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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series based on an interview with Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in Southern California, which he and his wife of 30 years, Kay, founded in 1980 with one family. In part one, Warren responds to critics among his fellow evangelical travelers. In part two, published tomorrow, the senior pastor – called by Newsweek one of “15 People Who Make America Great” – discusses how he handles fame, his unconventional approach to ministry and his visit last year with Syrian leader Bashar Assad. In part three, he responds to concerns about the pitfalls of partnering with government and his massive AIDS initiative.
Rick Warren prays with people infected with HIV who participated in his church’s “Global Summit on AIDS and the Church” (WND photo)
LAKE FOREST, Calif. – Widely regarded by mainstream media as one of America’s most influential leaders, he’s met with dictators, apologized to Muslims on behalf of Christianity, accepted blame for global warming and invited pro-choice politicians to speak at his Southern California megachurch.
All of that, and more, raises red flags with a sizeable number of evangelicals who share the traditional theological and social views of Rick Warren’s Southern Baptist roots. The blue jeans-clad pastor of 22,000-strong Saddleback Church in Orange County says that with guidance from Billy Graham, he has intentionally tried to avoid engaging his critics. But on the heels of an appearance by Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton at his church’s conference on AIDS, he welcomed the opportunity to sit down and talk with WND.
Obvious to anyone who visits the 120-acre resort-style campus of Saddleback Church and begins to grasp the scope of its worldwide ministry, Warren is a grand visionary, with a coalition of congregations in 167 countries, training of more than 500,000 ministers, 2,800 home groups and 7,500 sent on missions teams in the past three years – not to mention a global “P.E.A.C.E. plan. And he admitted he often has been willing to overlook details in which some find the devil.
The 53-year-old author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” the best-selling hardback book of all time, also confesses to impulsiveness, which sometimes has led to trouble.
“Without a doubt,” he told WND. “I make mistakes all the time.”
Rick Warren prepares to introduce Sen. Hillary Clinton to his AIDS summit (WND photo)
But he added, “I always own up to mistakes that I actually do. I just won’t own up to mistakes that weren’t really a mistake.”
Many false claims, he contended, have taken on a life of their own on Internet blogs, such as assertions he was mentored by positive-thinking pastor Robert Schuller and influenced by Norman Vincent Peale. The claims often are tied to criticism he’s preaching a watered-down, pop-psychology gospel of self-esteem and “easy believism.”
“I’ve only met Robert Schuller twice, I believe. I’ve never had a one-on-one conversation with him. Not once. So how do I even know him?” Warren said, adding he’s never even read a book by Peale.
Small groups and intensive discipleship are the heart of Saddleback, he argued, with weekends oriented toward reaching the unchurched. But he, nevertheless, insists his preaching regularly focuses on weighty subjects, such as sanctification, noting, as one example, he took two and a half years to teach through the book of Romans.
“People don’t know this,” he said. “They think I’m teaching on stress every week.”
Ultimately, the fourth-generation pastor – whose great-grandfather was converted under legendary evangelist Charles Spurgeon – says there is one simple truth that best explains his often unconventional approach to ministry and frequent ventures into controversial relationships and associations.
“People don’t understand that I am fundamentally, foremost an evangelist,” he told WND. “It’s what I care about. I don’t care about politics, I don’t care about political correctness, I don’t care about what established groups want me to do. I care about getting people into heaven.”
Pointing to his baptism last weekend of a founder of the radical homosexual-rights group ACT UP, Warren explained he is “trying to build bridges of love to different groups of people so that Jesus Christ can walk across into their life.”
Sen. Hillary Clinton with Rick Warren before she addressed Saddleback Church’s AIDS summit Nov. 29 (WND photo)
“I’m willing to put up with the misunderstanding. I’m willing to have people go, ‘Ohh, he’s such a politically naive guy.’ Or, he’s a pawn to be used,” Warren said.
He paraphrased Graham – himself the frequent target of criticism for his political forays – who often has said, “People may think you’re being used, but I’m using the gospel, getting the gospel out.”
