Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an interview. Click here to read part 1.
Walker: It took you a long time to get a building erected at Saddleback and it’s an unusual one at that. Tell us about your building philosophy.
Warren: First, buildings are to be instruments, not monuments. We would never build a building we couldn’t tear down – if we needed to in order to reach more people – because people are the priority not buildings.
Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings and then they shape us.” Most churches build too soon and too small. Then a permanently small building shapes a permanently small future. That’s why we postponed our building as long as we could. That meant, in order to keep growing, we used 79 different buildings in 13 years. We often joked, “We’re the church that, if you can figure out where we are this week, you get to come.”
Walker: You also have a strong opinion that churches should not try to mix traditional with contemporary worship styles.
Warren: Absolutely. If you try to please everybody you will end up reaching nobody. You have to figure out who your evangelistic target is and focus on it. I do not recommend that established churches try to radically change the style of their existing worship services. Instead, I suggest that they start a second, alternative service or, better yet, start a new mission designed to reach people not being reached by the traditional style.
If they try to change the existing service too much they’ll lose some people who are already there. You don’t necessarily have to stop what you’re already doing. It’s like when you’re fishing. Instead of just using one line, throw another hook into the water. You might have four or five different worship styles, if that’s what’s needed to reach different generations that live in your community.
I’m not against any traditional method that is still reaching people for Christ – I’m just a proponent of adding new ways and services to reach those who will never be reached by the way we’ve traditionally done it.
Walker: Most evangelical churches would say they’re trying to reach everyone. Why do you think that won’t work?
Warren: The church that claims to reach everyone is only fooling themselves. No style of church can possibly reach everyone. Take a close look and you’ll find that every church has a “culture.” This culture is determined by the predominant kind of people who make up the congregation. Whoever your church has right now is who you’re likely to attract more of – whether you like that fact or not.
What is the likelihood of a church full of retirees reaching teenagers?
What is the likelihood of a church full of urban professionals reaching farmers?
What is the likelihood of a church full of military personnel reaching peace activists?
Highly unlikely. That’s why we must start all kinds of services and churches. Jesus modeled evangelistic targeting in the Bible. He said, “I came for the house of Israel,” and when he sent out the twelve and the seventy, he gave them a specific target. Was this to be exclusive? No, to be effective.
Likewise, Paul says, “I am the apostle to the Gentiles and Peter is the apostle to the Jews.” Why do you think we have four Gospels? Because they were written to communicate the Good News to different targets. Matthew wrote for Jews and Mark wrote for Gentiles.
Walker: Some critics say that to be “seeker sensitive” requires the Gospel to be watered down.
Warren: “Seeker sensitive” doesn’t mean you compromise the message. It means you take into consideration people’s culture in order to communicate that message. Making a service “comfortable” for the unchurched doesn’t mean changing your theology; it means changing the environment of the service – such as changing the way you greet visitors, the style of music that you use, the translation you preach from, and the kind of announcements you make in the service.
The message is not always comfortable. In fact, sometimes God’s truth is very uncomfortable. Still we must teach, “the whole counsel of God.” Being seeker sensitive does not limit what you say but it will affect how you say it.
Imagine a missionary saying to a tribe, “I have the best news in the world, but to hear it, you must first learn my language, start wearing my kind of clothes, sing my songs, and come to my building at a time convenient for me.” We’d call that a strategy for failure. But we do it in America all the time. We say, “You have to hear the Good News in our language and through our tunes.”
Walker: You started with a clean slate at Saddleback, but what if a pastor in a traditional church wants to make changes. Where would you suggest he start?
Warren: What you should do is change the easiest thing first and the things that make the greatest difference. Don’t worry initially about the issues that cause the greatest disagreement. The easiest thing to change is the preaching. Any pastor in any church could update his preaching style for the 21st century and see a dramatic improvement. In many churches, we’re still using an oratory style that is pre-television.
