Rick Warren: ‘What on earth is he here for?’

New biography on the Saddleback pastor talks about his attitude for a ‘stewardship of influence’ — where God has opened a door for him.

By Ronald E. Keener

When author Jeffery L. Sheler finished the task of writing a biography of Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, Sheler described it as an “honest, thorough, authoritative, and nuanced treatment of the life of one ordinary man who has been set in an extraordinary place and time with extraordinary gifts, and who is doing his best to complete the course he believes his God has set before him.” Warren, of course, authored that blockbuster selling book, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?, that made millions of dollars for Warren and sales profits for Zondervan.

The Sheler book, Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren (Doubleday, 2009), is not an authorized biography but Sheler received Warren’s cooperation and access to members of his family and staff. Says Sheler: “He agreed to 10 hours of interviews, although those were spread out over two years and two continents. He allowed me to sit in on some private meetings and to accompany him on a trip to Rwanda.”

Sheler, formerly active in the Presbyterian Church (USA) with his wife, presently attends a conservative Episcopal parish in southern Virginia. He spent 24 years reporting for U.S. News & World Report, including 15 years as the religion editor. He is still a contributing editor for the magazine, and works from Portsmouth, VA. Church Executive interviewed him about the making of the Warren biography:

Warren mentions using his influence to work in the world. Was there a context — Christian or otherwise — that he might have talked about in projecting his influence, in applying or leveraging his notoriety for Christian work in the world beyond the local church?

After Warren’s first best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Church, took off in 1996 and 1997, he found himself increasingly in demand as a speaker and counselor among business and political leaders, academics, entertainers and other influential people outside the church world. Very early on he saw that as an opportunity to exert a pastoral influence in circles that few pastors ever have the chance to travel, and he adopted an attitude of what he would later call a “stewardship of influence.”

He felt strongly that God had opened a door for him and that it was not for his personal aggrandizement. He felt compelled to use these new connections to minister to people who may never otherwise darken the door of a church. To him, it was an expansion of what he had been doing for years as a pastor — being a teacher and counselor and propagator of the Gospel to the unchurched — only now it was for an added national and international flock of cultural elites.

Was there something about Warren’s career that really was new to you, that surprised you and was not generally known in the public record?

I’d say his calculated efforts to expand his circle of influence. That was new to me, and I learned about it only by talking with some of Warren’s former associates. He himself characterizes it entirely as “a God thing” that simply fell into his lap.

He engaged in a studied approach to meeting the movers and shakers, politicians and others, to maximize his impact in making a difference in the world? You mention his “strategic outreach.”

To him, part of the idea of stewardship meant that he needed to approach these opportunities proactively rather than passively and find ways to multiply the opportunities and maximize the impact. Sometimes, from the outside, these efforts are perceived as little more than self promotion and social climbing, and there are plenty of critics who have called him out on that.

But if one looks carefully at who has benefitted most from Warren’s rising stature, it has not been Warren personally or even his church, but the tens of thousands of bi-vocational pastors he has personally mentored over the years and the millions of poor in Africa and elsewhere who are being helped as a result of his mobilization of thousands of Christian volunteers around the world. He likes to say that he has used his unexpected affluence and influence to advocate for those who have neither.

Warren seems to recognize “the increasingly important role that religion plays in global affairs.” What do you make of that?

Whenever he addresses world leaders at forums like Davos, the United Nations, or the Council on Foreign Relations, Warren challenges the notion of an ascendancy of secularism around the world. He is convinced that only in Europe, Manhattan, and maybe in Hollywood may that be the case.

He sees the world as overwhelmingly and increasingly religious, and he is convinced that only the world’s religions — plural — have the ability, the will and the human resources to tackle some of the world’s most intransigent social problems. He often says it will take all three legs of the stool — government, the private sector and faith communities — working together to get the job done.

How does Warren avoid getting “sucked in” by competing interests, not becoming political and not allowing himself to be used for political purposes?

Sometimes he doesn’t avoid it, but I do give him high marks for trying. He has tried to model himself after Billy Graham — in the post-Nixon years — by avoiding political and policy discussion and by being a pastor to those he counsels, focusing on their spiritual needs, their families, how they are coping with stress, and so on.

He also makes a conscious effort to be bipartisan in his relationships, which was exemplified pretty well in the last election in the personal friendships he had with both presidential candidates. He has fallen short a couple of times — his all-but-by-name endorsement of George W. Bush in a message to pastors late in the 2004 campaign, and the bumbling way he handled his endorsement of Proposition 8 in California in 2008. He has acknowledged his error in both of those instances and has apologized. Hopefully he has learned from them.

Warren apparently is willing to work with other faiths to “team tackle” the big issues. He seems committed to helping people regardless of faith, yet doesn’t compromise his Christian views?

That’s right. In promoting his global PEACE plan [a worldwide effort to Promote reconciliation, Equip servant-leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick, and Educate the next generation] he invites people of any and all faiths to participate, although only to Christian audiences does he say the plan will help bring about a new Reformation. The first Reformation, he says, was about creeds; the new one will be about deeds. For him, as a Southern Baptist minister, Christian doctrine is settled. No reformation is needed there. What needs reforming now, he says, are Christian actions, learning how to be more the hands and feet of Christ in the world and less of a mouth.

Did you find much criticism in talking with other clergymen and doing research of Warren’s approach to being center stage in the world and its problems?

Warren’s critics are legion, and most are fellow evangelicals who accuse him of watering down the salvation message and avoiding the “hard truths” of the Gospel. I don’t believe they make a convincing argument. Warren’s approach to evangelism is to offer an inviting message emphasizing God’s love and having a relationship with Christ.

He wants to make it easy for people to begin a faith journey. But it is a journey, and people who accept Christ at Warren’s church are led through a biblical curriculum where they experience steps of spiritual growth and where they discover the cost of discipleship. They don’t get it all thrown at them at once. It’s a progression, and if you look at the numbers, it appears to be effective. Some of the antipathy toward Warren, I think, is rooted in envy.

Warren set up three foundations to place his money from the PD book sales. Was there a final figure (to date) of the proceeds of the sales of the Purpose Driven Life books?

I could not find them. Those numbers are closely guarded, and as religiously oriented institutions, the foundations are not required to file form 990s. In 2006, four years after The Purpose-Driven Life came out, Forbes magazine estimated that Warren had earned $25 million from the book. I’m not sure how accurate that figure was. The book is still on the New York Times bestseller list in paperback. To say its earnings have doubled since then would be extremely conservative.

You wrote that those who speak for the influential evangelical faith movement of 60 million Americans that it is “difficult to discern the prophets from the self-promoters.” I take it you definitely put Warren in the former category — thus the title — rather than the latter?

I think a prophet can also be a self-promoter. None of the Bible’s prophets who I can recall were shrinking violets. Warren certainly isn’t. He is a powerful exhorter and motivator and I believe he is doing his best to understand and proclaim God’s word. Those certainly are prophetic characteristics. The true test of a prophet, I think, is in the product of his labors — truth proclaimed, justice commended, lives turned toward God. Warren has scored pretty well in those areas so far. Let’s see how it goes.


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