EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second 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 responded to critics among his fellows evangelical travelers. In part two 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 leads ‘Global Summit on AIDS and the Church’ at his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif. (WND photo)
LAKE FOREST, Calif. – Rick Warren says he never wanted fame or celebrity, but when murder, bewilderment and grief engulfed a missionary base and church in Colorado this week, national media looked to the Southern California megachurch pastor to help make sense of it.
Whether or not there is such a thing as “America’s pastor” or an “evangelical spokesman,” the man called by Newsweek one of “15 People Who Make America Great” fits the bill for many mainstream journalists.
“I hate fame, but I love making an influence,” Warren told WND. “So you put up with some stuff.”
Some of that “stuff” is the criticism he receives from fellow evangelicals who accuse him, among many things, of preaching a watered-down gospel and appeasing dictators, Muslims, academic elites and left-leaning politicians.
In part one of an interview with WND at his Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, Warren said many of his critics “don’t understand that I am fundamentally, foremost an evangelist.”
“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,” he said. “I care about getting people into heaven.”
Warren emphasized he never sought to lead a movement.
“All I wanted to do was pastor my church for life,” he said. ” – So nobody is more surprised at where I’ve been. And these things that crack me up in the magazines – it’s laughable to my kids.
Children and grandchildren “keep your feet to the floor,” he said. “Everybody should mow their own lawn, change diapers, wash dishes, like I do. I don’t have any maids, don’t have any servants. You know, you just keep your head on the ground.”
Warren said that when people ask him how he keeps his focus amid the temptations that come with power, he asks them to “pray that I’ll have integrity, humility and generosity.”
They are the “antedotes to the three traps that leaders typically fall into,” he said, lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life ? or “passion, possession and position.”
Time magazine featured Warren in its list of 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Time called him one of “15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most” in 2004 and one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2005. U.S. News and World Report named him one of “America’s Top 25 Leaders” in 2005, and Newsweek magazine called him one of “15 People Who Make America Great.”
After the windfall from sales of his books – “The Purpose-Driven Life” is regarded as the best-selling hardback of all time – Warren dropped his salary and paid the church back for 25 years of wages. He and his wife, Kay, give a “reverse tithe” of 90 percent of their income and live on 10 percent.
But with 22,000 filling the 120-acre Saddleback campus on weekends, ministries in 167 countries and a global “P.E.A.C.E. plan that aims to conquer the world’s five biggest problems, he’s aware of being perceived as an “empire builder.”
“If I wanted a big name I would have gone on TV,” he said, arguing Saddleback “may be the only church of the 10 largest in the country that doesn’t televise its services.”
When Saddleback was founded in 1980 with just seven people, he “didn’t want to turn the church into a studio.”
“I don’t want to be a celebrity,” Warren said. “And on top of that, if I put my sermons on television, I compete with other churches, I don’t help them.”
Warren explained he’s a fourth-generation pastor, following his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who came to faith in Jesus Christ under legendary British evangelist Charles Spurgeon.
A brother, uncle and brother-in-law also are pastors.
“So I love pastors, and the pastors I care about the most are not the megachurch pastors,” he said. “It’s the real pastor. The guy in a 75-member church – the kind of church I grew up in all my life. If you open up ‘The Purpose-Driven Church’ book, you see it’s dedicated to bi-vocational pastors.”
Rick Warren (WND photo)
The “heroes,” he said, are the guys “out there flipping burgers during the week or getting a car mechanic shop in order to put food on the table and then trying to feed spiritual sheep on the weekend.”
With that in mind, he said, instead of going on TV, he decided to put his sermons on the Internet in 1992, prior to the advent of Netscape and Explorer.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of pastors have downloaded Saddleback sermons from around the world.
“I help these guys who have no Bibles, many times, no books,” Warren said. “They have no college education, no high school education and no seminary education. So they’re getting my material and it’s a simple format. They go, ‘I can teach this.’ And I’ve had guys around the world tell me, ‘Rick, you’re the only training I’ve ever had.’”
More than 500,000 ministers have been trained worldwide by Saddleback. A similar intensive discipleship process, he said, is applied to 2,800 small groups that meet in homes in a 100-mile swath that touches every city in Southern California, from Malibu in the north to Carlsbad in the south.
