Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Tale of Three Churches

Disclaimer: In calling this presentation A Tale of Three Churches, the term church as used here denotes that each of these fellowships calls themselves a church. It is not the acknowledgment of all of them as true churches in the biblical sense.

This is the examination of three high profile churches and their approaches to ministry in three key areas—leadership, preaching, and mission/evangelism. All three churches are large in size and globally influential.

The Churches

A church in the land without the Spirit is rather a curse than a blessing. If you have not the Spirit of God, Christian worker, remember that you stand in somebody else's way; you are a fruitless tree standing where a fruitful tree might grow. — Charles Spurgeon

Hillsong Church originated in Sydney Australia and has its roots in the Australian arm of the Assemblies of God denomination (which is Pentecostal). It has now franchised itself to many major cities all over the world including London, Moscow, Capetown, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York.

A major reason that I have included Hillsong as one of the churches to profile is because of my long history interacting with them during my time in Australia, and because they are about to open their latest franchise in our own Los Angeles backyard.

You may have noticed that I am using the term franchise for describing Hillsong's strategy of reproducing themselves around the world. It is not meant to sound derogatory ... no, actually it is meant to sound derogatory. I should be up front from the outset that I am a staunch critic of this organization and as we examine them in the areas of leadership, preaching, and mission/evangelism you will get to see a lot of major reasons for that criticism.

The major thrust of Hillsong's global impact has been their music. Their choruses are sung around the world in multiple languages and produced with world leading musicianship and production values. Their music has been a massive magnet in drawing people from all over the world to their many conferences which are equal in scale to anything that happens in the USA. Their youth band, Hillsong United, had their last album make the top ten on Billboard's secular charts. The music is a very big deal and has provided an enormous platform for the preaching ministries of Brian and Bobbie Houston (yes his wife is a "pastor") as well as their books.

Saddleback Church is a multi-site church with its mother ship located in Orange County, California. Originally affiliated with the Southern Baptist movement, Saddleback has risen to massive global prominence through their pastor Rick Warren who is possibly the world's leading proponent of church growth methodology. Warren's status now goes well beyond the role of pastor and he sees himself as a global statesman and activist in transforming the world. And no, I am not describing another episode of Pinky and the Brain.

Undoubtedly, Saddleback's major catalyst for growth in size and influence has been Warren's phenomenally popular books—The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church. Purpose Driven Life has sold over 32 million copies and is the bestselling non-fiction hardback in history. Did I mention that Purpose Driven Life is the bestselling non-fiction hardback in history? The book essentially is Warren's philosophy for life and has gained widespread acceptance even among business organizations and sporting teams. Warren has now actually placed a patent on the word purpose which is why this presentation has cost me $5.00 thus far (five mentions of the word at $1 apiece).

Grace Community Church in Sun Valley California is the third church we will be looking at in this presentation. It is a suburban church that experienced significant growth through the "Jesus movement" of the sixties and seventies.

Though not as large as Saddleback or Hillsong, GCC is a burgeoning mega-church with a major global impact through it's Master's Seminary, Shepherd's Conferences, and the radio ministry of its pastor John MacArthur. On the modern evangelical landscape, GCC is seen as a stick in the mud church with doctrinal rigidity and an aloofness from the various trends that have swept through churches over recent decades.

The Leadership

I exhort the elders among you ... shepherd the flock of God ... exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. — 1 Peter 5:1–4

Leadership: Hillsong Church

The pastor of Hillsong's founding church is Brian Houston. He also oversees all the other Hillsong churches as well as being the National President of the Australian Christian Churches denomination (an amalgamation of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches including those formerly known as the Assemblies of God). He is actually the Senior Pastor of every Hillsong church around the world which must certainly make matters of church discipline and visitations very challenging.

Due to my rather lengthy history of correspondence, investigation, and articles on the Hillsong empire I was not able to ask specific questions regarding their philosophy of leadership and model of church government. While the inner workings cannot be precisely known, due to their high international profile and the mass marketing of their material, a fairly accurate picture can be assembled quite easily.

