Warren cultivates spiritual ground
LAKE FOREST, Calif. — Pastor Rick Warren is on his knees, hands pressed to the floor in front of 3,200 evangelical Christians from 50 countries, head trembling as he cries and calls for a divine embrace: ”Jesus, draw me close.”
The congregants pray with Warren, some sobbing, others shaking, many holding out their arms in a supplicant’s gesture toward the Almighty. ”We are starting something that all the forces of hell have not stopped,” Warren says.
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What Warren has started is a seismic shakeup of the American evangelical movement from the sprawling campus of Saddleback Church, 65 miles southeast of Los Angeles, in the consumer-centric, middle-class mecca of Orange County.
A bear-like man who dresses in untucked Hawaiian shirts, Warren, 51, has managed to marry a simple message — ”It’s not about you” — with an integrated mesh of mass media that is growing his audience exponentially. As American political life has shifted toward the right, Warren has assumed a place in the center of the movement, one of a new generation of leaders who have eclipsed and distanced themselves from controversy-dogged televangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Robertson, for example, ignited a firestorm recently for suggesting that Venezuela President Hugo Chavez be assassinated.
Warren’s 18,000-member church is one of the largest in the country. And his runaway best-seller, ”The Purpose Driven Life,” has sold 25 million copies since its publication in October 2002.
Although Warren is not an overtly political figure, his message is a conservative one on issues such as abortion, and his followers voted in lopsided numbers for President Bush. In this sense, Warren and similar evangelical ministers are a key aspect of the religious-conservative political ascendancy. While activist leaders such as James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention work more directly on political causes, Warren helps expand and prepare the spiritual ground that is the bedrock of the movement.
Warren ”really isn’t a political figure to any significant degree, but he’s a cultural figure, a fresh and contemporary face to evangelism,” said John Green, a University of Akron professor who specializes in the impact of religion on American politics. ”He represents the high point of a trend that’s been developing for a while — the adaptation of evangelical Protestantism to contemporary culture.”
Warren’s persona is that of an affable, laid-back surfer, but his delivery is as emphatically pointed as the strict Southern Baptist denomination to which he belongs. His is a ministry with a goatee and a wisecrack, but one that asks much of the faithful. And although his roots are deeply and unmistakably Californian, Warren is often dubbed ”America’s pastor” by observers of the religious scene, many of whom rank him second only to the Rev. Billy Graham in the popular hierarchy of evangelical leaders.
”I’m honored by that title; I’m humbled by it — if you understand what a pastor does,” Warren said, relaxing in a sun-splashed garden patio outside the small office where he wrote ”The Purpose Driven Life.” The pastoral role, he explained, is to ”comfort, teach, and be there in the various stages of life.”
The role is national in scale. He has delivered the invocation at Bush’s inaugural eve gala and attracted sellout crowds to sermons at professional sports stadiums. His religious guidance even is credited with helping end a hostage standoff in March, when a Georgia man who had shot and killed an Atlanta judge and three others surrendered after his captive read to him from ”The Purpose Driven Life.”
”He sees problems, he relates it to the Bible, and he’s able to talk plainly,” said Laura Bennett, a church worker from Marietta, Ga., who sat at Saddleback with her hands covering her face, crying, after listening to Warren preach passionately for greater attention to the AIDS pandemic. ”You can see Christ through him.”
Some critics, however, say Warren has crafted a message that might be too user-friendly and that his methods sometimes seem overly commercial. Glen Stassen, an ethics professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., says Warren has skillfully adapted his church to the surrounding culture, but that he wonders whether the pastor is serving a watered-down Jesus to an affluent community groping for an anchor of meaning in a materialistic world.
”He’s making worship very informal to go with the informal culture of Southern California, and he’s studying the attitudes of people in the area to try to make the church conform to the surrounding culture,” Stassen said. ”The way of Jesus has been thinned down so it won’t offend any of the reigning ideologies, so you get a very thin Jesus. I want a thick Jesus.”
Despite such concerns, Warren’s success reflects the mainstreaming of American evangelicals. In addition to the phenomenon of ”The Purpose Driven Life,” Warren says his ministry has reached 400,000 pastors in 162 countries. His counsel for godly living and growing churches is disseminated through seminars such as the AIDS conference, DVDs, tapes of sermons, books, pamphlets, and weekly newsletters that reach more than 250,000 people through the Internet.
