8 Ways to Stop Biggering and Start Bettering the Church

Remember the Once-ler? From The Lorax by Dr. Seuss? He was a fairly normal guy who wanted to build a big business at the expense of the environment, so he kept “biggering and biggering” until all the trees were gone, the wildlife had vacated the landscape, and his business crashed. The little children’s book seems to leave us with the impression that biggering is bad. But I’m not convinced that should be the big lesson.

The story is told of Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, that he once sat quietly through a board meeting listening to his executives brainstorm about how to get bigger. He suddenly interrupted the chatter with a declaration: “If we get better, we won’t have to worry about getting bigger.” Talk about an Aha! moment!

We can make the church grow, or we can watch the church grow, and the difference boils down to bettering instead of biggering. This clip from an upcoming movie called When God Left the Building illustrates, from Pastor Rick Warren’s perspective, why biggering is simply not the right goal. (And hat tip to Joshua Griffin for the find.)

I often warn people who attend Grace Hills that if they’re just looking for a smaller church, we hope to disappoint them. And I further explain that the church must be intentional about growing larger because of our mandate to keep on making disciples out of a lost culture until Jesus comes. Then I follow up with the truth that while the church should grow larger, our energy should actually be invested in making it smaller. That is, we must put time and effort into turning the crowd into a congregation of committed Jesus followers who are in close relationships with a smaller number of people within the larger community.

This is why we talk a lot about how to spread out as we are growing up. America doesn’t need another enormous event center packed to the rim with spectators of a fantastic religious show. But America desperately needs a movement of Christians who spread out and infiltrate every pocket of our culture with the good news of Jesus.

I believe we’re seeing the beginnings of a bettering movement within our own Grace Hills Church family. We started small, with less than a hundred people when we launched. Recently our weekend attendance has been averaging 225 or so, so we’ve grown a little bigger. But the really amazing story is happening behind the scenes where lives are really changing.

Two days ago, I sat down at lunch with a couple in our church who lead a team of volunteers on Sundays and asked a simple question, “How are you guys doing?” Their response moved me. “Better than ever.” Their marriage is stronger than ever. They’re struggling through some disappointment and a difficult period of waiting in a very healthy way. And their intense passion for serving Jesus inspires me and makes me hunger to see many others share their experience. What really grabbed me, though, was the part where they said, “Ever since we started coming to Grace Hills, and especially since we got involved in our small group…”

In their story is a big answer to what should be next for our church, and probably for yours too. We must focus on bettering and we won’t have to worry about biggering. So how do we get better? These are the principles forming in my own heart and mind about how I want to see the church at large improve…

  • We need to depend upon the Spirit’s influence and empowering, and to unashamedly confess that dependence in our prayer and worship.
  • We need to learn to tell God’s redemptive story, the good news, in a way that relates to our surrounding culture. We need to make the gospel central to our message and mission.
  • We need to focus on people – connecting with people, connecting people to other people, and meeting the needs people experience on a daily basis.
  • We need to make disciples and develop leaders rather than simply attracting more fans. Attracting isn’t bad, but failing to challenge those we attract to take the next step is a severe flaw.
  • We need to get bold about our vision for a world touched and changed by a God-sized movement. It’s time to stop apologizing for an intense desire to influence and impact the culture with truth and grace.
  • We need to sacrifice our comfort, our preferences, and our personal agendas and embrace change – radical, catalytic, movement-shaking change.
  • We need to be strategic, pragmatic, and effective. These are curse words in some pockets of evangelicalism, but they are absolutely NOT at odds with biblical Christianity. We can be both faithful and fruitful.
  • We need to work together, in unity, as a team. Structural and institutional unity isn’t necessary, but working hand-in-hand for Kingdom-sized causes is.

The world doesn’t necessarily need bigger churches. But it definitely needs better churches, and better churches usually wind up bigger, and bigger isn’t bad.

Where does your church need to start? And what’s your role in the equation?

Mourning with Rick and Kay Warren and Family

Brandon Cox and Rick Warren
Pastor Rick and I in his study behind his stage at Saddleback on the night he gave me his blessing and many words of wisdom for planting Grace Hills Church.