The pictured book title gives an excellent synopsis of Brian Houston's philosophy of leadership. While he carries the title of senior pastor, he really functions much more as the CEO of a vast organization and marketing machine where mentors his people as a life-coach and motivational speaker. Tony Robbins with some Bible verses for window dressing.

Since his wife Bobbie is his fellow senior pastor it is clear that his philosophy of church leadership is not informed by 1 Timothy 2–3 and Titus 1. Brian is seen very much as the visionary pastor and his staff and congregation are to be zealously protective of that vision. Any criticism is very poorly received. Brian and Bobbie's consuming desire, according to their website bios, is to place value on humanity. Their approach to building the church is very much pragmatic and based upon the various models they have tried and then sticking with the ones that achieve the best numerical results. That is why I used the term franchising earlier. Because there models of success in church growth are the blueprints for every other Hillsong franchise around the world. Listen to Brian long enough and the pragmatism always shines through. He is very slick at not taking sides and not alienating any demographics in what he says. When interviewed on abortion, Houston said:

On the subject of abortion I'm pro-life. But in a way I'm pro-choice as well, because I believe in the sanctity of life and I believe that life begins at conception. But I also believe that ultimately human beings have to make their own choices, and I ultimately can't tell you what you should do.

Attitudes towards money are also an important issue for church leaders as Paul says that those who are elders must not be "a lover of money (1 Timothy 3:3). Although Brian Houston bristles at the suggestion that he is a prosperity preacher, he lays out his financial theology quite clearly in his book titled You Need More Money. In it he encourages us to "become comfortable around money" by "putting on your best clothes and ordering coffee in a fancy restaurant or hotel lobby. Even though you could make the coffee for half the price at home, the total experience may enlarge your thinking. You may even feel better about yourself and life." 

Hillsong is now a very marketable brand and carries a strong allure with it. I can guarantee that outstanding music and musicianship will be an essential part of the new Hillsong that opens soon in Orange County. And the musician's caliber always trumps his character when it comes to selecting the right team. 

Key Quotes:
"I appoint the elders and then the rest of the elders vote on that." — Brian Houston

"When you are doing what is correct in God there is a protection over your life. Like—hello—it is just there. So it is a very powerful thing. Amen. Yeah, fully." — Bobbie Houston

Leadership: Saddleback Church

Saddleback's senior pastor is Rick Warren. I was unable to get any answers regarding Saddleback's leadership philosophy and model of church government. What we do know is that Warren's big picture initiatives do give us a window into his philosophy of ministry.

His approach is very ecumenical when it comes to interfaith dialogue but heavy handed when dealing with Purpose Driven dissenters. Joseph Farah of World Net Daily has pointed out:

While mega-pastor Rick Warren has joined a group of 100 church leaders calling for interfaith dialogue and the building of "common ground" with Muslims, he has a slightly different outlook toward Christians with whom he disagrees. In his latest missive to fellow pastors, he writes: "You've got to protect the unity of your church. If that means getting rid of troublemakers, do it." 

Perhaps this hints at Warren's leadership Modus Operandi. 

Tellingly, Warren had absolutely nothing to say about eldership and church government in an article he wrote on his church leadership website, pastors.com. His article was called Organize Your Church on Purpose and Giftedness. And that is pretty much all he talked about concerning church structure. There was no information I could find on the Saddleback website regarding other pastors or elders. Perhaps the revelation of being complementarian or egalitarian would put a major dent in the breadth of his appeal. Though Warren is seemingly silent on that issue, the fact that women have filled his pulpit during weekend services on a number of occasions shows his hand in that regard.

Concerning how much power he wields on Saddleback's elder board remains a mystery. But time has borne out the reality that those churches who buy into the Purpose Driven program are counseled to remove dissenters or wait for them to leave.

With phenomenal book sales, Rick Warren has become a bankable brand. And he clearly has an army of spin doctors constantly working to purge the internet of criticism as well as contradictory statements he has made. I personally know of people who have had their web servers pressured to remove their websites by Rick Warren's defenders. One individual had his blog shut down. There do seem to be some sacred untouchable cows in what Janet Mefford has referred to as the Evangelical Industrial Complex and Rick Warren certainly looks like one of those protected species. One cannot help but think that he would be difficult to overrule at the eldership level in Saddleback church.

