November 24, 2020

“Now Mr. Spencer, How Would You Like Your Crow?”

crow.jpgI haven’t blogged all that much about Rick Warren in the 7 years I’ve had this web site, but the times I have- which amount to a couple of essays and a lot of asides, comments and occasional references- it’s generally been negative.

Some of that has been deserved- such as my essay prompted by Warren’s declaration that we shouldn’t “criticize what God is blessing” or his contention that musical style is the key element in a church plant- and I don’t regret or apologize for my opinions at all.

I have, however, reconsidered my evaluation of Rick Warren and I think it’s time to eat a plate of well cooked crow.

I’ll admit seven things up front:

1) I want to get as far as I can away from any possible similarity to the weirdness that goes on at the “discernment blogs” when it comes to Warren. Somewhere in all those collections of name-calling rhetoric about Warren was the straw that broke this camel’s back. Anyone that these theological Barney Fifes think is as bad as they believe Warren to be deserves a sympathetic second look.

2) I want to admit that I did not do adequate research on Warren in order to say some of what I’ve said. I’ve read a lot in his two popular books, but I’ve heard very few Rick Warren sermons and most of what I’ve responded to came to my attention from already hostile third parties, some of them pretty slimy. In other words, in contrast to what I’ve put myself through with Joel Osteen- listening to the man for many, many, many hours of my life that I’d like to have back- I didn’t listen much to Warren.

3) Every church is flawed and that includes Saddleback and its children. It also includes the 12-members-8-of-whom-are-my-family churches that front some of Warren’s critics.

4) I recognize and will continue to recognize the flaws in the Saddleback inspired model of seeker-sensitive spirituality and ecclesiology. I am not in any way accepting, approving or defending what is in error. But I’m going to admit that most of Warren’s critics are far more attuned to his errors than to their own. That doesn’t mean they can’t speak, but it does affect the overall impression that’s left.

5) Rick Warren has said and written some boneheaded things from time to time. He’s not in my league, but he’s up there. When he first came to prominence, he wut nut dat hot wit de mikeyphone on dem der news channel thingys. I’m sure now he could smile, blink and say “I just never thought about that, Larry,” like a pro.

6) In many ways, Warren represents evangelicalism, SBC-style, in all the good, bad, ugly and wonderful that makes evangelicalism a circus and the work of the Spirit. The rule is this: If you hate someone whose main problem is they are a lot like you, you might want to turn the volume down a bit on your tirade.

7) My own commentary on Warren has too often been blind to what Rick Warren and his church network are doing right. I’ve played the reformed watchblogger with my Warren comments when he is clearly a brother. An erring brother, but a brother who has done a lot right that should be recognized, commended, celebrated and imitated.

So what’s on the menu tonight?warren.jpg

For starters, Warren has inspired the planting of thousands of new churches. Christianity is a church based, church planting movement. That’s as basic as it gets, and Warren gets that right. You need to contrast that with the church planting record of Warren critics.

I once found myself in a PCUSA Presbytery meeting where a church plant was being discussed. The word that comes to mind to describe this situation was “strangulation.” What I heard in that meeting was an education on why church planting is just about the last thing most established churches care about these days. (And with the denominational red tape I sat through, it’s no wonder.)

That church plant died, mercifully. Rick Warren has a lot to teach anyone who wants to plant churches. Not that his ideas do it perfectly, but his ideas do it.

Next, there’s Warren’s evangelistic zeal. Warren’s critics, with some notable exceptions, are distinguished by a great suspicion that evangelistic zeal is always a sign of bad theology. If you are zealous for evangelism, you are not likely a Spurgeon. You’re almost certainly a Finney or worse.

At this point, I can say everyone needs to find and read every word written by Iain Murray on John Wesley, particularly on what everyone can learn from the early Methodists about evangelistic zeal.

You see, Murray acknowledges that Wesley had some theological problems, but for some odd reason, Murray hasn’t gotten the memo that any theological error at all disqualifies what you do in evangelism from being commendable.

The seeker model isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in many ways, and I am not a fan of much of what has been done with it. But I do believe that if we look closely at those men- across the spectrum- who have an evangelistic zeal that overflows into what their church says and does- you’ll find that it’s the same Holy Spirit, calling people to Christ, energizing Christians to love and take risks for Jesus sake and for the lost.

