Rick Warren is the greatest Christian success story now going: His Baptist fellowship, the Saddleback Valley Community Church, in California, is by most reckonings the second-largest church in the country, with a congregation of more than 16,000. Like Billy Graham before him, Warren has staked out a role as spiritual counselor to our nation's leaders: He was among a select panel of advisers President George W. Bush consulted for "discussion and prayer" as he prepared his speech commemorating the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
It's not hard to see why Warren is commanding such attention from the corridors of power and the culture at large. He preaches a big, broad, expansion-minded gospel, perfectly suited to a restlessly growth-minded American audience. His breakout best-selling book The Purpose Driven Church was a manual for ecclesiastical growth strategies in an age when Protestant belief remains high but many congregations report flagging church attendance. His congregation, which originated in 1980 in Warren's own living room in Orange County's Mission Viejo, today resembles a middle-aged suburban rave more than a traditional house of worship: Jumbotron captions above the pulpit and a cross-free altar, to allow for an unobstructed viewing of quick-change music acts; listener-friendly sermons, in which the garrulous Warren holds forth on modern-life topics such as career stress and status-seeking. "Worship is a lifestyle" is one of Warren's catchphrases, and his SoCal ministry, founded deliberately to woo wayward, overworked Boomers into the fold, is lifestyle incarnate.
And Warren has a powerfully emotional back story to his gospel of growth. As he recounts in a new book, The Purpose Driven Life, his audience-multiplying ministry was inspired by a scene at the deathbed of his father, a tremendously driven Baptist minister who had launched 150 churches across the world. As Warren's dad seemed about to succumb, he shot up and struggled to get out of bed, repeating, "Got to save one more for Jesus!" nearly a hundred times; in his dying hour, he turned it into a directive to his son: "Save one more for Jesus!"
While we might feel a reflexive distrust of Warren's Elmer-Gantry style religious monumentalism, there's nothing inherently dishonorable about such recruitment tactics (aggressive proselytizing is indeed one of the core distinguishing features of Christianity, dating back to the apostle Paul), and spiritual salesmanship has a long history in the pluralist marketplace of American religion. British revivalist George Whitefield and the great Connecticut divine Jonathan Edwards both set the country on an early course of soul-harvesting awakenings.
It would be unfair, in other words, to cast Warren as merely an unscrupulous evangelist on the make—in the mold of, say, Aimee Semple McPherson or the fallen Pentecostal power couple of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Warren has abjured the most basic outlet that such operators seize upon, a televisual ministry. Nor is his cross-denominational dedication to outreach work typical of Bakker types, either. Most elements of his wide-ranging ministry are accompanied by the proviso to reach across traditional lines of sect and denomination. But while Warren has deftly outfitted the old Baptist creed to the new century's info-based and exurb-sprawling spiritual market, his actual message does a subtle violence to the rigors of belief. In demanding so much of growth-minded Christian ministries, he winds up demanding too little of his fervently recruited believers.
The Purpose Driven Life is Warren's effort to consolidate the brand he's built out of church-growth advocacy. Instead of aiming the book at practicing Christians or fellow pastors (as he did with The Purpose Driven Church and continues to do on his Web site, www.Pastors.com), Warren is seeking to engage with a nonbelieving (or languidly believing) person in spiritual crisis. And his businesslike, bullet-pointed style is meeting with success. The Purpose Driven Life is the No. 7 best-selling book of nonfiction in the country, according to a Publishers' Weekly list released on March 3, and has sold, in advance, a rather astonishing 500,000 copies.
But any reader who comes to the book expecting a wrenching narrative of a soul's halting progress toward faith will be disappointed. Warren rather abruptly clears away the dramatic climax of most faith narratives: the crowning moment of conversion and rebirth into the spirit. His play for the reader's soul is briskly delivered early in the book: "Wherever you are reading this, I invite you to bow your head and quietly whisper the prayer that will change your eternity: Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you. … If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God!" It doesn't feel like a life-shaking epiphany so much as like having someone hand you his business card.
Warren stands apart from his evangelical forebears in another important respect: At no point does he place the newly minted believer at odds with the secular world's imperfect schemes of justice and reward. Historically, even mildly prophetic Christian revivalists have stressed the mandate of broad social reform—and more fiery ones have triggered full-blown crusades, from abolitionism and temperance down through the latter-day civil rights and anti-abortion movements. In Warren's hands, however, God seems keen to promote more of a Kiwanis-level social activism: "You may be given a godly passion for reaching a particular group of people with the gospel: businessmen, teenagers, foreign exchange students, young mothers, or those with a particular hobby or sport."
Of course, not every revivalist faith needs to be driven by social commitment; a lot of mainline Protestant churches are losing members precisely because they seem tediously bent on advertising their own social righteousness. Nevertheless, there is something important missing from a faith that envisions God directing his servants to settle down among narrow-casted groups of exchange students or hobbyists or Sunday athletes.
Longtime observers of the evangelical scene speculate that the softness behind the sell helps explain Warren's appeal to the W. White House. Mark Silk, who directs Trinity College's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, says ministries like Warren's have a special appeal for an administration where "everything is extraordinarily faith-based—not just social service programs." Silk also suggests that Bush well understands that Warren's brand of feel-good evangelism plays well with the mass audience that comes with the bully pulpit of the presidency. "It's a way of doing evangelicalism for people who get scared when they hear it in its unvarnished form."
This, rather than the abundance of marketing techniques and showman gimmicks that inflect Warren's style of self-presentation, is the most troubling feature of Warren's purpose-driven approach. It has historically been the nature of the Christian God to be something of an unstinting task master. Warren's God "wants to be your best friend." And this means, in turn, that God's most daunting property, the exercise of eternal judgment, is strategically downsized. When Warren turns his utility-minded feel-speak upon the symbolic iconography of the faith, the results are offensively bathetic: "When Jesus stretched his arms wide on the cross, he was saying, 'I love you this much.' " But God needs to be at a greater remove than a group hug. Surely we lose something if we apprehend the Bible, and the language of faith, as little more than a lesson book. "If you're not preaching life application," Warren has told one interviewer, "you're not really preaching." Yet if you're only believing in life application, what are you really believing?