Rick Warren And The New Evangelism: Won't Be Fooled Again?
Bill Berkowitz printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Jul 23, 2008 at 06:45:43 PM EST
In light of Rick Warren's upcoming conversations with John McCain and Barack Obama at his Saddleback Church, and Pastordan's discussion over at Street Prophets, this post from earlier this year, is once again, timely. -- FC

The purpose driven man and his 'PEACE' mission marches forward with a goatee and Hawaiian shirt

In two recent Talk2Action posts, Richard Bartholomew and Fred Clarkson talk about Rick Warren, the popular and passionate pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., widely considered one of the more important mega-churches in the country.

While Bartholomew cites a speech Warren gave in Uganda in which he basically claimed that homosexulaity is not a human right, Clarkson raised important questions about so-called moderate evangelicals in general and Warren in particular.  

In December 2006, Warren hosted both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Sam Brownback at his annual AIDS conference. "Right wing, left wing. I'm for the whole bird," said Warren.

"You have to have two wings to fly. When I thought of all the men I knew in Congress and the Senate, and believe me there were more who wanted to come [to the conference], I thought of Sen. Obama and Sen. Brownback for three specific reasons," Warren said, citing "their integrity, their civility even when they disagree and their openness to learning and listening."

Warren appears to be close with U2's Bono, eschews being labeled part of the Christian Right, and is seen by some as a man for all seasons; perhaps even the 21st century's Billy Graham.

In March 2006, I wrote a lengthy piece about the Hawaiian short-wearing pastor who has sold millions of books and has grand plans for Africa.

Meet Rick Warren, the most prominent face of the new evangelism

You may have seen him interviewed on CNN's Larry King Show; some well-intentioned person may have given you "The Purpose Driven Life," the book that has sold well over 20 million copies; you may have noted that Time magazine named him one of "15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most in 2004," and in 2005 one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

If you wonder whether he is "all that," consider this: In 1980 he founded Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with one family and now, he is presiding over a congregation averaging between 22,000 and 25,000 weekly attendees*; he's built a 120-acre campus; and he has more than 300 community ministries to groups such as prisoners, CEOs, addicts, single parents, and people with HIV/AIDS.

According to his website, "He also leads the Purpose Driven Network of churches, a global coalition of congregations in 162 countries. More than 400,000 ministers and priests have been trained worldwide, and almost 157,000 church leaders subscribe to Ministry Toolbox, his weekly newsletter."

He has spoken at the United Nations, the World Economic Forum in Davos, the African Union, the Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, TIME's Global Health Summit, and numerous congresses around the world.

Here is what a handful of mainstream publications are saying about him (these quotes are prominently displayed at his website):

The Economist - "arguably the most influential pastor in America."
The Times (London) - " Business and political leaders across America are turning to [him] for guidance."
Forbes - "Were it a business, Saddleback Church would be compared with Dell, Google or Starbucks."
ABC News -- "The Purpose Driven Life is the epicenter of a spiritual shockwave taking root across America in unlikely places like offices and university campuses. It has become a movement."

Paul Nussbaum of Knight-Ridder News Service, recently wrote that he was "perhaps the most influential evangelical** Christian in America."

He is Rick Warren, the most prominent face of the new evangelism.

Rising above the field

In every generation, it seems as if at least one Christian preacher rises above the others and achieves special distinction. He -- and it's always a he -- has a large and faithful following, receives ample attention from the media and often even earns the admiration of non-Christians.

Who in this country hasn't heard of the Rev. Billy Graham? In a sea swarming with televangelist wannabes, prattling preachers, and made-for-media ministries, the Rev. Graham projected an honest persona. Over the course of several decades he became one of the most respected, recognized, and influential Christian leaders in the world. Not only did he fill stadiums for his crusades, he counseled a gaggle of presidents from Richard M. Nixon to Bill Clinton. And he has basked in the warm glow of a generally non-critical media.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the development and growth of the electronic media, combined with government tax and media policy, allowed all sorts of religious hucksters, entertainers, and pitch-men to occupy center stage for their 15 minutes -- and occasionally, quite a bit longer.

