Rick Warren: Demographics

Rick Warren from his interview at CT:

More resources are expended on evangelism in America than in almost any other nation. Yet surveys say the country is becoming less Christian. What’s your take?

Cultural Christianity is dying. Genuine Christianity is not. The number of cultural Christians is going down because they never really were Christian in the first place. They don’t have to pretend by going to church anymore.

I don’t trust all the surveys out there. Newsweek did a cover on the decline of Christian America based on a Pew survey that said the number of Protestants has dropped precipitously. That’s an old term. It’s like saying I’m a Pilgrim. Nobody calls themselves a Pilgrim or a Puritan anymore. So the number of Pilgrims and the number of Puritans have dropped precipitously in America! That’s a straw man.

Of course Protestantism has dropped. The only people who might still call themselves Protestants are the liberal Protestant churches—the ones that have died the most.

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  • Not to blow my own horn, but this is EXACTLY what I was trying to confront in my blog post from Friday. The notion that the polls don’t reflect reality, that Protestant only refers to liberals, or that Genuine Christianity is growing is all a matter of inside-baseball talk. What is really happening is that Christianity cannot be defined culturally. People are starved for authentic statements of faith that are both meaningful to people’s lives and capable of being expressed in contemporary society. The tremendous growth in unaffiliated young people is less an expression of their waywardness as their discomfort with the trappings of the contemporary church. Talk about straw men! Evangelicalism must get beyond its self-assurance if it is to remain relevant to the coming generation.

  • Michael

    “If there was an easier way you better believe Jesus would have been the first one to tell you.”
    Dallas Willard

  • Ryan

    I am not sure what he means by “cultural Christianity”. It seems to me that American cultural Christianity is exactly what Warren has built. It would be helpful to understand his definition of this.

  • Ron

    There is “civil religion” and “church religion”. I think “civil religion” still seems to be strong; “church religion” is struggling. I agree that many who are dropping out of the church were there for whatever reasons but were not disciples of Jesus. I actually welcome the self-weeding that is happening. It is discouraging to go to churches and see pews filled with folks who are “doing their religious duty” with little fervor.

  • Tim

    Wow, what a hateful and arrogant article. Probably not what Jesus had in mind when he preached the virtues of a meek and gentle spirit.

  • RJS

    Personally, I think Warren seems almost clueless about the decline of Christianity in our culture. At least it doesn’t ring true for the circles I connect with.

    On the other hand, I don’t think genuine Christianity will die out … because I believe in the power of the Spirit.

    I also think Root is onto a lot more of the need and meaning of “genuine” than is Warren.

  • ktb

    To Tim:

    I read the article and am not picking up hatefulness or arrogance. Could you elaborate?

  • Tom

    I think he has his head in the sand. I also see lots of folks in most churches that don’t have an understanding of why they are there. Maybe the music is good. Maybe it is a great social time. Maybe it makes them feel better. But ask them about what they really believe, and they don’t have much of an answer. Ask most Christians in church what the Trinity means, and they have no idea. I had a friend from a Baptist church tell me she was a southerner first and then a Christian. Very sad. I don’t think my experience is unusual.

  • Dean

    I appreciate Rick Warren but do not agree that genuine Christianity in the U.S. is not declining. The Spirit has been moving on to other areas, increasingly in the southern hemisphere. Both liberal and conservative people of Christian persuasion in the U.S. have “hooked up” with both government and the financial sectors to the extent that the message of the cross and the gospel are no longer clearly apparent.

  • Douglas C Pierce

    Numbers are clearly down. My fear is that rather than asking why? We will rationalize that we are the righteous remnant and our failure is a good thing.

  • Tim

    ktb @ 7,

    We all know the problems the more Mainline branches of Protestant Christianity have been having in this modern age. There are a number of reasons for this. Biblical Criticism, Biblical Archeology, and Evolution (as well as psychology/sociology, modern ideals of fairness, tolerance, etc.) have all challenged traditional notions of Scripture, and various faith groups have coped with this in their own ways. Evangelical Fundamentalism copes through largely sectarian means – adopting a siege mentality and a parallel culture where contradictory claims are castigated and dismissed. Most Mainline denominations have taken a more open and engaged approach, but have had some difficulty in settling on an understanding and interpretation of Scripture that matches Evangelical Fundamentalism in providing a safe and sure foundation that is as effective in managing doubts and unanswered questions. So there has been a greater loss in the flock among these more “liberal” Christian denominations.

