Do We Need a Data-Driven Church?

Celebrity pastor Rick Warren argues for doctrinal and disciplinal innovations based on polling data. Catholics would do well to be suspicious of following his lead.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Celebrity pastor and best-selling book author Rick Warren pleaded with the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention this past Tuesday, urging the SBC to reverse its earlier decision to expel Warren’s megachurch, Saddleback, from the largest Protestant denomination in America. “I’m not asking you to agree with my church,” Warren exhorted more than 12,700 delegates. “I am asking you to act like a Southern Baptist, who have historically agreed to disagree on dozens of doctrines in order to share a common mission.”

The SBC had removed Saddleback after Warren ordained several female pastors, a violation of the denomination’s recent statement of faith. “We’ll never fulfill the Great Commission with half the church on the bench,” Warren argued in a March podcast interview with Russell Moore. “I believe millions of Southern Baptist women’s talents and spiritual gifts are being wasted.”

Warren’s motivations in a sense seem noble: he fears that the SBC’s policies on female ordinations have greatly hindered its ability to evangelize. More broadly, he fears that Southern Baptists have allowed their faith to become too politicized, souring many unbelievers who now equate evangelicalism with the Republican Party. In a video posted earlier this month, Warren warned that Southern Baptists “have stopped making the main thing the main thing…. You won’t change the culture through laws. You’re not going to change the culture through politics.” 

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

For decades, the Southern California-based pastor has taken a different tack, employing a managerial, technocratic approach to evangelism. He leveraged population and demographic data to inform his church-planting strategy, according to a recent Washington Post profile. He read management theory to understand how effective businesses lure noncustomers. He popularized an informal homiletic style, preaching in aloha shirts and sandals. His 120-acre church, from which he recently retired, was designed by theme park experts. 

Even his best-seller The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold an incredible fifty million copies, reads like an evangelical version of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The text is divided into forty short, digestible chapters that describe five key life purposes. Warren uses fifteen different biblical translations and paraphrases, earning him criticism from biblical scholars who accuse him of selectively choosing texts that best support his theses.

Yet even Warren’s detractors would have to admit that Saddleback’s approach has been effective, at least in a utilitarian, statistical sense. When Warren spoke at the SBC’s 2022 annual meeting, he cited the remarkable numbers produced by his church: 56,000 baptisms, 27,000 overseas missionaries, 9,173 home Bible study groups, 1.1 million pastors trained. “Sorry friends, that’s more than all the seminaries put together,” he declared.

Given this method, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Warren’s views on female ordinations have changed in recent years—according to this data-driven approach to Christianity, how many more souls might be saved if women could perform baptisms and preach from the pulpit? We might double our investment! In that same interview with Moore, Warren explained that he changed his opinion on women’s role in ministry after three years of careful scriptural study. He now believes women can serve in any ecclesial role. He did, however, acknowledge that the Bible seems to offer contradictory language on the topic, and he “respects other interpretations.”

Within Protestantism that’s kind of the point. As I argue in my book The Obscurity of Scripture, even for those Protestants who sing paeans to tradition, the Protestant paradigm inevitably persuades Christians to understand themselves as the ultimate interpretive authorities of the Bible. There are low-church, anti-traditional versions, and there are high-church, tradition-loving versions; but whatever the denomination or theology, the individual Protestant is the one who must determine that which best aligns with the Bible’s plain meaning. No one but the prayerful individual Christian can make that decision.

It is because of this that in Protestantism we see some churches that ordain female pastors and others that don’t; churches that baptize babies and those that don’t; churches that consider homosexuality a sin and those that see it just as a lifestyle choice.

No man can read Rick Warren’s heart. For all we know, he really has prayerfully and carefully considered the Bible’s teaching on women’s role in church and come to the conclusion that there is no obvious biblical injunction against ordaining female pastors. To a point, I can agree with him—nowhere does the Bible explicitly say that women can’t be clergy. Certainly, there are good interpretive reasons for believing they cannot be, but those are reasons that must be logically deduced or inferred based on a careful exegesis of the biblical text combined with a consideration of other ancient, extra-biblical sources, such as the Church Fathers.

And, most saliently as Catholics, we believe women can’t be pastors because the Church, the ultimate arbiter of Scripture (and Holy Tradition, for that matter!), says so. She has the authority to say so. As St. John Paul II asserted in his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” 

Unlike Pastor Warren, we Catholics need not spend years of our lives carefully evaluating the Bible for its teaching on female ordinations—or any other doctrinal controversy. We have faith that the magisterial Church, granted a special charism by Christ Himself, performs that function for us. Unlike Pastor Warren, we Catholics need not spend years of our lives carefully evaluating the Bible for its teaching on female ordinations—or any other doctrinal controversy.Tweet This

That also, I would add, is why we Catholics should be suspicious of Warren’s data-driven arguments in favor of doctrinal or disciplinal innovation. Yes, it’s true, akin to a business, the Church is eager to grow itself and increase the numbers of people coming through the doors. But the analogy is terribly imperfect if not insulting. The Church is about souls not profits. St. Paul exhorts us to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2a). 

Sometimes our message will be popular and attractive, and other times it won’t be. Yet that message must not change. Yes, it’s medium may evolve—the remarkable achievements of Fr. Michael Schmitz and Bishop Robert Barron exemplify this. 

But we must be careful. The evisceration of the liturgy across our post-Vatican II landscape, to offer but one example, has undermined the faith of countless Catholics. The various hackneyed, disfiguring attempts to make the Mass and our parishes more “relevant” and “welcoming” have sown their terrible seeds over half a century. 

In his recent videos, Warren reminds viewers of the steep decline in SBC membership since the early 2000s. He labels the denomination’s struggles a crisis of “lost credibility and misplaced priorities.” Yet it is his entire Protestant worldview—aggravated by the peculiarities of his culturally-accommodating, data-driven method—whose priorities (and credibility) are shot.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]


Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...