I’ve started to write this post quite a few times, and each time, I’ve deleted it. It’s hard to know what to say when someone you admire and love goes through something as tragic as what Rick and Kay Warren have endured the last few days. Their son, Matthew, ended his own life at the age of 27 after battling severe mental illness for many years. I have heard Rick speak of this behind closed office doors, asking for prayer and pouring his heart out concerning his love for his son and his trust in his God in spite of not understanding all the reasons why Matthew suffered so terribly.

I believe that Rick and Kay, their other two children, and all of their loved ones will battle an array of emotions for quite some time. But I also believe that the message of hope that Pastor Rick has shared for the last three decades has come from the deep conviction of his heart. Rick believes that “God never wastes a hurt,” and Matthew’s life and death will prove this, perhaps in ways we cannot fully see just yet.

I love the Warren’s and believe that now is a time when God’s people should pray for them fervently. It isn’t that they somehow deserve prayer more than others because of their success and popularity. Rather it is that Rick is a man who has surrendered himself and all that he possesses completely to God, and God has blessed him by using his life to change the world. And because God has given him such a public platform, his private pain is perhaps amplified. Not only do the Warren’s have to suffer through the loss of their son, but they must do so somewhat publicly by virtue of their influence.

There is little that I can personally do to alleviate their pain. In managing the pastors.com website and community, I’ve sought out some voices that deserve to be heard, such as Beth Moore, Geoff Surratt, and Greg Laurie. I’ve received and answered dozens of emails to Pastor Rick sent via pastors.com, all of which have been positive and encouraging. And I’ve also read some of the most cold and heartless comments on the web from people who have decided to use this moment of pain to pounce on the Warren’s.

What I can do is pray, and I believe that prayer is powerful, effective, and meaningful. And I’m inviting you to pray with me as you read this. As we pray for Pastor Rick Warren, for Kay, and for their family…

  • Let us pray that God gives them a peace that passes all understanding – that is a peace that is present when it doesn’t seem possible.
  • Let us pray for the heart of a Dad, a Mom who lost a son as well as a brother and a sister who lost a brother.
  • Let us pray that others who struggle with mental illness in the shadows would seek help in the light and find churches that will look beyond the stigma of mental illness to offer real compassion and healing.
  • Let us pray for gospel-empowered change in the hearts of accusers and cold, calloused critics who would use a moment like this to spit venom on the devastated and broken.
  • Let us pray for a church that hurts for her shepherd and a global community of church leaders that hurts for its mentor.
  • Let us pray that all that Pastor Warren has taught about the trustworthiness of God and the hope we have in Jesus be all the more believable to a watching world as the Warren’s continue to boldly proclaim their faith.
  • Let us pray that in their understandable weakness, God’s grace would be sufficient and God’s glory would be spread.

I can’t imagine their pain. I was in Pastor Rick’s office one day a couple of years ago when he was asking a few of us to pray for Matthew who was at that time hospitalized because of a severe bout with depression. As Rick became transparent and asked a few trusted friends to guard Matthew’s privacy and to lift him before the Father, he also taught a powerful lesson. He explained that life is not a roller coaster with up’s and down’s, but rather a set of railroad tracks where we endure suffering and blessing simultaneously. Pastor Rick never claimed to fully understand the reason for the existence of mental illness. But he did testify to the faithfulness of God in spite of it. Even through tears of hurt for his son, he was teaching powerful truths.

There are only a small handful of men on the planet that I consider to be my pastors, and Rick Warren is at the top of the list. So I’m praying for my Pastor and his family today, and I’m inviting you to pray with me.

An Interview with Rick Warren on Muslims, Evangelism, and Missions

Rick at Radicalis

Pastor Rick Warren has often said that “you never win your enemies to Christ, only your friends.” And he’s gone far past the limits most believers are willing to broach in order to form friendships and love a world in need of Jesus. Because of this, he’s often the target of unfair criticism and unfounded rumors. If you’ve longed for Pastor Rick to clear the air with boldness and clarity, keep reading.

Along with another article I wrote about how Rick is a bridge-builder, this article answers the questions you might be asking. It’s the transcript of an interview between Rick, the Christian Post, and myself.  Read on…

Read the Full Story

The Savior-Sensitive, Seeker-Sensitive Church

CrossIn 1975, Bill Hybels assumed the leadership of a fledgling church plant that would grow into the rather influential Willow Creek Community Church. Under Bill’s leadership, the church pioneered many concepts in the seeker-sensitive strain of worship and ministry. In 1997, Bill and his wife, Lynne, co-wrote Rediscovering Church, an inside look at how the church grew from 100 to 15,000 in weekend attendance.

