought to music and is expressed in the music; freedom which is the hallmark of our country, freedom which is fought for.  And give honor to those serving in our armed forces and defending our freedom today.”  An ad in a Tennessee newspaper says, “Spiritual event wants GodMen, not girly men:  Testosterone-fueled alternative to Promise Keepers debuts here.”  Then the first paragraph contains this:  “At the daylong GodMen event downtown Saturday, men will be able to cuss, smoke cigars, watch videos of football pileups and car crashes . . . Listen to specially composed Christian rock songs such as Testosterone High.”

And So . . .

Have we ever seen a day when it has been more needful to preach the whole counsel of God?  We must reclaim the Bible as our Final Authority  and recast a complete and honest view of man’s sinful condition before a just and holy God.

1. Quoted by J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1971) 52.
2. George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Nashville:  Word Publishing, 1998) 164.
3. Bruce Wilkinson, The Dream Giver (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Pub., 2003) 121.
4. John Eldredge, Wild at Heart (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 2001) 209.
5. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2002) 252.