Another simple improvement is to change the way your church welcomes visitors. We don’t realize that the traditional way of welcoming newcomers actually makes them more uncomfortable. Studies show that the three greatest fears that people have are, one, the fear of speaking in front of others, two, the fear of being singled out, three, the fear of being different. Yet we welcome visitors by saying, “Stand up, tell us who you are, and put on a sticker that says you’re different.” Welcome to your three greatest fears.
There are a lot of simple, practical changes that any traditional church can make in order to be more sensitive to the needs and the fears of their unchurched visitors.
Walker: John Maxwell has said something like, “In the New Testament, Jesus was so human that people had trouble believing that he was divine. Yet, there are a lot of pastors who are so formal people have trouble believing that they’re human.” You also champion informality. Tell us about that.
Warren: I think one of the biggest barriers to effective ministry is that we take ourselves too seriously and don’t take God seriously enough. The most important confession in the New Testament is Peter’s confession when he says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” but the second and most important confession is Paul’s confession when he says in Acts 17, “We are but men.”
You have to decide in life whether you want to influence people or impress them. You can impress people from a distance but you can only influence them up close. We desperately need authentic leaders today, who are real and vulnerable. Our greatest life messages actually come out of our weaknesses, not our strengths.
I don’t think it’s by accident that the words, “humor” and “humility” come from the same root word. Self-deprecating humor is the quickest way to turn a hostile audience into a friendly one. It endears people to you. Anyway, if you learn to laugh at yourself, you’ll always have plenty of material. People like being around someone who isn’t trying to put on airs or act pompous.
I’ve got three doctorates, but I never let anybody call me “doctor.” In fact, my people just call me “Rick.” And I sign all letters to visitors with just “Rick,” or “Pastor Rick.”
Why? Because I want them to feel they can relate to me on a first name basis. None of my degrees are hanging on the wall. Instead, I’ve got pictures of my kids up. That’s what people relate to – “Oh, you’re normal.”
Walker: Does that contribute to an openness with the congregation where people are willing to share their struggles?
Warren: One unique part of our service every Sunday is a testimony of someone working through a real life problem with Jesus’ help. Some churches are now using drama to illustrate the message but I thought, “Why write a fake story, a drama, when I’ve got a real live story sitting out there in the congregation?”
So, every week, in the middle of my message, I have a person or couple share a five-minute testimony. These are never “Thank God I’ve never sinned” stories, but gut level stories about overcoming adultery, mental illness, alcoholism, promiscuity, abortion, abuse, and relatives dying of AIDS. We’ve covered every issue you could think of.
These testimonies have brought about two wonderful results. First, they have created a climate of authenticity and openness in our fellowship. People realize it’s okay to have problems now. You don’t have to talk about them only in past tense.
Second, it has mobilized hundreds of people for lay ministry. As it says in 2 Corinthians, “God allows us to go through these problems and then comforts us so that we can have a ministry of helping others.”
Walker: You’re known as a visionary. What do you see as the number one challenge facing churches over the next few years?
Warren: The greatest challenge churches will face over the next five years is developing and adapting our ministry methods to the massive needs of the 21st century. We can’t just keep on “doing it the way we’ve always done it.” The world has changed – permanently – and we are never going back to the 1950s.
We must start thousands of new churches and services. It will take new churches to reach a new generation. But more than that, we must develop a clear practical strategy that helps all our existing churches through what I call the four types of renewal: personal renewal, corporate renewal, mission renewal, and structural renewal. If we don’t, thousands of churches are going to be closing and boarding up for good. That’s sad, because it doesn’t have to happen.
All it takes is leadership with the vision and courage to make tough decisions. I have never seen pastors more open to learning and growing. We’ve had thousands of pastors and church leaders attend the Purpose Driven Church seminars.
I’m a big fan of pastors, especially bi-vocational ones who support themselves while serving a church. I think pastors are the most underrated change agents in America. Anything we can do to strengthen their families, encourage them personally, and equip them with new skills necessary for ministry in the new century will be the wisest use of our resources we can possibly make.
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