    But Rick Waren doesn’t see it quite this way. He decides to see those who have wrestled with doubts, unanswered (or unsatisfactorily answered) questions as having “never really (been) Christian in the first place.” This is a morally condescending view of the sincere faiths, and faith struggles, of fellow human beings. Rick clearly draws the connection between “liberal” denominations and those who are not and never were “real Christains”, impugning broad swaths of Christianity as merely “Cultural Christians.” How self-righteous and arrogant is this? Who appointed Rick Waren God’s mouthpiece to pontificate as who’s names are missing from the Book of Life among those who claim to be his brethren in Christ? How is this Christian, in any way? Rick may claim to have a high view of Scripture and faith, but self-righteousness is not a fruit of the Spirit. If he thinks his faith is in any way more authentic and “real” than those he dismisses as “Cultural Christians”, not only may he be mistaken, but he runs the risk of having it in reverse.

  • Holly

    Wow. I loved that. What a great article. Hateful and arrogant? Hardly. Warren has a way of speaking simply, but he has some brilliant (and workable) strategies. He’s actually (gasp!) been DOING something with his life – evangelically, that is, while the majority of us complain that it’s the wrong way or that it won’t work.

    Is his view of demographics wrong? I don’t know. He certainly has more experience with a broader swath of people than many others do. In general, I think that geography and location (our career) greatly influences our perception. If my job is in academia and I live in a city and I attend a mainline church – I may see that Christianity is on the decline in the US. If I attend a lively evangelical church and live in a smaller city and work a blue-collar job – I may perceive active faith as alive, well, and growing.

    Regardless, kudos to Rick Warren for bold moves and a single-minded focus on the Gospel (Soterian or not….) I’ve not followed him much, but it doesn’t sound like he spends much time navel-gazing nor worrying what others think about him.

  • RJS


    To an extent it is a matter of location – and I really have no experience with Warren’s church, only things I’ve read. His book has had an impact.

    But I do think that the problem isn’t so much mainline vs evangelical – it is life committed deeply attached and involved vs a detached “cultural” consumer gathering.

    An evangelical church can preach a good gospel message (whether soterian or not) – but as it encourages church involvement to be a one hour a week show with childcare plus small groups it will shape and form people to be loosely connected to a church that is really unimportant in their lives (however big, flashy, and popular the show). I think this makes Christianity cultural and we will reap the consequences in the future.

    A genuine family of Christians is painfully hard to walk away from. (See Root)

    I expect that an (evangelical) individualistic consumer show will be as easy to leave behind as the “liberal” Christianity Warren describes. I predict that we will see this fruit down the road.

  • Paul

    I’d be curious if our location in the country would affect our interpretation of Warren’s ideas. Living in the south, it’s easy to see a “cultural Christianity” still at work in many areas…although it is clearly not as strong as it used to be.

  • Alan K

    Is it just me and my read of the article, or does Warren understand the power of God as demonstrated via mission organizing and planning that borders on colonialism?

  • Glenn

    Warren’s church has actually been at the forefront of a deeper and more experienced based faith through it’s ground breaking Celebrate Recovery program. CR is rooted in a mentor based and confessional Christianity. So I would challenge both Ryan and RJS’s statements. I would think Warren has a pretty good grasp on the issues based on the countless testimonies I have heard from Saddleback’s own members, many who testify to having once been cultural Christians.

  • Jim Rolf

    Tim (#11),

    I think Warren is simply critiquing cultural Christianity- Christianity that is adopted simply because of culture and not out of any sort of personal relationship, decisions, etc. This certainly suggests that a cultural Christian has probably never been a Christian in the sense that you and I would think about it. I am quite sure Warren is critical of conservative cultural Christianity as well as more liberal versions. And, as you have pointed out, there has been a great decline in liberal versions of Christianity.

    But it’s a great leap on your part to claim Warren sees “those who have wrestled with doubts, unanswered (or unsatisfactorily answered) questions as having “never really (been) Christian in the first place.” ”

    He says nothing of the sort. These are your words, not his.

    I think you are reading far too much into his legitimate critique of Christianity and my guess is you probably agree far more with him than you realize.

    At the end of the day, I simply don’t see the hate/arrogance but a reasonable critique.