Some of televangelism's earliest superstars disappeared from America's living rooms due to circumstances that they created.

Despite the fact that the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart's huge and faithful following was stunned by revelations that he had an unquenchable thirst for, and curiosity about, the daily lives of prostitutes, they were nevertheless enthralled by his tear-filled televised confession.

The Rev. Jim Bakker apparently became confused over which activities satisfied God and which ones satisfied his own financial and sexual desires. Bakker bilked his large television audience out of millions of dollars, was arrested, convicted, served time and only recently has resurfaced on the airwaves, albeit in a fairly limited venue.

The Reverend Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell have successfully courted the media spotlight for several decades. While the Rev. Robertson's recent comments advocating the assassination of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's democratically elected president, and his claims that the stroke suffered by Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, was retribution by God, has made him a less-compelling figure for the mainstream media, the Rev. Falwell still manages to garner face-time on a fairly regular basis on cable television's 24/7 news networks.

In the 21st century, while ministering to a well-attended church is fine, running a mega-church is better, and while having a religious radio program might get the word out, taking advantage of a multitude of media and speaking opportunities provides many more growth opportunities.

Promoting the P.E.A.C.E. agenda
Like many Christian evangelicals/missionaries before him, Rick Warren, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, has a grand vision. However, unlike most of his predecessors, Warren has a robust array of skills and resources: He is smart, media savvy, has a well-honed business sense, is fully conscious of the power of the Internet, knows how to manage his message, and has an impressive cash flow -- according to Warren, much of the money generated by the sales of his books goes to his Acts of Mercy Foundation. Warren and his wife are also contribute to and are deeply involved in the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS.

Warren's agenda revolves around "attacking what he calls the five 'Global Goliaths': spiritual emptiness -- "[People] don't know God made them for a purpose"; egocentric leadership -- "The world is full of little Saddams. Most people cannot handle power. It goes to their heads"; extreme poverty -- "Half the world lives on less than $2 per day"; pandemic disease -- "We have billions of people dying from preventable disease. That's unconscionable"; and illiteracy/poor education -- "Half the world is functionally illiterate."

"His goal is a second Reformation by restoring responsibility in people, credibility in churches, and civility in culture."

To attack these evils, he has developed what he has called a PEACE agenda:

  • Plant new churches, or partner with existing ones.

  • Equip leaders.

  • Assist the poor.

  • Care for the sick.

  • Educate the next generation.

In a recent New York Times Magazine story on the latest efforts of American evangelicals to convert Africans to Christianity, Daniel Bergner writes that Warren declared Rwanda the world's "first purpose-driven nation." According to Bergner, "The country would be a test target for his global plan to eradicate spiritual deprivation along with physical poverty and disease and illiteracy. 'God gets the most glory when you tackle the biggest giants,' he told Christianity Today magazine."

According to Bergner, last summer Warren "sent an advance team of about 50 American evangelicals to meet with Rwandan leaders, and soon, he envisions, hundreds of short-term Saddleback missionaries will fan out across the nation, armed with kits of instruction and resources called 'church in a box' and 'school in a box' and 'clinic in a box' that will help them to rescue the country."

"The New Testament says the church is the body of Christ, but for the last 100 years, the hands and feet have been amputated, and the church has just been a mouth. And mostly, it's been known for what it's against," Warren told Paul Nussbaum of Knight Ridder News Service.

"I'm so tired of Christians being known for what they're against."

According to Nussbaum, "Warren is looking to the future by invoking the past. 'One of my goals is to take evangelicals back a century, to the 19th century. That was a time of muscular Christianity that cared about every aspect of life.'"

Warren "is able to cast the Christian story so people can hear it in fresh ways," Donald E. Miller, director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, told Nussbaum.

Besides being amongst the most influential evangelical leaders, Scott L. Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and the author of a forthcoming book on mega-churches, told Nussbaum, "one of the interesting things is that he crosses boundaries...he's not just respected by the evangelical world but by many outside that world."

