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What Hath Piper to Do with Warren?: Reflections from the 2010 Desiring God National Conference (from the Gospel Coalition Blog)

Introduction

Rick Warren at a Desiring God conference.  Is this some kind of intramural neo-reformed jest?  If we can be so bold as to update Tertullian, what hath Saddleback to do with Bethlehem?

This question and others danced in the minds of many attendees of the 2010 Desiring God national conference, entitled “Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God” and held from October 1-3, 2010 at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis, MN.  The conference drew national attention several months ago when DG first announced that Rick Warren would speak, due to differences—perceived or real—between the theology and ecclesiology between Piper and Warren.

Warren’s talk fell on a Friday night, the first night of the conference, from 7:30pm-8:30pm.  The night air was brisk (though my waitress informed our group that we should sit outside to “enjoy the warm weather,” showing her true Minnesotan colors), the Convention Center was packed, and the crowd was curious as Warren’s talk began.

Actually, some of the air in the balloon escaped when word got out that Warren would deliver his address by video.  When John Piper took the stage to introduce Warren’s video address, he noted that it was recorded at 10pm the previous night.  He also noted that Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life begins with: “It’s not about you.”  He went on to read from the text: “We will praise Him for His plan and live for His purposes forever.” Piper suggested that “It was this God-centeredness that drew me to Rick Warren.”  The Minnesota pastor then noted that he would likely do a video session in the fall “So you can see me go after Rick Warren.”  The audience laughed.

Warren’s video address initially misfired.  The video started but without sound.  Some minds likely wondered whether this was a sign.  If it was, it was not one for long.  Warren shortly came on the screen, sitting at a desk in a warmly lit room.  He had a cup of water, an open Bible, and a few sheets of paper before him.  “It is a deep disappointment to not be with you tonight,” he began.  The California pastor noted that he had had three different ER trips in the last week.  One of his family members had gotten very sick.  Warren prayed briefly and then intoned forcefully “There is a violent battle for your mind; it is vicious and intense and unfair because Satan doesn’t play fair.”  The question before Christians: “How do I make my mind, mind?”

The Talk

Warren’s talk consisted of several main points.  Keeping pace with the pastor was no small feat.  He is a dynamic communicator with a quick-firing mind who kept the audience rapt for the entirety of his roughly hour-long talk.

The first point was 1) Don’t believe everything you think. Just because you think something, Warren said, doesn’t make it true.  1 John 1:8 says we deceive ourselves all the time.  The optic nerve has more impulses going forward than backward, Warren argued, means your brain is telling you what to see.  The second point was 2) Teach your members to guard your mind from garbage. Garbage in, garbage out.  The pastor quoted Proverbs 15:14 to that effect that a wise person is hungry for truth, while the fool feeds on trash.  Some people know more about NFL than they do about Paul’s traveling seminary.  Change the channel.  Resist and refocus—the “expulsive power of a new affection” (Thomas Chalmers).

The third point was 3) Teach your members never to let up on learning. This was Warren’s longest theme, and the heading under which he made the talk personal.  You must become a lifelong learner, he contended.  Never give up learning.  Warren quoted Jesus: “Come to me, all you who labor” (Mt: 11:28) and noted that this was a felt need, showing here as elsewhere that he was not backing down from some of his most controversial ideas.   If you’re going to learn, the pastor said, you have to be humble:

God gives grace to the humble.  I learn from churches larger than Saddleback and smaller than Saddleback.  I learn from my critics.  I know more than them, because I learn from them and then I know what they know and what I know (this drew a good deal of laughter).  Jesus: don’t store up money or treasure, but knowledge.  Knowledge you take with you.

Warren then advised Christians to stagger their reading in different eras of church history, relating that in the last year he read through all 26 volumes of Edwards and that in the current year he is reading through all of Karl Barth’s Dogmatics.  He suggested that the audience find a balance between doing and thinking.  You don’t judge a church by “seating capacity but sending capacity,” he argued:

We’ve baptized over 22,000 new believers in the last ten years.  I don’t believe there’s another church in America that’s done that.  14,882 have gone overseas to literally every nation in the world.  We’ve decided to be the first church in the history of the world to go ta ethne, to every nation.  We’re four nations away, and then we’ll be the first church in history to do that.

Warren then suggested that there are five levels of learning and that Saddleback’s recognition and employment of these levels accounted for “why we’ve brought so many in the front door and sent them out the back door for service.”  The five levels: knowledge, perspective, conviction, character, and skills.

