Results vary as media follow Rick Warren’s return

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Over the weekend, Rick Warren returned to the pulpit for the first time since his son’s suicide nearly four months ago.

This made national headlines — and rightly so.

The coverage that I saw ranged from weak to adequate to truly exceptional.

On the weak side, the Los Angeles Times did a bare bones report that seemed to scream: “Just going through the motions! Nothing to see here! Move along!”

The full extent of the Times’ coverage from inside Saddleback Church:

Rick Warren, bestselling author and pastor of an evangelical mega church in Orange County, preached for the first time on Sunday after his son’s suicide.

Matthew Warren, 27, shot himself in the head in April following a long struggle with mental illness.

On Sunday, his father appeared in jeans and a black T-shirt in front of an estimated 10,000 congregants at his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest and vowed to fight prejudice against people with mental illnesses.

“It’s amazing to me that any other organ in your body can break down and there’s no shame and stigma to it,” Warren said. “But if your brain breaks down you’re supposed to keep it a secret.”

For those paying attention, the “Sunday” in the Times’ lede might seem strange (which is a nice way of saying “downright inaccurate”). Other media, after all, reported that Saddleback has five weekend worship services, and that Warren began preaching at them Saturday afternoon.

On the adequate side, that’s how I’d characterize The Associated Press’ report on Warren’s return to the pulpit.

AP’s story seems to provide all the relevant facts, including this section:

In the sermon, first in a series called “How To Get Through What You’re Going Through,” Rick Warren said he had the perfect role model for his struggles.

“God knows what it’s like to lose a son,” Warren said.

He remained mostly composed, but choked back tears at times, including when he thanked his surviving two children.

Obviously, that direct quote refers to Jesus’ death on the cross. Here’s my question: Should the AP specify that? Or is it OK to assume that most readers know what he’s talking about?

On the truly exceptional side, check out this report from Time magazine writer Elizabeth Dias, whose specialties include religion coverage.

Dias provides all the facts that AP does, but she also produces a real story — narrative journalism on deadline — filled with nuggets of important detail.

For example, while AP mentions “notes and quotes from Scripture,” the Time story references specific Bible passages:

In the four months that followed, the Warrens have drawn comfort from the community of faith, both ancient and new. They have treasured old biblical passages from the prophet Isaiah — “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown” — and from the Apostle Paul — “God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.” Friends and family have also held them close. “I am in this family of spiritual redwoods,” Rick said. “Satan picked the wrong team to pick on.”

Ultimately, they both hold to the hope that God is with people during their times of trouble, and that God will raise the dead. Matthew’s body was buried in brokenness, Kay said, but will be raised in strength. Rick reminded everyone that heaven is coming. He quoted the Book of Revelation: “Then God will wipe away every tear from their eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will pass away.”

And while AP gives the name of the sermon series, the Time story puts the emphasis into a larger context:

For the next six Sundays, Rick will preach a sermon series entitled, “How to get through what you’re going through.” He will devote a message to each of the six stages of grief: shock, sorrow, struggle, surrender, sanctification and service. A larger program to address the specifics of mental illness has yet to be revealed, but it will be similar, Rick said, to the way their church has helped to tackle the HIV crisis.

Dias ends on this powerful note:

Then, as the service closed, Rick joined the worship team in singing a favorite evangelical hymn, “Blessed Be Your Name.” He lifted his Bible high above his head and declared boldly to the God he serves: “You give and take away, my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.”

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.


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