Warren regularly tells a story about a pastor in remote South Africa, who recognized the American when he visited the cleric’s village. Warren, incredulous, asked how he knew him. The African pastor replied that he walks several miles each Sunday to the nearest post office to download Warren’s weekly sermons.
In May, Warren’s sermon in Dallas to mark the National Day of Prayer was simulcast to 150 million people worldwide, he said.
Unlike some of his high-profile peers, Warren steers clear of politics. Although he has signed a copy of ”The Purpose Driven Life” for the president, Warren speaks with lawmakers from both parties who seek his opinion on spiritual matters. True to his conservative religious background, Warren is opposed to what he has called non-negotiable issues: abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and euthanasia.
”I’m not trying to legislate change,” Warren says. ”If I thought that legislation could change the culture, I’d become a politician. But I don’t believe it can.”
Warren’s aversion to politics also puts him outside a swelling stream of evangelicals who see government as fair game for the religious-minded. Those evangelical leaders include Dobson and Land, who are in the vanguard of religious conservatives who moved off the sidelines and into the fray in presidential and congressional elections and in the crossfire over judicial nominations.
Warren said he has met Land, but that he does not speak with Land or Dobson about political issues and strategy. When asked about Dobson’s scathing criticism of past Democratic filibusters over judicial nominees, Warren said he agrees that the president’s candidates deserve confirmation by a simple majority, instead of the 60 senators needed to break a filibuster.
However, Warren made a distinction in his approach. ”There’s an old style of Christian leadership and a new style of Christian leadership,” Warren said. ”The old style tends to be more confrontational, and that’s just not my style.”
Warren’s style is a dramatic change for churchgoers accustomed to ritual and decorum. At Sunday services at Saddleback Church, which attracts worshipers from across the Christian spectrum, tropical dress is almost a uniform at its 120-acre complex in the sand-brown foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. In a cavernous ”worship center” that resembles a warehouse more than a church, a palette of bright colors, sandals, sunglasses, and shorts complements the palm trees outside. Bare-midriff teenagers mingle seamlessly with open-collar retirees.
An average of 22,000 weekend worshipers can choose among 10 venues for services at the complex. A cafe is on the grounds, as well as a large outdoor patio where the faithful can sun themselves while listening to the sermon. The preaching is even piped in to the restrooms. The campus also includes a play area, complete with three crosses atop a Calvary-like hill, where children can clamber above a running stream, designed by engineers to part like the Red Sea at the flip of a switch.
Above the lectern where Warren preaches from a deep, wide stage, a five-side video screen makes the pastor literally larger than life. Two enormous screens on either side of the stage do the same. A six-piece band rocks the hall, where the congregants clap loudly and sing contemporary Christian music.
Most of the crowd appears to range from comfortable to prosperous, mimicking the economic demographics of an area that is among the wealthiest in the country. Warren recognizes he is not preaching to the poor here. ”There aren’t any homeless people on the streets of the Saddleback Valley,” he says.
As such, the income profile of Saddleback Church is representative of the new face of American evangelicalism, which has changed from rural and lower-class 50 years ago to one that is solidly represented in the wealthiest and best-educated strata.
The congregation here also is overwhelmingly white, but Warren attracts people from many races and ethnicities. At the AIDS conference, for example, black Pentecostals from Rwanda stood next to Brazilian-born evangelicals from Philadelphia who prayed beside Asian-Americans from California.
Warren’s call for massive, immediate attention to the AIDS crisis in Africa helps set him apart on the American religious stage, especially among the conservative evangelical wing, which regards homosexuality as a sin. Warren said he was inspired to act by his wife, Kay, who became horrified when she read about the millions of orphans and widowed spouses created by the disease in sub-Saharan Africa.
”We’re going to do this because it’s the right thing to do,” Warren said, comparing inaction on AIDS to the indifference to slavery among many American churches in the 19th century. ”There’s something more important than nationality. It’s the family of God.”
Warren’s AIDS-related goals for Saddleback are staggeringly ambitious: To partner each one of the church’s 2,800 small groups with a village in Africa.
