Modern Proponents Of The Pop Gospel
POP GOES THE GOSPEL (Part IX)
The undisputed founding father of the seeker friendly church movement and it’s self-centred “pop” gospel, is Robert Schuller. He pioneered the philosophy of re-packaging the gospel to appeal to people’s desire for success and fulfilment, and his message and methodology were successfully re-franchised and adopted by untold thousands of churches around the world. The eventual demise of Schuller’s ministry was ugly and very public. It involved bitter feuds at board level, deep rifts within his family, his physically violent confrontation with his son (his successor) and, finally, a repudiation by his organisation of many of his more extreme teachings.
Despite the fact that these odious events clearly contradict many aspects of his teaching, Schuller’s legacy remains strong.
RICK WARREN (Saddleback Community Church)
Schuller’s mantle has been taken up by several prominent church leaders, the most influential of whom is Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church. Schuller’s formative influence upon Rick Warren was revealed by his wife, Kay, in a remarkably candid interview conducted in 2002 with Christianity Today Magazine. In the interview, Kay revealed that, during Rick’s last year of theological studies in 1979, they attended Schuller’s “Institute for Church Growth”. Kay described the huge influence this had upon Rick’s approach to ministry; “He (Schuller) had a profound effect on Rick. We were captivated by his positive appeal to non-believers. We never looked back.”[i]
Rick’s sermons, books and resources continue the Schuller tradition of re-packaging the Gospel to appeal to people’s desire for success, fulfilment and happiness.
I recently clicked on the Saddleback Church website, and here are the first three items that appeared on the home page: Firstly, a quote from Rick Warren at the very top and centre of the page, saying, “It’s always more rewarding to restore a relationship than to run from it”. Directly underneath this was a link to his most recent message, entitled, “Only The Right Values Will Give You The Future You Want”. Alongside that was a link to his previous message “Choosing Your Future: 5 Crucial Choices To Unleash God’s Plan For Your Life”. I listened to the latter sermon briefly, until I could take no more. Within the first few minutes Rick was misinterpreting the classic Jeremiah 29:11 passage to speak of God’s wonderful plan to make each of us prosperous and successful in our careers and in our private lives.
Apart from the single reference to God, the topics on the Saddleback website could easily belong to a secular motivational website or seminar. They are all about relationships and obtaining a successful, prosperous future. They make “me” and my desire for success the centre-point of the gospel. This is precisely the problem with the post-modern pop gospel. Sadly, these sermons and quotes are typical of Rick Warren’s proclamation of the gospel.
Unlike Schuller, whose message and methods were heavily criticised by conservative evangelicals, Rick Warren has managed to inveigle himself within mainstream evangelicalism, where he continues to exert a huge influence. His book, “The Purpose Driven Life”, has sold 21 million copies and is the best-selling non-fiction book in American history. Saddleback Church is a marketing phenomenon, with franchises all over the world, and untold pastors unthinkingly following their model, regurgitating their sermons and buying their resources.
One of the hall-marks of the pop gospel, and of Rick Warren’s messages, is the reluctance to articulate aspects of the gospel which unbelievers find offensive or difficult to swallow. As an example of this, Rick Warren had a chance to preach a gospel message to a massive audience at a TED Talk in 2008, but he chose to preach a feel-good, watered-down message instead:
“So, the good life is not about looking good, feeling good, or having the goods. It’s about being good and doing good. The bottom line is that God gets pleasure watching you be you. Why? He made you. And when you do what you are made to do, He goes, ‘That’s my boy.’ ‘That’s my girl.’ You are using the talent and the ability that God gave you. So, my advice to you is look at what is in your hand, your identity, your influence, your income. And say, ‘It’s not about me; it’s about making the world a better place. Thank you.”
Rick Waren’s focus in that talk upon success, happiness and worldly benevolence, together with his complete avoidance of themes of eternal salvation, is typical of the neutered message of the pop gospel.
BILL HYBELS (Willow Creek Community Church)
In terms of his influence upon evangelical ecclesiology, Bill Hybels runs a close second to Rick Warren. Bill has a poster on his office door which reads, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?”[ii] Bill’s consumerist approach to selling the gospel, together with the success of his trail-blazing seeker services, have made Willow Creek a hugely successful marketing phenomenon, selling over 280,000 books and resources globally each year.
Although both Bill Hybels and Rick Warren are essentially orthodox in their personal articulation of the gospel (when quizzed by conservative evangelicals), in public their messages strongly de-emphasise the supposedly negative aspects of the gospel, choosing to only focus on those parts of the gospel that sound enticing to potential converts; and even those parts are re-packaged to appeal to the self-absorbed, narcissistic modern “seeker”.
Social commentator, Os Guiness, comments, “Seeker church advocates are committed to developing a non-confrontational way of presenting the Gospel. Instead of railing about eternal damnation, Hybels explains in one of his seeker messages the consequences of rejecting God: “You’ll miss the reward your heart yearns for, which is to be affirmed from the father who is in heaven. You don’t want to miss His rewards. You don’t want to miss His compensations, because they’re rich. They’re soul-satisfying.”[iii]
Theologian and author, Kimon Howland Sargeant, comments on both Hybels and Warren, saying, “They maintain the evangelical emphasis on the importance of faith in Jesus Christ but subtly transform the reasons why one should pursue such faith. The promise of worldly peace and fulfillment supplements, and perhaps even supersedes, the eternal consequences of one’s personal response to Christ.” [iv]
OTHER POP GOSPEL PROPONENTS
Time and space do not permit an exhaustive examination of the teaching and practices of other pop gospel advocates, but here is a list of some of the more prominent proponents, all of whom promise that faith in God will result in worldly success, happiness and financial prosperity: Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Jesse Duplantis, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Hagin, Paula White and Kim Clement. To this list of preachers who proclaim a diluted gospel, we must also add Rob Bell, who recently announced that he no longer believes in hell or eternal judgment.
The proliferation of these modern ear ticklers is surely a fulfilment of Paul’s prophetic declaration to Timothy:
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Tim 4:3-4)
Significantly, after issuing this prophecy, Paul then exhorts Timothy in the very next verse, “But you, keep your head in all situations” (verse 5). In other words, he charges Timothy, and us, to think clearly, to evaluate carefully the messages we hear, in order to discern truth from error, so that we will not be deceived and carried away by false teaching. We would do well to heed his advice!
The following articles are from variety of theological and ecclesiological commentators, all of whom express grave concerns about the attractional, “seeker-friendly” church model:
[i] Christianity Today, Nov. 18, 2002
[ii] Quoted in the article, “Willow Creek Repents” on Christianitytoday.com
[iii] Kimon Howland Sargeant, Seeker Churches (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), p.99
[iv] IBID p. 95