Then there is Warren’s leadership in ministries of mercy and compassion. He has a heart for suffering people and makes responding to pain and suffering a priority. This is obvious in his commitment to Africa and the response of his church to the recent fires in California. Saddleback’s generosity and leadership in these areas are a persuasive witness.

I am well aware that good works are not the Gospel, but I am also aware that the Gospel is evidenced by good works, particularly compassionate ministries to the suffering and to the “least of these.” While some can certainly fault Warren and Saddleback when comparing their theology to a Grudem volume, it is difficult to not be impressed by Warren and Saddleback’s genuine, convincing willingness to put themselves in the place of leading out with compassion and personal involvement.

I also see this in the ministry of Celebrate Recovery, an immensely successful Christian adaptation of the classic 12 steps of recovery. CR is spreading into many churches that are not Saddleback networked, but who are looking for a way to open the doors and ministry of the church to hurting people. Of course, the recovery movement earns the special ire of many of Warren’s critics because it deals with specific sins and repentance in community, concepts that, for some unexplained reason, turn some theological watchdogs into ranting orcs.

I thank God that Celebrate Recovery is being used by a church in our area to touch the lives of drug addicts who feel excluded and uncomfortable in the traditional church.

I’ve discovered that Warren is very much a church centered leader. He invests himself in pastors. I don’t agree with all his advice and I don’t jump for joy at all the spiritual leaders he considers worth giving a turn in his pulpit, but these flaws fail to outweigh the heart for pastors that Warren has evidenced for his entire career as a prominent leader.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Saddleback’s web site, and I’m amazed at how basic it is in regard to the church. Heres one of the largest churches in the world, but in many ways it is stressing, teaching and reinforcing the same basic concepts as a brand new church. Would I like to see more theology “up front?” Yes. But is there something wrong with the theology of the church I see at Saddleback? No. It’s a model of how to keep the basics up front and emphasized.

Finally, Warren is a model of personal integrity. I can’t imagine what it’s been like to go from being a church planter, to a leader of a moderately innovative growing church, to the best selling author in the world. It’s true that Warren isn’t John Piper, but he’s not Joel Osteen either. I’m listening to Warren as I type, and there’s been more of the Bible’s central message in the last 3 minutes than I’ve ever heard from Osteen.

Warren’s critics hate the fact that he uses so many different translations when he shares all those Bible verses. Good grief people. Listen to yourselves.

Warren is honest. He’s not comfortable as a media star. He doesn’t play the “generic spiritual leader” role very well. He’s learned how to use his opportunities to point clearly to Christ. I seriously doubt we’ll see Warren doing a Ted Haggard anytime soon. He seems to be the very basic, down-to-earth person he’s always been.

So there you have it. I’m eating crow on this one. Warren is an average preacher. I’m not convinced that his seeker sensitive methods are dependable Biblical. But I am convinced he’s a good man, with a good ministry, who presents the Gospel, encourages pastors, starts churches, demonstrates compassion and lives with integrity.

These days, that resume goes a long way.


  1. Thank you Michael… I really appreciate this post. I have been a huge fan of Rick “the person” for a long time and have personally experienced his ministry and grace. He doesn’t do everything right, no one does.

    Will you be moving on to Rob Bell next? JN 🙂

    Blesssings.. DL

  2. Well I think it is quite ok to to point out when the other guy misses the mark.. As long as you are willing to PRAY feverently for him for at least a week each time you do. 🙂

  3. Thank you Michael. I as well have criticized this man without knowing very much about him. I guess I can blame that on the beam in my eye.

  4. I sometimes wonder if we oftentimes miss a basic distinction that Jesus makes between Himself and the church when it comes to relations with “others”. Of Himself, Jesus says “Whoever is not for me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters”(Lu 11:23). Yet of us (and to us) he says “whoever is not against you is for you”(Lu 9:50). I think at times we end up putting ourselves in Jesus place and trying to judge who are scatterers, when Jesus’ marching orders for us are quite the opposite. Check the context of that latter quote – are we trying to hinder a ministry merely because they’re not part of our group?

    Paul was able to rejoice that Christ was preached, even when preached from selfish, capricious, and even malicious motives (Phil 1:12-18). Where does that put us, in contrast, at times?

