Churches Debate Popular Purpose-Driven Model

The widely popular Purpose Driven church model is causing a controversial stir among congregations in the United States. While the model is adopted worldwide across denominations, arguments around it go back to the age-old debate of Christian tradition versus cultural relevance.

Coined by megapastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., the Purpose Driven model is changing the way thousands of churches are worshipping and reaching out in the 21st century. Pastors adopting the change preach a more culturally relevant message, ditching the traditional theology language.

"I like to teach theology to people without telling them it's theology and without using theological terms," said Warren on ABC News' Nightline. "Simple does not mean simplistic. Simple does not mean superficial. Simple means it's clear."

Amid some complaints that the popular teaching may be more "self-help" than Biblical, Warren acknowledged the difficulty in balancing relevance and Biblical teachings. The evangelical pastor, however, is trying to bridge what happened over 2,000 years ago to today.

"When you're preaching and teaching the good news, you walk a very fine line where you're taking the world of the Bible and the world of today, and you're building a bridge between those [worlds]," he explained on Nightline. "Now, it's easy to be biblical if you don't care about being relevant … And it's easy to be relevant if you don't care about being biblical. I happen to want to be both."

Not everyone is a fan of the Purpose Driven sermons.

First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., debated for weeks in town hall-like meetings over its new senior pastor's use of The Purpose Driven Life and other modern adoptions such as contemporary music and twin movie screens. David Cox, who led the 4,000-member church for less than five months, resigned from his position in January.

But one pastor believes the entire debate is "silly."

"It's kind of silly to me to hear somebody criticizing the [Purpose Driven] model," said the Rev. Jim Cowart who heads Harvest Church in Warner Robins, Ga. "It's just a model. It's really what you make it."

"The model is not about theology or denomination," he said. "The essence of it is to live out the Great Commission and the Great Commandment."

Purpose Driven churches are not all the same. Each church follows the same system, but targets different audiences and ministers in their own context, depending on their surrounding community.

"Even if I try to imitate Rick Warren, I'm not Rick Warren," said Cowart. "So it's going to come out differently."

Cowart's Harvest Church, which also follows Warren's paradigm, targets the unchurched. So his congregation has a contemporary praise band, casual dress, and his sermons are relevant to his church of 900 people.

While Cowart says he is not an expert when it comes to church models, he says he's a "satisfied customer" of the Purpose Driven model.

"If this works for you, go ahead and use it," says Cowart.

Any other model would have worked, but growth would not have been as large at Harvest. "I think we would've survived ... but I don't think we would be nearly as healthy or the size of the church we are now."

And although the ministry style of Harvest Church draws a large crowd, it's not for everybody.

Cowart's father put it best. He was there at the first service when Harvest Church began six years ago.

"The message was good. The music was good. But I wouldn't come [here]," he told Cowart. "You're not building this church for me. You're building it for the people who don't know Christ, people in the childrearing age."

Cowart recently came out of a conference with nearly 400 people that trained them with the Purpose Driven model. He and the Purpose Driven Planting network, headed by Ron Sylvia of Church at The Springs in Ocala, Fla., plan to launch 1,000 new churches in the next five years.

Those upcoming churches may not suit everyone's tastes. And churches that adopt the model may see losses. But costs come with growth.

"You know, I wouldn't intentionally want to cause pain to any person or to anyone," Warren said on Nightline. "Am I willing to put up with pain so the people [that] Jesus Christ died for can come to know him? Absolutely."

And whatever is helping people come to Christ, Cowart's all for it.

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