Leadership: Grace Community Church

Grace Community Church is a church ruled by a plurality of forty elders. John MacArthur may be the elder most recognized for his preaching and teaching gift, but that does not translate to veto power at the eldership level. He does not always get his way and neither do any of the other elders. Votes must be unanimous to pass and forty elders means a tremendous safety buffer of checks and balances. it would be near impossible for a pope or dictator to rise up within such a leadership structure. 

John MacArthur has a 45 year track record of leadership informed by Scripture, applied consistently in all spheres of life, and lived by example in the leadership of his family before the members of GCC for all of those years. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are the filters through which every elder candidate passes. The evidence is overwhelmingly demonstrative of this high view of Scripture. For example, elders with children who apostatize or live in constant rebellion normally step down from eldership both in obedience to 1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 1:6, and a desire to prioritize the evangelism of their own immediate family. GCC's commitment to male eldership and male preachers again speaks volumes for their unwavering subservience to the dictates of Scripture rather than the whims of the world.

John MacArthur's leadership has also been a bastion of biblically understanding when separation is necessary. MacArthur has four decades of refusing to buy into ecumenism, capitulating to Rome, nor associating with false teachers and apostates. Sadly, MacArthur's sterling example on this front has been emulated by scant few.

Bonus Material:
Book Review — The Master's Plan for the Church by John MacArthur

The Preaching

The preacher's job is to deliver the goods, not to manufacture them. — Dr. Irv Busenitz

Forty Days of Your Best Prayer of Jabez Now — Cameron Buettel

Preaching: Hillsong and Saddleback Church

Probably the most critical question that congregants need to ask about the preaching they sit under concerns whether the text drives the sermon or the sermon drives the text. Hillsong and Saddleback preaching overwhelmingly falls into the latter category. It does not take long for a discerning listener to realize that both of these churches churn out sermon after sermon where a pre-determined idea gets married to a biblical passage deemed as a suitable partner. Furthermore, the suitable text is often ripped wildly from its proper context in order to make that square peg fit in their round hole.

Hillsong have also brazenly displayed their contempt for biblical authority by their willingness to edit Bible verses in accordance with their own agenda. Tragically, they are a sacred cow in Australia and have escaped any public rebuke from any prominent Christian leaders. Their willingness to make Hillsong altered Bible verses for their Hillsong adjusted gospel presentations is nothing short of disgraceful. Their conflicting excuses for doing this would be laughable if they weren't so tragic.

Both Brian Houston and Rick Warren approach the task of preaching from the starting point of their own chosen topic. That is not always a problem, but it is if that is the totality of what they feed their members. An even greater problem is when you start with a patently unbiblical idea. But perhaps the ultimate tragedy is when an essential soteriological truth gets buried beneath the weight of their own agenda. And that is precisely what happened when Brian Houston preached at Rick Warren's church out of 2 Corinthians 7:8–10.

Bonus Material:

Key Quote: 
"The Bible's a big book, and you're never going to get people to have total agreement on that big book." — Brian Houston

Rick Warren has committed the same crimes on numerous occasions. Most of us were shocked when John Piper invited him to be a keynote speaker at the Desiring God conference. What Warren delivered was some shambolic handling of Scripture. Among the many problems was his redefining of repentance in non-lordship terms; Warren described Jesus' words concerning his yoke and his burden as a discussion on felt needs; and also demonstrated that he is the master of the humble boast—a difficult manouvre that can only be performed by those most expert in promoting their own humility: 

(Watch this video from 43:30 to 44:25, warning: video may induce vomiting)

Bonus Material:

