Is God Dead?
“’Whither is God?’ he cried, ‘I shall tell you where. We have killed him—you and I…God is dead…And we have killed him’” Nietzsche said it. And I must admit, to a certain extent, I agree. “God is not dead,” you say. “He is alive and well.” Well, where is he? You certainly do not find his influence in the Roman Catholic Church these days, a church that has been eaten up and spit out by a clergy sex scandal. Before you start thumping your chest in pride because you are a Protestant, keep in mind that the Episcopal Church appointed it’s first openly gay bishop last year. Mainline Protestant denominations saw a dramatic drop in membership and attendance in the 1990’s This does not include the mammoth Southern Baptist Convention, although the pace of it’s growth did fall dramatically. It seems that the larger denominations have lost their influence in the wake of relativistic teaching and the dichotomy of their stances. The church seems to be at best split in two, at worst, as Nietzsche described God…dead.
However, the same article that trumpeted Mainline Protestantism’s apparent slow death also noted that some denominations did grow. Believe it or not, even in the wake of disaster, the Catholic Church was among them as well as the heretical Mormon church and the Assemblies of God, my old stomping grounds. The study says, “Scholars say the data also show the Pentecostal movement has established itself within mainstream Christianity, attracting middle-class churchgoers with so-called ‘manifestations of the Holy Spirit’ such as speaking in tongues.” It seems that people seeking the truth of Christianity are drawn by experience rather than liturgy. To this denomination, and others patterned after it, God is not dead…and they seem to offer strong arguments for it, namely, for them, the church experience has become relevant.
So is God really dead? Or has it just lost its relevance? If God is dead, I agree with Neitzsche: we have killed him. Not in the literal sense, but through our rigidness and closed minds. We climb up on our high horses and look upon the unchosen world with disdain and we organize our churches to keep out the seeker of truth and to promote our version of social Christianity. Well guess what? That world, which we thought stupid for not seeing the truth, has turned up it’s nose to our hypocrisy and have fled out the doors of churches to find their own significance elsewhere. The fastest growing religion in the United States is no longer Christianity, but Islam. It seems they have offered to people a greater sense of significance, particularly among the black community, where they are also the fastest growing religion. My theory is that the reason people have retreated from Christianity and moved to other religions is that Christianity has lost its relevance in the United States.
However, although Islam carries the honor of being the fastest growing religion in the country and the fastest growing religion among the black community, it does not have the honor of having the fastest growing community of believers. That honor belongs to Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, California. Surprisingly, Saddleback is a Southern Baptist Church, although you would never know that by their style and their growth. Their pastor is Rick Warren, who is most famous for his two “purpose-driven” books. The first book, The Purpose Driven Church came out in 1995 and has sold more than one million copies in twenty different languages. Supporters of the book include W. A. Criswell (who wrote the foreword), Bill Bright, Jerry Falwell, Robert Schuller, Adrian Rogers, and Jack Hayford. But Warren is known more for his recent book The Purpose Driven Life that has sold more than five million copies and has spent numerous weeks on top of the New York Times Best Seller List. One website describes Warren as having “bad reputation in conservative circles.” This seems to be the understatement of the year. Fundamentalists seem to abhor him claiming, “he misuses the Bible, stretching the meaning of passages or even giving passages a meaning that is foreign to them.”
Warren’s beliefs about church structure seemed to be summed up well in a book review posted online:
“The thesis of The Purpose Driven Church is that when churches think first about their health, growth is sure to follow. “If your church is healthy,” writes Rick Warren, “growth will occur naturally. Healthy, consistent growth is the result of balancing the five biblical purposes of the church.” These five purposes are to “Love the Lord with all your heart,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Go and make disciples,” “[Baptize] them,” and “[Teach] them to obey.” And those purposes can only be accomplished, argues Warren, when church leaders stop thinking about church-building programs and shift their focus to a “people-building process” involving fellowship, discipleship, worship, and evangelism. Warren, the founder of the fastest-growing Baptist church in American history, has taught seminars to thousands of pastors from all over the world, many of whom have successfully implemented his techniques.”