Warren, recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of “America’s Top 25 Leaders,” has taken advantage of opportunities to speak at influential venues such as the United Nations, World Economic Forum, Council on Foreign Relations, African Union and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Ultimately, he argues his motivation can be found in the teachings of Jesus, who said, “I’m to love my enemies. That means I’m to love people who are totally opposed to me.”
Loving your enemies
But many of his fellow evangelicals argue the best way to love enemies is to graciously confront them with the truth.
Last month, Warren drew some fire for signing a dialogue-seeking letter in which Christian theologians and ministers responded to an initiative by 138 Muslim leaders by apologizing for the medieval Crusades and “excesses in the war on terror.”
Asked specifically which excesses he had in mind, Warren replied:
“Ahhh, you know what? I have no idea, because I didn’t sign it sentence-by-sentence.”
Rick Warren gestures as he talks about the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ (WND photo)
Similar to his endorsement of an initiative acknowledging man-made global warming, Warren said, “There might have been statements there I didn’t agree with, but generally I’m saying, I think it’s a good idea to get people talking.”
“It comes back to,” he said, referring to the letter to Muslims, “I am a pastor, not a politician. And what I’ve learned is that, in marriage if I’m trying to keep a divorce from happening – I’ve found as long as I can get the husband and wife talking, they’re not going to divorce. The moment the talking stops the divorce is inevitable.”
Warren insisted he’s “not a Pollyanna, thinking getting different interfaith groups together is going to bring world peace.”
“We know that isn’t going to happen,” he said. “It just isn’t going to happen. That’s not what the Scripture says.”
All religions are not alike, he emphasized, and one can’t be a Christian and adhere to any other faith. But he argued, “There’s a difference between compromise and civility.”
Rick Warren (WND photo)
As long as I’m talking with my enemy, Warren said, “he’s not sending a bomb my way.
“Don’t think that you’re going to bring in the kingdom with dialogue, you’re not going to do it,” he clarified. “It isn’t going to happen. But it can keep things from escalating.”
He interjected that this approach has led to productive discussions with prominent political and religious leaders in the Muslim world.
“What I don’t talk about publicly is the talks with people who call me behind the scenes,” he said.
“On the other hand – it’s going to sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, but I’m not, I believe this – the Bible says evil has to be opposed. Evil has to be stopped,” Warren continued. “The Bible does not say negotiate with evil. It says stop it. Stop evil. Hitler could not be negotiated with. And there are some people you cannot negotiate with.”
Warren argued there are many different kinds of Muslims in the world, and he’s met a sampling, from those “who wanted to cut my throat” to those who feel “like a brother.”
“Al-Qaida no more represents Islam than the Ku Klux Klan represents Christianity,” he contended. “Actually, if you study the background of al-Qaida, they were influenced by the same people who influenced Hitler. It was a lot of secular writers and Nietzsche and nihilists and stuff like that.”
Many of his critics take exception to that inference about Islam and further argue that agreeing to “excesses” in the war on terror and apologizing for the Crusades actually reinforces al-Qaida and other movements that use the claims as pretexts for their global jihad.
“Well, I understand that argument,” Warren said. “I disagree with it, because I’m not about to defend something that wasn’t Christianity. And the Crusades weren’t Christianity. Not as I see it.
Then why apologize?
Purpose Drive leads to Saddleback Church. Warren’s all-time best-seller, ‘The Purpose-Driven Life,’ begins with ‘It’s not about you’ (WND photo)
“I do apologize, because I apologize for anything done in the name of Christ, that Jesus would disavow,” he said. “I think Jesus would have disavowed the Crusades. Because the Crusades were largely about territorial land and not even about a personal relationship with Christ.”
Critics also argue the Crusades were a defensive response to Islamic jihad, and today Muslims are the aggressors in most of the world’s hot spots. Muslims aren’t apologizing for this, yet the letter to the Islamic leaders essentially puts Christians in the position of taking the blame.
