Warren as King David (minus Bathsheba)

rickwarren In case you missed the cover story of this week’s Time, reporter David Van Biema wrote a profile of evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren. He presents Warren as a kind of evangelical King David on a global scale.

Van Biema’s thesis is interesting, arresting even. And the reporting and writing in the story are exceptionally well done. But whether the story truly gets religion I have my doubts.

The story was intriguing. It told of an evolution in Warren’s thinking about his role in society. While it is a common knowledge that Warren is no longer a conventional figure on the religious right, Van Biema went on to explore the pastor’s new, expanded mission in detail:

If 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.

The story was also fair and balanced. A conventional magazine article would describe Warren’s new program and quote academic experts debating whether it would succeed or fail. This piece featured actual reporting from the front lines, seeking to determine whether his new enterprise has worked or not:

Yet others, rather flatly, claim Warren’s effort is invisible by the very terms on which he sold it. Visitors interested in the PEACE plan are still invariably flown not to a church but to the hospital in the town of Kibuye (Rwanda). PEACE is working with the University of Maryland to upgrade the facility and next year will give $500,000 as part of its province-wide $13 million commitment. But so far, aside from a paint job and some tidying up, there is little improvement. Laura Hoemeke, director of Twubakane, a USAID-funded Rwandan decentralization and health program, says, “Warren’s people haven’t done anything. For passing on information, mobilizing people, changing social norms, I think the church can be really effective. But …” Others maintain that short-termers can’t stay on top of the involved logistics of development.

Also, the story showed the domestic side-effects of Warren’s new global venture:

It’s possible that what drives Warren is the opportunity not just to lead American Evangelicalism but also to reshape it as a broad-based postpartisan movement, as focused on challenges abroad as (Billy) Graham‘s was on the crisis within. But it’s still unclear whether Warren’s many spheres of activity, his seemingly genetic disposition to multitask will sap his energy and influence rather than enhance them. Trouble recently popped up in the form of an “Evangelical Manifesto” that expressed several New Evangelicalism principles he has come to support. Despite having helped launch the document and claiming to still agree with it, he declined to sign it, saying it was released before consensus could develop for it. Warren’s retreat made it easier for old-line conservatives to dismiss it. It would indubitably have fared better had he applied his networking skills.

But it is one thing to describe a pastor’s social vision and its progress. It is another to explore its theological basis.

After all, Rick Warren is not a diplomat or politician; he is a Southern Baptist pastor, and a best-selling author at that. As Mollie noted in an email to me, why would Warren de-emphasize eternal salvation and the five non-negotiable political-cultural issues? Has his theology changed? Does he consider helping the poor and sick in Africa the doctrinal equivalent of God’s command about marriage and protecting innocent unborn life? On these questions, I am afraid, the story came up short.

The story attempts to answer those questions through an anecdote:

Warren had an epiphany in 2003. His wife Kay had dedicated herself to the fight against HIV/AIDS, a brave move in a community where it was still often stigmatized. In Africa with her nine months later, he says, he heard a message from above. “God said, ‘You don’t care squat about the sick and the poor. And you need to change; you need to repent.’” He became fond of repeating that the Bible has 2,000 verses dedicated to the poor and that the Gospel of Matthew contains not only the Great Commission, in which Christ bids his disciples to spread his word, but also the great commandment, in which he tells the Pharisees to love thy neighbor as thyself.

The time line is off. As late as the fall of 2004, Warren was invested heavily in that year’s presidential election and its attendant clash over cultural issues. But the passage above makes it appear that Warren and his wife had their change of heart and mind in late 2003 or in 2004.

Rick Warren’s pastorate changed sometime from 2003 to 2005. Time’s story did a great job showing readers how it did and the consequences thereof. But it just didn’t explore why it changed.

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  • Gerry

    But it just didn’t explore it changed.


  • David Buckna

    Rick Warren has invited Obama and McCain to appear at a leadership and compassion forum in his Saddleback Church on August 16. To be broadcast on CNN, beginning 5 pm Pacific/ 8:00 pm ET


    Pastor snags Obama, McCain for joint appearance

    Pastor: Not going to play ‘gotcha’ with McCain, Obama

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I’m not sure Rick Warren equated to King David is the focus of the piece. Seems Warren focuses on PEACE while King David was a king of war (hence God appearing to David and saying it would be David’s son who would build the temple).