  • Matthew D

    “You *shall* love–this, then, is the word of the *royal law*. And truly, my reader, if you are capable of forming a conception of the conditions in the world before these words were spoken, or if you strive to understand yourself and give heed to the lives and dispositions of those who, although they call themselves Christians, really live within pagan concepts–then in relation to this Christian imperative, as in relation to everything Christian, you will humbly confess with the wonder of faith that such a command did not spring up in any human heart. Now after it has been commanded throughout Christianity’s eighteen centuries and previously in Judaism; now when everyone is instructed in this and, spiritually understood, is like someone brought up in his parents’ comfortable house and almost made to forget that daily bread is a gift; now when by those brought up in it Christianity is slighted in favour of all kinds of novelties, as when good food is slighted in favour of confections by someone who has never been hungry; now when Christianity is presupposed, presupposed as known by all, as given, and is alluded to–in order to proceed further–now this law of love is repeated by everyone as a matter of course, and yet how seldom, perhaps, is it observed! How seldom, perhaps, does a Christian earnestly and gratefully ponder with comprehension what his condition would have been if Christianity had not come into the world! What courage it takes to say for the first time, ‘You *shall* love,’ or, more correctly, what divine authority it takes to turn natural man’s conceptions and ideas upside-down with this phrase! For there at the boundary where human speech halts and courage forsakes one, there revelation breaks forth with divine creativeness and proclaims what is not difficult to understand in the sense of profundity or human parallels, but which still did not rise up in any human heart. It really is not difficult to understand, provided it has been expressed; indeed, it wants only to be understood in order to be practised–but it did not arise in any man’s heart.”

    “But human ungratefulness–what else has such a short memory! Because the highest good is now offered to everyone, men take it as nothing, discern nothing in it, to say nothing of becoming personally aware of its extraordinary quality, just as if the highest good had lost something because every man has or have have the same.–If a family possesses some costly treasure of historical significance, generation after generation the parents tell the children, and the children their children again, how it all happened. Because Christianity for so many centuries now has become the possession of the whole generation, shall all telling of the eternal change which takes place in the world through Christianity therefore cease? Is not every generation just as close, that is, just as duty-bound to make this clear to itself? Is the change less significant because it is now eighteen centuries later? Has it also become less significant that there is a God because for many centuries there have lived generations who believed on him? Has it therefore become less significant for me–whether or not I believe?” — Søren Kierkegaard, “Works of Love”

  • Chris Oakes

    Tom (#8)-
    So, one’s ability to explain the Trinity (which is considered a mystery anyway, right?) is a litmus test for how Christian one is? Please reference any Scriptures in which believers – Christians – were required to explain the Trinity as evidence of their faith.

    Perhaps you have inadvertently stumbled onto a reason for a decline in Christianity in the West – you expect post-biblical doctrinal teachings to be expounded upon, rather than love and grace and justice to be lived out in community.

  • Holly

    RJS, I understand what you are saying. But numerically, mainline churches are declining while specific evangelical groups are growing (even though they have been declared dead in some venues.) That’s why I said what I said. I’ve been a member of both! I’ve viewed it from both sides, and my perspective changes with wherever I am. I think that’s human – that’s all I’m saying.

    The only counter I would make is that a church which sends forth something like 14,000 foreign mission workers, one that articulates peace and actively works to achieve that peace, one which is deeply concerned with real and actual help for recovery and changed lives can not possibly be considered culturally christian (or flashy, or consumeristic) only. There has to be something real there. What will the fruit of Rick Warren’s 40 year ministry at Saddleback be? Probably some really great things.

  • RJS


    I have no doubt that Warren’s ministry has born real fruit. I read and liked “The Purpose Driven Life” and the book itself has certainly born fruit. But I don’t think that is really the question here.

  • Tim

    Jim Rolf (#17),

    I should have been more clear. What I was getting at was the issue of multitudes of Christians having lost their faith – often for reasons of sincere questions remaining unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered. This is of course a far greater problem among Mainline denominations where such questions are not explicitly discouraged or dismissed outright. Followers of Evangelical Fundamentalist faiths tend not to experience these issues so much, unless they find themselves in the unfortunate and unenviable position of pursuing a life/earth science, attending a non-fundamentalist seminary, or engaging in any other pursuit or circumstance that breaks them out of their ideological cocoon. What I see Rick Warren doing is drawing a link between these Mainline denominations who are suffering some losses attributable to, in no small degree, genuine intellectual honesty and questioning, and an insincere version of “Cultural Christianity.” Thus denigrating the faith walks and integrety of so many previous followers, and impuning the faiths of those who remain in those same communities. Would you dispute that Rick is making this connection?

  • Warren is not *walking humbly with God* when he delineates his church as *genuine* v. *cultural*. That’s the crux of the problem here — binary thinking. Yes, his point about “cultural Christianity* v. “genuine Christianity” is valid to a degree. But many could take issue with his particular implementation of Christianity as being more moralistic therapeutic deism than *genuine* Christocentric praxis.

    This certainty that his is the true Christian walk while others are poseurs is off-putting.

  • Jim Rolf


    I really think Warren is critiquing cultural Christianity in all forms. Certainly it’s reasonable to infer from his statements that he believes there are plenty of cultural Christians in mainline denominations. But I also think he is critiquing the cultural Christianity that exists in the south (where I am from) and other more conservative parts of the country as well.

