Challenging Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life” is like David going up against Goliath, especially if you’re the pastor of a small congregation who also teaches at a small seminary.
When the call came, I had to respond. You see, for a few years I had seen signs announcing “Forty Days of Purpose” and had heard from pastors and church growth consultants that “if you really want folks to come to a church program, you should offer the ‘Purpose Driven Life.’ Nothing succeeds like success, after all.” And, folks came to Purpose Driven Life studies, often in record numbers.
But, I heard other messages, ones that pastors and congregants whispered to me and one another in private. Many didn’t want to contradict the new congregational orthodoxy being promoted in the “Forty Days” studies. In private conversations, I heard pastors and congregants admit:
- “Folks are coming and they are buying Purpose Driven Life hook, line and sinker. This isn’t the theology that I’ve been preaching all these years.”
- “I want to challenge some of the theology, but it would stir a theological hornet’s nest in my congregation.”
- “Purpose Driven Life confirms peoples’ prejudices – only Christians are saved; the rest are eternally lost.”
- “This book has caused a lot of pain in my congregation. When people who’ve been traumatized hear that God planned their abuse, they don’t know if they can trust God to be on their side.”
- “If we step out of line, God is going to get us. This book should be called ‘the puppet driven life!'”
- “I’m worried about the implicit politics behind the text, especially in regards to equal rights of gay and lesbian people and the role of women in the church.”
While I believe that there is much to gain from certain aspects of “Purpose Driven Life,” I felt called to respond. My response is part of my commitment to the progressive Christian “revival” that I see emerging. If progressives don’t present creative alternatives to the conservative Christian message conveyed in the media, then seekers and spiritual orphans will assume that Warren and Joel Osteen speak for all of us.
I believe that God likes theological diversity and spiritual contrast, and I believe that just as Warren felt called to write “Purpose Driven Life,” I was called to respond with a progressive/moderate theological and spiritual vision, “Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living” (Upper Room).
Although I take responsibility for “Holy Adventure,” I am sure that “Holy Adventure” emerged from the ongoing call and response that characterizes God’s movements in our lives. While I aim to present an affirmative theological and spiritual vision in “Holy Adventure,” I also sought to respond to some of the concerns I heard among pastors and congregants, who struggled with Warren’s beliefs that:
- God plans all the important events of our lives without our input.
- Every experience, including traumatic events, is “father filtered” or planned by God for our growth.
- In every event God is testing our fidelity.
- God “smiles” when we follow directions and do as “he” says.
- God wants us to “color inside the lines.” Coloring “outside the lines” leads to meaninglessness in this life and alienation from God (hell) in the next.
- God prefers obedience to love.
None of these statements reflects my understanding of God and the human adventure. So, as I pondered Warren’s text, I was challenged to present an alternative vision of reality that sees our lives as a “holy adventure” in partnership with God.
God wants us to be imaginative, creative and innovative in shaping the world. God is the great adventure who likes surprises and who is not hemmed in by God’s own previous decisions (for example, knowing and determining everything in advance) but likes to do new things and enjoys being surprised by what we do.
In “Holy Adventure,” I sought to teach creative theology by integrating:
1) A vision of the universe and God.
2) A promise that we can experience God as a lively adventurer who calls us to adventure.
3) Practices (affirmations, prayers, imaginative prayers or visualizations, and actions) that enable us to experience God’s holy adventure in daily life.
At the heart of the “Holy Adventure” are a number of theo-spiritual affirmations:
- God is adventurous and wants us to be adventurous as well.
- The future is open for God and us.
- In partnership with God, we create the future. God doesn’t decide the future but creates the future along with us.
- God is constantly inspiring us in every situation.
- God loves surprises, creativity and experimentation.
- God wants us to “color outside the lines.”
- God doesn’t determine the events of our lives but moves within them as the source of inspiration, creativity and healing.
- God inspires and delights in diversity of spiritual pathways, ethnicities, sexual identities, cultures and personal gifts.
- Our prayers and actions really matter and enable God to do new and creative things.
- There is no predetermined outcome to human or planetary history, but many possible outcomes depending on the ongoing call and response of God and the world.
- God’s vision is to “save” everyone – Christians, Hindus, indigenous peoples, agnostics and atheists. There is no one outside God’s love, now and forevermore.
I believe that creative progressive/moderate theo-spirituality can transform people’s lives. We are truly on an adventure in which what we do really makes a difference in the future of this planet.
Today, we need to color outside the lines, to do surprising things, to bring healing to the earth in partnership with God. We don’t need to be “driven” in order to share in God’s holy adventure. We are part of it right now.
Bruce Epperly is a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a Disciples/UCC minister. This article first appeared on the blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey and is used by permission.