“I’m not interested in what the radicals will do with that statement,” Warren said. “I’m interested in what the far-more majority of moderates will do with it, and say, Hey, maybe we should listen to this guy Rick Warren.”
Warren said apologies actually are an important part of his evangelism strategy, noting how the approach can disarm antagonism.
He pointed to one of the speakers at Saddleback’s AIDS conference, David Miller, a founder of ACT UP, who he “led to Christ, simply because I started with an apology.”
Some 20,000 people worship at Saddleback Church’s 120-acre campus on weekends (WND photo)
Two years ago, at the first “Global Summit on AIDS and the Church,” Warren recalls Miller came up to him “spittin’ nails.”
“He was so angry, he was ready to knock my head off,” said Warren, who remembered Miller telling him he had always hated the Christian church.
“Now, I could have been defensive back, but I said, ‘David, I’m sorry, I want to apologize to you for any meanness that’s been said to you in the name of Christ,'” Warren said.
“And it was like I punched him in the gut,” Warren continued. “You could have knocked the wind out of his sails. Like I just popped the balloon. And then, here, two years later, after this relationship, I’m going to baptize him.”
Not about the debate
On global warming, Warren said he didn’t endorse the “Evangelical Climate Initiative,” as others did, to assert humans are causing it.
“I don’t even care about that debate so much as I care that Christians should be at the forefront of taking care of the planet,” he said.
“And actually, you tell me which side you want to be on, and I’ll tell you which reports to read. OK. I can show you noted scientists who tell you we are near disaster, and I can show you noted scientists you say there is no problem at all.”
Warren said he does not support the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement rejected by the U.S. requiring radical emission reductions opponents say would destroy economies and harm the poor – “not at all do I agree with it.”
“I didn’t sign on to say, I believe all things that the radical environmentalists believe. Not at all,” he said. “I just thought Christians ought to be saying, We care about the planet too.”
Christians, he said, should be leading the move to take care of the Earth “with biblical principles, not political principles. And a lot of people are making this a bouncing ball right now.
“I think a lot of people read into my signature on that that I bought into everything that’s out there,” he said. “I certainly don’t. I don’t at all.
Blogs copy blogs
Warren contended some criticism is simply baseless, charging many “don’t do their due diligence on research.”
The Robert Schuller “mentorship,” for example, likely originated with a statement the Crystal Cathedral pastor made on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” he said. But Warren insisted he’s met Schuller only a couple of times and never had a one-on-one conversation with him.
A waterfall splits the stairway leading to Saddleback’s massive worship center (WND photo)
The claim, he said, was furthered by author George Mair in a biography called “A Life with Purpose” then spread like wildfire among Internet blogs.
“In the first place, this guy is not even a Christian, never talked to me, never talked to any staff member, never talked to any member of my family, and in the book claimed that he did,” Warren said. “He flat-out lied.”
Warren pointed out Mair is also the author of celebrity tomes such as “Paris Hilton: The Naked Truth” and “Oprah Winfrey: The Real Story.”
“What he does is he finds, quote, celebrities, and churns out a quick book,” Warren said.
The book was rife with errors from secondary sources, including the wrong number of children and wrong hometown, Warren argued.
“He said my model was Norman Vincent Peale. I’ve never met Norman Vincent Peale. I’ve never even read a book written by Norman Vincent Peale,” said Warren.
“A lot of Christians then took and read that stuff, reported it on a blog, blogs copy blogs copy blogs copy blogs. And it’s kind of like spreading a feather pillow, you can’t get all the feathers back.”
Warren said he has discussed with Billy Graham how to handle criticism.
“The general policy is, as much as possible, you don’t respond,” he said. “And so, I have to live with a lot of misconceptions about the thing with Schuller.”
Tomorrow: Warren – called by Newsweek one of “15 People Who Make America Great” – discusses how he handles fame, his unconventional approach to ministry and his visit last year with Syrian leader Bashar Assad.