  • First, you have to teach your people to love knowledge.
  • Second, you need perspective.  Ps 103:7—the Israelites saw the acts of God, but Moses knew why He did them.  The goal is to have the mind of God.
  • Third, you need conviction.  Jesus stretched out His hands and every drop that fell to the ground said “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
  • Fourth, you need to develop habits.  The sum total of your habits is character.  Unless you are habitually kind, you aren’t kind.  If I was faithful to my wife 29 days of the month, I would be faithless.
  • Fifth and finally, you get skill—you get good at it because you do it over and over and over.  Skill will bring success.  I have been misquoted more times than you can imagine when I said we need another Reformation that revolved around “deeds, not creeds.”  I believe in the creeds.  The issue is that creeds must be turned into deeds.  The problem today is that we’re teaching too much, so much that they can’t apply it.  When I was growing up in an SBC church, I was supposed to have four life-changing applications on Sunday alone.  I had 14 applications a week.  Friend: your life can’t change that much.  The problem with many churches is that they can’t apply the teaching from one service by the time the next begins.  We’re making people with big heads, little hands, and little feet.

Warren’s fourth point was that 4) Pastors must teach Christians how to let God stretch their imagination. Here, he argued, everything that happens in life begins with a dream:

Every building you see an architect imagined.  Every gold medal was imagined beforehand by an athlete.  Proverbs 29:18—where there is no vision, the people perish.  We need great imaginers today, our Lewises, Tolstoys, Dostoyevskys, these great imagineering people.  We need the Boyles, the Pascals, Keplers and Kelvins, scientists who worked for the glory of God.  We need entrepreneurs who make a lot of money for kingdom uses.  What you don’t see is far more important than what you do see.  Einstein said that imagination more important than knowledge.  Imagination is the evidence of intelligence.  Napoleon said that imagination rules the world.  I’m not a small-dreamer.

Warren closed his talk by speaking to pastors, as he had throughout the message: “Are your sermons more powerful, deep, strong, practical, touching lives?  If it doesn’t touch you, it won’t touch them.  The Christian life is not just knowing, it’s being—and doing.”  Following a prayer that Christians would be known for outthinking, outsmarting, outloving the world, the message ended.

Reflections

Warren’s talk was splashed by pastoral wisdom, passion, and humor.  As noted above, it was difficult not to pay attention to him.  This reality is made more impressive considering that the pastor was going through familial difficulty and had little time to prepare for his talk.  Warren is, as moderns say, a great communicator.  The talk was a compelling call to Christians to take the spiritual dimension of thinking seriously, and I particularly appreciated Warren’s call for Christians to develop strong character and habits of sound thinking.

There were several points that stood out to me.  Most significantly, the talk would have been benefited from a stronger organizing principle, namely, the gospel.  The word was rarely mentioned.  Jesus Christ was quoted and noted, but His centrality in all things had less place in the talk.  This is not to say by any stretch that Warren does not love Jesus Christ and preach His death and resurrection.  It is to say, however, that greater connection to the gospel as the foundation of Christian thinking and spiritual effort might have been made in this particular talk.

In addition, Warren’s talk at times seemed to work against itself.  To give one example, he argued for simplicity in teaching, suggesting that pastors make just “one application,” but made too many points for this poor scribe to keep up with.  I also wondered about a comment (not mentioned above) on how “fruitfulness” factors into ministry evaluation.  Are healthy churches those that grow numerically as a rule?

The talk also failed to settle questions, some of them weighty, about Warren’s ministry.  Clearly, the pastor felt no need to pull his punches on such controversial matters as his church’s massive baptismal numbers, preaching to “felt needs,” and the Saddleback approach to ministry and the church more broadly.  It would be fair to say that many attendees would want to hear Piper and Warren cover some of the motivations of Warren’s ministry and the more noteworthy concerns of the neo-reformed community related to it.  For example, why, if Warren reads rich, largely gospel-driven theology does it seem, at least in some places and times, that his ministry eschews this kind of theology?

With all these things said, I am sure that Warren’s talk will have an effect on evangelicalism, and specifically, the modern reformed movement.  Perhaps the Lord will continue to surprise by using this talk for purposes of unity, brotherhood, and above all, increased awareness of and love for the biblical gospel.

In the end, we are left to ponder the initial question: “What hath Saddleback to do with Bethlehem?”  There is obviously basic agreement in the biblical gospel.  Beyond this, on matters of ecclesiology and even theology, the answer is not yet apparent.  It is clear, however, that this question will be asked, and debated, and addressed in days to come.  May the answer given redound to the glory of God.

Owen Strachan is the author, with Douglas Sweeney, of “The Essential Edwards Collection” (Moody, 2010). Strachan blogs regularly at OwenStrachan.com.

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