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Way of Life Literature

Publisher of Bible Study Materials

Way of Life Bible College
A Visit To Saddleback Church
December 13, 2005 (first published September 2, 2003)
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, pastored by Rick Warren, is one of the most influential churches in the world. Warren says, “This is a world class church making a world class impact.” He is right about the impact, but sadly, that impact is not encouraging strict faithfulness to God’s Word.

I visited two of the three morning services at Saddleback on August 24, 2003, the one at 8 a.m. and the one at 9:45 a.m.

The church complex is huge. The main auditorium seats many thousands, and there are dozens of other buildings for various ministries. The overall mood of the services is casual in the extreme. The people dress much as they would for a secular sporting event. Women are dressed in shorts, short skirts, tight pants, and other types of immodest attire. The church bulletin for that Sunday was patterned after the cover to the
TV Guide. The words “TV Guide” were replaced with “SC Guide” for Saddleback Church. Television was mentioned several times in the message but there was not a hint of warning about its dangers.

The Music

The music was pure rock and roll. There were five singers, two electric guitars, a drum kit, an electric keyboard, two saxophones, a piano, trumpet, trombone, and flute. Three special numbers were performed with a nightclub effect, complete with swirling lights in the background and attractive female singers swaying and dancing to the music. It appeared to me that not many of the people were actually participating in the worship service. Most were merely watching the show up front.

Worship at Saddleback: Any Worldly Way You Want It

Saddleback Church features nine different “worship venues.” There is a worship style to suit every worldly taste. The Overdrive venue is “for those who like guitar-driven rock band worship in a concert-like setting that you can FEEL.” The Ohana venue comes “complete with hula and island-style music,” and on the first Saturday of every month you can take hula lessons during the potluck following the service. The Country venue features line dancing. I didn’t make this up, folks. It is right from Saddleback’s web site.

“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15-17).

The Sermon

The sermon, which was titled “The Potential of a Single Life,” was a witty, motivational challenge to single people to dedicate themselves to God. Rick Warren said, “You are as happy as you choose to be. … You can waste your life on vanities, spend your life on yourself, and invest your life for God.”

Mother Teresa was used as an example with no warning about her false gospel. There was no specific mention of the hard things of God’s Word such as sin, separation, judgment, hell, or repentance. These were replaced with general and vague references to biblical truth. No clear gospel message was given. Some of the statements were good, but the error lay chiefly in what was not said. This is the hallmark of New Evangelicalism, which is characterized not so much by the heresy that is preached but by the truth that is neglected in an effort to present the Bible in a more positive light.

Everything about Saddleback is shallow. Truth has been boiled down to such a low common denominator that not much is left. For example, the Saddleback Statement of Faith has six simple points. Note the following statement on salvation, which we are quoting in full:

“Salvation is a gift from God to mankind. We can never make up for our sin by self-improvement or good works. Only by trusting in Jesus Christ as God’s offer of forgiveness can we be saved from sin’s penalty. Eternal life begins the moment we receive Jesus Christ into our life by faith.”

Note that the gospel is not actually given in this statement. There is nothing about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, nothing about His shed blood and atonement. Sinners are exhorted to trust Christ but that is not explained in any sense whatsoever. Paul, on the other hand, summarized the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 as follows:

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”

I talked with one man who told me he has been a member of Saddleback for two years. I asked him when he was born again. He replied, “I have always been a Christian. I grew up in the Christian Church.” By that, he was referring to the Disciples of Christ, which preaches baptismal regeneration. He said that his mother took him to church, though his father was a Buddhist. I asked him what he was required to do to join Saddleback, and he replied that he “rededicated” his life at that time. I asked him if that was when he was born again, and he insisted again that he has always been a Christian.

Bible Versions

An outline of the sermon was handed out with the bulletin, and six or seven Bible versions were quoted, most of them loose paraphrases or dynamic equivalencies such as the Living Bible, the New Living Translation, The Message, the Today’s English Version, and the Contemporary English Version.

I observed on the way into the auditorium that only a few of the people carried Bibles, and the reason became clear when I saw the multiplicity of versions that were used in the preaching. It would be impossible to follow along in one’s Bible. The result is that the people do not bring their own Bibles and do not therefore carefully test the preaching. How could they, when any biblical statement they would attempt to examine has dozens of variations?

Avoiding Doctrinal Controversy

In an interview with
USA Today that ran in the July 21, 2003, issue, Rick Warren cited Billy Graham, the king of ecumenical “positive onlyism,” as his model. Warren said:

“I’m not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials. I won’t try to change other denominations. Why be divisive?”

Since Mr. Warren has asked his question, I will answer it.

The reason we need to be divisive in an apostate hour is because God has commanded us to preach all of His Word and to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” (2 Tim. 4:2). The emphasis in 2 Timothy 4 is as much “negative” as “positive,” and that is the preacher’s divine standard.

God has commanded us not only to believe sound doctrine but also to earnestly contend for it (Jude 3). That means we are to fight aggressively against that which is false. This is exactly what we see in the uncompromising ministry of the Lord’s apostles. Their epistles contain strong and clear warnings about false teaching. Paul often named the names of the false teachers. Such a ministry naturally causes divisions between those who are committed to the truth and those who are following error. Paul made no effort whatsoever to avoid doctrinal controversy. He entered the fray in practically every one of his epistles.

The apostasy of our time is much advanced compared to that of Paul’s day (2 Tim. 3:1-13; 4:3-4). The Holy Spirit warned that “evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). That is the story of church history. The apostasy that was just beginning in the days of the first churches grew quickly as the centuries passed, eventually producing the Roman Catholic Church, and it has continued to grow and spread throughout the age. The Bible warns that prior to the return of Christ, the apostasy will be almost complete. Jesus asked rhetorically, “... when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).

Thus, preachers today are obligated to be even more aggressive and more divisive, if you will, than the apostles! We are obligated to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).

That, Mr. Warren, is why we should be divisive, and you will give an account at the judgment seat of Christ for promoting your unscriptural “positive-only, avoid divisiveness” emphasis. And in that day the Word of God will wash away the man-made wall of church growth, seeker-sensitive philosophy that you have built up to defend your methodology and by which you have duped so many.

I believe this with all of my heart, and I weep over the damage that is being caused to the churches of Jesus Christ by a methodology that is breaking down the wall of separation between God’s people and the world but that is doing so under the guise of a love for the truth. This philosophy of rejecting strict scriptural separation destroyed Israel of old and it will destroy every church that goes down the same road. What God complained of then is occurring in our day:

“Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them” (Ezekiel 22:26).


Our day is described plainly in Bible prophecy:

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

This generation has itching ears, and it will not hear the preaching of God’s Word that plainly rebukes its sin and forthrightly condemns its heresies; but it eagerly hears--yea, flocks in droves to hear--those soft-speaking teachers that are willing to tickle ears with a positive-only, non-offensive, unifying message. The same generation that hates the uncompromising, plain-spoken, “old time” fundamentalist-style preaching, dearly loves the preaching of the Billy Grahams and the Rick Warrens and the Robert Schullers.

Rick Warren claims that he has not compromised the Word of God with his principles and methods, but when I look into the book of Acts and the Epistles I see a different kind of Christianity, a different kind of church there, than the one that Rick Warren has devised. Thus, I must reject Warren’s Purpose Driven methods and I must warn those who have an ear to hear, regardless of how small that crowd may be today, that they not heed the siren call of the contemporary church growth gurus.

copyright 2013, Way of Life Literature

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