Based on a biblical model, he said, more than 7,500 church members have been sent out on mission teams in the past three years, with a goal to commission 10,000 more by the end of 2010.
The teams, he believes, are evidence that Saddleback’s approach is bearing fruit.
“How do you get people so mature that they will go to the mission field on their own and pay their own money and all that?” he asked. “It takes years of discipleship, years of maturity.”
What we’re all about
Warren said the biggest misunderstanding about Saddleback Church and his ministry is that what happens on Sunday morning is the main thing.
Saddleback’s main worship center
Many learn about Saddleback from secular journalists, he said, who assume the big crowd on weekends is “what we’re all about.”
But the thousands who come Saturday and Sunday are just a “funnel,” he said, to small-group ministry. Warren said his aim was to create something inexpensive and reproducible – evangelism-oriented meetings that would draw the unchurched. The current goal, he said, “is to reach 10,000 more people for Christ in the next 40 months here by the end of 2010.”
“A crowd is not a church,” he said. “A crowd can be turned into a church, and you have to have a big crowd to get a big church. But a crowd is not a church. So we don’t kid ourselves.”
Many large churches, he said, “spend all their time and all their money and all their energy on enormous props and videos.”
“We don’t do that at all,” he said. “We don’t do skits. We have testimonies on Sunday morning.”
Nevertheless, the sermons are not light fare, Warren insisted.
“I did a 12-week series on the doctrine of grace. I’ve done series on the incarnation. I’ve done series on sanctification,” he said. “I’ve done series on the fruit of the Spirit, through books of the Bible. I once taught through the book of Romans. It took me two and a half years.
“But even when I’m doing those, I relate it in a way that people who have no background could understand it,” he explained. “‘Oh, I get that. I’m not a believer, but I get that. It makes sense.’”
He also pointed out Saddleback practices church discipline.
“People have gotten kicked out of this church because they didn’t pay their bills, because they maligned other people, because they didn’t live a life of holiness,” he said.
“These are things that nobody even knows,” said Warren. “(They say) if you’re big, you must be shallow, you must be superficial; and actually, we have this discipleship process where we’re moving people.”
Rick Warren (WND photo)
A great church, he asserted, cannot be built quickly.
“If you ever see a church that grows really fast, it means it’s transfer growth,” he said. “It means, ‘What’s the hot act in town, let’s all go over there.’ And it’s not really growth, it’s swelling. It’s trading fish from aquarium to aquarium, instead of fishing for men.”
Saddleback’s size is for one simple purpose, Warren said: “We grow bigger because people need the Lord ? we grow because people without Christ go to hell.”
All things to all men
Warren said if his critics would know he is mostly “about getting people into heaven,” they would understand why, for example, he was willing to go to Syria one year ago and meet with its terrorist-supporting leader, Bashar Assad.
“I did not go to Syria for political purposes. Not at all,” he said. “I went for one reason, will they let me do the P.E.A.C.E. plan in Syria? Can I build enough of a bridge so I will not be persecuted by doing the P.E.A.C.E. plan, and can I help the Christians there?”
Rick Warren embraces an HIV patient at his ‘Global Summit on AIDS and the Church’ (WND photo)
P.E.A.C.E. is an acronym for “Plant churches, Equip servant leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick, and Educate the next generation.” It calls for “church-based small groups to adopt villages where spiritual emptiness, selfish leadership, poverty, disease, and ignorance keep people from experiencing the kind of life God wants them to have.”
The fundamental reason he is willing to meet with the leaders of rogue states such as North Korea or Iran, he said, is “because Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world.’ Not into all the politically correct world. But he even said, ‘Love your enemies.’”
He cited the Apostle Paul, who said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”
“I know people, bloggers, who think that’s heresy,” he said referring to online critics. “I know people who if I wrote that – and they didn’t know it was in the Bible ? they would say the guy is a chameleon.”
Paul, he argued, was not a chameleon, he was being strategic.
“Jesus said be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. And what the church is, usually, is harmless as a dove,” he said. “A lot of things that are being done today in the name of Christ are very unwise. Rather than opening doors for the Gospel, they are closing doors for the Gospel. They are giving us a black eye.”
He said, like the Apostle Paul, most of the criticism directed against him is from “the religious people.”
“It comes from people who are supposed to understand the gospel of grace but don’t act very gracious,” he said.