    You keep mentioning a dichotomy between liberals and fundamentalists. Warren is no fundamentalist. And as such, I think he embraces the importance of asking deep, substantive questions and intellectual honesty.

    So to answer your question- yes, I do dispute that he’s making this connection. I just don’t see it. And as I mentioned earlier, I think you and he probably have more in common on this front than you think.

    By the way, I’m interested in your thesis that mainline denominations have lost a lot of membership due to this questioning and inability to provide meaningful answers. This is not a line of thought that I’m familiar with regarding the decline of mainline denominations. Can you point me towards some things where I can read further?


  • Why don’t evangelicals, post-evangelicals, and other assorted heirs to the Protestant tradition self-identify as Protestants? By any reaosnable definition they are.

  • Tim

    Jim Rolf (#24),

    I’m trying to square, “I really think Warren is critiquing cultural Christianity in all forms. Certainly it’s reasonable to infer from his statements that he believes there are plenty of cultural Christians in mainline denominations. But I also think he is critiquing the cultural Christianity that exists in…more conservative parts of the country as well.”

    with this:

    “Cultural Christianity is dying. Genuine Christianity is not….a Pew survey said the number of Protestants has dropped precipitously. That’s an old term. It’s like saying I’m a Pilgrim. Nobody calls themselves a Pilgrim or a Puritan anymore…That’s a straw man…Of course Protestantism has dropped. The only people who might still call themselves Protestants are the liberal Protestant churches—the ones that have died the most.”

    Rick Warren is calling out specifically the “liberal Protestant Churches” as those who have “died the most”, and linking it directly with “dying” Cultural Christianity. I see no even-handed treatment here.

    As far as reasons for deconversion, I’m drawing on the commonly cited reasons among those that do apostatize from their faiths as expressed in public forums. I have no particular scientific study in mind, though the devastating effects of cognitive dissonance are well known. But I never thought that unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered questions as an instigator for a deterioration of one’s religious worldview and thereby catalyst for loss of faith was ever that contentious or controversial. But who knows. Nevertheless, for a couple “case studies” on what this can look like, you could peruse these two gentleman’s YouTube channels where they quite intimately recount their journey’s away from the faith: http://www.youtube.com/user/Evid3nc3 ; http://www.youtube.com/user/Prplfox

  • Holly

    RJS – didn’t you bring up “fruit?” That’s what I was responding to. I am sorry if I misunderstood…not trying to cause discord!

    You wrote:

    “I expect that an (evangelical) individualistic consumer show will be as easy to leave behind as the “liberal” Christianity Warren describes. I predict that we will see this fruit down the road.”

    I thought the post was about demographics and Rick Warren’s interpretation of them, and how did we see that ourselves? That is what I was responding to….I think we interpret things like demographics, statistics and studies subjectively, based upon our societal status, employment, geography and local church engagement.

    I’m in a mainline at this point – and stateside it is easy to feel discouraged numerically. Droppin’ like flies. If I were in the global south, I’d likely be feeling pretty positive about the same mainline, because this same church is growing like crazy there.

    Personally, I didn’t like “The Purpose Driven Life.” I thought it stated the obvious. However – many people in this comment box are criticizing Rick Warren and belittling him, saying he is a cultural Christian only. I don’t think that’s fair, and I don’t think it is engaging his work accurately.

    That’s all. 🙂

  • RJS


    My original comment was in the context of a deep sense of connection and belonging. I think that there is a trend in 21st century US evangelicalism to lose this deep sense of connection with the church.

    Scot linked an article awhile back (Has Militant Atheism Become a Religion) where Frans De Waal made some observations about walking away from Christian faith. One of his observations “If religion has little grip on one’s life, apostasy is no big deal and there will be few lingering effects.” He contrasted his catholic upbringing with the reformed church in the Netherlands.

    Frankly I think it is possible for a church to both exhibit real fruit of the Spirit today and to be laying the ground work for future “fruit” of a less desirable sort. This is why I was pointing to Root and his emphasis on relational. (Of course it has to be healthy relationship – some churches value relationship, but in a less than healthy manner. This also will lay the ground work for “fruit” of a less desirable sort.)

    There is a tendency in our church to equate large with success – and I don’t think this is the right connection. A church of 25000 is no more successful than a church of 500. Faith, connection, and belonging doesn’t really happen by the 25000’s.

    So Warren looks at “big” and sees “success” (or at least so it seems) – and I think this is the wrong connection.

  • Steve Sherwood

    They bind up your wounds as if they were nothing…they say ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.

    I think Warren is whistling in the dark here.

  • Holly

    Okay. Thanks! 🙂