John Piper's interview with Rick Warren was also very revealing in a very unrevealing sort of way. We all know Rick Warren is a smart operator. His MO is always to adapt to his audience and Piper is no exception. It is bizarre that Piper recognizes Warren as a pragmatist, and Warren's pragmatism demands that he gives Piper the answers he wants. Trying to understand Warren doctrinally is like shooting at moving goalposts, and yet Piper just doesn't see the pointlessness of this exercise. Warren tells Piper he believes in the doctrines of Grace and then tells an inter-faith forum (made up of Hindus Muslims etc) that he has no interest in seeing them converted but wants to work together with them. He said on national TV that "God's not mad at you, He's mad about you" and then tells Piper his hero is Jonathan Edwards (who preached Sinners in the Hands of an angry God). And then tells Larry King his hero is Ghandi, tells Barack Obama his hero is Martin Luther King, and tells the Catholics his hero is Mother Theresa. The man is a chameleon. Warren told his church he is opposed to homosexual marriage and then denied it on Larry King. He positively commended the President of Syria (in person) for his treatment of Christians and then told Syrian Christian refugees who live in America that he never did such a thing. He can talk to Muslims for an hour without ever mentioning the Lord Jesus Christ and then tell Piper it's his central focus. Warren can tell Piper that penal substitutionary atonement must always be there in Gospel preaching, but I cannot find a single sermon with him talking about it. If I sound upset it is because I am. Warren needs to be taken to task over these inconsistencies and if John Piper will not do it, then who will?

Bonus Material:

Both Hillsong and Saddleback profess submission to the authority of God's Word. But I fail to see how they can possibly do that when they continually preach Scripture as the servant of their own sermonic thrusts.

Preaching: Grace Community Church

John MacArthur's preaching legacy is already well established. Having pastored the same church for 45 years and preaching through the entire New Testament verse by verse, MacArthur is a preacher who has continually been enamored with God's Word. I once heard him say that he does not read the Bible to find a sermon, he reads the Bible to know the mind of Christ. This represents a clear reversal of the approach practiced at both Saddleback and Hillsong. I am convinced that the greatest treasure chest on the world wide web is John MacArthur's entire sermon archive available for free download.

Try downloading a sermon of MacArthur's from the seventies, eighties, nineties, and noughties and you will be struck by the textually driven nature of the preaching. Even the illustrations are overwhelmingly drawn from biblical cross-references. The lack of engagement in cultural matters of that time only serves to give an aura of timelessness and current relevance to the listener. How ironic, that so many in their quest for relevance actually make themselves irrelevant. Mark Driscoll's sermonic illustrations connected with the movie Talladega Nights are only a few years old and already most people have no clue about those illustrations.

MacArthur's suit and the big pulpit he stands behind also speaks volumes regarding his desire to point his people towards God's Word. The large pulpit makes the preacher look smaller and the Bible ever in front of him takes pre-eminence. Though not legalistic about it, MacArthur believes that wearing a suit helps represent the seriousness of the task of handling and proclaiming God's Word.

I generally do not buy the mega-church pastor claims that they are being edgy and contextual and relevant by wearing their street wear or casual clothes. Personally I don't take offense at Rick Warren's Hawaiian shirts, but I think it speaks volumes about his heirarchy of importance when he wears a suit to the White House and jeans in the Lord's house.

It also needs to be said (pause for a moment and check for a log in my own eye) that there is something decidedly lame about middle aged men trying to dress like their teenage sons. Petra tried to do it in the nineties somehow thinking that spandex is a viable fashion option for men in their fifties. Brian Houston works hard on his fitness and likes to wear skinny jeans. Rick Warren sits on a stool in the middle of a vast stadium because he thinks it is a way of connecting with his audience ... and probably because he doesn't fit a pair of skinny jeans. But God's Word endures when our coolness fades into oblivion. There is nothing more relevant than pointing all people away from ourselves and towards its own timeless truths of God and man, sin and death, judgment and eternity. It's why young people who are concerned about those things flock to hear the silver haired man in the suit with his Bible always before him.

