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It's Not About Rick
What the globally connected, purpose driven pastor is learning and unlearning about mission.
"It's not about you." Those are the first four words in a book you may have heard about—The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren. While that sentence alone is a much needed tonic for a culture that's become increasingly me-centered, it also has come to describe the ministry vision of Warren himself.
He readily admits he's had to change his assumptions about doing mission in the world. He no longer promotes his "church in a box" concept. He's learning from his mistakes, because mission is not about him, or even his ideas.
The future of the church, he now suggests, lies in its latent power as a global network. And he's not afraid to lift up that network, even if it means directing influence away from himself. During a recent meeting with 250 international church leaders, Warren told them, "you must increase, and we must decrease, because networks are poly centric."
"We don't want to be the Vatican," Warren insisted. "I couldn't care less if anybody uses the term purpose driven. All I care about is shooting the DNA of the five purposes into the body of Christ so that every cell, every church, and every life is doing Worship, fellowship, discipling, ministering, and evangelizing."
Christian Vision Project editorial director Andy Crouch met with Warren at the triennial Urbana missions conference to talk about these and other changes affecting the global church.
What do we need to learn in order to participate in what God is doing in the world?
First is humility. The focus of world Christianity going forward is not going to be centered in North America. The centers of power are going to be Africa, South America, and Asia—not North America and definitely not Europe.
So how can we learn that humility, do you think? It's not something that comes naturally to most Americans.
The American church as a whole needs to move from selfish consumerism to unselfish contribution. Those are poles apart. To start with a woman who's most interested in how many diamonds she's got in her tennis bracelet, and move her to sit under a banyan tree holding an AIDS baby—that's a giant leap. People in this culture are trained to think about me, me, me; I've got to do what's best for me.
Even when we go to church, we have this consumer mentality. We say things like, "I didn't get anything out of the service today." Well, sorry. It wasn't for you; it was for God.
So in order for us to learn humility, we've got to unlearn our basic consumer mindset.
What's to unlearn about the task itself?
We need to reinvent the way we do missions. There are about 435,000 professional missionaries in the world, and they're doing a great job. My parents were missionaries. I would never downplay the need for full-time, professional missionaries—or the work of relief and micro-financing agencies. It's great work. But it's a drop in the bucket. We've got to make it exponential somehow.
Specifically, three things need to change: (1) who does missions; (2) where it's done; and (3) how it's funded. And I fundamentally believe the answer for all three is for missions to go back to the local church.
What do you mean "go back"? Haven't churches been involved in sending and sponsoring missionaries and workers?
Yes and no. For the last 60 years, most of the great progress in American Christianity has been done through parachurch ministries. Every the church failed in a task, God would raise up a parachurch ministry to take it on. When the church ignored high school students, God raised up Youth for Christ and Young Life. When the church neglected college campuses, we got InterVarsity and Campus Crusade. When the church wasn't connecting with the military, along came the Navigators.
Now, there's nothing wrong with parachurch. It's just not enough, because parachurch organizations are specialized. If a ministry is called to care for the sick, that's fine. But what happens when they get into a country that's stuck in poverty because of a corrupt government? The church is called to do it all—evangelism, fellowship, worship, ministry, and discipleship. Unfortunately, so many talented people with this great entrepreneurial spirit couldn't find a place in the local church—there just wasn't room for them. So they left.
Right now there are more than 40,000 Christian 501(c)3 organizations. It's like, if I get a heart for bed nets, I go out and start Bed Nets, Inc. If I want to help street kids in Romania, I go out and start Street Kids for Romania. But nobody thinks of doing it through the church.
That is a fundamental mistake. It's a mistake in the way it's funded; it's a mistake in the way it's run; it's a mistake in that it doesn't develop the local church. A thousand years from now, if Christ hasn't come back, there will be no World Vision, no Focus on the Family, no Wycliffe—but there will still be churches.
Talk about the genesis of this new vision for missions. How was it born in you, personally?
I was literally sitting in the dirt in South Africa. I was looking up at the sky and I said to God, "What are the problems that are so big, nobody could say they've been accomplished?" And he showed me five specific problems—what I've been calling the Five Giants: spiritual emptiness, egocentric leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy.
And as I began to think more deeply about these issues, I discovered the five things Jesus did in his ministry actually paralleled these five biggest problems. For example, he planted a church.
And that's the P in your P.E.A.C.E. Plan.
Right, although we actually say "Provide hope," because the idea of planting a church scares some people. Then there's "Equip servant leaders"—Jesus spent three years with the disciples. Then "Assist the poor." The first sentence of Jesus' first sermon was, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor." Fourth is "Care for the sick" one-third of Jesus' ministry was healing. And last is "Educate the next generation." Jesus said, "Allow the little children to come unto me, for such is the kingdom."
