Why I Challenged Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life

This is the second in a series of guest posts written by Dr. Bruce Epperly, a Disciples/UCC minister and professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary.  His first post spoke of a "passionate progressive Christian revival."  In this posting, he takes us a step further, outlining a spirituality that contrasts with Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life.


Challenging Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life (PDL) is just like David going up against Goliath, especially if you’re the pastor of a small congregation who also teaches at small seminary. But, when the call came, I had to respond. You see, for a few years I had seen signs announcing “Forty Days of Purpose” and had heard from pastors and church growth consultants that “if you really want folks to come to a church program, you should offer the Purpose Driven Life. Nothing succeeds like success, after all.” And, folks came to PDL studies, often in record numbers. But, I heard other messages, ones that pastors and congregants whispered to me and one another in private. Many didn’t want to contradict the new congregational orthodoxy being promoted in the “Forty Days” studies. In private conversations, I heard pastors and congregants admit:

  • “Folks are coming and they are buying PDL hook, line, and sinker. This isn’t the theology that I’ve been preaching all these years.” 

  • “I want to challenge some of the theology, but it would stir a theological hornet’s nest in my congregation.”

  •  “PDL confirms peoples’ prejudices – only Christians are saved; the rest are eternally lost.”

  •  “This book has caused a lot of pain in my congregation. When people who’ve been traumatized hear that God’ planned their abuse, they don’t know if they can trust God to be on their side.”

  •  “If we step out of line, God is going to get us. This book should be called ‘the puppet driven life’!”

  • “I’m worried about the implicit politics behind the text, especially in regards to equal rights of gay and lesbian people and the role of women in the church.”
While I believe that there is much to gain from certain aspects of PDL, I felt called to respond. My response is part of my commitment to the progressive Christian “revival” that I see emerging. If progressives don’t present creative alternatives to the conservative Christian message conveyed in the media, then seekers and spiritual orphans will assume that Rick Warren and Joel Osteen speak for all of us.

I believe that God likes theological diversity and spiritual contrast, and I believe just as Rick Warren felt called to write PDL, I was called to respond with a progressive/moderate theological and spiritual vision, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (Upper Room). Although I take responsibility for Holy Adventure (after all, I typed the words and formulated the chapters), I am sure that Holy Adventure emerged from the ongoing call and response that characterizes God’s movements in our lives. While I aim to present an affirmative theological and spiritual vision in Holy Adventure, I also sought to respond to some of the concerns I heard among pastors and congregants, who struggled with Warren’s belief that:

  • God plans all the important events of our lives without our input.

  •  Every experience, including traumatic events, is “father filtered,” or planned by God for our growth.

  • In every event God is testing our fidelity.

  •  God “smiles” when we follow directions and do as “he” says.

  •  God wants us to “color inside the lines.” Coloring “outside the lines” leads to meaninglessness in this life and alienation from God (hell) in the next.

  •  God prefers obedience to love.
None of these statements reflect my understanding of God and the human adventure. So, as I pondered Warren’s text, I was challenged to present an alternative vision of reality that sees our lives as a “holy adventure” in partnership with God in which God wants us to be imaginative, creative, and innovative in shaping the world. God is the great adventure who likes surprises and who is not hemmed in by God’s own previous decisions (for example, knowing and determining everything in advance), but likes to do new things and enjoys being surprised by what we do.

In Holy Adventure, I sought to teach creative theology by integrating 1) a vision of the universe and God, 2) a promise that we can experience God as a lively adventurer who calls us to adventure, and 3) practices (affirmations, prayers, imaginative prayers or visualizations, and actions) that enable us to experience God’s holy adventure in daily life.

At the heart of the Holy Adventure are a number of theo-spiritual affirmations:

  • God is adventurous and wants us to be adventurous as well.

  •  The future is open for God and us.

  •  In partnership with God, we create the future. God doesn’t decide the future, but creates the future along with us.

  •  God is constantly inspiring us in every situation.

  •  God loves surprises, creativity, and experimentation.

