August 12, 2008


The Global Ambition of Rick Warren (David Van Biema, 8/07/08, TIME)

If [Rick] Warren were content to be merely the most influential religious figure on the American political scene, that would be significant enough. He isn't. Five years ago, he concocted what he calls the PEACE plan, a bid to turn every single Christian church on earth into a provider of local health care, literacy and economic development, leadership training and spiritual growth. The enterprise has collected testimonials from Bono, the First Couple, Hillary Clinton, Obama, McCain and Graham, who called it "the greatest, most comprehensive and most biblical vision for world missions I've ever heard or read about." The only thing bigger than the plan's sheer nerve is the odds against its completion; there are signs that in the small country Warren has made a laboratory for the plan, PEACE is encountering as many problems as it has solved.

Having staked so much on his global initiative, Warren can't allow it to die. But the scale of his ambition does raise questions that confront the American Evangelical movement as a whole as it tries to graduate from a domestic political force into a global benefactor. In fact, it is easier to save souls than to save the world.

Warren grew up in Northern California. He is a fourth-generation Southern Baptist pastor, intimately familiar not just with churches but also with the spreading of them: his father was a "church planter," or serial church founder. The son, who has said that from sixth grade on he was always president of something (and told TIME he led a courthouse march for the 1960s radical group Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS), received his own call to ministry at age 19. He got a conventional theology doctorate and an unconventional education from a friend, management guru Peter Drucker, who refined Warren's organizational gift and offered a secular vocabulary with which to express it.

Two archetypes dominated 20th century Evangelicalism: the Grahamesque evangelist, and the paladin of the religious right. Warren is neither. He has always been about churches. Networks of churches. And of pastors, the CEOs of churches. He founded Saddleback in 1980 when he was just out of Baptist seminary, with neither a building nor a congregation, and grew it relentlessly to its current size. In 1995 he shared his secrets in a book called The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission. (The "purpose" was God's.) His knack for schematization allowed almost any minister to reconfigure his church along the lines of Saddleback. Warren says that he and his staff have given "purpose-driven training" to 500,000 eager pastors worldwide and that 1 out of 20 U.S. churches has done his "40 Days of Purpose" exercises. In all, says fellow megapastor Joel Hunter, Warren's is "easily the broadest and most influential church network in the world."

But it was not until 2002 that Warren became a mainstream megastar, following the publication of The Purpose Driven Life. Beyond its striking opening assertion — "It's not about you" (it's about God and you) — the book, like its predecessor, was a crystal-clear blueprint, in this case for extending Sunday spirituality to the rest of one's life. It employed the tropes of the self-help genre (A 40-day program! Exercises!) to chart a user's guide to living midstream Evangelical doctrine. (On God's wanting believers to be a "living sacrifice": "The problem with a living sacrifice is that it can crawl off the altar. We sing Onward, Christian Soldiers on Sunday, then go AWOL on Monday.") The Purpose Driven Life shipped 40 million copies worldwide, and Warren was suddenly famous and (despite turning over 90% of his profits to his church) rich. He could try his hand at just about anything.

During the 2004 presidential election, he seemed to toy with using his new influence to become the next Jerry Falwell or James Dobson. Although he did not officially endorse George W. Bush, the mega-author made no secret of his preference. Two weeks before the election, he sent an e-mail to the several hundred thousand pastors on his mailing list, enumerating "non-negotiable" issues for Christians to consider when casting their votes: abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, euthanasia and human cloning. Shortly after the election, two attendees of a Washington meeting of conservative religious and political heavyweights remember Warren's actively soliciting advice on how he might increase his clout with GOP politicians.

But upon exploring the role, Warren grew uncomfortable with it. "I have never been considered a part of the religious right, because I don't believe politics is the most effective way to change the world," he says now. "Although public service can be a noble profession, and I believe it is our responsibility to vote, I don't have much faith in government solutions, given the track record. It's why I am a pastor, not a politician. None of my values have changed from four years ago, but my agenda has definitely expanded."

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 12, 2008 6:39 AM
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