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Change Dividing Southern Baptist Mega-Church

Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven” church model is being blamed in a developing split in one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s most prominent churches.

Two weeks ago the Wall Street Journal carried a front-page story saying Warren’s church-growth methods–which include replacing hymns, choirs and pews with rock-style praise bands and laid-back sermons–were dividing the country’s 50 million evangelicals.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Baptist Press defended Warren, a Southern Baptist, by implying the Journal story made a mountain out of a molehill.
 
“The 2,200-word story cites four congregations where upheaval occurred from a move toward the principles espoused by Warren, pastor of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />SaddlebackChurch in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of the best-seller Purpose-Driven Life,” wrote a BP staff writer. “The story, however, does not relay any estimates of the extent of problems nationwide stemming from Warren’s Purpose-Driven methods.”
 
But a Web site nearing 60,000 visitors criticizes several changes at the 30,000-member BellevueBaptistChurch near Memphis, Tenn., since last year’s retirement and subsequent death of its legendary pastor, Adrian Rogers.
 
One of the largest churches in the Mid-South, Bellevue has been led by just four pastors in the last 79 years: R.G. Lee, 1927-1960; Ramsey Pollard, 1960-72; Rogers, 1972-2005; and since last September, Steve Gaines, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Gardendale, Ala.
 
Gaines’ honeymoon is apparently over for some long-time church members, who criticize what they view as excessive salaries, moving away from congregational leadership toward an elder-led system and unpopular staff changes, including forcing out and replacing a long-term music director.
 
They also criticize Gaines’ leadership style, claiming he is arrogant, uses intimidation and pressed forward with changes instead of giving the church time to grieve following their beloved emeritus pastor’s death from cancer in November 2005.
 
Gaines denied in the MemphisCommercial-Appeal the church is departing from its Southern Baptist roots or is part of the church-growth movement, but acknowledged that some had criticized the blending of contemporary and traditional church music in worship.
 
The “Saving Bellevue” Web site, however, includes articles seeking assurances the new pastor isn’t trying to move the church toward “Warrenism” and quotations from Warren’s “Ministry Toolbox” playbook on transitioning a traditional church to a Purpose-Driven model.
 
“Not only do we need to take a stand for our church, but we–EVERY BLOOD BOUGHT CHRISTIAN–needs to take a stand against this Rick Warren Revolution!” wrote one commenter in a blog section.
 
“I have been a member of Bellevue since 1952, when I was 17 years old,” wrote another. “I have been in the choir since 1960. Every time my mail comes I look for the letter telling me that I am no longer needed in the choir, that I am too old. I do not clap and stomp. I do not wave my hands.”
 
Other grievances include a story about Gaines sending staff to discourage a particular long-time church member from saying “Amen,” during worship services. One version of the story says Gaines issued the order after hearing in a dream the man was under demonic influence and needed to be silenced before the next Sunday. Gaines denies the dream ever happened, claiming the “Amens” were a distraction and hurting his concentration.
 
Other rumors are that Gaines negotiated a salary twice the size of his predecessor, one figure tossed around was $500,000. Gaines and others said the church doesn’t disclose salaries, but his isn’t nearly that high. Questions about hiring, firing and staff compensation allegedly went unanswered, and church members were refused copies of the church bylaws.
 
One former deacon and long-time member gave an on-line interview describing how, after asking questions about compensation and other administrative matters, four uninvited visitors, including Gaines, came to his home in a gated community, climbing over a fence marked with a no-trespassing sign.
 
The four men said the visit was an attempt to seek reconciliation, but the homeowner, Mark Sharpe, who wasn’t at home when it occurred, viewed it as intimidation.
 
He said Gaines called him after 11:00 one evening and told him he was “Hezbollah” and personally sending people to hell by his actions.
 
“I informed him that I didn’t have the power to send anyone to hell,” Sharpe said. “I have to admit, I was shaken by the words I heard my pastor speak to me. I was shaken to the bone but reminded that these were not the actions of a pastor.”
 
Gaines said the Web site contains “insinuations and downright falsifications,” and he believes it is creating confusion in the church.
 
The Sept. 5 Wall Street Journal story detailed criticisms of “Purpose-Driven” attempts to attract non-believers with lively worship services, practical sermons and chances to volunteer. Critics question the use of secular marketing methods and simplistic Bible study.
 
Among churches split after adopting Warren’s techniques, the story said, is Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, the former church of failed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers.
 
Ron Key, the church’s senior minister, was demoted and later fired for criticizing the “Madison Avenue” approach advocated by Warren. Key and about 200 other members began worshipping in a hotel and later a college gym. Miers reportedly attends when she is in town.
 
Key’s replacement at Valley View was Barry McCarty, longtime parliamentarian for the Southern Baptist Convention.
 
“Our church used the five purposes from the Purpose-Drive Life as the outline for our strategic plan, because they are the purposes for the church that are revealed in Scripture,” McCarty told Baptist Press. “It ought to be noted that Rick Warren did not invent these five purposes” [worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism]. “He simply popularized them.”
 
“Rick got these five purposes from the Bible,” McCarty said. “Rick’s heart is the same place that our hearts are: We want to do what God has assigned us to do as individuals and as a church.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Suggested resource for group discussion:
Looking at Leadership