In 1980, Rick and Kay Warren relocated to Orange County, California to launch Saddleback Church. In 1995, Rick released The Purpose Driven Church, which spelled out the purpose driven paradigm and philosophy of ministry, one of the most transferred church models in history. It also told the story of how Saddleback had grown from seven people to well over 10,000 in weekend attendance (as of the mid-1990’s).

Because both churches emerged as influential institutions in evangelicalism at about the same time, and because both churches publicly espoused what each called seeker-sensitive worship, both have often been lumped together as carbon copies of each other. Actually, there are dramatic differences between the models. Not long ago, the Reveal Study demonstrated that Willow Creek had struggled to produce lasting change in the lives of new believers. Bill is an excellent leader, so he and Willow Creek are adjusting the way they do church and I know God will continue to bless their turnaround, as He already is.

Because both church created widely followed methodologies, the seeker-sensitive approach to worship has been talked about plenty in the last twenty years. Saddleback no longer even uses the phrase, primarily because it’s been hi-jacked by leaders who expect nothing of believers and really do choose to water down the gospel and minimize the “all in” commitment required of every believer.

Having served on staff at Saddleback, I can tell you personally that being purpose driven is far less about a worship style than it is about having an intentional process for moving people forward toward spiritual maturity, ministry, and mission. There’s a great backstage video interview with Rick Warren in which he explains why Saddleback is concerned about moving people from “come and see” to “come and die” and you can watch it here.

In 1985, Paul Chappell became the Pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church in the high dessert of southern California. The church has experienced phenomenal growth over the years and has produced visible change in the lives of thousands of people and the surrounding culture. Pastor Paul and one of his associates, John Goetsch, co-authored a little book entitled The Savior Sensitive Church that offers a critique of the seeker-sensitive movement, at least as a whole. I’ve read it, a couple of times actually, and while I don’t agree with some of the specific convictions at which Drs. Chappell and Goetsch arrived, I do think it’s a great book with brief but powerful insights. (By the way, it’s important to read more than just the guys we agree with in totality or we’ll never challenge our assumptions or grow beyond our current experiences.)

It’s very easy for us to get the impression that there are two sides to the debate over how to do church. It would seem there is the seeker-sensitive angle, then the Savior-sensitive. Or there are those who are all about evangelism and growth to the neglect of biblical discipleship and then those who are all about discipleship to the degree that they become totally insensitive to seekers. In fact, I think it’s often easy for us, as leaders, to peg other leaders as one or the other and then begin to criticize according to our preconceived assumptions. Therein lies the problem.

I’ve read all three books. I’ve studied all three of these churches. And I’ve learned a great deal by watching the ministries of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Paul Chappell. I chuckle inside when someone asks me, “what do you think of (fill in the blank with some well-known Pastor)?” and I often reply with, “I’m a big fan, and here’s what I learn from him.” For some reason, we have the impression that if you learn from John MacArthur, you can’t possibly be fond of Rick Warren. Or if you learn from Rick, you can’t possibly be fond of John Piper. After all, these guys are… different!

When I was in Bible College, that’s how I thought. In fact, I still read and hear the discussions of young, eager seminarians who know far more than people with decades of experience doing the very same thing. Listen to a guy preach. Hear a catch phrase or three. Brand him as weak, strong, heretical, soft, worldly, etc. Then criticize everyone who listens to him. My mind is drawn to Paul’s rebuke of this kind of thinking in the Corinthian letters. He made it clear that God never intended for us to line up behind our favorite leader, such as Paul or Apollos, and create imaginary lines of demarcation between “our camp” and “their camp.”

Instead, I’ve come to some conclusions. Regarding the leaders I’ve already mentioned, you need to learn from Rick Warren about leadership and about creating an intentional process for discipling people. You need to learn from Bill Hybels how to be authentic and authoritative from a depth of personal character. You need to learn from Paul Chappell the importance of standing by your convictions and preaching truth without apology.

