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Bill Berkowitz: Rick Warren And The New Evangelism

Rick Warren And The New Evangelism

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

"The most significant sociological phenomenon of the first half of the 20th century was the rise of the corporation. The most significant sociological phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century has been the development of the large pastoral church -- of the mega-church. It is the only organization that is actually working in our society."
-- Peter Drucker, as quoted by Rick Warren at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's biannual Faith Angle conference on religion, politics and public life, May 23, 2005.

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."


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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