    I agree with the the Evangelical push for the objective truth of the gospel, but I think we are at times insufficiently wary of the dangers of it (we live in a fallen world – everything is dangerous!).

    John characterizes “worldliness” in terms of lust and boastful pride (I Jn 2:16). We tend to regard “worldliness” as something we catch from “worldlings”, but lust and pride are things that come from within, and it’s easy to carry them into the church, no matter how much we think we’ve walled ourselves off from the “world”. If we’re boastfully proud of our Biblical knowledge, our doctrinal purity, of our siding with the truth against error, it may very well be that we’re pursuing the truth in a worldly way. And it may sometimes be that non-Christians (“worldlings”) end up offended not by the message of the Gospel, but by the worldly way we handle it.

  5. wow, thanks for your thoughtful post on Warren. I am glad to see an honest and humble approach you’ve taken here.

  6. Thanks for posting that. I hugely appreciate people who can give intelligent critique and analysis, but can also admit when they were wrong, or when new insights have changed their perspective. Keep up the good work.

  7. Mike Taylor says

    Thanks, Michael, this is good work. It’s really refreshing to read something this positive on a Christian blog.

  8. Truth Unites... and Divides says

    Very nice post. How would you assess Bill Hybels’ ministry at Willow Creek?

  9. “Warren’s critics hate the fact that he uses so many different translations when he shares all those Bible verses.”

    I don’t think it’s the number of translations as much as his extensive use of paraphrases and the general lack of context behind his scripture references. My small group has been going through the Purpose Driven Life, and I’ve made a point to look up everything he quotes, and in almost every instance the verse is 1) paraphrased poorly, and 2) so far removed from its context that Warren’s version of what it meant was incompatible with the passage it was taken from. I’m partial to my NASB, but I really don’t care if people are pulling out their NIV or KJV to teach me. However, Warren relies heavily on The Message and the Living Bible, which often have no resemblance to the NASB/NIV/KJV versions. That’s where most people have issues with Rick Warren.

    I mean, come on, the dude officiated Bill Nye the Science Guy’s wedding, so he’s not entirely bad 🙂

  10. Nice, Michael. “theological Barney Fifes” made my day.

  11. Michael,
    Thanks. By the way I have several great recipes for crow as I’ve become an expert in eating it over the years. Perhaps this blog entry will challenge more of us to spend less time criticizing the ministries of others and more time focusing on our own growth areas. I know mine are enough to keep me busy for years.

  12. I have had mixed feelings about Warren over the years. I have a friend who knows him and served with him at Saddleback and this guy can’t say enough good things about him. I have never questioned Warren’s heart and I agree that most of the vitriol toward him is based on jealousy.

    However, as someone who has worked with hundreds of men struggling with porn (starting with me) I do have issues with Celebrate Recovery. I hate the 12-step model’s focus on being “in recovery” rather than being a new creation in Christ. However, with all that being written I think that CR does a good job of getting people out of AA, OA, GA, etc and into churches.

    Overall, I think Warren has done much more good than harm. He clearly loves Jesus and wants others to do the same. I really appreciate your humility in writing this article.

  13. John Richie says

    Good word Michel.

    Let me go a little further on the mercy and compassion front. Is it possible that mercy and compassion for the poor are a God-ordained part of evangelism? You cannot read the scripture without seeing God’s heart for the poor. Has the evangelical reaction against the social gospel lead us astray from the heart of our heavenly father? Perhaps mercy and compassion for the poor are integral to our credibility in the culture. This was certainly true in the early church.

  14. Michael,

    Thanks for the honesty of this post. We need more of it in the Christian blogsphere.

  15. Dolan McKnight says

    Rick Warren in his early years was a problem for me. He made it seem that only his way to do church would work and in particular traditional worship and music was a dead end. The Purpose Driven Life was full of poor exegesis (although this is a common preacher problem).

    However, I must agree with Michael, he seems to have mellowed and refocused his emphasis from my way is the only way to build a church to putting what he has built on target to carrying out Kingdom work.

  16. Well done that crow! Enjoy! Apology and confession are a mark of a sincere heart.

  17. “theological Barney Fifes”–I love it. What a picture. That will help me the next time I’m linked to one of those.

