“Purpose-Driven Catechism”

Is The Purpose Driven Life the Evangelical Catechism?


David Drury & John Drury



When everyday people today hear the word “Catechism” far too many grow confused looks on their faces as they recall musty mainline ministers droning about theology.  Some may think of Catholic school nuns rapping their knuckles with rulers for getting out of line.  Some parents feel it is the right thing to do to put their kids through a catechism class, but know that it will not be a significant experience because it certainly wasn’t for them.  Nearly all people think of something that is very, very old, and written by dead men who never played videogames or talked on cell phones, so how relevant would it be for today?


Compare that reputation with that of the book The Purpose Driven Life.  The overwhelming popularity of Rick Warren’s book and its Church Campaign-in-a-box counterpart “40 Days of Purpose” have caught like wildfire across the church.  As of July 4th, 2004, the book had already spent 75 weeks at the top of the New York Times Bestselling List in the Hardcover Advice Text Box:  
“We suggest that The Purpose Driven Life is a functional attempt to catechize the Evangelical Church.”

category.  More than 12,000 churches from all 50 states and 19 countries have now participated in 40 Days of Purpose. On average those churches have grown my 20% and doubled their number of small groups.  And most churches engaging the campaign are aligning their entire ministries around the book.  Three-year old kids are learning about the 4th purpose on the 4th week (It’s Serving, by the way) at the same time that their older brother’s and sisters are hearing about it (albeit in youth events translated into their style and language) at the same time that their parents are discussing that week of chapters on Serving with their small group!  In most of these churches the whole family is engaging with the principles.  While there are certainly many nay-sayers responding to the success of Rick Warren’s book, they are often responding to just that: its success and near-universal acceptance among Evangelicals.  That itself is proof of the phenomenon.


So why put these two reputations side-by-side?  What does the Purpose Driven Life have to do with Catechism?  We suggest that The Purpose Driven Life is a functional attempt to catechize the Evangelical Church.  Rick Warren and his followers might not see it that way – but it’s playing out that way.  Think about it.  A traditional catechism tries to summarize clearly and in a learnable manner what the church believes to be true at a given time in history.  Despite doctrinal differences, every catechism from Heidelberg to Westminster tries to accomplish this goal.  The Purpose Driven Life phenomenon is a valiant attempt to pull off the same thing.  Here’s why:



For years people have bemoaned the fact that evangelicals seem to be less and less educated about the Bible.  Warren’s hyper-practical interwoven Bible verse style of writing has immersed Christians in a parade of scriptures like few books before it. Just like the great catechisms of the past, the Purpose Driven Life seeks to increase the biblical literacy of the Christian masses.



Rather, Warren’s book lays out a type of evangelical theology for life, how do define and display our relationship with God, his people, and his purpose for our future.  It merely uses scripture (much like all catechisms) to illustrate a presupposition about life: the evangelical one.  As so many catechisms do, the Purpose Driven Life presents a practical theology through which Christians read, understand, and apply the Bible.



Few evangelicals have found much to argue with in the Purpose Driven Life.  Most people praise how basic it all is.  He’s just laid out the stuff most every evangelical pastor has been trying to get the people to get for years.  Now they’re getting it.  Rather than a controversial edgy epistle that pushes our buttons, Warren’s Text Box: “Like every catechism, The Purpose Driven Life will one day become a mere snapshot of a passing phase… scholars will study it as a prime specimen for historical research on late modern Evangelicalism in America”

work gives us a slow spiritual back rub – working out the kinks that so many church people are knotted up over.  So just like the great catechisms of the past, it is not one person’s idiosyncratic take on the Christian faith, but rather an expression of a larger Christian community’s basic belief system.



It’s intergenerational – and thus catches up the adults on things they didn’t learn for all these years without an evangelical catechism.  Since most adult evangelicals can’t tell you very clearly what they believe, this alone has been the revolutionary effect of the movement.  Once 80% or more of your church reads the same book and discusses it in small groups that becomes what they all believe by default in the lack of other basic belief teaching (read: catechism).  It’s hard to find a church where the lasting effect of the campaign hasn’t been a laity who speaks in “purpose driven language.So, akin to other significant catechisms, the Purpose Driven Life results in a particular lingo which becomes the identity marker for a particular Christian community.



It’s structured around 5 core principles called purposes.  They don’t add up to a flower acronym, but the five purposes of Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, Mission have a definite structure and systematized flow to them.  It’s hard to find any Saddleback message, material or ministry without the 5 purposes somehow intertwined in the ideas.  These principles have truly become purposes to them and the churches they influence.  With any Catechism, this should happen – people are truly indoctrinated.  Indoctrinization is simply the process of instilling doctrine in people—getting doctrine “in” them, literally.  Perhaps The Purpose Driven Life is doctrine now: irrefutable beliefs of most Evangelical Christians.  So following the pattern of previous catechisms, Saddleback’s five purposes provide an easy-to-learn doctrinal short hand.



We’re pretty sure that had Rick Warren, Saddleback and Zondervan promoted “The 40 Days of Catechism” that it would have tanked with an evangelical mainstream whose prevailing value is cultural relevance.  But in effect that’s what it has become for many evangelicals.  And it’s a good thing.  It’s about time a wave of focus on the things that matter most swept across our churches.  So often our evangelical currents flow to the fringe.  Although the Purpose Driven Life as a catechism does functionally draw a line between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, within the evangelical community it primarily unifies rather than divides.  At the least it gives evangelicals a starting point from which to continue clarifying our communal identity and purpose.  Perhaps the purpose God had in mind with this tidal wave is even greater than the five we’ve memorized.


But before you consider Warren’s tome the last word, consider this last point:  Just like every catechism from the past, The Purpose Driven Life will one day become a mere snapshot of a passing phase in a particular Christian community's life.  Some day scholars will study it as a prime specimen for historical research on late modern Evangelicalism in America.  Sooner or later, the Purpose Driven Life will no longer look like a compendium of simple, timeless truths, but rather will exhibit how time-bound its "truths" really were.  On that day, it will lose its formative function, and folks will pine for the days when "the church was steeped in doctrine during the 40 Days of Purpose age and not just swayed by shallow fads."  Then it will be high time for another crop of Christians to write the new catechism to replace "that dusty old Purpose-Driven Doctrine."  But don’t worry, that’s just what your grandkids will think.  Use it now before the next generation tosses it out.





John Drury is a young theologian who lives in Princeton, New Jersey with his young bride, Amanda.  A recent Master of Divinity graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, he combines a passion for historical theology and practical ecclesiology and has presented papers to The Wesleyan Theological Society.  He anticipates continuing into doctoral studies in 2005.  John also plays a mean lead guitar for the indie-rock band “Theory of Racquetball.”  Many of his other writings can be found at www.drurywriting.com/john.  His brother got all the good looks in the family.


David Drury is a pastor & writer living in Spring Lake, Michigan with his best friends: Kathryn, Maxim & Karina where they build sandcastles in the summer and watch football in the winter (which is twice as long there).  Prior to planting a two new church plants and serving at Spring Lake Wesleyan Church, he studied theology in Boston and holds degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Indiana Wesleyan University.  Many of his other writings can be found at www.drurywriting.com/david.  His brother got all the brains in the family.




*This is a pre-publication edition of this article-in-process.  If you have suggestions or comments on this article please e-mail the writers at daviddrury@pastors.com or johnldrury@yahoo.com