A Visit to Saddleback Church (Lake Forest, CA)

 September 2, 2003 (Adapted and excerpted from: David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, 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. 

Saddleback is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but Warren's "Purpose Driven" philosophy has spread to most denominations. Called by Christianity Today "America's most influential pastor," Warren's influence is vast. He has taught 300,000 pastors through his church growth seminars and far more through his books and videos. His influence reaches into every sphere of Christianity today, from Catholicism, to liberal Protestantism, to evangelicalism, to fundamentalist Bible and Baptist churches. His latest book, The Purpose-Driven Life (sequel to The Purpose-Driven Church), has sold 4.5 million copies. 

Many independent Baptist churches are being influenced by Warren's teaching. Rick Warren and Jerry Falwell (who affiliates both with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Bible Baptist Fellowship) are partnering for a Purpose-Driven "SuperConference" in October [2003]. It will be held on the campus of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Simultaneously, a Rick Warren "40 Days of Purpose" campaign will be shown by telecast in more than 4,000 churches, including Falwell's church. 

I [David Cloud] 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 pure 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.   

[Rick Warren was once quoted as saying: "I believe that one of the major church issues (of the future) will be how we're going to reach the next generation with our music." Did he say "reach" them with "OUR MUSIC"? That's what record companies and rock stars do! Is that what Jesus sent US to do? Is that what transforms sinners from the old life into the new -- "OUR MUSIC"? Did Jesus carry a band around with Him to help draw a crowd so He could "reach" His generation with a song? If it's music that brings us to repentance and faith, why didn't Jesus round up 12 top-notch musicians to be His apostles and just sing to us? Why spend so much time lecturing everyone about the will of God? Is it only because they didn't have amplifiers and electricity back then to make them "feel it"?

Music, regardless of "style," volume, tempo, or instrumentation, simply cannot accomplish what proclaiming the Word of God can. It might draw and hold a larger crowd than a lecture, bring everyone to their feet in resounding applause, and help us all FEEL better about ourselves, but if a sinner, bound for hell, doesn't care about the Word of God, there's not a song in the world that can save him. He might scream "JESUS ROCKS!" at the top of his lungs during the band's closing number, but I doubt seriously he'll take up his cross and follow Christ when the music stops and the hard times come -- which brings me to the controversial question: What are these passion-filled, music-induced moments at Saddleback all about -- teaching obedience to the Word of God or manipulating the emotions and behavior of the masses into communal cooperation?

Speaking at one of his "Building A Purpose-Driven Church" Seminar, Warren had this to say: "We are really, really loud on a weekend service. ... I say, 'we're not gonna' turn it down.' Now the reason why is baby boomers want to feel the music, not just hear it ..." Further, "To insist that all good music came from Europe 200 years ago; there's a name for that -- racism." Showing anything BUT "tolerance, diversity and unity" (the driving doctrine of seekerism), Warren does what liberals ALWAYS do to traditionalists; he pulls the race card to try and not just elevate himself and his cause under a guise of humility and compassion, but also shame his "stuck in the past" critics into silence with politically correct hyperbole and innuendo. Therefore, taking exception to music at church that is spiritually, emotionally, and even physically unhealthy, now makes you a racist. (Source: 10/29/03, "A New Song," Paul Proctor, NewsWithViews.com.)]

The Message

The message, 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 things that were stated were good, but the error lay chiefly in what was not stated. 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. 

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 versions were quoted, most of them paraphrases 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 have been impossible to have followed 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. 

Avoiding Doctrinal Controversy

In an interview with USA Today that ran in the July 21, 2003 issue, Rick Warren cites Billy Graham, the king of ecumenical "positive onlyism," as his model. Warren says: "I'm not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials. I won't try to change other denominations. Why be divisive?" 

[The reason we need to be divisive 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." 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. The apostasy of our time is much advanced in comparison with that of the days of the apostles (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 just prior to the return of Christ, the apostasy will be almost complete. Thus preachers today are obligated to be even more aggressive and more divisive, if you will, than the apostles!] 


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 be non-divisive and tickle ears with a positive-only, non-offensive 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, that he has only modernized them; 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, that they not heed the siren call of the contemporary church growth gurus.

Biblical Discernment Ministries - 11/2003