You also need to learn from John MacArthur to stay in the study longer to feed people from the depth of God’s Word. You need to learn from Chuck Swindoll about communicating with humor and grace the gospel of Jesus. You need to learn from Al Mohler how to silence skeptics, from Jack Hyles and John R. Rice about being constantly conscious of lost souls around you, and from W. A. Criswell about having a passionate, unwavering commitment to the full counsel of God, from Andy Stanley about systems, and from Craig Groeschel about communication in a technological age.

You need to hear the passion of Chrysostom and Athanasius about standing against heresy. Adrian Rogers can teach you about packaging God’s Word in a relatable, understandable way. Charles Spurgeon will teach you about unction. John Wesley and George Whitefield will fire you up to get on a horse and go to the furthest hamlet to thunder forth the gospel.

Some of these guys are Calvinists, others Arminian and some Wesleyans (particularly that Wesley guy). Some have been revolutionary, others have gone practically to their graves defending truth. Learn from them. Repent of the arrogance you have about your camp, and open your ears.

With all of that said, let me return to my original discussion. My hope and desire, as we plant Grace Hills Church, is to be both Savior-sensitive and seeker-sensitive (though I don’t like the latter phrase anymore either because of its misuse). We need to be Christ-centered in our theology as well as our methodology. We need to walk in wisdom toward those that are without (those would be seekers). We should start with the cross, identify with the needs of lost people, and develop people into fully devoted followers of Christ.

Not all debate is bad. It can yield good self-evaluation and out of the dialog can come healthy change. But debate isn’t the priority Jesus gave to the church just before He ascended to heaven. Making disciples of everyone on the planet is. So let’s get started.

Photo by Matt Gruber.

Does Rick Warren Endorse Chrislam?

Saddleback ChurchNo.


It’s a funny thing. Since we’ve announced that we’ll be planting a new church in cooperation with the new Saddleback Network and that Rick Warren has endorsed and sent us, I’ve gotten quite a few questions about the controversy over “chrislam.” I’m not going to link to any articles – Google tells the story, and it’s a sad and frustrating one.

The rumor is that Rick Warren and other prominent religious leaders are promoting a new belief system known as chrislam, which is a kind of twisted entangling of Christianity and Islam. Let me make a few things clear…

1. Rick Warren affirms that Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved for eternity. Here’s what Rick says about the issue: “If you can be saved without Christ, missions is a crock. We’re better off not to go.” This is from a recent interview between John Piper and Rick Warren in which Rick had an opportunity to set the record straight on a number of issues.

2. That Saddleback is involved in “chrislam” is crazy. The church hasn’t removed any crosses from the property. They haven’t put Koran’s in the pews (they don’t even have pews). They don’t teach from any Islamic religious traditions. In fact, Rick and the church affirm that we must be more clear than ever before that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven in light of an increasingly pluralistic society.

3. “Mature” Christians should really be more discerning. It’s funny how often I hear Christian leaders encourage believers to be more “discerning” about doctrinal error and how we should be “exposing” false teaching. I agree (and so does Rick Warren), but what’s sad is that there doesn’t seem to be any expectation that mature believers should be equally discerning about malicious, unfounded gossip. If our favorite guy on the radio or television quotes a verse and slams a leader, it must be true. Sadly, plenty of believers continue to quickly latch onto the latest hype over guys like Rick Warren, and I believe it grieves the Holy Spirit and breaks the heart of Jesus who has to watch His own body divide in this way.

If you’ve spread the “chrislam” rumor, or any one of hundreds like it, not only about Rick Warren, but about any other Christian leader, here’s my advice:

  1. Repent.
  2. Apologize to the leader.
  3. Confront the sources of malicious gossip. Ask them if they’ve verified their words, gone to the source, or approached their work of “exposing” in a way that would line up with Jesus’ clear instruction to go to a leader one-on-one first.
  4. Spread the truth.
  5. Talk about Jesus more than your favorite (or least favorite) Christian leader.
  6. Light a candle. It’s much more productive than standing around shouting at the darkness.

You have no idea just how forgiving Rick is, and this is because of his understanding of just how forgiving Jesus is. If you’ve ever watched a depiction of the trials of Jesus, you’ve felt what I’ve felt. Why didn’t He just defend Himself? Why didn’t He set the record straight and beat the dog-snot out of those false accusers? I’ve often felt the same about Rick. But at the end of the day, there’s a greater goal to be accomplished. I’m proud of Pastor Warren for deciding to spend his time and attention on the spreading of the gospel for the redemption of the nations rather than defending himself against every false accusation.

