Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Wrong Turn: The Purpose-Driven Life Gives Bad Directions

by Ronald J. Rychlak

Descriptive Title

Wrong Turn: The Purpose-Driven Life Gives Bad Directions


The Purpose-Driven Life phenomenon is sweeping the country, including some of our parishes, and the program promises that you can find God's purpose for your life in forty days. But what do Catholics need to know about Purpose? Ronald J. Rychlak and Kyle Duncan warn Catholics that although the book's author, Rick Warren, has established a program that might have a real impact, we should aware that there are dangers on the Purpose-Driven road. They explain why "Catholics who follow the Purpose-Driven template are driving blind, and the road they follow is more likely to lead away from the Church than to a deeper practice of their faith."

Larger Work

This Rock


12 - 14

Publisher & Date

Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, December 2005

The Purpose-Driven Life has sold over 7 million copies and was named Christian "Book of the Year" in 2003. "Purpose-Driven" is now a registered trademark, and "Purpose-Driven" programs have been offered everywhere from schools and prisons to corporate headquarters, including Coca Cola, Sparrow Records, NASCAR, the LPGA, and the Oakland Raiders.

The book's promise for those who follow its forty-day journey is that "you will know God's purpose for your life." The book is being promoted and studied in some Catholic parishes, especially as a Lenten exercise, so it is worth examining whether it can deliver on its exaggerated promise.

The book's author, Rick Warren, was labeled as "America's most influential pastor" by Christianity Today. He is the pastor of Saddleback Church, which is situated on a 120-acre campus in southern California that was designed by theme park experts. Every weekend nearly 20,000 people attend services at one of nine "venues," including a 3,000-seat main sanctuary, a religious coffee bar, and a "beach hut" for high school students. Sculpted into the landscape are settings for forty Bible reenactments, including a stream that can part like the Red Sea.

Saddleback is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but Warren's teachings have spread widely. Thousands of pastors from more than 100 countries have attended Warren's Purpose-Driven seminars and subscribe to his free weekly e-mail newsletter, Ministry Toolbox. Warren's web site claims that he is starting a new Reformation. That claim alone should put Catholics on guard about the "Purpose-Driven" approach to Christian faith. Yet Warren is no anti-Catholic bigot. He accepts that Catholics are true believers, and he cites monks and nuns (including Mother Teresa) as Christian examples.

Warren is also doing praiseworthy work in Rwanda. After he and his wife observed the poverty and AIDS epidemic ravaging that nation, they set up foundations to distribute 90 percent of the proceeds from Warren's book to alleviate poverty and combat AIDS in that country. Unlike so many other programs, Warren's seems to be focused on abstinence and monogamy rather than simple condom distribution. Of course, because of this morality-based approach, Warren has already been severely criticized in the secular press. It also means, though, that his program might have a real impact.

Nevertheless, Catholics should be aware that there are dangers on the Purpose-Driven road.

Purpose-Driven Scripture

Adhering to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, Warren writes that the Bible is "our Owner's Manual, explaining why we are alive, how life works, what to avoid, and what to expect in the future. It explains what no self-help or philosophy book could know." Thus, The Purpose-Driven Life begins from the premise that we can reliably discern God's purposes for our lives from the text of written Scripture alone.

But Scripture is not a catechism. Rather, it is the inspired written testimony to the faith that had already been given to a living community, the Church. In a striking passage, John Henry Newman described this "self-evident" proposition:

The sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine but only to prove it and that, if we would learn doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church, for instance, to the Catechism and to the Creeds (Apologia Pro Vita Sua , 1).

Sola scriptura, on the other hand, abstracts Christian doctrine — and Scripture itself — from 2,000 years of the Church's faith, worship, and life, effectively cutting off the Christian from "the living memory" of the Church, the Holy Spirit.

No faithful Catholic can accept the "Purpose-Driven" approach to Scripture. Catholics already possess "the full and living gospel" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 77; see also CCC 76–83). To begin with, at every Mass, Catholics hear the living, authoritative, and complete word of God proclaimed by Christ's body, the Church. With access to the inseparable triad of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Church's magisterium, the faithful Catholic stands firmly on the full gospel — all that Christ wanted us to believe and do — and escapes being blown around by private interpretations of Scripture, politically correct doctrines, and theological fads.

Purpose-Driven Salvation

Warren assures his readers that "God won't ask about your religious background or doctrinal views. The only thing that will matter is, did you accept what Jesus did for you and did you learn to love and trust him?" For salvation, "all you need to do is receive and believe." He encourages his audiences to join God's family as follows: "I invite you to bow your head and quietly whisper the prayer that will change your eternity, 'Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you.'" Then, "if you sincerely meant that prayer congratulations! Welcome to the family of God!"

Entry into eternal life? "If you learn to love and trust God's Son, Jesus, you will be invited to spend the rest of eternity with him. On the other hand, if you reject his love, forgiveness, and salvation, you will spend eternity apart from God forever."

