Krista's Journal: Changing the World Regardless of Politics

December 6, 2007

Sometime last year I had in interesting informal conversation with Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, a respected center of Evangelical scholarship and learning. Mouw has spoken on this program in the past about his path from a fundamentalist childhood to life as an Evangelical intellectual and Christian philosopher. As he describes it, this faith of 25-40 percent of the U.S. population, depending on how you count it, has no single central authority, no ultimate hierarchy, nothing like a pope. But it does have what Mouw calls a "magisterium" — guiding figures in every generation. I'm intrigued by what seems a changing of the guard in that magisterium. Figures like Billy Graham and Chuck Colson, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Ted Haggard, have passed or are passing from center stage. Of those who are emerging, Rick Warren is the biggest surprise to many.

I've not interviewed Rick Warren up to now in part because, like Jim Wallis, Warren has received a huge amount of media coverage in recent years. He burst into popular imagination largely by way of his 2002 book, The Purpose Driven Life, which Publisher's Weekly has called "the best-selling non-fiction book in American history," now approaching sales of 30 million. But for a time even that phenomenon was easy to miss. It was not immediately noted by major media and bestseller lists — it did not appear on The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list, for example — because it sold mostly through Christian bookstores and via Warren's global online networks of pastors. He created this book with the same pragmatic strategic vision that launched his 100,000-member Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, one of the original megachurches.

"Megachurch", I know, is a suspect concept to some. But understanding what the Warrens have created at Saddleback is key to understanding who they are and what kind of influence they've begun to exert beyond it.

As they describe in our interview, Rick and Kay Warren pitched their tent, almost literally, in this nearly empty valley near Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, ready to build a church and stay for their lifetimes. Rick Warren had studied the 100 most successful churches in the world. He also sought out the great organizational management guru Peter Drucker as a mentor; Drucker later called Saddleback Church "the R & D department of Christianity." So Rick and Kay Warren knocked on doors and asked people what alienated them about traditional churches, and what might bring them back. They designed their church with this input and waited for the area to fill up with houses and families, which it did. Behind a comfortable, easy welcome to worship, they invited members into layers of study, community, commitment, and service. Rick Warren originally conceived The Purpose Driven Life as one such study course for his congregation. Now congregations all over the world have embarked on a "Forty Days of Purpose" course that corresponds to the book, Rick Warren's curriculum towards deepened individual and communal faith and calling — Christian purpose.

Some criticize Saddleback and The Purpose Driven Life as "Christianity lite." You'll hear him respond to this in our interview. Whatever your take on it, he is a force to be reckoned with. Again, like Jim Wallis in last week's program, he has become a spiritual advisor to powerful people — in his case including Rupert Murdoch, George W. Bush, and Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda.

Rwanda is the focal point of the latest chapter of Rick Warren's ministry — a turning point, and his own reevaluation of the meaning of "Christian purpose," largely due to Kay Warren's influence. This is why I wanted to interview them together.

As Kay Warren tells it, in the wake of the wealth and fame that followed the success of The Purpose Driven Life, she had a life-changing "awakening" to the pandemic of AIDS and the attendant ills of poverty. This transformed her understanding of the essence of Christian faith and that of her husband. The Warrens have now launched an ambitious global initiative to address global crises such as poverty, illness, and illiteracy. It's based on the simple idea that local churches are everywhere. Networks of "purpose-driven" Christians are in position to knowledgeably and practically address global crises, one neighborhood at a time, where governments or NGOs (non-governmental organizations) might not reach. Unlike the Evangelical leaders of previous years — and unlike a Jim Wallis, for example — Rick Warren is essentially uninterested in politics per se. He's interested instead in the galvanizing churches themselves as forces for social change.

Still, in the zeal of their new-found social awareness, Rick and Kay Warren sound very much like Jim Wallis, and Richard Cizik, and Shane Claiborne — other new Evangelical forces we've had on the show in recent years. They speak of their sense of urgency to repair an artificial and counterproductive split that modern Evangelicals inherited — defining personal morality and social justice as competing priorities. Kay Warren has publicly urged her congregation and others to "repent" for a past indifference to the AIDS crisis and for contributing to the stigmatization of people with AIDS.

We have yet to see whether visions and strategies that built an American megachurch, and even a mega-bestselling book, can succeed in alleviating poverty and AIDS. I for one am fascinated by the attempt and will keep following the bridge-building appeal Rick and Kay Warren have achieved. They continued that effort at the end of November with the Third Annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church at Saddleback. In the thick of the presidential primary campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the conference in person, while Barack Obama, John Edwards, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee took time to create video messages for the event.

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Rick and Kay Warren

Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California and the best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. Kay Warren is the executive director of the Saddleback HIV/AIDS Initiative and author of Dangerous Surrender.