Rick Warren warns pastors that fast church growth 'can be a cancer,' shares antidote to discouragement

Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren speaks at the Closing Gala of Proclaim 19, the NRB International Christian Media Convention in Anaheim, California, March 2019.
Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren speaks at the Closing Gala of Proclaim 19, the NRB International Christian Media Convention in Anaheim, California, March 2019. | NRB

ANAHEIM — Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California urged church leaders to focus on obedience to God’s mission rather than boosting congregation numbers, as “fast growth can be cancer.”

“I’m not really impressed with ministries that grow fast. Fast growth can be a cancer,” Warren said at the Closing Gala of Proclaim 19, the NRB International Christian Media Convention in Anaheim, California, last month. “What I am interested in is the long haul — people who consistently serve Jesus Christ year after year after year.

“I’m interested in finishing well, and I want you to finish well. Your ministry matters to God. It matters to the Kingdom. We need you to stay in the race. We need you to not get tired. We need you to not quit. We need you to not give up. We need you to finish your race."

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With church attendance plateaued or declining nationwide, Warren outlined several ways church and ministry leaders can fight discouragement, beginning with, “Never forget how much God loves me.”

“You’ve got to keep that constantly in focus,” he reminded attendees. “Everything in your ministry flows out of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace. The problem is we can get so busy working for God, we forget how much God loves us. Your first purpose in life is not to love God. Your first purpose in life is to let God love you. The Bible says you were created as an object of God’s love.”

Second, he encouraged pastors to avoid the temptation to “fake it,” adding: “If you’re going to be used by God, if you’re going to be effective for God, if you’re going to last in ministry, you’ve got to be authentic, you’ve got to be genuine, you’ve got to be yourself. You’ve got to keep it real.”

God, the pastor contended, “did not create you to be somebody else” — and those who focus on pleasing everyone end up experiencing ministry burnout.

“When you get to Heaven, God isn’t going to say, ‘Why weren’t you more like Billy Graham?’ The reason we try to fake it is because we try to please everybody. Only a fool would try to do what even God can’t do. Even God can’t please everybody.”

Third, Warren emphasized that ministry leaders need to be outward-focused, as those who are focused on themselves quickly become discouraged.

“Every time you forget about this principle and you forget that it’s not about you, you’re either going to get fearful or you’re going to get prideful or you’re going to get bitter in ministry,” Warren said.

“Everybody in this room has a unique life message that God wants to share with the world, but your life message is not about you. It’s about Him. It’s about our Savior Jesus Christ."

God is more interested in “why you do what you do than He is what you do.”

“A lot of people start off as servants and end up as celebrities. They forget why they do what they do, and all of a sudden it is all about them,” he said.

Fourth, Warren exhorted those in ministry to remember that God’s power is often manifested in weakness: “When I first started off in ministry, I didn’t even know I had any weaknesses,” Warren said. “Then I discovered them, and I denied them. Then I went from denial to hiding them. Then I went from hiding them to rationalizing them. Then finally I went to accepting them, and today, like Paul, I glory in my weaknesses because when I am weak, He is strong.”

Humility, he contended, is not “denying your strengths,” but “being honest about your weaknesses” and “thinking of yourself less.”

Finally, the pastor encouraged those gathered to remember that God never wastes pain: “Your greatest ministry will come out of your deepest pain if you’ll be honest with God, honest with yourself and honest with others,” he offered.

Concluding his message, the pastor advised listeners to take time to rest and ultimately stay focused on eternity.

“The reality is, every time you get tired, you lose your perspective. You don’t think about Heaven when you’re tired. You think about what you’re feeling right now. When you’re tired, you don’t have a good perspective,” he said. “We need you to last. We need you to not flame out or to burn out or to rust out.”

Rick and Kay Warren founded Saddleback Church in 1980. Today, the church is one of the largest in America, with a weekly attendance of over 22,000 people. The Lake Forest-based church says it was the first to send the Gospel to all 197 official nations in the world.

Warren is best known as the author of The Purpose Driven Life, one of the best-selling nonfiction books in publishing history. It has sold over 50 million copies and been translated into 74 languages.

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