Editor's Note: Our contributing editor Gerardo Marti returns with his reflections on Rick Warren and his presence in American public religious life.

Warren-ology – Filling in the gaps on Rick Warren and his church
by Gerardo Marti

With Pastor Rick Warren’s inaugural prayer and the debate surrounding President Obama’s invitation for him to give it, I am reminded of how little people really known about Rick Warren or his Southern California church. Warren’s abrupt appearance on the political stage have various commentators sweeping this successful church leader into rants reflecting old culture-politics against the Religious Right mingled with a smattering of stereotypes about “megachurches.”

First and foremost—and despite popular opinion— domestic politics are not the major emphasis of Rick Warren and his pastoral team. With all the attention he is receiving in the past few months, this may seem surprising. But for the most part politics are kept off the main agenda.

To give a bit of background, here’s my quick attempt to fill in a few gaps.

In the 1980s, the suburbs of Orange County expanded southward as developers sought more profit and families sought cheaper (and bigger) housing. Residents moving to “South Orange County” were not long-entrenched, well-traditional, multi-generational dynasties. These were highly mobile folk who moved from the Midwest or other parts of the southland. They were attracted to (or maybe just used to) the American dream of independent housing complete with a fenced-in lawn and two-car garage with grocery stores, shopping malls, and multi-plex theaters within easy driving distance. New schools promised better education, new streets promised better traffic, and new churches promised better religion.

The young Rick Warren built a ministry focused on the private lives of these parishioners. At the same time that most evangelicals were aggressively drawn into the Religious Right with the expectation that church leaders aggressively mobilize their churches to the straight ticket of “Voter Guides,” Saddleback for the most part kept plowing away at preaching, counseling, child care, recovery ministries, and small groups. That helped the church retain it’s “easy access” profile, but it also alienated the church from other conservatives in the region who believed the church lacked “depth.” It was only much later that Warren began to speak publicly about certain political stances, expanding the ministry into new (and more delicate) arenas. Saddleback’s extensive work in Africa was the boldest move. Domestic politics, even today, are still not the main agenda. And Warren is still considered by more fundamentalist-leaning Conservative Christians to be too light on doctrine and undemanding on personal discipleship.

Rick Warren is Southern Baptist, one that puts the saving and ministering of souls above mere “tradition.” He began his Saddleback Community Church going door-to-door asking local residents about what they like and hate about church. Based on his personal “survey,” Warren initiated his ministry at a time when the economics and demographics of Southern California most favored an easy-to-access church. The notion of an “easy-access church” (just my phrase, Warren and others use “seeker sensitive”) is to remove any obstacles that might keep people from committing to a church.

In a region that had no historical roots, creating an “effective” church meant setting aside Bible-church ministry dogma and creating a congregational culture that actively welcomed strangers. Appreciating the distinctiveness of these South Orange County migrants, Saddleback cultivated its ministry style in part from the phenomenal successes of nearby entertainment industries. The local movie theaters regularly bring strangers into community (as the Los Angeles region still has one of the highest movie-going populations in the world). And the conglomeration of nearby amusement parks (Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, and a host of subsidiary tourist attractions) draws thousands of daily. Disneyland is king of all these industries, setting the standard for capturing attention, crowd control, and keeping attractions continually fresh. The saturated experience of Disney affected many businesses in Los Angeles and eventually the rest of the world. Innovative ministries like Saddleback integrated these paradigms and technologies earlier than most.

So, his church accommodated intentionally for turnstyle attendance, and it worked. Saddleback Community Church mixed a church-planter’s ambition to build a dynamic church for the “unchurched” with an ability to transform streams of visitors into a cohesive congregational community. Designing their parking, greeting, seating, and responding to attenders with this mindset allowed for lots of people who did not know each other to fit together comfortably—comfortably enough for a spiritual message that would legitimately challenge their family, finance, and faith life. Amidst the rapid rise of attendance, the earliest members were not only loyal but also committed to further growth of the church.

Like many notable preachers in Los Angeles and nationwide, Warren crafted a persona for mass consumption not as a sham but as a response to the contingencies of the region. Saddleback has attracted over 10,000 attenders for well over a decade. Gifted pastoral assistants and talented church staff are both attracted and recruited to the expanding congregation with one of the most dynamic and interesting set of ministry programs in the country. Rick Warren and his team hosted successful church growth conferences for thousands of church leaders years before he set it down in a bestselling book titled The Purpose Driven Church. And the great success of that book is what eventually led Warren to personalize his message to individuals on a broad scale, the book that became The Purpose Driven Life.

In the wake of his success, Warren has proved to be an affable spokesperson to voicing a mainstream evangelical view of God and society. And while it is impossible to ignore the political views of this conservative evangelical—an innovative and quite open conservative evangelical—the crafting of a church for the broadest audiences from the ground up should give us pause regarding the resonance many feel to his approach to the church management and his articulation of the Christian faith.


Gerardo Marti said…
An article just came through the Associated Press that parallels some of my comments here. See:

Phil said…
Thanks for this informative post, Gerardo, and for such a helpful contextualization of Warren's history. I like Zoll’s article, too. And Randall Balmer has a chapter on Warren in the latest edition of _Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory_.

With _Mosaic_ and _ Hollywood Faith_ you certainly know the SoCal religious scene well. I wonder how the trends and practices you write about in your books compare and/or contrast with those of Saddleback?

Readers may or may not have heard about Warren’s latest book, _The Purpose of Christmas_. I thumbed through it at an in-law’s house last week, and found that it continued to articulate the readable simplicity of the purpose-driven message and hit the major points of conservative evangelical theology (e.g., centrality of Jesus, authority of Bible, etc.). Yet with a closing chapter on Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. plan it registered as decidedly more cosmopolitan in outlook and almost activist in tone. It certainly corresponds to your description of him as a conservative, “open” evangelical. It will be fascinating to watch the story of Rick Warren continue to develop.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for posting your article. It gives good insight into who Rick Warren is and what he's about. I think that the invitation for Warren to give the innvocation at the inauguration has stirred many questions within the Christian community that has left some believers asking why he would pray for the liberal president-elect. I think that your article might help many see that Warren's focus has alway been to reach out to the unchurched and the stranger to the things of God. Personally, I'm grateful that Warren has an opportunity to pray publically (globally) for the president-elect and our nation. May God give Rick incredible insight and wisdom as he prays.

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