The global PEACE plan will test his proven ability to unite people.
Pinpoints of light float in Saddleback Church’s main worship center and, like a constellation framing a planet, surround the stage and the goateed, blue jean-wearing man at its center.
It is the candlelight Christmas Eve service at Saddleback, and celebration is the theme of Rick Warren‘s sermon.
Christmas, the Saddleback Church pastor tells the audience, is a party, and, “God likes a party.”
The audience chuckles, then listens appreciatively as Warren reminds his flock whom the party is for: Jesus Christ.
Seamlessly, Warren shifts gears.
“When I wrote the book ‘The Purpose-Driven Life,’ the very first sentence was, ‘It’s not about you,’ ” Warren says. “You were made for more than success. You were made for significance.”
What follows is an introduction to both “The Purpose-Driven Life,” the book that has built Warren’s name, and to his PEACE plan, the program that may cement it.
The members of Warren’s flock have heard the pitch many times. But tonight is not just for them, but also for the global audience Warren hopes to draw to his increasingly ambitious cause and his many products.
Warren’s Christmas service is being taped by the Armed Services Television News network and Fox News. On the Christmas weekend and with a one-hour documentary about the PEACE plan, Fox aired a segment on Saddleback 12 times. A link with the Fox News logo on the Saddleback Web site takes the viewer not to the network but to a video of Rick Warren talking about what it means to follow Jesus.
It is by any measure a mark of Warren’s national stature.
It is also a departure for Warren, who says he never wanted to be a televangelist.
The Christmas broadcast, however, may be a recognition of who Rick Warren increasingly is: the country boy-turned-political kingmaker, the Southern Baptist pastor who hopes to lead an ecumenical “reformation” of the Christian church, the master communicator whose gnostic style has stripped Christianity of its mystery but also of its difficulty, attracting in the process a new generation of worshippers.
How important is Rick Warren?
“Quite important,” says Mark Noll, a Notre Dame professor regarded as a leading authority on evangelical history.
Like many of the new generation of powerful pastors mentioned as possible successors to the Rev. Billy Graham, Warren has his fame vested in the “holistic gospel” — on social issues such as poverty and the environment — rather than the divisive political themes that have characterized the evangelical movement for the past three decades.
Unlike other pastors, Warren is not merely interested; he is organized, a master marketing tactician and a savvy user of the Internet.
“He is responding to (issues) that are already there,” Noll says. “But he’s also mobilizing efforts that take advantage of those interests.”
The result has been a slew of “purpose-driven” products and programs linked to a concerted strategy of organization and expansion. In 2007, a third entrance to the Saddleback Church’s 120-acre campus will open and with it, Warren predicts, “another burst of growth.” A third “purpose-driven” book is in the works, as is another “40-Day” campaign.
Warren’s pursuit of growth, along with a visible enjoyment of celebrity, has led some to question whether Warren is building a worldly, rather than a spiritual, kingdom.
It is a charge Warren vigorously denies.
“Our mission and focus is changed lives, not promoting or selling products,” he says.
Yet lives do not change without concrete effort and organization.
The PEACE plan relies on an in-development Web site to organize, train and send missionaries, and a not-yet-launched “40-Day” campaign to mobilize churches.
The nascent nature of these PEACE “products” may explain why in the Rwandan village of Ruhuha, where small Saddleback groups traveled in March, Warren’s “second reformation” of the Christian church has yet to begin.
That “reformation” posits a new world of church-based evangelism and good works, sparked by exchanges of PEACE missionaries.
Although more than 10,000 members of Saddleback Church have gone on a PEACE trip, none has returned to the village of Ruhuha.
Of the 11 members of the original group of March missionaries, only two expressed interest in returning to Rwanda. Another says he may travel with a PEACE team to the Middle East in May. Others say they will find ways to do PEACE closer to home.
Trips to places like Rwanda are, after all, expensive and challenging. Such trips are also crucial to sustaining the good will Warren and his church have reaped.
“It (was) a good gesture to come here, but if they don’t do something, people could become discouraged,” says Eugene Ntagengerwa, the Rwandan owner of a local coffee company who helped show the Saddleback group around.
Bob Bradberry, the Saddleback trainer who sent the small group to Rwanda, acknowledges, “You can’t create momentum going in only once a year.”
Bradberry says the church is working to send in groups at least once every three months and to make visits more practical.
But with so many places in the world to visit, the PEACE plan is designed to work only if early pioneers like the group that visited Ruhuha in March are replaced by successive waves of Christians from Saddleback and other churches.
Will they come?
The answer may depend on Warren himself.
Great movements, after all, are often the story of great men and of their particular historical moment.
Warren’s hero, the crusading 18th-century British politician William Wilberforce, helped end British slavery. His Proclamation Society also ushered in an era of Victorian prurience.
Like Wilberforce, Warren is a product of a time and place that color his interpretation of the religion he so passionately promotes. That interpretation believes in Jesus Christ’s transformative and saving grace. It also believes that homosexuals are unnatural, that women cannot minister to men, that dinosaurs walked Earth with man and that people who are not born again, including Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha, are in hell.
Even Warren agrees the PEACE plan will succeed as an ecumenical movement only if it is authentically about the often-mentioned “common good.” He also acknowledges he will succeed only if he proves himself a true representative of the elusive center and not, as some fear, an evangelical Trojan horse, carrying a particular ideology to the world in the guise of an appealing, purpose-driven message.
His many admirers believe in the sincerity of his intentions and his church’s ability, in the words of one observer, to “call the audibles” — to admit mistakes and change course. Could Warren imagine a decade ago that he would be dining with gays, inviting Democratic politician Barack Obama to speak at his church and advocating — in a limited way — on behalf of condoms?
“Forgiveness is your greatest need, (along with) purpose and meaning,” Warren tells his Christmas Eve audience.
In the end, the search for the center may necessitate the containment of ideas with the greatest potential to divide. It may also be Warren’s most appealing trait.
Warren has taught evangelicals that “you can still love someone and still have a difference of opinion,” says Julie Ellis, one of the 11 Saddleback missionaries who traveled to Rwanda in March.
“Rick’s the first guy I’ve heard say, ‘It’s time the world knows what we’re for and not what we’re against,’ ” says Mark Broussard, a fellow missionary. “I love that.”
Then there is the awakening effect of the PEACE plan itself, which may ultimately be Warren’s greatest legacy. Charitable work by organized church networks is hardly a new idea — Catholic churches and other denominations have quietly gone about this for years. But charitable trips by amateurs groups is a new phenomenon, and its effect can already be felt in the passion Saddleback’s missionaries brought home with them from Rwanda, along with digital photos and woven baskets. One year earlier, how many of them understood Rwanda’s terrible ordeal, much less dreamed of visiting the country? Now their lives will never be the same.
“Words cannot describe how my heart will forever be changed by the beautiful people of Rwanda,” one Ruhuha missionary, Elizabeth Brummett, wrote in a thank-you card to her trip sponsors. “One of the many lessons I learned is, no matter what little people have, no matter where you live in this world, the most important things in life are God, your family and love.”