Purpose-Driven Church Movement

What Are the Spiritual Roots of the Purpose-Driven Church Movement?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
As a byproduct of the larger and older church-growth movement, it shares the same un-Biblical roots.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

This is the second in a series of articles about the Purpose-Driven Church movement.

The Purpose-Driven Church movement is a product of the larger and older church-growth movement, and shares the same un-Biblical roots.


The Purpose-Driven Church movement is a product of the larger and older church growth movement in the United States. The father of the church growth movement was Donald A. McGavran (1897-1990), who was a Disciples of Christ missionary in India for 33 years. McGavran established the Institute for Church Growth in Oregon in 1957. In 1965, Fuller Theological Seminary asked him to help found its School of World Mission. The Institute for Church Growth became a part of Fuller at that time. McGavran is the author of the classic textbook of the church growth movement, Understanding Church Growth.1

A key disciple of McGavran's, C. Peter Wagner, succeeded him at Fuller Seminary, and under Wagner's leadership Fuller became the recognized center of the church growth movement. Wagner is a prolific writer, and is also deeply involved in the "third wave theology" movement, a neo-charismatic development that began in the 1980s. This movement holds the heretical view that extra-Biblical revelation has authority over Scripture in the present day.2

Rick Warren was first exposed to McGavran's teachings in 1974, and he says that they had a "dramatic impact" on him. He subsequently became an avid disciple of Wagner as well.

Principles of the Movement

The main principles of the church growth movement, which are shared by the Purpose-Driven Church movement, are these:3

1. Churches must be built from homogeneous groups of people, in other words, people of similar backgrounds and interests. According to the literature of the movement, it is important for people to "feel at home" and to feel that they are among "our kind of people." According to the movement's literature, "segregation is a desired end." The movement actually uses the dispersion of peoples from the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11 as justification for this viewpoint, missing the entire point of that account.

2. Becoming a Christian is not something that happens on an individual basis, but on a group or corporate basis. (Note carefully that in the church-growth movement's vocabulary "becoming a Christian," "coming to Christ," or "becoming a part of the family of God" does not equate to the Bible's definition of being truly saved.) The movement says that there should be an effort to bring people who are recognized as social and thought leaders into the church. The assumption is that if these leaders come, others in their groups will follow.

3. The pastor must be the undisputed "chief executive officer" of the church. According to the movement's literature, a key sign of a healthy and growing church is a minister who is a "possibility thinker" whose dynamic leadership is being used to stimulate the entire church into action for growth. Because the pastor is the catalyst for growth in the local church, the movement's literature says that he (or she) should "not be afraid of power" and should do whatever is necessary to stimulate the congregation to think of their pastor as the superior force upon whom success hinges. Therefore, the church should build a staff of people who have no interest in performing the functions of the senior pastor, thus reinforcing his authority. The role of the staff is to receive its marching orders from the pastor-CEO. Wagner admits that such a pastor may appear to be a dictator. But, he says, a mindset must be cultivated in which "to the people of the church his decisions are their decisions. They should realize that, almost as if he had a sixth sense, the pastor knows how to lead the church where the people want to go." The movement's language on this point is so strong that it echoes the f├?????├????├???├??├?┬╝hrerprinzip (leader-principle) of Nazi Germany.

4. Churches should only exist where they grow. Wagner and others misread the New Testament to conclude that in the early church, numerical response was the factor that governed decisions about where, when, and for how long the apostles conducted church-planting efforts.

The Church Growth Movement and The Purpose-Driven Church

The first pastor to achieve notable success using the principles of the church growth movement was Robert Schuller, pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California. He states, "An indisputed fact is that I am the founder, really, of the church-growth movement in this country...I advocated and launched what has become known as the marketing approach in Christianity....The secret of winning unchurched people into the church is really quite simple. Find out what would impress the nonchurched in your community [and then shape your church to meet their expectations]."4

But Robert Schuller is not even a Christian. He rejects the Bible's teaching that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. He states, "If that were true, that would be bad news, now wouldn't it?"5 He states that telling people that they are lost and hopeless apart from Christ is the worst possible thing a preacher can do. Instead, Schuller preaches that a person becomes "born again" psychologically, not spiritually, by replacing a negative self-image with a positive one, and not by faith in the shed blood of Christ for salvation from sin.