Despite his conservative views -- he opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and supports the death penalty -- Warren claims that the religious right does not represent evangelicalism, and that he is not part of the religious right. With "his goatee, penchant for Hawaiian shirts and colloquial language, Warren embodies a laid-back approach to worship that resonates with Americans who have little allegiance to formal denominations or rituals," Nussbaum wrote.

His 120-acre hilltop campus, with palm trees, waterfall and meandering brook, is a kind of religious theme park, where worshippers meet in different buildings to suit their musical preferences, while watching simultaneous video feeds of Warren preaching at the main worship center.

Things have changed considerably for Warren since November 2002, when Christianity Today's Tim Stafford wrote "Warren doesn't appear on radio or TV. He rarely speaks outside his church, and avoids politics in both denomination and government."

Charting the future

In Key West, Florida in May 2005, Warren spoke to "some of the nation's leading journalists" at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's biannual Faith Angle conference on religion, politics and public life, and appraised them "of four or five trends or stories I think you need to be aware of that have come in on the scene."

The first trend ... is the return of the evangelical movement to its 19th-century roots...What are those roots? Compassionate activism... Another trend that I see is this 40 days phenomenon -- this 40 Days of Purpose, which of course I'm right in the middle of. Ten percent of the churches in America have now done 40 Days of Purpose and that's just now. We will take another 10 to 15 thousand through it this year, and on and on and on.

The third trend I think you need to be aware of is the signs of the possible spiritual awakening in America...[which] will come through two words -- small groups.

A fourth trend ... is the move -- the shift in power -- in evangelicalism from what's called para-church organizations to local churches.

Another issue that I think you need to be aware of is what I call the three great questions of the next twenty years. And I think these are questions that we're going to be facing -- they're all religious issues -- and here is what I think they are.

Number one, will Islam modernize peacefully?

Number two, will America return to its religious roots and faith? Will America return to its religious roots and faith or will it go the way of Europe and basically reject its heritage?

And number three, which is a really big one and of particular interest to me, what is going to replace the vacuum in China now that Marxism is dead? What's going to replace it? In all likelihood, it's going to be Christianity.

Then the other story that I would encourage you to look at is this evolving alliance between evangelical Protestants and Catholics, particularly in the evangelical wing of Catholicism.

And then, there was the phone call from his friend, U2's Bono!

In January of this year, Warren attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He followed that with an appearance at the president's prayer breakfast in Washington, and that was "followed by an entertainment industry conference in Los Angeles."

Last year, the sale of Bruce Springsteen's album "Devils & Dust" -- which describes an explicit encounter with a prostitute in the song 'Reno' -- was banned by Starbucks. This year, according to a Knight Ridder report, "Starbucks will print spiritual quotes from the Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-selling "The Purpose-Driven Life," on coffee cups."


* A mega-church is defined by Rick Warren "a church that averages over 2,000 in attendance .... not in members, but in attendance on a weekly basis.... In 1963 ... only 93 churches in America had more than 1,000. Today, there are over 6,000 churches that run over 1,000 in America .... there are about 750 churches that run over 2,000 -- so those are the real mega-churches, the 750 over 2,000. There are about 20 churches in America that run over 10,000 in attendance on a typical weekend. And there are three of us that run over 20,000.

** Warren defines an evangelical as someone who "believes the Bible is God's Word, Jesus is who he claimed to be, salvation is only by grace -- in other words, you can't earn your way to heaven -- and everybody needs to hear the good news; information, not coercion."

An update, from the Kigali New Times:

The planned 'Forty days of purpose' crusade organised by U.S. evangelist Rick Warren, will help boost the preacher's teachings contained in a book called 'Purpose Driven Life', the chief coordinator of the campaign has said.

Eric Munyemana told The New Times yesterday that Warren will speak at the launch tomorrow at Amahoro National Stadium.