Unfortunately, Warren has his share of critics. One website says:
“Warren mocks churches which ‘seem to think that the 1950s was the golden age, and they are determined to preserve that era in their church’ (p. 55). He later makes it clear what he means by this. He encourages young pastors to leave behind that old-fashioned church music in favor of jazz or rock or whatever turns your people on! He encourages churches to imitate the culture and “dress down” for church…He is desperately trying to be relevant, and in the process has lost all sense of being ‘set apart.’ Walking into church with food and drink, dressed down as if at the mall, and hearing rock & jazz music may be relevant, but it is NOT much different from the world.
Interestingly though, the same website elsewhere says, “Rick Warren’s church (and others like it) have attracted thousands. His methods do work. He says that the reason for the spectacular growth has been his emphasis on creating a ‘purpose driven church.’” However, the author contributes Warren’s success to pragmatism.
Another critic is Nathan Busenitz of Shepherd’s Fellowship “an association of churches rallying around the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, the importance of expository preaching, and the centrality of a biblical philosophy of ministry.” He sums up the basic fundamentalist view in his final assessment: “While Warren’s book does offer some practical tips for making a church larger, it fails to expound the foundational theological truths that make a church more biblical. Because it overemphasizes the felt needs of unbelievers and de-emphasizes the priority of clear biblical teaching, The Purpose-Driven Church seems to be driven by the wrong purpose—namely, a man-centered desire for acceptance and influence rather than a God-centered affinity for truth.” My favorite one, I believe is this gross straw man representation of Warren’s beliefs: “The Purpose-Driven Church is based on the (unbiblical) concept that we should aim to make sinners feel comfortable at church.”
Whether or not you agree with Warren’s methodology, you cannot deny the numerical success of Saddleback. As of the time of this writing, it is fast approaching 20,000 in attendance. According to Warren, the majority of the membership of his church is not transfer growth, as in members coming from another church, but rather conversion growth of previous unbelievers. If the conversions are genuine, and I believe they are, this is one of the most successful churches in the history of the world. As a matter of fact, the only way you can attack Warren is by denying that these conversions are genuine. That usually is the basic ploy of fundamentalists and others who attack his methodology.
One of most interesting things to note is that the same people who criticize Warren’s methodology are the same people who will not offer an alternative. They insist on using the same tired out methods that they have been using for over one hundred years even though it is very clear that this country has moved from a modern context to a postmodern one. These are the same people who slink in the shadows because their priest has become a child-molester. These are the same people who sit in the pew of the Episcopal Church and listen to a gay heretic blaspheme the Word of God. These are the same people who sit in a church pew like the frozen chosen and do not get out and do the work of the ministry.
Is God dead? To the people who are content to sit on a pew week after week and criticize one of the most successful evangelists in the history of the United States, God is dead. He is dead because they have killed Him. At least their God is dead. My God is alive and well and continues to move and work in the lives of men like Rick Warren, Billy Graham, Bill Bright, Jerry Falwell, Adrian Rogers, Jack Hayford and Bill Hybels, just to name a few, who do not criticize obvious works of God and who continue to engage this world with the real gospel, the one of love and not of criticism and hate. These men infect their individual churches with the fire of the love of God and, as a result, wonder of wonders, they grow!
God, let us not grow weary in well doing! Let us spur on the men of You who in their faithfulness to continue to spread your love and let us shun those of a critical spirit who seek to tear down the workings of Your Spirit and to kill God with their futile ramblings. Let us remind those who would criticize Your move in the words of my friend Steve Sparks, a youth pastor in Jackson, Michigan: “I like the way he does it better than the way you don’t do it.”
Friedrich Nietsche, “The Gay Science,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. And trans. W. Kauffman (New York Viking, 1954), p. 95.