LAKE FOREST, Calif. – On a small stage freckled with the flashes of camera bulbs, Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren opens his mouth to admit a small, white swab.
Steps away – far enough to be out of the camera’s glare – a lanky, white-haired Dallas native named A. Larry Ross watches with admiration and professional respect.
Respect because Warren is doing something that is supposed to be Ross’ job: melding a personality to a powerful cause in the most public of venues, a press conference.
On this stage, however, the student may be the master.
“The AIDS test was his idea,” Ross recalls, of Warren’s decision to take an orally administered HIV test – perhaps the first major evangelical Christian leader to do so publicly – at a Saddleback-organized conference on AIDS last November. “Rick intuitively knows how to deal with the media.”
Ross should know. The 6-foot-8-inch Texan towers above most of his peers in the growing field of Christian public relations. Ross’ client list includes Mel Gibson (Ross helped publicize “The Passion of the Christ”), Pentecostal preacher T.D. Jakes and, most notably, the Rev. Billy Graham.
In Warren he may have found a Graham-like talent – a master of both ministry and marketing with an appealing communication style, a best-selling book and an ambitious evangelistic and humanitarian endeavor: the PEACE plan.
That intuition, willingness to grapple with controversial matters such as AIDS, and material success have made Warren an attractive face for the evangelical movement in the secular press. Warren regularly appears on “Larry King Live” and his beaming, congenial mug has graced the covers of Time and Newsweek. He is also a willing invitee at international AIDS conferences, presidential prayer breakfasts and high-wattage confabs such as the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland.
The net result: In 2005, Warren’s Saddleback Church was described as “the nation’s most influential American congregation” by the Church Report, a Christian business trade magazine. (In 2006, Saddleback ranked No. 2, behind Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.)
Warren attributes what he calls his “affluence and influence” to God and to the “life-changing message” of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” the best-selling book upon which his relatively recent fame and fortune are built.
If the book’s success was an act of God, the work Warren and hired guns such as Ross have done to promote and build upon that success may also reflect significant human effort.
Warren is described as a “pastor, global strategist, theologian, and philanthropist” in a biographical statement distributed by Saddleback Church. Ross has another descriptor for Warren: “an authoritative resource to the media.”
Since the launch of the PEACE plan last year, Warren and his team have engaged in a public-relations campaign remarkable for its strategic cultivation of the world’s famous and influential – all in the name, Warren says, of promoting the message of Christ and to “speak up for those who cannot speak up themselves.”
(Warren frequently quotes the Bible’s Psalm 72, “The Reign of the Righteous King,” in which King Solomon seeks power if only to “save the children of the needy and … break in pieces the oppressor.”)
Each week, Warren receives 20 to 30 speaking invitations and requests for media interviews. It is Ross’ job, along with a team that includes Warren’s chief of staff, David Chrzan, to identify which might best magnify the message and, in Chrzan’s words, “influence a culture.”
“The numbers are the influencers,” Chrzan says. “We’ll decide to go to a meeting where there are 25 CEOs and one or two billionaires. That’s a pretty hefty meeting. We’ll go have a meeting with Ray Chambers and Jeffrey Sachs … because that’s pretty hefty. We’ll go speak to 4,500 pastors rather than 4,500 church members. And we realize there are certain magazines and publications that help us with framing a conversation.”
“All these things have created and opened doors for us to talk to influencers.”
Chrzan says there is no concrete goal such as donations or policy change behind such a communications strategy.
“Fundamentally he’s just trying to get the message out,” Chrzan says.
Warren’s popularity makes Ross’ job easy. “We’ve basically been managing his publicity, not creating it,” Ross says.
A devout evangelical who prays at staff meetings, Ross likens his job to a Bible verse about those who held up the arms of Moses during a pivotal battle.
“That’s my job – to hold up the arms of a man of God,” Ross says.
He has also reinforced media relations efforts of some of evangelical Christianity’s biggest brands, including the “Left Behind” films and the Christian cartoon “Jonah.” Animation stills from Disney’s “The Prince of Egypt” hang in Ross’ Dallas office.
Although Ross says he is careful not to presume on client relationships, he notes that “the symbiotic aspect does result in even greater effectiveness in ministry.”
“The Passion of the Christ,” for example, was heavily publicized by Saddleback Church. (Warren preached two sermons on “Understanding the Passion,” booked 47 theater screens for his congregation and “unchurched” friends, and invited local VIPs to a premiere.) The film grossed more than $370 million in the United States alone.
“Rick really set the bar,” Ross says. “What they did at Saddleback became a model.”
The two men reconnected at a Graham crusade, where Warren described his PEACE plan.
“And the next day I said, `Larry, would you be willing to work with me on this?'” Warren recalls. “And he looks at me and says … `In fact, I feel like my entire life I’ve been preparing for this.'”
Since that time, Ross has traveled the world with Warren, helping to manage both his media relations and Saddleback’s learning curve about the needs and expectations of the press. (Ross intervened earlier this year when a Saddleback staffer tried to ask The Orange County Register to sign a document limiting the scope of its reporting on the church.)
“What we can help do is to try to help avoid insular thinking,” Ross says. “We try to encourage a policy of engagement. Not circling the wagons, but engaging.”
Engagement with popular culture – from the pulpit, on the Internet and in the movie theater – is important, Ross says, because that is where the next generation of Christians will be found.
“The average teenager sees 50 films a year – one a week,” Ross says. “It makes filmmakers the new high priests of our culture. These are where values are being formed.”
Ross, who has represented Harvest Crusades’ Greg Laurie and Fellowship Church’s Ed Young, is too discreet to say whether Warren might assume Billy Graham’s mantle as “America’s Pastor.”
But he compares Warren’s communication style to Graham’s, in that it is “very progressive in using every means possible to reach as many people as possible.”
Such an expressed pursuit of publicity has occasionally elicited squirms among even Warren’s professional associates. Some expressed an admiration for Warren’s intent but a concern about his style, which they say runs counter to a Christian tradition of modesty.
Warren is known for peppering his interviews and speeches with celebrity names and events. In one interview with The Orange County Register, Warren mentioned encounters with actor John Cusack, U2’s Bono, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and also contrasted his experiences with those of Graham and former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Warren’s team also caused some discomfort among members of his evangelical community earlier this year by precipitously announcing a trip to North Korea. The trip did not happen, although Warren says a visit is planned for March 2007.
What did happen was significant – and for some critics, unearned – publicity about Warren’s intention to be, in his words, “the first preacher in 60 years to speak publicly in North Korea.”
Warren’s “friendly” critics declined to speak on the record, fearing repercussions to their career – an indication, perhaps, of how far Warren’s influence extends.
Both independent experts and Saddleback staff members said they worried more broadly about repercussions to their movement should an evangelical star crash – as happened recently to the National Evangelical Association’s president, the Rev. Ted Haggard, who resigned over allegations that he paid for homosexual sex.
“With increased visibility comes increased scrutiny, which is entirely fair, but the stakes are suddenly higher,” says Mark DeMoss, president of the Georgia-based Christian public relations agency, the DeMoss Group.
Ross says any gaffes reflect Warren’s desire to do good and his enthusiastic, often off-the-cuff charm.
“You have to go back to look at his heart,” Ross says. “I think he’s very sincere in what he says. I think he’s enthusiastic. There may be a comment or two that … may not be accurate. (But) I go to the heart of the man, and he’s all about serving people and working tirelessly.”