Munyemana, who also represents Warren's Saddleback Church in Rwanda, said at least 500 churches are engaged with the campaign, which is part of Warren's global PEACE plan he launched from Rwanda a few years ago...

by Richard Bartholomew on Mon Mar 31, 2008 at 07:04:06 AM EST

Certainly is more appealing than many of the "old school" right wing evangelicals. He writes clearly, has sold a vision, and united a coalition of passionate people. When evaluating him, it is important to look at the movement, and see what those following him (the network of churches and those who push his books) actually do and say. Here is a leader who politically positions himself as a moderate conservative, and environmentalist, and with a concern for the poor -- but the movement still leans to the right, joins readily to empower and equip the right wing and fails to change the political dysfunction so prevalent in our religious speak. James Wallis also seems to move in the moderate conservative direction, but reading the comments on his web site, one discovers that many of those he attempts to reach are firmly still in the right wing alliance. Be very careful, there is much to agree with, in Warren, Wallis and others, but it is slippery sand and easy to get sucked in. Their followers might find themselves looking back over their shoulder and discover that Jesus was walking the other direction.

by chaplain on Thu Jul 24, 2008 at 10:54:30 AM EST
I found your post re Warren quite opinionated and void of facts. You say, "to empower and equip the right wing and fails to change the political dysfunction ..." What does that mean? You have stated no issue just some babble disguised as comment. If you are going to criticize the man, be straight with it.

by ErwinDale on Sun Aug 03, 2008 at 11:31:05 PM EST
ErwinDale, your oddly hostile comment led me to look at your previous comments -- all also unnecessarily hostile.

So I need to ask you, and I expect a direct answer. Do you support the purpose of this site -- as you stated that you did when you signed up?

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Aug 04, 2008 at 01:16:04 AM EST

I find your request of me quite interesting. Are you saying you do not want any discussion that disagrees with the positions you espouse on this site? I have seen several posts on this site that are very "hostile" to Warren. Do you care that these are present on your site? Let's be honest and agree that people can have different positions on many issues and that they should be civilly discussed. This particular post made an accusation with no supporting facts. I simply called the author on it. I'm sorry you think that is hostile, etc. While I have your attention, I've also followed the posts of Huston and Dogemperor. My goodness, talk about "hostile" and not factual. I fail to see why my very mild rebuke has any comparison to what you have allowed from them.

by ErwinDale on Mon Aug 04, 2008 at 08:52:14 PM EST
It is simple: do you or do you not support the purposes of this site?

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Aug 04, 2008 at 10:05:47 PM EST
I find that I am in agreement with a lot of the commentary and issues presented on the site and I learn quite a bit from the discourse. However, there are some writers here who I find have very dogmatic, horribly biased and unsupportable views. So, if you ask if I support the content of the site 100%, no. Do I find a good portion of it interesting and helpful, yes.

by ErwinDale on Mon Aug 04, 2008 at 10:53:29 PM EST
When you signed up for the site checked off a box -- its required -- that stated that you agreed with the purposes of the site, the site guidelines and agree to abide by them. Remember those?  So one last time, do you support the purpose of the site or not?

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Aug 04, 2008 at 11:46:19 PM EST
You sound like a parent who insists on a "yes" or "no" answer when the issue is more nuanced than that. I believe I have already answered you. However, again, this site has a variety of views with some good and some not so good. As to the purpose of the site to share progressive ideas, yes. But, they should be done civilly and not with some of the attack dog rhetoric that seems to be the bent of many.

by ErwinDale on Tue Aug 05, 2008 at 12:45:28 PM EST
 No one agrees with everything on the site, and no one is asking you to. But you have an obvious pattern of hostility to writing that appears on the site, and your evasiveness to my question is either childish or trollish or both.

A yes or no answer is required as to whether or not you support the site's purpose and will abide by the site guidelines. There are no exceptions to this.

You will find the statement of purpose and site guidelines here. http://www.talk2action.org/special/site_guidelines

This is what you agreed to when you signed up. If you cannot say unequivocally that you support the site's purpose, then you lied.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Aug 05, 2008 at 01:08:02 PM EST

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