Saddlebacks, Basics and Paradigms

The two "RW's"

The good news is that at the same time as 2002 saw a further erosion of public belief and public morality, there were new (and old) voices taking us back to Christian basics.

For me 2002 will be remembered for the two "RWs" - for the appointment of Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury in succession to George Carey and the discovery of Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life. Enough has been said about the former, and sadly it has had to be negative. With regard to the latter, however, very little has been said in the United Kingdom. The exception has been at Jesmond Parish Church where we were the first English church to join in the "40 Days of Purpose" programme that came from Saddleback Church where Rick Warren is the senior pastor. Not featured on Radio or TV or in the Press, Warren, nevertheless, is having huge significance for the kingdom of God. His influence is through teaching other pastors.

"Only one population definitely pays attention to Saddleback: pastors. Thousands of pastors flock to the church's annual Purpose Driven Ministries conference - 3,800 in May this year. They made The Purpose-Driven Church a best-seller. Warren apparently has little interest in fame, but he cares about reaching pastors. That's his health strategy. Through pastors he intends to change the world."

So writes Tim Stafford. At the May 2002 conference there were pastors from all 50 US states and from 30 countries, including 4 JPC staff. Nor is there anything way out about the teaching. The "Purpose Driven" approach is "easy to miss because it seems so ordinary".

"Purpose-Driven is built around five fundamental purposes - fellowship, spiritual maturity, service, evangelism and worship - which just about any church, large or small, Pentecostal or Episcopal, can get behind. Purpose-Driven has to do with balance: making sure none of the five purposes gets neglected, and that no one of them dominates the church. It's a broad, middle-of-the-road appeal, yet pastors get excited about it."

In reality, however, worship comes first (with evangelism a close second). Rick Warren says: "it is all about God not us". He is committed to the Bible. And he is committed to preaching the bible. People ask me how I can cope with 6 repeats of Carols by Candlelight sermons. I now reply that last Easter Rick Warren preached at 11 of the 12 Easter services held at Saddleback, during which 35,000 attended - double the normal attendance.


Back to basics

What is helpful about Saddleback is that it exemplifies the basic principles of "Church Growth" but these are seen as merely tools for communicating the basics about Jesus Christ and the gospel. They are not a magic formula for success. They are rather appropriate strategies for getting the gospel out in modern urban societies.

In the 17th century Richard Baxter, the author of the Reformed Pastor, had such social status that he could summon his whole parish of Kidderminster to the vicarage for a spiritual examination. He did this by families coming in turn. That was no longer possible in the 18th century. So Wesley tried riding around Britain on horseback, tethering his horse to a post in the market square (or by the pump at the north end of the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle, 30 May 1742) and preaching in the open air. But people do not associate now as they once did in such places or elsewhere in the open air.

Nor can they be easily visited in their homes - certainly not in the day time. Blanket home visiting by the clergy was a method for getting the gospel out in the 19th century and part of the 20th century in the West when the church had grown and there were very many full-time clergy. Once, however, women had joined the work-force in large numbers, domestic routines changed radically, and in many homes no-one is now present during the day time; and television, plus fears of opening the door to strangers after dark, makes unscheduled evening visiting difficult.

The development of "mega churches" like Saddleback was one answer to Christian communication in the last years of the 20th century. In such churches communication is centred no longer just on the clergy or church staff but on everyone. As Christian lay people are nurtured and taught, so they are the primary means of communication, in their homes, schools, colleges and other places of work. In such churches staff are not redundant but needed more than ever to resource the work. At Saddleback there are 176 full-time paid staff members and 13 pastors.

Around the world where the church is growing and the gospel is getting out, the growth of these larger churches is simply a matter of fact. The one conspicuous part of the world that has failed to see the development of very large churches is Western Europe. And Western Europe is the most secularized continent of all with significant church decline. But Rick Warren realizes that social structures for evangelism and the growth of Christian communities that provide appropriate ministries for everyone are valueless unless the basics of the bible are preached.


Theological paradigms

It is easy enough to say "back to basics" but in the modern world it is hard to achieve. That is because there have been paradigm shifts. A paradigm is a frame of reference or large scale hypothesis about reality that gives new understanding. It seems to make better sense of phenomena and so it gives greater coherence. Paradigms are basic assumptions that we all have. In the last century (the 20th century) the three main "world view" paradigms were Marxism, Secular Humanism and Christianity. In the 21st century Islam has replaced Marxism.

Paradigms are most easily recognized in the physical sciences where there have been several shifts over the centuries. There was the shift away from the Ptolemaic earth-centred paradigm to the Copernican heliocentric view where the planets revolve around the sun. Then there were the shifts with Newton and gravity and Einstein and relativity.

But along with scientific paradigm shifts, over the last four centuries there has gone a major moral paradigm shift. This started with the European Enlightenment in England in the 17th century, gained strength on continental Europe in the 18th century, and exploded in the 19th and 20th centuries. Jim Packer summarizes this moral paradigm shift as …

"… an abandoning of all forms of external authority in favour of intellectual and moral individualism … The effect of this individualism was that one's own personal reason, rather than the church or the community or the cultural tradition, became one's definer of reality; it was for each thinking person to work out for him or herself a personal solution to the riddles of life."

That is why now intellectually and morally it is every one for themselves. Many trust no external authority. The result is "a shared embrace of materialist values projected by the press and media." And with regard to God we have a seen a four centuries long process of "God shrinking".

The Reformation in the 16th century saw a recovery of the biblical faith in God as one who rules, judges and saves. He was rightly seen as the source, sustainer and end of all things. But in the 17th century God was dethroned in favour of man; and, in deism, he was said to be the great mechanic who made the world but now lets it tick on without any interference. God was, in effect, banned from his world. In the 18th century Kant said God could not communicate with us by means of words. So with no "word of God", views about him were now checked against human feelings. Not surprisingly before long atheists were saying that when people talk about God they are only talking about themselves, their hopes and their fears. Then Nietzsche pronounced God "dead", and Marx, Darwin and Freud decided life could be lived better without him.

So with this paradigm shift, many in the 21st century either think of God as personal but limited, as a God who cannot always do what he wants, who overlooks sins the majority think acceptable, who makes no claims and who is infinitely tolerant. Or else they think of God in a New Age way as an immanent cosmic principle - a force that energizes the universe. What he is not, in this view, is the universe's Maker and Lord.


"The God who is there"

To get back to theological basics we have to get back to the biblical paradigm of the God who is not the product of human guesswork, but a self-announcing God who has taken the initiative to tell us who he is and what he has done. To help us at JPC to do this, later on this Spring we will be having a short morning sermon series entitled THE GOD WHO IS THERE. Do try to be present for those sermons. If you can't be, download them from the web site "http://www.church.org.uk" or get the tape or transcript.

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