How can an everyday Christian with a job and a mortgage participate in this new vision for missions?
At Saddleback we've thrown the traditional pathway to missions on its head. In the old style of missions, if you felt called to get involved, the first thing you did was pray. You prayed and prayed and prayed for missions. And you studied—you took some classes with a missions emphasis or went to a conference. Then you started giving away your money. And maybe—someday—you took a big step and went somewhere. Okay?
Now, we throw that totally on its head. We say, "Just go." Don't take months to pray about it; just go.
You'll do plenty of praying once you get there!
That's exactly right. You don't even know what to pray about right now. So just go. Because when you come back, you're going to want to pray, you're going to want to study, and you're going to want to give because the experience is going to change your life.
Let's talk about the church's goals in mission. What do pastors need to learn or unlearn in order to lead their churches in mission?
Most leaders set their goals too low and try to accomplish them too quickly. All these things I've been working on—the five purposes of the church, Rwanda, P.E.A.C.E.—none of that is easy. It's not. But I am a very patient person. I led a church for I5 years without owning a building, okay?
We need to set bigger goals and then give the rest of our lives to accomplishing them. I'm not, expecting this thing to be done in I0 years or 20 years. In fact, reformations take at least 50 years, and I believe we need a reformation in the way we do missions—a reformation of behavior, not beliefs. We know what we believe. We don't need to reform our beliefs; we need to reform our behavior. We need to bring our deeds in line with our creeds.
Members of an average church can be trained to do holistic mission. They really can. And, more important, indigenous churches overseas are thrilled to have other common members—not pastors, not professionals—come over from America and say, "How can we serve you?"
The early church is a great example of this. For the first 300 years, the church was all about normal people going out and advancing the kingdom. So what did those people know that our people d0n't know? I mean, in many ways, our people are far more prepared—they're better educated, they've got more options, and they've got more resources. When Jesus told the disciples to "Go into all the world," it was physically impossible. They couldn't cross oceans. But we can.
So I want to see business leaders training other business leaders, moms training other moms, youth training other youth. That's something we know works.
Conversely, then, what kinds of specific actions should the church avoid? What doesn't work?
What's the first thing that Americans tend to do once they get overseas? They take out their wallets. They instinctively throw money at the problems. They say, "We're going to buy everybody bicycles. We're going to build an orphanage." The old way of thinking has always been: we've got money, they've got a need, so let's pay to fix the need.
But we've got to fight that instinct, because that's precisely what has created dependency for the last 50 years. We've robbed their dignity. We've created dependency. We've hurt the church.
You were talking earlier about the differences between the early church and today's churches in their approach to mission. One striking difference is that the early church wasn't culturally dominant. Perhaps American churches today need to learn how not to be dominant.
Good point, and the issue of money is a great example. In the last 50 years, the West has put $1.5 trillion of aid into Africa. It's worse off than it was before. Throwing money at it doesn't work. If you could solve poverty by throwing money at it, we'd have no poverty in America, because we've spent trillions and trillions on social programs that have not worked. So again, the first thing we teach our people doing missions is, "Don't take out your wallet."
The second thing we have to teach is to honor and develop the local church. I have found that the more I honor the local church, the more God blesses it.
I'll give you an example. Samaritan's Purse has these shoeboxes for Christmas. The idea is that you fill them with toys, and then they distribute them to people in need. In the early years, Saddleback would fill these shoeboxes as a congregation, and then our people would take them over to different countries and give them out. And they'd come back with all these warm feelings.Oh, they're so loving.
Well, of course they're loving—you're giving them toys. But when I heard about it, I said, "Do you realize you're hurting the church?"
Last year We collected about 20,000 shoeboxes for Samaritan's Purse, but we had two rules: (1) none of our people were allowed to give them out, and (2) all the boxes had to be given to local churches. So, instead of my people going to Kiev and giving them out, they gave them to Anatoli's New Life Church in Kiev and let him give them out. Make that church the hero.
Speaking of boxes, one phrase we've heard associated with your vision is "church in a box"—which sounds rather product-based. Has that thinking changed?
That was an early iteration of the ministry. We're way past that now.
How has that changed?
One of the things you need to know about Saddleback is that we are fast learners. The way we approach innovation is "fail fast" and learn from it. We do it all the time. We try something and we fail, fail, fail—then we hit one that works.
So the original concept was to identify something reproducible. But once we got out in the field and ran into the Five Giants—-spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy—we realized that reproducing a product wasn't the answer. If you're going into a war zone, for example, you'll probably be doing a lot of caring for the sick. But if you go somewhere else that doesn't have any war, it might be poverty or illiteracy.