  •  God wants us to “color outside the lines.”

  • God doesn’t determine the events of our lives, but moves within them as the source of inspiration, creativity, and healing.

  •  God inspires and delights in diversity of spiritual pathways, ethnicities, sexual identities, cultures, and personal gifts.

  •  Our prayers and actions really matter and enable God to do new and creative things.

  •  There is no predetermined outcome to human or planetary history, but many possible outcomes depending on the ongoing call and response of God and the world.

  •  God’s vision is to “save” everyone – Christians, Hindus, indigenous peoples, agnostics, and atheists….There is no one outside God’s love, now and forever more.
I believe that creative progressive/moderate theo-spirituality can transform persons’ lives. We are truly on an adventure in which what we do really makes a difference in the future of this planet. Today, we need to color outside the lines, to do surprising things, to bring healing to the earth in partnership with God. We don’t need to be “driven” in order to share in God’s holy adventure. We are part of it right now!

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)

Next week:  Bruce will share his thoughts on a "Spirit-Centered Progressive Christianity."


Rial Hamann said…
This fellow I like! I think I may purchase his book
John said…
Now it looks like I will have to work on putting together a group of folks to undertake a holy adventure with me. I have looked at Bruce's book. It is constructed in a devotional style, asking the reader to do a significant amount of reflective reading and, to get the most out of it, I think one needs to spend significant time journalling.

Gary said…
Good Lord! What a theological nitwit.
Bruce Epperly said…
Thanks for your comments, John and Rial....I believe the text empowers persons to truly live their faith in our post-modern age: while I admire Rick Warren in many ways, I think he is missing the biblical vision of an open universe in which God and ourselves are constantly doing a new thing...Behold "I do a new thing....and greater things you shall do..." That's the holy adventure: many persons who hold views of omnipotence have not read their bibles well, and while I like Greek thought, they are more influenced by Greek ideas of perfection as unchanging rather than Biblical ideas of perfection as relationship....perhaps those of us who are progressive are actually following the adventurous God of Jesus, the prophets, and he early church...
Bless all who comment, regardless of their position.
David Mc said…
God gave most of us lots of unstructured playtime, a wide range of playmates and a versatile toolbox. I sure appreciate that. I feels sorry for those who are too timid to create new possibilities.
Glenn said…
I cannot understand why Gary continues to torture himself by reading this blog. He condemns anyone who disagrees with his viewpoint as someone who cannot be a "real" Christian. His comments are usually rude and demeaning which indicate that he is not really trying to guide someone to his understanding, but rather to insult and belittle. Do yourself a favor Gary. Quit reading blogs that cause you to display your small minded hatefulness. It will be better for your mental health. Your continued presence on this blog cannot possibly be making you a happier person and it's certainly not doing anyone else any good.
John said…

I usually like Gary's posts. They remind me that other people think very differently than I do. It also prevents this blog from becoming an echo chamber - always nodding our heads and reflecting back what other like-minded people have to say.

Most importantly, Gary's opposition forces me work harder to think through my ideas and to develop ways of communicating them to those who disagree.

Gary can be rude and offensive, but I just write it off as his style, and focus on the root of his disagreement. I have to ask: what is he trying to say that I am not hearing? and how can I explain my beliefs in ways that will cause him to give them a second look?

This blog would be much less vibrant if it were deprived of the blessings of the challenges presented by Gary and others who are not so progressive.

Life Liturgy said…
I picked up and read Rick Warren's book too. I read, uneasy at times with the theological point of view....but continued reading until I came to the chapter where Warren states "God smiled when you were born". I thought, but what about all those mothers and fathers of children who were still born, or miscarried. Does that mean God didn't smile? What is Warren saying that God will alienate all those folks? I cannot imagine that God was unhappy with people and so caused their child to die. But, that is the implication by Warren. I closed the book and never picked it up again. Sorry. My God and Christ Jesus LOVE. Period. Bad things in our lives are not punishment, good things don't happen because God is pleased with us and our actions. God loves us NO MATTER WHAT and would never cause life to go a certain way because of the approval or disapproval of our life choices. The Prodigal Son is the story of just that point.
I think I'll have to check out the 41 day aventure....
John said…
What I think I hear Gary saying today - which is consistent with what he has said in the past, is reminiscent of the frame of mind held by the one who, in the parable of the talents, received a a single talent and buried it later saying:

24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'

When I think of Gary's complaints I can't help but hear the complaints of the elder brother from the Prodigal Son parable.

