Due to a variety of reasons, I have been way too busy to blog much lately. I hope to remedy that in the next few week, but for now let’s just say that life is pretty hectic (in a good way) with ministry opportunities, missions projects, leadership adjustments and life in general. I do want to share another editorial from my good friend, Warren Smith, of the Charlotte World. Take a few minutes and read his opinion he entitled “Body Count Evangelism“.
By Warren Smith
COMMENTARY–Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold 25-million copies, is perhaps the most famous evangelical pastor in America. He writes often about church growth, leadership, and related issues. Heres something Warren wrote for the Mar. 16, 2004, Leadership Journal:
“Three key responsibilities of every pastor are to discern where (and how) Gods Spirit is moving in our culture and time, prepare your congregation for that movement, and cooperate with it to reach people Jesus died for. I call it ’surfing spiritual waves’ in The Purpose Driven Church, and its the reason Saddleback has grown to 23,500 on weekends in 24 years. You dont criticize a wave; you just ride it as best you can. When Mel Gibson showed me his film, The Passion of The Christ, last year, Iknew a huge wavea spiritual tsunamiwould hit when the film debuted on February 25 , and we began praying and preparing to surf it.”
When I read this passage, I was taken aback. The celebrity name dropping, the appeal to size as an indication of God’s blessing, the propagation of an extra-biblical theory (”spiritual waves”) as a sign of Gods working, the pre-emptive strike against critics these are heresies and logical fallacies pervasive in the evangelical church today, all rolled into a single paragraph.
“We booked 47 theater screens for members to take their lost friends to. Kay [Warren, Ricks wife] and I personally invited over a thousand lost community leaders of Orange County to a VIP premiere showing, including every mayor, congressman, superintendent of schools, other community leaders, and four billionaires. The results? Over 600 unchurched community leaders attended our VIP showing; 892 friends of members were saved during the two-week sermon series. Over 600 new small groups were formed, and our average attendance increased by 3,000. That’s catching a wave!”
When I read this, I wondered: Even setting aside the theological and philosophical problems, how could these numbers possibly be true? There was something about them that just didnt make sense. So I turned to Outreach magazine, which each year publishes lists of the largest and fastest growing churches. The 2005 list (which covered the period about which Warren writes) had Saddlebacks weekly attendance at 23,194. The 2006 Outreach list had Saddleback at 20,595. Thats a drop of nearly 3000. And at least according to these numbers, which were reported to Outreach by the church itself at no time did Saddleback have the 23,500 that Warren asserted.
Outreach reports the largest churches and the fastest growing churches on adjacent pages in the magazine. So I flipped the page and discovered something even more puzzling. Even though Saddlebacks weekly attendance fell by 3000, it reported a gain of 1,149 for the year! How does a church that loses 3000 report a gain of over 1,000? Maybe they planted a new church. That’s an admirable thing, but even if true why should Saddleback be reporting the numbers of another church as its own?
In the Leadership Journal article, Warren also touted his churchs ability to attract young people, saying that the largest Gen-X church in America is Saddleback with over 20,000 names under 29 on our church roll. Again, how could a church with only 21,000 members have more than 20,000 under the age of 30? And even if that is true, is it a good thing to have so thoroughly shut out those over 30? How could such a congregation possibly represent the true community or koininia spoken of in the New Testament?
Some pastors are growing wise to these self-aggrandizing perversions of truth. Dan Burrell is the pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. Burrell says he has grown disillusioned with the efforts of what I and others are calling the Christian-Industrial Complex to get him to participate in Body-Count Evangelism. Interestingly, the movie The Passion, which provided the context for Rick Warrens comments, provided the context for Burrells epiphany.
“I will admit that I got seduced with Mel Gibsons ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” Burrell writes. “I was convinced enough that it had evangelistic value that I bought out five screens at a local theatre before its public release and we invited scores of non-believers to join us in watching the movie and discussing it afterwards. I recall one ‘decision,’ but no conversions, after all the effort and I learned my lesson. From that point forward, Ive been pretty much immunized against ‘partnering’ with Hollywood. Upon further reflection, Ive reached the decision that pastors are actually being asked not to partner with, but to pimp for Hollywood.”
Burrell makes the important distinction between decisions and conversions. If that distinction seems a false one, consider this: The American Church Research Project reports that in 2000, only 18.7 percent of the U.S. population attended a Christian church on an average Sunday. Ten years earlier, in 1990, that percentage was 20.4. In other words, the percentage of churchgoers in America is going down, not up.
Of course, Warren is not alone in making outrageous claims. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association claimed in its 2005 annual report that 3.2-million people had made decisions for Christ as a result of its ministries. Emergent church leaders, Willow Creekers, and others constantly propagate the claim that they are reaching unchurched people. Im not saying that some of them are not doing good work, but the most basic demographic analysis suggests strongly that many of their claims cannot possibly be true. Indeed, it reminds me of the one-liner going around during the church-roll padding scandal of the Southern Baptist Convention a few years ago: “There are more Southern Baptists than there are people.”
The Southern Baptists took steps to clean up their scandal. I can only hope that Rick Warren and other megachurch and parachurch ministries choose to exercise more care and integrity in the assessment of and reporting of their impact. Because the inescapable conclusion is this: the Body of Christ in America is not growing either numerically or spiritually. It is, relatively speaking, shrinking — burdened by crass commercialism, a lack of integrity, and the quest for power and glory of celebrity preachers. An all but inescapable second conclusion is this: the rest of us, if we do not speak out against the lies of those who practice body-count evangelism, are standing by just as Paul stood by when he guarded the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen. We, likewise, are guarding this cloak of falsehood subjecting the Body of Christ to a modern stoning of its own.
Warren Smith is the publisher of The Charlotte World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org