    Also, didn’t David have something to do with an adulterous relationship with a close friend’s wife, a friend he would then have killed?

    All in all the focus is on a gospel of good works.

  • Jerry

    why would Warren de-emphasize eternal salvation and the five non-negotiable political-cultural issues?

    The 5 non-negotiable political-cultural issues? Non-negotiable political issues in who’s mind? And who created those 5 issues and made them holy commandments? Why would or should he consider anything other than the greatest commandments from the Bible as was mentioned in the story.

    And I think you totally missed the why issue since the story said:

    Warren had an epiphany in 2003.

    unless you’re questioning why someone has an epiphany in the first place or perhaps asking an interesting teleological question?

  • Chris Bolinger

    In addition to not getting religion, the MSM does not get business, especially marketing. As a result, the MSM does not recognize that Warren plays them like a fiddle.

    As a Marketing professional, I admire Warren’s marketing prowess. When he started his Saddleback church, he had a compelling strategy and business plan, and he executed it brilliantly. The heart of the strategy was this:
    * Identify and define the primary target customer, which for Saddleback was a 30-something married male with a few kids who was a transplant to the Saddleback area, had gone to church previously, and had not found a church home
    * Focus on attracting and retaining the target customer and, through him, his family
    * Leverage success with the initial target customer to attract similar customers

    After succeeding at Saddleback, Warren generalized and articulated his strategy in The Purpose-Driven Church. While he achieved modest success with that book, Warren recognized that he could reach a larger audience if he tweaked the purpose-driven message for individuals instead of churches. Thus, The Purpose-Driven Life was born. Having learned how to market his previous book to and through churches, Warren created church-friendly tie-ins for Life to get some momentum and then expanded through a variety of marketing communication vehicles and channels to maximize exposure for the book. The result was a huge success.

    Warren knows that, when covering religion (and politics), most MSM folks rely heavily on “experts” and celebrities. He also recognizes that the MSM likes to put high-profile religious folks, especially those who are conservative politically, in a box. Savvy guy that he is, Warren has done an excellent job of:
    * Positioning himself as an “expert” on a variety of topics at the intersection of religion, politics, and culture
    * Focusing his PR efforts on topics that are embraced by the MSM
    * Avoided topics and statements that the MSM can use to categorize him as conservative in theology, practice, or politics

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for an in-depth analysis of Warren in the MSM. Van Biema’s profile of Warren isn’t it. While it is lengthy and provides lots of information, it really doesn’t get to the heart of who Warren is but instead shows who Warren positions himself to be.

  • Dave G.

    I was glad to see mention of Purpose Driven Church. I’ve been amazed at how few stories on Warren don’t mention this. It was his thesis statement, and to quote the Joker, it ‘changed things…forever.’ Anyone who read that book in the 90s couldn’t be the slightest bit shocked about Warren’s movement, or those leaders who are following him, toward where he is today. At the end, PDC combined social ministry emphasis with Madison Avenue marketing and corporate organizational strategies, with a dose of Oprah-like self-help (that was emphasized more in PDL). It became that first ‘one size fits all’ take that said, whatever you believe about the little things (certain doctrines, liturgical theology, even social ministry and evangelism), can work if you follow his formula. That so many clergy said, “Sure!” was the first indicator that something was changing in the world of Evangelical Christianity, and became the inspiration for Purpose Driven Life. So well done article for picking up that little book and its place in Warren’s history.

  • Dave G.


    A Presbyterian minister friend of mine once quipped that ‘Warren is all things to all media that by all means they’ll promote his book.’ It was cynical. But one can’t miss that much of what Warren says Jesus would be caring about happens, coincidently?, to be what the media says is the most important issues we should be caring about. Two years ago at Christmas, on Fox News, Warren was asked where Jesus would be today. Warren said, “He would be in Africa with victims of AIDS.” I thought then, how about victims of malaria? How about victims of war? How about cancer victims? Or Alzheimers? I knew he didn’t mean Jesus wouldn’t be with any of those, but there was a savvy ‘catch the media wave’ in what Warren said, and what he is doing. And that can be found in PDC. Which, by the way, was more than just moderately successful – at least where professional clergy were concerned.