    A pastor can have a doctrine not to my liking and even somewhat lacking and still be a person of Christ-like character and service. I think that of Rick Warren, Jack Hayford and Bill Hybels.

    Thanks for the post Michael.

  18. Personally I go both ways with Warren. I like the Purpose Driven Life as long as you leave it at the book. The materialistic cash cow that follows all the way to in church DVD’s of Warren preaching and obscene banners to be hung in church (art is fine not marketing) is what I take exception with. I have a real problem with the Purpose Driven Church. Ultimately, I believe that our faith should change our lives, PDC was more about making people feel ok where they are and not encouraging change. I understand the need to be balanced in your approach.

    That being said it is important to know where to draw the line in accepting and criticizing. My difficult person is Driscoll, but that is something else entirely. It is too easy to begin complaining and never stop and then you become like those “discernment” sites. Thanks for the honesty.

  19. Wow, thanks for this post. I became a Christian at Saddleback and have even worked for Rick at his company. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Saddleback, but I was very glad to see their response to the fires. I had gotten sort of disillusioned with Saddleback for a few reasons, but that reminded me of why I encountered Jesus there in the first place.

    And you’re right, though there is much to criticize in terms of theology and what not, the guy’s heart is in the right place. He really loves Jesus and he really loves pointing others to Jesus. Also, he is constantly on the ball in regards to his integrity and makes sure he has people around him to keep him accountable. He’s human just like the rest of us, but you gotta respect a dude who really makes the effort to live out what he preaches.

  20. I guess I have a problem with the “guy’s heart is in the right place, so let’s glide over his theology” mentality. And I know I will come off sounding as a curmudgeon–Rick does sound like a genuinely nice Christian guy, someone you could have a beer with. “But”–we went over his PDL book pretty thoroughly in our men’s Bible study, where PDL was touted as the next Happening Thing–and I found Rick’s theology pretty appalling–the guys at The White Horse Inn gave it a pretty severe paddling some while ago, and they are not the Discernment Nuts you run into from time to time. We can respect Rick, and love him as a brother in Christ and pray for him (but jeepers, not with him–I still remember him “praying” with T.D. Jakes), but we ought to be able to point out our differences at the same time since doctrine still matters.

  21. Rick Warren over pragmatizes the gospel, however he loves people, has compassion for African AIDS people, and has sold many books that I’m sure God has used to draw people to Him.

    The road that balances disagreement with brotherly love is a difficult trip. So many exits, so many signs, so many lane changes, I must pay attention because so many times I think I’ve taken the correct exit only to find I’m lost.

    Rick Warren is a dedicated follower of Jesus Chris with whom I have substantive presentational disagreements. The bond we have in Christ should be the plank that supports all the others. But that is difficult, very difficult, unless I believe my own perspectives which provides blissful ignorance.

    Good post along with an internet repentance sighting. Frame it.

  22. Truth Unites... and Divides says

    What’s the distinctive differentiation between Rick Warren and Bill Hybels?

    Many of the fine charitable observations about Rick Warren’s ministry and Rick himself could likewise be made of Bill Hybels. (I’m not trying to excuse the missteps of either mega-church and their leaders, but at the same time I’d like to extend charitable grace to these two pastors who stepped out in faith.)

  23. I’ve never said anything particularly critical of Hybels beyond his identification with the seeker methodology. I don’t know a lot about him. The one time I heard him I was impressed.

  24. “It’s true that Warren isn’t John Piper, but he’s not Joel Osteen either.”

    Very true. Good observations on Warren. I always felt he was given a bad rap in general from Reformed circles. I am probably more sympathetic because I come from the Calvary Chapel tradition which is sympathetic to Rick Warren’s methods in general and we are often in berated by Reformed Theologians on the Calvary Chapel distinctives and typologies.

    Theology is important, applying that theology is just as important. Sometimes articulating it well in actions rather than words is just as powerful when coming at it with the same essential understanding of the Christian faith.

    Interesting insight. Thanks.