What beliefs Gary has shared with me reflects the image of God as a "harsh man" who terrifies his subjects. Gary just can't abide with an image of God who is unconditionally generous and unconditionally loving - he cannot get beyond those passages from Scripture which past generations have interpreted as compelling us to "fear God" - implying that God is prone to strike out in punishment at those who stray from the requirements of Scripture and lavish love on those who strive to please God by seeking to comply with the requirements they infer from Scripture.

I pray for Gary as much as for me as neither of us want to hear: "As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Gary said…
It is somewhat amusing that I am more qualified to teach seminary than is Bruce Epperly, and yet he is the one employed by a seminary.

Glenn, I am not here to torture myself, but to torture you.
David Mc said…
Gary is attempting to be our jester. A madman touched by God I figure.

Bless his pointed (I won't say little) head.
David Mc said…
Hey, I just read Waltke got fired!

No Darwin talk allowed?

He now works at Knox Theological Seminary I guess. Yeah Tennessee.

David Mc said…
Sorry, I guess Knox is in Fort Lauderdale, FL too not Fort Knox.

Glad he doesn't have to move.
Dim Lamp said…
It seems to me your vision does not say much about suffering, theodicy, the Holocaust, etc. and where is God in all of that?
John said…
Dim Lamp,

I don't know where God was/is in all of that, except to say that God's heart was broken. In Genesis the story is told that God was so distraught over the violence and injustice in the world that he almost decided to destroy the hole thing.

Humans do evil, and they suffer for it. And sometimes suffering just happens as part of the human condition. God is there. But he will not take on the role of Santa Claus. I don't know why suffering is integral to the human condition but it seems to be.

Go knows why.

Su said…
Thank you for posting this. A PDL series was the beginning of the end of my church attendance. I'd been through childhood abuse and a very abusive marriage that had recently ended in divorce. I just couldn't accept that God would plan for His child to suffer. I do, however, believe that God can use such circumstances for good. My life is so much better now and I believe God is smiling down on me and my new life, even if it doesn't include group worship anymore. :-)

Your post reminds us that we must always be aware that the community isn't always safe. I wish I could say that mine was, but I know that it ultimately isn't. But, we are seeking to move toward that goal.

Thank you for sharing! And come back next week for Bruce's next edition!
David Mc said…
I can relate to being away from a faith community as a result of divorce Su. Hope you don't take as long as I did to find a nice one. I'm not going to assume you're a female- I consider my first marriage ultimately pretty abusive.

As far as safe, that's all relative and really depends on how free you feel to be yourself. Always be ready to refuse to be an intimidated victim.

This is virtual, but it's pretty safe, and there are several "guardian angels" hanging around.
Anonymous said…
I am conservative and I DO NOT like Joel Olsteen's theology (or lack there of). The absence of scripture and the "your best life now" theology is flat out false. Name one Biblical figure whose life actually got "better" by following Jesus? Not so easy..Jesus' followers were all matryers. Paul gave up a lot.. a WHOLE lot. They did in fact live their best life after Jesus.. but it wasn't full of wealth and prosperity. As for Rick..I never really read or followed the book. I think it may be good for discipline in following Christ. Epperly's idea is VERY hard to follow.. I agree in the risk taking God (see disciples first mission trip and taking NOTHING with you...try that at home) But you can be too "creative" about God and quickly create your own image of God.
Kate said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate said…
I find as time goes by...the more opinions I read, the more complex Christianity can become. I like to keep it simple. Paradox is the voice of the divine.

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