So we dropped the in-the-box stuff within the first year of being out there. For instance, the P.E.A.C.E. Plan that we're doing in Rwanda right now is 100 percent Rwandan led. We go no further than they go; We go only the speed they go; and We only do What they do.
How does that work itself out practically?
You may remember that President Bush recently announced his new anti-malaria initiative. It's similar to the program he started for AIDS, which has been very successful. The U.S. was going to commit a billion dollars for anti-malaria assistance in 15 African countries where the disease is most prevalent. Then another group called Malaria No More decided to match the initiative is backed with $2 billion total.
President and Mrs. Bush knew about the P.E.A.C.E. Plan because Kay and I had been together with Mrs. Bush in Rwanda. So she told the President about our efforts to use the church as a distribution center. So John Bridgeman, who was in charge of the program, discussed how we might work together and said, "Look, we want to make Rwanda a test case for this anti-malaria program and wipe malaria out nationally."
I said, "Okay, take it to the local pastors and explain your idea to them. If they want to do it, we'll do it. If they don't want to do it, we won't. They know best."
I'm guessing that the pastors didn't jump on board right away.
No, they didn't. I approached the technical committee in Rwanda, which is a group of village pastors, and I explained what the American government was proposing. There were seven steps to the anti-malaria program, and the first was to distribute mosquito nets. They said "No thanks."
I said 'really? Are you sure?" They said, "No thanks." I said "Well, we're only going to do what you want, so I'll tell the American government 'no thanks.' But I'd like to hear why, just because they'll want to know." They explained that they had already tried several net programs. They said, "If you give us nets without training, some of them will be used for bridal gowns, others to catch fish, and the rest will be sold on the black market."
They were able to be honest with you.
I told them, "Do you realize how good that makes me feel? You see the P.E.A.C.E. Plan as your plan, not mine." At that point, I knew we had a genuine partnership. It wasn't like, "Oh here's another American program, let's just grin and bear it and let them do their thing; it will be over in a couple of years."
Out of curiosity, I asked them, "So, if you had $2 billion to wipe out malaria, what would you do?" And they basically reversed the government's seven steps.
Number one: instead of trying to get everybody to wear nets all the time, start by killing the mosquitoes.
Number two: sanitation training—educate people so they stop creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Number three: encourage good health habits. Finally the African leaders said, "If you do these other six or seven steps, then we'll take the nets."
So I went back to the U.S. government officials and said, "Rwanda would be interested in doing the program if you'll do it this way." And I explained the reasoning behind the changes. The government. changed the program.
I called these African pastors before the announcement—some of these guys barely have a pair of shoes—and I said, "You guys have way too much power. You're changing American policy before it even gets announced."
Your vision and values have obviously changed a lot over the last decade, but how did you manage to keep the people at Saddleback with you so successfully? In other words, what have you learned about leading a congregation into mission?
When God wants to change a church—or a community or a country or a corporation—he usually takes it through a series of five renewals. And these renewals tend to come in the same order.
It starts in the heart—especially in the heart of leadership. So (1) personal renewal. I had to get a vision of not just evangelism and discipleship and leadership training, which I'd been doing for 26 years, but also the whole scope of the gospel. For me, that was a whole journey in itself, but in a general sense it means I get my life right with God and his values and his priorities and his purposes.
Then (2) relational renewal. It's loving your neighbor as yourself. And typically evangelical churches experience the first two renewals through some kind of revival or annual retreat. A guest speaker comes in and all of a sudden we all get right with God and we all get right with each other. And it's wonderful. And inevitably the church starts growing. But then something happens, and I've seen this more times than I could count. The church hits a plateau—a kind of a glass ceiling—and then it goes back down.
And the reason why that happens is the church never got to the other renewals, which are (3) missional renewal or purpose renewal. That's when we begin to realize we're not just here to be a "bless me" clique. We have work to do. We have a kingdom assignment. Now once you've got these first three—pers0nal, relational, and missional or purpose renewal—you cannot stop a church from growing. It's just automatic. All of a sudden it will blow through that glass ceiling pretty quickly.
So inevitably you're forced into (4) structural renewal. You can't put new wine in old wine skins. I once asked Peter Drucker, who was my mentor for over 20 years, "How often do you have to change the structure in a rapidly growing organization?" He said about every 40 percent growth. (Now, since that time, I've heard him use two other numbers, so I think he was just making it up.) But the point is that structural renewal happens pretty often.
When you get these four lined up—personal, relational, missional, structural—then the church begins to impact the world around it, and you have (5) cultural renewal. Because a changed church changes culture.
Or even creates its own culture.
That's right. Creativity inspires creativity. A creative church creates culture. It's going to do it; you can't stop it.
Copyright© 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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