  • http://www.bcartfarm.com Jim Janknegt

    “…turn every single Christian church on earth into a provider of local health care, literacy and economic development, leadership training and spiritual growth”

    Didn’t the Catholic Church do this in the middle ages?? Seems like we enjoy re-inventing the wheel a whole lot more than doing the hard work of driving.

  • http://www.misterdavid.typepad.com David (in Edinburgh)

    It was looking quite good until mentioning that ‘Love thy neighbour…’ is the Great Commandment – woops!

    I think that ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart/soul/mind/strengh & your neighbour as yourself’ fits the bill rather better …

  • Karen

    Rick Warren is also, this week, the focus of a column in the Economist: Rick Warren has emerged as the most powerful evangelical in America. The column focuses on his political influence.

  • Dave G.


    But on the other hand, there has been, for quite a while, a trend within the Evangelical world of looking at the historic (Catholic) traditions and seeing what might be worth looking at. Warren is probably just doing what many others have started to do – acknowledge that not everything Catholic is necissarily a bad thing.

  • Roberto Rivera

    The 5 non-negotiable political-cultural issues? Non-negotiable political issues in who’s mind? And who created those 5 issues and made them holy commandments? Why would or should he consider anything other than the greatest commandments from the Bible as was mentioned in the story.

    Thank you! Calling them “non-negotiable” is so problematic on so many levels, I, like the Joker, hardly know where to begin!

    Keep this in mind the next time Get Religion wants to criticize the MSM for confusing Evangelicalism with a political creed/program.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Jerry and Roberto, Mark was quoting Warren:

    “For those of who accept the Bible as God’s Word … there are five issues that are non-negotiable,” wrote Warren, a Southern Baptist, to fellow pastors across the country. “To me, they’re not even debatable, because God’s Word is clear on these issues.”

    Abortion, stem-cell harvesting, homosexual marriage, human cloning and euthanasia were non-negotiable issues about which Warren said the Bible was clear.

  • FW Ken

    Actually, it was more the monasteries than the parishes in the middle ages.

    Oh, heavens… Jim Janknegt.. another old Well person turned Catholic. o.h. are you listening? Welcome home, Jim!

  • http://www.bcartfarm.com Jim Janknegt

    Thanks! It’s great to be home. I knew a couple of Kens at the Well? Who are you??

  • Jerry

    There are still Catholics on the Well (reunion time!).

    Chris, thanks for the info that it was Wallis himself who said that about the five.

  • Roberto Rivera

    Jerry and Roberto, Mark was quoting Warren:

    Thanks for the clarification. I agree that it would be interesting to know more about why the change in emphasis, in part because I suspect that it would also have a kind of Catholic “flavor”: the understanding that corporal works of mercy are ends in themselves and not only a means of, in the old phrase, “earning the right to be heard.”

    It made be that while Warren is still, as Terry points out, a Southern Baptist, his focus is less on the USA and more on the “global south.” He might think that the good he can and must do in this context cannot and should not be held hostage to the vagaries/hamster-on-a-spinning-treadmill quality of American culture war politics.

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  • Jerry

    Somebody on the Well, http://www.well.com, pointed out that the “Well” you might have been referring to is instead The Well Christian Community, http://www.thewellchurch.net/ :-)

  • FW Ken

    Jerry, the Well was a coffeehouse in Austin back in the 70s. It evolved into a “Christian community” and eventually an independent church. I’ve no idea what happened after that, although some ended up at Hope Chapel, and a bunch ended up Episcopalian or Catholic.

    Jim, I don’t put my name out on the internet, but I lived on East 31st Street with Charlie, Bruce, and a variety of other guys. The women lived next door and I’m thinking you dated one of them, but maybe not. Best wishes.

    Ok, GR folks, you can have your blog back. I’ll try to avoid any more old home week nostalgia.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    When I was recalling Warren’s launch strategy for Saddleback, I forgot to mention that, if memory serves, Warren’s target customer had a lot in common with Warren at the time. In other words, Warren set out to reach someone who was a lot like him and who was looking for a church like the one that Warren wanted to lead. If this is correct, then treating Warren as an expert on all things evangelical and a leader (or the primary leader) of the new evangelicals is like treating the founder of a successful high-tech company as an expert on all things high-tech and a leader of a new high-tech movement across the U.S. and around the world.