It might sicken you to find out that for the past 23 years, one of the most popular church-planting books and methods teaches its adherents to plan, design and market churches toward uber-rich men. It's no wonder so many millennials are fed-up with organized religion. It's no surprise that we have problems with the way women have been treated. And of course, since most of those wealthy men being catered to are white, the church has a problem relating to minorities. Generations of church members have been lost since these techniques came into use 38 years ago with the founding of Saddleback Church in California.
In this post, I will address what the Bible says about showing preference to the rich. I will also discuss the various problems this approach has caused and the ruin it has brought to churches.
In his book, The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren includes a chapter called "Who is your target?" After carefully researching the area where he wanted to plant a church and going door to door meeting people, he describes the "average" man living in the Saddleback Valley in this way "He's either a professional, a manager, or a successful entrepreneur. "Sam" is among the Most Affluent of Americans..." (Emphasis added) Here is a picture of Sam:
In his defense, Rick Warren did not suggest that all church planters everywhere should cater to Sam or to rich people, because all communities are different. He was very successful in building a rapidly growing church and he has done good and admirable things, especially sending missionaries all over the world. He is a faithful brother, but because of his success, many others have followed his example and have taken this one part of the book to an unhealthy extreme. Here is an example of a pastor from a church where I was involved for 5 1/2 years, where I have dear friends and love some of the pastors, but have also seen the problems this causes. This is a video of Bobby Bogard, who was a Senior Pastor at Gateway Church when this video was made, practically quoting from page 169 of Warren's book:
We're always asking ourselves who's our target? Who's our bullseye? ...our bullseye is the business professionals...I'm talking about people with influence and large capacities of wealth.
He speaks very clearly about ministering to people from all backgrounds and walks of life and Gateway does. But according to Mr. Bogard, rich and influential people get the most attention and are clearly the first priority. It's true that the church is in Southlake, which is an extremely wealthy community, but the congregation of the church comes from all around the area and represents a wide variety of people.
There is no difference between what these men are doing and a first century church sucking up to wealthy and powerful Sadducees or influential Pharisees. These people had completely corrupted the Jewish religious system and, along with Herod, used the temple to gain profit and power. They enjoyed extravagant clothing and sumptuous meals payed for with money that should have been used to help widows and orphans. Here is what the Bible says about catering to the rich and powerful:
God is not partial to princes and does not favor the rich over the poor, for they are all the work of His hands. -Job 34:19
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God, showing no partiality and accepting no bribe. -Deuteronomy 10:17
And now, may the fear of the LORD be upon you. Be careful what you do, for with the LORD our God there is no injustice, partiality, or bribery -2 Chronicles 19:7
You must not pervert justice; you must not show partiality to the poor OR favoritism to the rich; you are to judge your neighbor fairly. -Leviticus 19:15
James, the brother of Jesus, directly addresses the issue of favoring the rich at church, writing:
My brothers and sisters, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor person dressed in filthy clothes also comes in, if you look with favor on the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Sit here in a good place," and yet you say to the poor person, "Stand over there," or "Sit here on the floor by my footstool," haven't you made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen my dear brothers and sisters: Didn't God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom that he has promised to those who love Him? Yet you have dishonored the poor. Don't the rich oppress you and drag you into court? Don't they blaspheme the good name that was invoked over you? Indeed, if you fulfill the royal law prescribed in Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. If, however, you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors...
Any situation in a Christian institution where a person is given influence, attention, position or preferential treatment because of their wealth or power is a sin.
In his book, Warren also mentions Dallas Doug, Memphis Mike and Atlanta Al. Obviously, these cities are home to people from a tremendous variety of socio-economic backgrounds, careers, cultures and all sorts of variables. These mythical men aren't even stereotypes, they are just made up fiction. Some have used the idea of Saddleback Sam as an elaborate excuse to favor and cater to rich businessmen in the church. Why? Their money makes it easy to grow a church rapidly. Some of these so-called Mega-Metro pastors have misapplied Warren's techniques to make themselves rich and famous for their fast church growth and used that success to sell books, gain influence and collect speaking fees. Even if a person does not seek personal financial gain, while it might be easy to justify using that money for ministry purposes, that is no excuse for showing preference.
Here are some of the key problems with Saddleback Sam:
1. Sam Does Not Like Small Groups
Because Saddleback does not have Sunday School, many churches have stopped as well. We have raised a generation that is biblically illiterate and easily led astray by smooth talking, charismatic personalities who don't know the Bible. Deep spiritual growth takes place in small groups where everyone has a voice, everyone has an opportunity to teach and everyone is part of the discussion.
2. Sam Doesn't Have Time
The current trend is to shorten services to an hour or less. Drive-Thru church doesn't allow time for worship and meaningful fellowship. Short services might be favored by business men who think they are too "busy," but I have personally endured the frustration of shortened worship times, chopped worship sets and a rush-through approach to church. Fortunately, my current church, NRHBC, takes time to do things right. Church is a chance to slow down, connect with other believers, and worship God. It takes a little over two and a half hours to attend both a Sunday Service and a Bible study class and it is wonderful. Whether participating in one or both, we have time to stop, fellowship and enjoy life together.
3. Sam Likes Practical, Topical Teaching
I enjoy good systematic teaching when a topic is given a thorough, Biblical examination. But most topical preaching is merely a 3 point Ted-style talk which includes just a few Bible verses, ripped from context to back up the speaker's point and/or agenda. This type of teaching does not foster spiritual growth or Biblical understanding and it is almost never Gospel-Centered. Biblical preaching and teaching explains the meaning and nuance of a text and always points to salvation through Jesus Christ.
4. Sam Likes Contemporary Music
This one point has caused what have been termed the "Worship Wars." Many churches now have separate services for older members--what a travesty. Music has become a gimmick that is used to get people into the seats. That absolutely wrong and shameful. Church music should not be contemporary or traditional, pop or classical, country or rock and roll. It should be beautiful and skillful. Lyrics should be deep in meaning, rich in content and high in melodic quality. Voices and instruments should be used in a way that brings God the highest glory and helps people to connect with Him through worship. When the conversation is about "style," worship is corrupted.
When donors are given special access and influence because of their money, or when they determine how that money is to be spent, everything is corrupted. People often donate for pet projects, but not for the things the school actually needs. It is wildly inappropriate for donors to have influence over hiring, firing and other personnel decisions.
When wealthy and influential people are allowed to make decisions about the direction of churches and religious institutions, The Bible, the Gospel, and Ministry can sometimes take a back seat to business acumen or personal agendas. Even within the practice of good stewardship, the guidance of the Holy Spirit might lead us in a very different direction than a business model or someone's personal plans.
Churches designed to cater to rich, influential men have been alienating young adults, senior adults, women, teens, children, minorities and the rest of us for far too long. We should always seek to understand the area where we are called to minister and we should seek common ground to build rapport, but Churches should never be designed to cater to a specific group or stereoptype, but rather to give an equal voice, equal input, equal authority, equal attention and build equal relationships with all people. All churches have the same target: Sinners.
For God does not show favoritism. -Romans 2:11