Bonus Material:
Book Review — Rediscovering Expository Preaching by John MacArthur and The Master's Seminary Faculty

Missions and Evangelism

Preach always, if necessary use words — Rick Warren

Wash always, if necessary use water — Cameron Buettel

There are only two times you should preach the gospel; in season and out of season — Ray Comfort

Mission/Evangelism: Hillsong Church

An extensive examination of Hillsong's mission endeavors will expose you to a lot of social justice programs. They certainly do many helpful projects both locally and internationally, but they are driven by humanitarian goals rather than adorning the preaching of the gospel. It is also noticeable that their aid projects are not prioritized towards suffering believers, but rather among the community at large where great effort is made to raise their community profile. In fact among the myriad of Hillsong outreaches I was unable to find anything that involved any form of evangelism and witnessing. This stems from two major problems:

1. The evangelism is done during the main church service; and
2. The main church service fails to do any evangelism.

My background is in the AOG movement of Australia and I personally lived through the rise of Hillsong to where it has become the overwhelmingly dominant force in Australian charismaticism and evangelicalism. During that time I have personally challenged them repeatedly over the discrepancies between their doctrine statement and what they preach. The most glaring example is their doctrine statement which has always insisted on repentance as a necessary part of conversion and yet I have never heard repentance preached from any of their preachers or articles in more than two decades. In January 2010, after being affronted once more with their false gospel and continually obstructed and ignored by their leadership, I went public and called them out (see also bonus material below).

The gospel that is preached would best be described as a hybrid word-faith message of success, sensuality, and self-esteem. There is no preaching of God's character, man's depravity, the danger of judgment, Christ's person and work, and the call on all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel.

Key Quote: 
"Doctrine Statement, Shmoctrine Statement!" — Cameron Buettel

Bonus Material: 
My recent interview on Worldview Weekend Radio concerning the gospel according to Hillsong
My entire correspondence with Hillsong's chief theologian, Ps. Robert Fergusson
My online discussion with Hillsong's Executive Pastor, Ps. Joel A'Bell

Mission/Evangelism: Saddleback Church

The only global mission work being promoted on the Saddleback website is Rick Warren's PEACE plan. Here is their own description:

The vision of the PEACE PLAN is to mobilize Christians around the world to address five GIANT PROBLEMS:

Spiritual Emptiness
Self-Serving Leadership

The Christian Church was designed by God to take the lead in this effort. It has the world's largest distribution network, the most people ready and to serve, and the greatest motivation of all—the LOVE of Jesus Christ. Since responding to these five global giants through the local church is what Jesus says Christians must do, that’s where the PEACE Plan focuses. We have committed ourselves to fulfilling these five expressions of God’s love:

Promote Reconciliation
Equip Servant leaders
Assist The Poor
Care For The Sick
Educate The Next Generation

That sounds more like a UN charter than an evangelism strategy. To quote from the Saddleback website:

The bottom line is that we intend to reinvent mission strategy in the 21st century. This will be a new Reformation. The First Reformation returned us to the message of the original church. It was a reformation of doctrine - what the church BELIEVES. This Second Reformation will return us to the mission of the original church. It will be a reformation of purpose- what the church DOES in the world.

Attention Pastor Warren - why not try preaching that "message" that the first reformers recovered before we even start talking about doing anything. This "second reformation" Warren is fantasizing about only reflects poorly on his understanding of the biblical Gospel and the nature of true conversion. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart, not purpose driven education. 

Warren's second reformation mantra of "deeds not creeds" is a giant red flag. He really believes that the church has got its doctrine right but are not living in accordance with it. Michael Horton, however, would beg to differ. In reality, the problem is the exact opposite of Warren's assessment—he is actually preaching the wrong doctrines and they are living it.

Rick Warren's massive selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, has some major weaknesses. These include the use of many different, and sometimes bizarre, Bible translations to somehow give a Scriptural rationale for Warren's agenda. He also fails to differentiate between believers and unbelievers when applying biblical promises. But worst of all, his gospel presentation is just a complete crash and burn: 

Bonus Material:
John MacArthur explains what is wrong with The Purpose Driven Life ...

It may be politically incorrect but it needs to be said—Rick Warren is an epic failure as an evangelist. I cannot see any good reason why I should believe that most of Saddleback's tens of thousands of members are truly regenerate.