Warren noted one secular magazine called him “‘the evangelical that humanists love,’ or some stupid thing like that.”
That’s fine with him, he said, “because I want them to know the savior I know.”
“My job is not to save America,” Warren said. “My job is to save Americans. And my job is not to promote a public policy. My job is to win people to Christ that Jesus died for, whether they live in Iran or Afghanistan or Argentina or wherever.”
Damascus Road experience
Warren insisted the only mistake he made in Syria during his November 2006 visit was that he should not have allowed a photo op at the end of his meeting with Assad.
The state news agency issued a report that Warren contended was not accurate. It read: “Pastor Warren hailed the religious coexistence, tolerance and stability that the Syrian society is enjoying due to the wise leadership of President al-Assad, asserting that he will convey the true image about Syria to the American people.”
Warren also was quoted saying, “Syria wants peace, and Muslims and Christians live in this country jointly and peacefully since more than a thousand years, and this is not new for Syria.”
Syrian leader Bashar Assad
But Warren’s critics say, regardless of whether the state Syrian report was true, he was captured on a 50-second home video walking down a Damascus road mentioned in the book of Acts, Straight Street, saying Syria is “a moderate country, and the official government rule and position is to not allow any extremism of any kind.”
In the video, which was briefly posted on YouTube, Warren said, “Syria’s a place that has Muslims and Christians living together for 1,400 years. So it’s a lot more peaceful, honestly, than a lot of other places, because Christians were here first.”
Warren argued that when he suggested there was freedom of religion in Syria, he didn’t mean everyone had the freedom to convert to Christianity.
Christians are “actually meeting above ground, they are not in secret, I’ve been in their churches,” he said.
“The problem is we’ve got to get them moved to the next step, which is the freedom of conversion,” he contended.
“It’s quite different than in many places I’ve been ? I won’t mention the countries, but I’ve been in those countries where you can’t even meet above ground,” Warren said. “Every time I go to those countries, I have to go in secret.”
He argued the 2006 Open Doors’ World Watch List of countries that persecute Christians ranked Syria a relatively low 47th and notes that before his trip, he consulted the president of Open Doors, a member of his church who used to be on the Saddleback staff.
Explaining the context of the home video, Warren said his walk down Straight Street came just after he was granted virtually unprecedented permission by an imam to enter a crypt at Damascus’ largest mosque, where an old church is said to hold relics from John the Baptist.
The imam, he said, approached him as he prayed with his colleagues and said, “I sense in you you are a man of peace.”
“My host said, nobody gets in that crypt, residents, kings, muftis, nobody gets in that crypt,” Warren recalled.
“So I had just had that experience and I walk outside, and I’m walking down the street with a group of pastors and a home video captures me on a video and sees, ‘What do you think about freedom of religion?’ Well, it’s obvious nobody is picking me up right here. I’m walking down the street with a group of pastors, nobody is persecuting us. Now, that did not mean there is the freedom to convert. That’s the next step.”
Warren said the invitation from Assad came after the Syrian leader found out he was in the country.
“What am I going to say? No, I’m not going to meet him? I didn’t go there to meet him, it wasn’t even on the agenda.”
Warren said there were no photographers there during the meeting with Assad, but film crews were brought in at the end for a photo op.
“And then the government agency, of course, put out their pro-Syrian statement, ‘Rick Warren thinks we’re sliced bread,’ you know, that kind of stuff,” he recounted.
Warren said WND editor and CEO Joseph Farah then wrote an initial column based on information from the Syrian state news story.
“I happened to be in Rwanda from there,” Warren said. “I wrote Joseph and said, ‘Joseph that’s just not true. I didn’t say those things. You’re reading a statement.’ And he wrote back in a very accusatory letter that said, ‘Well, I can’t wait to see the video.’ In other words, he didn’t believe me.
“I didn’t lie at all. He didn’t stop to check it out,” Warren insisted. “And so he then writes six columns on the basis of his assumption. There was no video of that meeting. At the end, they took a picture, so he chose to believe what the government said, instead of believing me.”
Farah said he stands “by every word I wrote in those columns.”
“After all this time and all these different explanations, I am 100 percent convinced everything I wrote was accurate,” Farah said.
Tomorrow, Warren responds to concerns about the pitfalls of partnering with government and his massive AIDS initiative.