  25. I appreciate this post. I was reading ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ at the time you had written about Rick Warren. I thought at the time that you to be a bit harsh on him, so I am glad you are able to admit his strengths. I didn’t like the ‘Purpose Driven Church’, and how it started such a trend in churches, but found ‘PDL’ to be basically a general devotion sort of book – thus not an all out statement of faith. Still I don’t like how so many churches had to jump on the bandwagon and do the 40 days of purpose thing. Every church is unique and doesn’t have to try to conform to the latest fad.

    I’ve seen Warren on Larry King, and for the most part I’ve thought what he had to say was alright. – True, a definite difference to what Osteen says to Larry.

  26. I have consistently said that PDL is a mediocre book that is muddled on some important points of the Gospel. I haven’t altered that opinion. But the phenomenon of PDL isn’t Warren’s doing. He’s doing what thousands of pastors do: turn sermons into a book. He does “powerpoint preaching,” and the book reflects that. I don’t recommend it, but I don’t tell people not to read it.

  27. I met Warren this week. I photographed a press conference he spoke at and one of his sermons — both in Texas.

    I have to say, I’m usually critical of Christian celebrities, but he impressed me quite a bit talking about humility, generosity and missions.

    He made a point to shake my hand, smile at me, ask me my name and where I was from. He was a nice guy.

  28. “But I’m going to admit that most of Warren’s critics are far more attuned to his errors than to their own.”

    Ya think?

    “I’m listening to Warren as I type, and there’s been more of the Bible’s central message in the last 3 minutes than I’ve ever heard from Osteen.”

    A very thin compliment.

  29. Watch Out for Those Who Lead You Away from the Truth

    Mr. Spencer,

    I cannot believe how deceived you are and you are deceiving others. It is incomprehensible. The Church is in dire straits and Rick Warren and his teachings are part of the problem. Rick Warren is one very clever Scripture twister and most cannot see that fact. Because Warren seems to be such a nice, generous, loving person he can do no wrong? He has built a “Purpose Driven” regime and planted his purpose driven system all around the world, which is not the church of the LORD Jesus Christ. Those clones of PDL send in money from all across the globe to Saddleback. No wonder he can be so generous. He sure lets everyone know about his good works doesn’t he?

    Have a watch and listen of Warren’s “Invitation” and see if he preaches the true gospel, even remotely? Critique: The Evangelism Message of Rick Warren. Study the first seven days of his “purpose Driven Life” book and see if he preaches the gospel there, see if he clearly proclaims the gospel to the reader before he gets them to pray his “decisional prayer” on pages 58-59. Count how many verses he distorts in those first seven days and be shocked.

    “Rick Warren has said and written some boneheaded things from time to time. He’s not in my league, but he’s up there.”

    Sir, your pride and arrogance seems to know no bounds. Who is in your “league?” I think you do not see the exceedingly sinfulness of sin in your life nor do you see how radically corrupt you are and how exceedingly wicked and deceitful your heart is. I do not trust anything you have to say about anything. Sir, you truly need to repent, biblically repent, and not just Warren’s focus on “change the way you think/change your thinking/change your mind” Greek meaning of repentance but full-orbed biblical repentance.

    Am I flogging a dead horse? Are you going to roast me for daring to criticize Rick Warren? Make me look like an idiot? Are you going to mock and scoff at me? I have listened to and watched Rick Warren several times and read many of his messages and I cannot remember one time where he has not tortured the Scriptures in one form or another.

    What is God’s purpose with false teaching?

    Since you have had such a change of mind about Rick Warren and his teachings and his Purpose Driven empire, shouldn’t you contact and ask them to remove your article criticizing Rick Warren and eat it?


    there is no way that I would ever go to you for any spiritual advice, even if I was just looking for theological insights and answers on your websites.

  30. >Are you going to roast me for daring to criticize Rick Warren? Make me look like an idiot?

    No need to cover that ground twice. I think you’ve done just fine without my help.

    Why are you reading this site? You’re obviously a TR who loathes me, so what’s the point? I’m not a Christian and I’m a false teacher. You people have been saying that for years now. Isn’t life a bit short to waste it on repeated announcements?

    Thanks for the contribution. Don’t expect me to publish any more of them. Take it to your own blog.

    >Sir, your pride and arrogance seems to know no bounds.

    The irony speaks for itself, Douglas.