All of this can sound plausible to a Catholic who doesn't have a firm grasp of the faith. Surely God doesn't care about "religious background or doctrinal views"! But Warren's assertions are themselves "doctrinal views," unstated and undefended. More urgently, is Warren talking about the same "eternal life" as Jesus did, the Jesus who taught that "the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7:14)?

Warren is right that we must love and trust Jesus, but Jesus himself told us what that really meant. For starters, Jesus said: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). He also said, "Not every one who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). And to those who say "Lord, Lord," Jesus warned that God may reply, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). But Warren makes little if any mention of sin, damnation, repentance, or the cross.

Purpose-Driven Liturgy

Warren proclaims: "There is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach to worship and friendship with God. God wants you to be yourself." In Warren's view, all that matters is what the individual believer brings to worship — not the objective reality of worship itself. This is not the historical Christianity given to us by the apostles.

When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, he promises her that "true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth" (John 4:23). Warren interprets this verse as Jesus' condemnation of "external" or "ritual" worship. But Jesus was referring to the pure worship that he would inaugurate at the Last Supper (see John 4:8-9; Luke 22:14-20). In John 4, Jesus is looking forward to the Eucharist.

Compare Warren's views about worship to those of Pope Benedict XIV, who as a cardinal wrote:

Liturgy presupposes . . . that the heavens have been opened . . . If the heavens are not open, then whatever liturgy was is reduced to role playing and, in the end, to a trivial pursuit of congregational self-fulfillment in which nothing really happens" (Joseph Ratzinger, In the Presence of the Angels I Will Sing Your Praise []).

Warren says, "There is no such thing as 'Christian' music; there are only Christian lyrics. It is the words that make a song sacred, not the tune. There are no spiritual tunes." Warren derives the following conclusion about God's musical preferences from the Bible:

God loves all kinds of music because he invented it all — fast and slow, loud and soft, old and new. You probably don't like it all, but God does! If it is offered to God in spirit and truth, it is an act of worship . . . There is no biblical style!

Warren describes his church as "the flock that likes to rock." Some songs are performed with a nightclub effect, complete with swirling lights and dancing background singers. Unfortunately, we have seen the effects of this kind of approach to music in Catholic liturgies. Nevertheless, the Church has always made a distinction between sacred and profane music. Quoting Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Catechism says:

"The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy." The composition and singing of inspired psalms, often accompanied by musical instruments, were already closely linked to the liturgical celebrations of the Old Covenant. The Church continues and develops this tradition (CCC 1156; cf. SC 112).

Purpose-Driven Sacraments

While Warren affirms that baptism "is not an optional ritual, to be delayed or postponed," he goes on to say that it "signifies" and "symbolizes" but doesn't actually do anything. As he says, "Baptism doesn't make you a member of God's family; only faith in Christ does that. Baptism shows you are part of God's family." That assertion directly contradicts Church teaching.

  • "The sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation" (CCC 1129, emphasis in original) because they are instituted by Christ himself (CCC 1114).

  • "Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit" (CCC 1213). "By following the gestures and words of this celebration with attentive participation, the faithful are initiated into the riches this sacrament signifies and actually brings about in each newly baptized person" (CCC 1234, emphasis added).

  • "The Lord himself affirms that baptism is necessary for salvation . . . The Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry in eternal beatitude" (CCC 1257).

The Catechism faithfully reflects what Jesus taught in John's Gospel: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Warren is not teaching what Jesus taught.

Purpose-Driven Ecclesiology

Not surprisingly, Warren's understanding of ecclesiology does not go beyond the local congregation:

Except for a few important instances referring to all believers throughout history, almost every time the word church is used in the Bible it refers to a local visible congregation . . . It is your job to protect the unity of your church. Unity in the church is so important that the New Testament gives more attention to it than to either heaven or hell.

Unity is crucial, but the unity Jesus calls us to is considerably more challenging than what Warren is calling for here. His call is not to unity within "your" church or "my" church, but unity in his body, the Catholic Church.

Don't Go There

Whatever helpful personal encouragement Warren's teaching might offer, the use of his books in any catechetical setting is a serious mistake. They are misleading and potentially profoundly confusing to poorly catechized Catholics. Moreover, while seeming to be ecumenical in approach, they actually undermine true ecumenism because they gloss over serious theological problems. The Second Vatican Council taught:

Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded (Unitatis Redintegratio 11).

The idea of all Christians joining together in harmony is a hopeful one, and we as Catholics must take the lead in pursuing it. But unity must be based on truth. Rather than Catholic truth, Warren is purveying spiritualized pop-psychology. The "Purpose-Driven" church looks less like the one mystical body of Christ than a loose conglomeration of inspirational social clubs. That is why Catholics who follow the Purpose-Driven template are driving blind, and the road they follow is more likely to lead away from the Church than to a deeper practice of their faith.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the MDLA Professor of Law and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Righteous Gentiles: How Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church Saved Half a Million Jews from the Nazis (Spence Publishing, 2005).

Kyle Duncan is an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is a recent "revert" to Catholicism.

© Catholic Answers, Inc.

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