March 24, 2005
The New Reformation of You
Following the recent courtroom shootings and hostage taking in Atlanta, Georgia, headlines such as "Hostage Says Book Gave Her 'Purpose'" (Baltimore Sun, March 15, 2005) trumpeted the role that Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life played in ending the hostage situation. Published in 2002, The Purpose Driven Life has sold over 10 million copies, and in the wake of the events in Georgia, it shot from number 54 to 2 on Amazon.com's best-selling books list.
Purpose has also filtered into the worship life of many mainline Christian denominations. For instance, in an article entitled "The Man with the 'Purpose,'" Deborah Caldwell claims that the "the Purpose-Driven phenomenon transcends denominations, appealing to Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and Lutherans" alike (The Lutheran, February 2005). Rick Warren, who is a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention, has said that "we are at the beginning of a New Reformation in the Christian church. That will inevitably affect everyone else" (New York Times Book Review, November 2004). But what type of reformation is at the basis of this New Reformation?
As the Lutheran article points out, The Purpose Driven Life -- rife with scriptural passages from fifteen different Bible translations -- stresses a six-week spiritual plan squarely grounded in "you": you were made for God's pleasure, for God's family, for serving God and a mission, to become like Christ. Ultimately, Warren claims, your purpose is not about you, but about God. But in the process he stresses that the means to this end is precisely you: you are what is to be reformed.
This you-groundedness of Warren's New Reformation raises at least a couple of concerns specifically for mainline denominations. For one, in stressing the need for you to find your purpose in God, the individual is placed at the center of the purpose driven life. Consequently, the needs of the larger community are marginalized. Your participation in political, social, and faith communities is secondary in the search for your own purpose in God. You are free to move from community to community in order to find your purpose. I don't object to finding purpose in God; my concern is the you-centeredness of that purpose. According to Warren, it is our individual seeking that provides the basis for finding purpose -- not participation in a community, with the joy and grief entailed by such participation.
Second, the various mainline denominations are diverse worshipping communities, each with a liturgical tradition and identity. The liturgical life of the church -- "liturgy" meaning literally the "work of the people," as in the act of worshipping God -- is the basis for participating in the life of a community of faith. This is not to suggest that service to others, Bible study, and the like are not important, just that liturgical worship is the basis for forming the religious character and identity of a Christian. Through being formed within and by liturgical practice, a Christian understands his or her acts as Christian acts. Yet Warren's focus on "you" moves the impetus of formation from how the liturgical character of a community forms you to how you seek your own reformation. Your life-journey of seeking -- rather than liturgical acts of worship to God -- is the basis for your purpose.
The popularity of The Purpose Driven Life suggests that it speaks to a spiritual hunger of many people for finding purposes in their lives. And Warren's idea of purpose can provide a basis for momentous life-style choices -- such as was seen in the relatively peaceful resolution of the recent hostage situation in Georgia. I just hope that the communal and liturgical dimensions of religious life, so important to mainline denominations, are not pushed aside in the quest for the New Reformation of "you."
Peder Jothen is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.