  31. Wow,

    I never realized how blog comments make such an appropriate venue for pointing out the exceedingly sinfulness of a blogger. I guess I never looked at blogs that way before. Silly me. I almost thought Douglas was serious but he must be joking, making satire or so to point out that he and all of us are sinful… maybe I am getting the sarcasm?

    Anyways, the reason I came back to comment is that I’m wondering if anyone can give me any specific things in Rick Warren’s book, ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ that are wrong, and why. I’ve heard a lot of general criticism, but I’ve never come across any specific criticism regarding actual content of the book.

  32. I’m afraid Douglas is quite serious. He- or several clones of his rhetoric- has been stalking me for several years.

  33. Michael:

    This is not about Warren, but about Hybels. An interesting perspective and links made from a Catholic blogger.

    (Don’t approve this for posting if you don’t’s just easier than doing an email! Because I’m lazy.)

  34. “Warren is honest. He’s not comfortable as a media star. He doesn’t play the “generic spiritual leader” role very well. ”

    Do you think we credit others more equitably when they bumble around a tiny bit in their humanity? It seems to be such a fine line between acting in confidence and conviction, and acting cocky and too mediagenic for your own good.

  35. Hi Michael,

    It’s always good that you are able to see the full picture.

    However, the balance seems to be lacking in the overall article. You seem to suggest that everything you find ‘good’ in Warren makes his 2 books acceptable?

    Maybe it’s just a lack of balance, I don’t know.

  36. Dear Mr. Spencer,
    Your post led me to a thinking place regarding my own critical heart. While I’ve never harbored particular scorn for Mr. Warren, I have for the seeker friendly church, which includes the church God has called me to work. I need to focus on places of agreement with the body of Christ and quit rolling my eyes at what I see as wrong.

  37. Let’s look at reality. I don’t know much about Warren but from reading the posts here, it seems that Warren errs in doctrine. How can support be given to any furtherance of church planting that is erroneous? This just adds to the spread of why luke-warm Christianity seems to be a melting pot in society today instead of Christians standing for what is right. False doctrine is wrong. I understand that there are good works being done but Satan uses truth and mixes a little poison. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. Regurgitate that crow and take a stand. If this man is causing so much division, the Bible says to mark them. Again I don’t know this man (Warren) and I will not attack his person but It seems clear that most agree that his doctrine is unstable—So why cover for that for good works sake.

  38. John K Young says

    Michael, I’ve enjoyed your article on Rick Warren, and your attitude. It was refreshing. I have enjoyed taking our church through PDL. I don’t understand Rick’s use of certain version/texts either, but I have enough sense to work through it and make it make biblical sense for our people to be able to profit from it as Rick had hoped we would do. And, we have. And, by the way, I have have yet to find a published theologian that I totally agree with, but I have learned much from many. Ya just gotta work through the “stuff”, and get to the meat.

    Thanks, again.

  39. Michael,

    What I have found interesting about critics is that generally they have done very little to advance the cause of Christ. Like my one of hereos D.L. Moody said once when a woman critized him for giving children candy to come to church.. He, then asked her what was her method for bringing children to her church. She said she had none. To which he replied “Well, I believe that I like my method better’. Expresses how I feel about Rick and many of the people that the critics love to hate. There methodology might not be perfect but it is many times better than the one used by their critics. Which, generally is little or nothing at all. ‘
    Much like the pharisees, they travel land and sea to make one convert, twice the son of hell.

    Most critics and suppossed theological 9″Barney Fifes” I love the phrase” is that it is far easier to tear something down than to build something up. There is no sacrifce, no money spent, no blood spilled, no pavement wore out with pounding the streets knocking on doors. It cost me nothing to blog on my computer and spill out bile and bitterness towards others who are more influenctial and generally effective than they could ever dream of being.

    I have planted two churches, been on staff of a mega church and realized that men and women such as Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Bill Hybles even to Benny Hinn. These guys that are at the forefront very seldom ever intended on landing were they are at. Providence, luck or maybe even God allowed them to have a platform that would touch the hearts of millions of peeople in a positive way for the kingdom of God.

    The older I get the more pragmatic I am in some the area’s that I felt were so crucial as a young, know it all, arguementive minister. I confess that many times pop evangelical theology leaves much to be desired in it s depth and scope of searching out the deeper things of God, but some how it is still the primary method that God uses to influence and bring most into the kingdom.