Mission/Evangelism: Grace Community Church

The gospel permeates every arm of GCC's mission arms. Rather than their social work being the heartbeat of their mission program, it is the kindness that accompanies their gospel preaching. Whether door to door in the local area, the annual Christmas concert, or their foreign missionaries and seminaries, all of these are done for the express purpose of reaching out to hell-bound people with the message of eternal life. John Pipers article below explains why true societal transformation only happens as an indirect byproduct of missionaries who evangelize rather than a team of social workers.

Bonus Material:
Missions: Rescuing from Hell and Renewing the World by John Piper


The differences are stark between GCC and Hillsong/Saddleback. Am I biased? I am very biased towards biblical alignment and GCC has that in spades. I am not foolish enough to believe that I can put an end to the violence done to the gospel by churches like Hillsong and Saddleback. But I do believe that we should make a concerted effort to pressure these churches into either conforming their teaching to their doctrine statements or conforming their doctrine statements to their teaching. It is time to put their cards on the table.

Bonus Material:
My recent interview on Tony Miano's radio show — When Doctrine Statements are Used to Deceive

Bonus Material:
You Might Be a False Teacher If ...


Anonymous said...

Hi Cameron. Mmm ... All seem like cults. Especially grace community church. Doesn't seem that different to Catholic Church. Elders = Vatican cardinals. You mention that if elders children are wayward then elders are excluded. That is a common cult behaviour. What evidence do u have that it's not a cult ?

CLR said...

Hi Cameron,

I thoroughly enjoyed in reading your article on Hillsong, Saddleback and Grace Community Church. We have spoke on here previously - almost 5 years ago to be exact - regarding my former attachment to a church which is closely affiliated with Hillsong Australia here in my hometown of Glasgow in Scotland.

Only thing is that I'm not sure if I emailed you my experiences there or not, if you would like to know more then please let me know and I will get in touch. A lot has happened in my life since my 1st post on your site and God has been good.

Looking forward to hearing from you, brother. God bless!!

Anonymous said...

Amen! Amen! Amen! Good article! Discernment is not lost! For the last 15 years I have felt like Timothy looking for his Paul. John MacArthur is definitely a voice crying aloud in the midst of so much crazy. When I was lost in a sea of sin and Jesus found me by His grace no one told me that the moment I was saved and pulled upon the land that I would be surrounded by wolves. Those who would carry the name of the Lord but were strangely out of touch with the word of God. Many sleepless nights crying aloud with Gods word open "Lord lead me into truth and right doctrine".....I am a 37 year old pastor who feels ashamed of what comes from my generation ....Are there any who can sacrifice their selfish ambitions of being before crowds? Are we ashamed of the True Gospel? When did words like repentance, confession, justification, sanctification, regeneration befome bad words because only a few even refer or speak these words let alone preach on them......Can we improve the message any more than Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected for the atonement of sinners? Are we afraid to tell sinners that they are on the way to hell but John 3:16? Lord help us get the gospel right...O Lord help us be grounded in the timeless truth of Your wordprecious in Jesus name.....I was saved through the preaching of the Word of God and cried aloud What must I do to be saved? The blood of Jesus washed me and made me clean or as the bible says I was washed by the word throgh the word then I went off looking for a experience! And thank You Jesus the Lord brought me back to the Word of the Living God..the word of God is enough i no longer look for those emotional highs. Thank the Lord for men like John MacArthur! If had known his preaching and teaching 15 years ago i would have not spent so many nights on my face but to God be the glory because it made me aware of my weakness and for certain I know that the Holyspirit will lead you into all truth if you abide in Jesus and seek the Lord through the word ! Thank you for this article! There are still some discerning brothers who have no personal agenda but put all upon the Word and let tue Word tell us the truth! God bless , just a humble servant in S.C. Ronnie

Anonymous said...

Cameron . this is getting very semantic. I'd love if you could critique the god delusion by richard dawkins. He and other scholars contend that the bible is totally made up and not a good basis for modern life. Therefore all your arguments are based on fairy tales and falsehoods. How about you prove that the bible is fact first before you start saying other people aren't "holy enough" ??