In 1975, Schuller published his own church-growth book, Your Church Has Real Possibilities. After reading it, Rick Warren visited Schuller to learn more about his operation. Kay (Mrs. Rick) Warren later said that Schuller had a "profound influence" on her husband and that he was "captivated" by Schuller's message.6 Warren subsequently took a leadership role in several of Schuller's church-growth conferences. At the front of Rick Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Church, appears this endorsement by Robert Schuller: "I'm praying that every pastor will read this book, believe it, be prepared to stand corrected by it, and change to match its sound, scriptural wisdom. Rick Warren is the one all of us should listen to and learn from."7

Authentic Christianity in Contrast

This is but a small part of the body of evidence which demonstrates that the spiritual roots of the Purpose-Driven Church movement have no foundation in the Word of God. In fact, they are clearly opposed to it.

The "segregation principle" of the movement leads to the Balkanization of large churches into small groups based on age, gender, ethnicity, level of education, profession, the neighborhood people live in, the hobbies and interests they share, and a host of other man-made categories. In contrast, the Bible says that those who have been justified by faith in Christ come together in one body in which there are no ethnic, racial, class, vocational, or gender divisions - all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:24-29; John 10:16; Romans 3:22-23, 10:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 2:14-18; Colossians 3:10-11).

The church growth/Purpose-Driven Church movements' emphasis on group-think in "becoming a Christian" is contrary to the Bible's teaching about salvation from beginning to end, where the emphasis is always on individuals (even in group settings) coming to personal saving faith in Christ (Leviticus 3:2, 3:8, 3:13, 4:4, 4:15, 4:24, 4:29, 4:33; John 3:3, 3:18-21, 5:24; Acts 2:38).

The movement's effort to bring social and thought leaders into the church as a way of also bringing in those who look up to them, is also contrary to Scripture:

"For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God - and righteousness and sanctification and redemption - that, as it is written, 'He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.' " (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

The movement's view of the pastor as CEO of the church is not that of the Word:

"But Jesus called them to Himself and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.' " (Matthew 20:25-28)

"The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away." (1 Peter 5:1-4)

The numbers-driven view of the movement is likewise contrary to God's Word. Peter Wagner says that church leaders should not "peer into ravines where there are no sheep." But the Lord Jesus Himself speaks of the Good Shepherd who left the ninety-nine and went out in search of one lost sheep:

"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!' I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:4-7)

Clearly, the Purpose-Driven church's spiritual roots are in the words and wisdom of man, placed in authority over the Word of God. In our next article, we shall examine the philosophical roots of the Purpose-Driven Church, which are not in the pages of the Bible, but in halls of secular business schools.


1. Donald Anderson McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970). Third edition revised and edited by C. Peter Wagner published in 1990.

2. For a refutation of such teaching, click these links to see the following transcripts of The Scripture-Driven Church broadcasts: Wrong Views of the Bible's Authority, The Only Supernatural Book, and The Necessity of Illumination.

3. These points are drawn from McGavran's Understanding Church Growth and from books by his principal disciple, C. Peter Wagner, titled Our Kind of People (John Knox Press, 1979) and Your Church Can Grow (Regal Books, 1976), as well as "Dangers of the Church Growth Movement" by Dr. Ralph H. Elliott in the August 12, 1981 issue of Christian Century magazine, pages 799-801.

4. G.A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996), page 51.

5. Interview of Robert Schuller on the video Here I Stand: A Documentary About Separation and Ecumenism (Denver, Colorado: Christian Media Films, 2008).

6. Tim Stafford, "A Regular Purpose Driven Guy," in Christianity Today, November 18, 2002, Volume 46, No. 12, page 4.

7. At the beginning of Warren's book are four pages of endorsements from 41 church leaders, including Schuller, Jerry Falwell, Bill Bright, Adrian Rogers, and Jack Hayford. The endorsers include independents, as well representatives of the Southern Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans, Mennonites, United Methodists, Evangelical Free Churches, the Episcopal Church, the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and the International Church of the Nazarene, as well as the presidents and deans of eleven seminaries.


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