The AIDS campaign is an example of Warren’s core message: The highest purpose of a human being is to be ”used” by God. Two weeks before the AIDS conference, Warren used his Sunday sermon to outline five steps toward that goal for a few thousand eager listeners.
The steps: Become purified through self-confession of sin, sanctify the body through a healthy lifestyle, simplify one’s daily affairs, fortify one’s spiritual commitment, and apply one’s energy to doing good.
As he spoke, thousands of heads bent toward a paper summary of the sermon, passed out at the door, on which worshipers wrote notes. The process, a form of pared-down, intergenerational Sunday school, is quintessential Warren: transforming Christian teaching into a mixture of classwork and entertainment that is designed to engage, encourage, and enlighten.
”The two scariest words you can say to the Lord are: ‘Use me,’ ” Warren said. ”He’s looked down on Saddleback Church and said, ‘I want to use you.’ “
The sermon is similar in content to the essence of ”The Purpose Driven Life,” a message that one’s life is only a runup to Judgment Day, which will determine whether eternity is spent in heaven or hell. Written in 40 short chapters designed to be read one day at a time, the book begins with a weeklong overview: ”What on Earth Am I Here For?” The following weeks are divided among five ”purposes”: Human beings are planned for God’s pleasure, formed for God’s family, created to become like Christ, shaped for serving God, and made for a mission.
To Paul Clute of nearby Ladera Ranch, the clarity of Warren’s preaching is a big reason he attends Saddleback. ”It’s tailored to you as an individual,” said Clute, who stood near the outdoor baptismal pool with his wife and two small children, one of whom was four weeks old. ”He makes it about the message and not about what you wear.”
It’s a message that Warren heard while growing up in rural Redwood Valley, a small town 125 miles north of San Francisco in Mendocino County, as the son of a Baptist minister and a high-school librarian. Warren’s grandfather also had been a minister, as well as a great-grandfather who emigrated from England and became a traveling preacher in the United States.
While Warren’s father helped build churches in Mendocino County and foreign countries on missionary trips, Warren developed a slightly rebellious spirit that looked at the world with long hair and John Lennon glasses. Warren found his calling during high school, he said, after he fell to his knees at a summer camp where he worked as a lifeguard.
Warren recalled that he prayed: ”I don’t know if there is a God or not. But if there is a God, I want to know you.”
The reply didn’t arrive right away, Warren said, but in incremental doses as he organized Christian concerts, clubs, and school musicals and started preaching. By his 20th birthday, Warren had spoken at 150 churches.
After attending California Baptist University in Riverside, where he married, Warren enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. While there, Warren studied the works of clergy such as C. Donald McGavran, who promoted the ”megachurch” movement and advocated reaching out to the ”unchurched” through language that spoke to their daily needs.
After studying the Census to find a fast-growing community in a fast-growing area, Warren settled on Orange County. In 1980, Rick and Kay Warren used their last $1,000 in savings, rented a U-Haul, and moved to Laguna Hills. Warren’s first service was held in his rented condominium, attracting only a few families who included the real-estate agent who helped him find the apartment. High school gyms also served as vagabond ”worship centers” until the congregation grew enough to afford a move in 1992 to its current location.
Mike Brummitt, the pastor of Heritage Church in Dublin, Va., said Warren’s message has transformed his ministry. His sleepy rural church, located ”between two cow pastures and two cornfields,” now holds a vibrant congregation whose membership has doubled since Warren’s growth strategy was implemented three years ago, Brummitt said.
That strategy, called ”40 Days of Purpose,” uses small-group discussions and daily readings from ”The ”Purpose Driven Life” toward its goal of strengthening and expanding congregations.
”We’ve seen God do some really cool stuff within the life of our church,” Brummitt said.
Warren believes the country is on the verge of a broad, spiritual awakening — ”a new Reformation,” in his words. The pastor sees Saddleback Church and his ”purpose-driven” campaign as playing an important role in that revival, and not just in the United States.
As Warren sees it, the church has plenty of work. In California, he said, many of the 300,000 people who will die within the next year will not have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Around the world, Warren added, the figure will be 54 million.
”That’s the world’s greatest problem,” he said.
At his core, Warren insisted, he remains a simple man. Despite his global agenda, Warren said, he’s still the son of a pastor whose dying words were: ”Reach one more for Christ.”