Size ≠ Health: My Friendly Critique of a Rick Warren Interview

rick warren interview 200I like Rick Warren. A lot.

I’ve never met him, but I’ve learned a lot from him. And we both live in Orange County, California, so we have several friends in common. They all speak very highly of his kindness, integrity and generous spirit. “Genuine” is the word they use most often.

As much as I like him, and as much as I’ve learned from him, Rick doesn’t always get it right. Neither do I, of course. But, because of Rick’s influence, when he misses the mark it can impact a lot of people.

As I point out in chapter 10 of The Grasshopper Myth, when I disagree with Rick, it’s usually based on one issue – numbers.

Rick is a numbers guy. I’m not.

Being a numbers guy is good. We need people in the church who keep track of the numbers. But numbers aren’t always the best way to judge things. Especially in the church.


The Disconnect

For today’s example, I refer you to a video I just ran across in which Justin Blaney of Innovate 4 Jesus interviews Rick Warren. It carries the hopeful and accurate title “Rick Warren: Healthy churches have pastors who stay”. You can watch it by clicking here or on the photo at the start of this post.

(By the way, the interview is great. There is a strong correlation between church health and pastoral longevity. Like I said, I’ve learned a lot from Rick Warren.)

Starting at the 30-second point, Rick says the following:

When I was in seminary I decided to do a study of “what is it that makes a church healthy?” And so I wrote to the 100 largest churches in the United States personally and just did a home study on it.

This isn’t breaking news. Rick told this story in The Purpose Driven Church. But I didn’t catch the disconnect in his method until I heard him say it again in this interview.

Did you catch it?


If You Want Health, Start With Health

Rick Warren says he wanted to find out what makes a church healthy, so he did a study on the 100 healthiest churches in America.

Oh, wait… no. That’s not what he did.

Rick wrote to the 100 largest churches, not the 100 healthiest churches.

To be fair, it’s much easier to determine the 100 largest churches. Only God knows what the 100 healthiest ones are. But Rick doesn’t give even the slightest hint that there might not be a direct, correlation between church size and church health.

Does Rick really think that the 100 largest churches are automatically the 100 healthiest? I doubt it. Is it possible there are some unhealthy churches on that list? Probably not a lot, but undoubtedly there are some.

But that disconnect is never factored in. Not by Rick, and not by most others when they do such studies.

(And I don’t have the time or space in this piece to deal with the fact that studying large American churches misses out on what makes churches healthy everywhere else. That’s an issue for another post.)

If you want to answer the question “what makes a church big?”, study the 100 biggest churches. But if your question is “what makes a church healthy?”, it doesn’t make sense to study only the 100 biggest churches. You can’t get there from here.

I understand that there might be a disproportionate representation of larger churches in such a study. After all, their size makes their healthfulness more evident and measurable. But if health really is what we’re seeking to understand, shouldn’t we be a little more discerning in the churches we choose to study?


What’s the Alternative?

Trying to find the key to church health by studying the biggest churches is like trying to discover what makes a championship team by studying teams with the highest payrolls. You’ll find enough correlation to make you think it’s working, but you’ll be missing the mark.

Instead of studying big churches to find health, how about if he’d said something like this:

“I wanted to find out what makes a church healthy, so I looked at the list of the 100 largest churches in America. To determine whether they were healthy enough for the study, I compared their doctrinal statements with biblical theology and dropped any churches that didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ or other foundational Christian beliefs. I also excluded churches whose growth was predominantly due to transfers from other churches, instead of reaching the unchurched. Finally, I excluded churches whose current pastors were using questionable fundraising tactics or other moral indiscretions.

“I applied the same standards to find healthy Small Churches, including asking people I trust to refer me to healthy Small Churches they knew about.”

Doing a study that way would take a little more work. And no method is perfect. But wouldn’t that get us a more accurate picture of what we say we’re looking for?


Want Health? Study Health

So what’s the point of this post?

I hope this hasn’t come across as a “bash Rick Warren” piece. He’s had too many of those. The body of Christ has had too many of those. I don’t want any part of that kind of divisiveness. Besides, Rick isn’t the only person who’s made the “size = health” mistake. He’s just the most visible.

I’ve made so many “size = health” mistakes, they couldn’t fit in a blog post. I had to write a whole book about them.

My point is to remind all of us, myself included, about how easy it is to fall into the “bigger is better” trap. Even when we’re talking church health, we give a disproportionate, sometimes exclusive nod to bigness.

I’d also like to encourage any church leadership students who are considering doing a similar study, to expand your research. Do the hard work of finding healthy Small Churches to study, too.

If health really matters, that’s what we need to be studying. Sure there will be a lot of big and megachurches on that list. But there should be at least a few Small Churches too, shouldn’t there?

We may even find that a healthy Small Church differs from a healthy big church in some significant ways. And, given the fact that 90% of the world’s churches are under 200 people in attendance, shouldn’t they be included if we really want to know what makes a healthy church?

Healthy churches come in all shapes and sizes. There’s something we can learn from all of them.


So what do you think? Do you know of any good studies on church health that include churches of all sizes? And from various nations?

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8 thoughts on “Size ≠ Health: My Friendly Critique of a Rick Warren Interview”

  1. Another post well said my friend, you were on fire and on point with this one, as always. Well mostly always, I don’t want you to get too over zealous now, or do I?!?

  2. Any good studies on church health which includes church of all sizes? And from various nations? Got just the thing: Natural Church Development. I was introduced to their materials 8 years ago by my pastor, particularly The 3 Colors of Ministry.

    I particularly agree with their view that every church already has, among its members, the talents and gifts necessary to develop the church in the ways God wants—it just needs to tap its existing resources instead of looking, covetously, outside itself.

    1. I agree. NCD is probably the best resource I know of for that. It’s been years since I’ve read it. I need to take a fresh look at it. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Karl, I just discovered your site and have been interested to read a few of your posts. Regarding your comments about Rick Warren, I see and appreciate your point. Additionally, the rest of what Rick says in his books and training is that healthy churches grow suggesting that it is a contradiction of terms to be small and healthy if in fact healthy organisms/organizations always grow.

    You may have spoken to this axiom in a dozen other places that I’ve not come across but would appreciate your response or pointing me to times you’ve addressed it. Thanks.

    1. Hi Scott. Welcome to the conversation.

      I share your concerns. Whenever anyone talks about being OK with being small, my antennae go up too, because I’m worried that they might be OK with settling for less, or not taking the Great Commission seriously. That is definitely NOT what I’m about.

      I agree that all healthy things grow. I address this issue most thoroughly in my book, The Grasshopper Myth. I’ve previously posted the first half of the first chapter of the book here on this website, which will give you some idea of where I’m coming from. The post is called “I Am a Small Church Pastor, and I Am Not a Failure”. Here’s the link.

      Here’s a short excerpt from that post that gives you an idea of what it’s about:

      “Yes, all healthy things grow. But growth is never as simple as older equals taller or healthy equals bigger. A pea will never be the size of a pumpkin and a rose won’t ever reach the height of a redwood no matter how much you water them, fertilize them or teach them redwood growth principles. It’s just not in their nature. All healthy, living things reach their optimal size at maturity, then they grow in different ways from that point on.

      “What if that principle applied to churches? I have come to believe it does. If the church is one body with many parts, isn’t it possible, even likely, that the body of Christ needs churches of all sizes?”

      I hope this, and the post, will help answer your question.

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