Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose phenomenon transcends denominations, appealing to Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Pentecostals; blacks, whites and Hispanics. It is even used in prisons.
One exception to the movement’s broad appeal is moderate Baptists, who are more divided. Some shun the book, others embrace it and some feel pressured to use it by church members aware of its popularity.
Warren, a Southern Baptist pastor in Southern California, has judiciously avoided taking sides in the Southern Baptist Convention battles dividing fundamentalists and moderates. He is theologically conservative, however, prompting some moderates to identify him more closely with the fundamentalist side.
Traditionalists are suspicious of Warren’s connection with “church growth” and “seeker sensitive” models, which critics say put marketing ahead of making disciples.
Churches that encourage thoughtful reflection say the material is too simplistic. Others accuse Warren of proof-texting and choosing Bible translations that support his point rather than reading the Bible in context.
Despite those misgivings, however, a number of moderate congregations are willing to give it a try.
First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Ala., was part of the national 40 Days of Purpose campaign in the fall of 2003. “For our church the emphasis was extremely positive,” said Pastor David Hull.
Michael Tutterow, pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C., said the series helped focus the church’s own mission and brought people together. “We’re still having positive ripple effects after a year,” he said in an article in the Religious Herald.
Greg Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Shreveport, La., said the emphasis “put the whole church on the same page talking about faith-filled, purposeful living.”
Ed Culpepper, associate pastor for faith development at First Baptist in Huntsville, said one advantage of 40 Days participation was “having a focal point for involvement in spiritual growth for an extended period.”
Contemporary schedules don’t lend themselves to traditional revival services, Culpepper said, leaving a void for spiritual renewal and reflection that isn’t filled by Sunday school and weekly worship alone.
David Hughes at First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., said doing a 40 Days of Purpose helped to provide his church members a common focus.
“Like most moderate churches, we are a freedom-loving culture that encourages independence and diversity of study and thought,” Hughes said. “But taken to an extreme, we are learning that this approach can move from freedom to fragmentation. Working through material together can be a great exercise in community-building as well as disciple-building.”
Other moderates, however, find their experience with 40 Days less fulfilling.
Jack Watson, pastor of Woodhaven Baptist Church, in Cary, N.C., is helping lead his church in a 40 Days of Purpose on recommendation of the church council. But he said he disagreed with the majority of the theological positions that undergird the book, particularly Warren’s emphasis on Calvinism.
Watson said he has noted disagreements with Warren in the church newsletter and sermons, and the process even prompted him to begin writing a book of his own addressing some of the same questions “with a healthier and more balanced scriptural basis.”
Bo Prosser, coordinator for congregational life with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said moderate churches can adapt Warren’s materials to help in the process of identifying their mission and vision, but he recommends Daniel Vestal’s book It’s Time as a “better introduction to the missional subject for moderate Baptists.”
One religious educator surmised that churches that strongly self-identify as moderate are not prone to use the resource, but churches “with split personalities, that are trying to be all things to all people” probably feel pressure to jump on the Purpose Driven bandwagon.
Some educators were reluctant, however, to criticize the program on the record, saying they weren’t prepared to deal with the inevitable backlash from Warren devotees.
Calvinism comes up often in criticism by moderates. Chapter 2 of The Purpose Driven Life, proclaims: “Long before you were conceived by your parents, you were conceived in the mind of God. He thought of you first. It is not fate, nor chance, nor luck, nor coincidence that you are breathing at this very moment. You are alive because God wanted to create you.”
That view is too deterministic for those closer to the Arminian side of the predestination vs. free will debate.
Other criticism includes that instead of “purpose-driven,” the concept is really closer to “market-driven.”
“There’s nothing new under the sun, but if you market it right, it will sell,” said a professor at a moderate Baptist seminary.
A local church educator said “there is some good material here, but there needs to be discernment as well.” The educator suspected the program is more popular in conservative than moderate churches, because conservative churches “seem to rely on more pat answers to deeper theological questions” than moderates.
A pastor said moderates tend to find Warren’s biblical interpretation “much too literal and inappropriate.” Like Henry Blackaby, author of the SBC’s Experiencing God program from a few years back, Warren “takes passages and gives them a direct application to something today, even when the context doesn’t support that.”
But Hull at First Baptist Huntsville said concerns the material isn’t intellectual enough are overblown.
“The reality I found is that this book is right on track in reaching people where they are living today,” Hull said. “Not many of our people sit around and read Barth and Bultmann. They will read Warren.”
Even the method of reading a chapter a day fits today’s fast-paced lives, Hull said. The use of small groups, meanwhile, allows participants to “go deeper” if they so desire.
Culpepper, who holds a Ph.D. from Southern Seminary, said he didn’t agree with Warren at every point and didn’t expect everyone participating in the study to do so. “I believe that the materials and approach can be adapted with integrity by moderate Baptist congregations,” Culpepper said, adding that he is “bemused” when moderates dismiss certain approaches or programs because of stereotypes associated with the author or other churches using them.
“Moderates, of all stripes of people, should thoughtfully engage materials and approaches, laying claim to whatever is biblically and theologically sound, while freely pointing to its strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “We should do this, whether the materials are from Rick Warren, Smyth and Helwys or the Baptist Center for Ethics.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.