Make no mistake, Rick Warren loves Muslims deeply!! If you don’t, you have a problem with Jesus who loves Muslims even more than Rick does.

If you’ve been the center of unfair criticism, consider yourself blessed to be so identified with Jesus. And if you’ve handed out the criticism? Thank God that Jesus died to fully and completely forgive you and to grant you His smile when you trust Him!

Rick Warren On the Most Important Thing Your Church Will Ever Do

PlantingI was thrilled when I receive Pastor Rick Warren’s article for this past week’s issue of the new Pastor’s Toolbox. I’m not sure if it’s because we feel the threat of extinction is too close or that we’re just too individualistic, but the American church is obsessed with self-preservation and has failed to multiply and replenish the land with vibrant new fellowships. Listen to what Pastor Rick says is the most important thing your church will ever do

Church planting is part of Saddleback’s DNA. We’ve started at least one church every year since the beginning.

It is simply who we are. We believe that mature churches are just like mature plants or mature people: they bear fruit.

You can tell an apple tree is mature when it starts growing apples. You can tell a Christian is mature when he or she starts winning other people to Christ. And, you can tell a congregation is mature when it starts having babies—planting other churches.

I believe any definition of fruitfulness for a local church must include the planting of new congregations in addition to growth by the conversion of unbelievers. If we’re not reproducing, then it is a sign that something is unhealthy in our congregations. As I’ve often said, a church’s health is measured by its sending capacity, not its seating capacity.

Regardless of size or location, your church can help start new congregations. At Saddleback Church, we started our first church plant when we had 150 people coming to the weekend services. The truth is, it doesn’t take a megachurch to start new churches.

Jesus doesn’t expect us to produce more than we can, but he does expect us to produce all that we can by his power within us.

God has called us to the great task of planting a new church but we are absolutely determined to do more than plant a church. We want to plant a church planting church, a multiplying movement that begins with a vision of launching other churches as soon and as often as possible.

What has baffled me is that as we’ve cast this vision to potential supporters, so few are eager to get involved – not so much with our church plant, but with any church plant. We assume that the “big” churches or denominations can handle it. But the truth is that from the era of the New Testament, local churches have initiated the process of launching “daughter” churches.

Every church has something to give, and I want to echo Pastor Rick’s challenge to get involved. You don’t have to send out half of your membership to be involved in church planting. It can be as simple as…

  • Send your Pastor to visit a church planter or two for the purpose of encouraging them.
  • Send a small group to help a church plant reach out to its community (but make your own arrangements).
  • Partner with a new church plant for $100 per month for three years, or go all out and commit $30,000 per year for three years.
  • Bring interns alongside your leadership and offer to make a contribution to their preparation for being involved in church planting.
  • Work with denominational missions leaders or church planting networks to birth a new church out of your resources.

You can start small or dive in, but decide today that the Great Commission is more than just sending money to foreign fields. It’s also about reaching everyone around us as well, and few strategies work as well to expand the kingdom as church planting.

And on a personal note, we have a goal of raising $80,000 over the next six months and while we’re over halfway there, we still need to raise another $30,000 or more, so if your church can help, I’d love to hear from you.

Photo Source

John Piper Interviews Rick Warren About Doctrine

For the last year, I’ve gotten daily reports on the mentions of Rick Warren, Purpose Driven, and Saddleback Church. Sometimes I respond in some way, but most of the time we just like to know what’s on the radar. What upsets me is that there are so many believers who sit perched like vultures waiting on Christian leaders to say anything that can be gossiped about in the name of “discernment” or “exposing” error.

I’ve often longed for Pastor Rick Warren to be able, in some way, to set the record straight on what he believes. Thankfully, John Piper has given him that chance. Dr. Piper arrived at Saddleback with 20 pages of notes from The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? and the two talked for an hour and forty minutes about theology.

Sitting in the studio was like sitting in a seminary classroom as each man gave tremendous insight into biblical doctrine and ultimately returned all the glory to God for whom He is. Now… you can enjoy it too!

And even better, the Saddleback team has built an amazing page filled with every possible audio, video, and downloadable version of the entire exchange. Check the John Piper Interviews Rick Warren page out!