Apologetics Index

Rick Warren – Praise and Criticism

Most secular news articles about Rick Warren focus on his success. Relatively few, including this Boston Globe story, also touch on some criticism:

A bear-like man who dresses in untucked Hawaiian shirts, [Rick] Warren, 51, has managed to marry a simple message — ”It’s not about you” — with an integrated mesh of mass media that is growing his audience exponentially. As American political life has shifted toward the right, Warren has assumed a place in the center of the movement, one of a new generation of leaders who have eclipsed and distanced themselves from controversy-dogged televangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Robertson, for example, ignited a firestorm recently for suggesting that Venezuela President Hugo Chavez be assassinated.

Warren’s 18,000-member church is one of the largest in the country. And his runaway best-seller, ”The Purpose Driven Life,” has sold 25 million copies since its publication in October 2002.

Although Warren is not an overtly political figure, his message is a conservative one on issues such as abortion, and his followers voted in lopsided numbers for President Bush. In this sense, Warren and similar evangelical ministers are a key aspect of the religious-conservative political ascendancy. While activist leaders such as James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention work more directly on political causes, Warren helps expand and prepare the spiritual ground that is the bedrock of the movement.

Warren ”really isn’t a political figure to any significant degree, but he’s a cultural figure, a fresh and contemporary face to evangelism,” said John Green, a University of Akron professor who specializes in the impact of religion on American politics. ”He represents the high point of a trend that’s been developing for a while — the adaptation of evangelical Protestantism to contemporary culture.”

Warren’s persona is that of an affable, laid-back surfer, but his delivery is as emphatically pointed as the strict Southern Baptist denomination to which he belongs. His is a ministry with a goatee and a wisecrack, but one that asks much of the faithful. And although his roots are deeply and unmistakably Californian, Warren is often dubbed ”America’s pastor” by observers of the religious scene, many of whom rank him second only to the Rev. Billy Graham in the popular hierarchy of evangelical leaders.

Some critics, however, say Warren has crafted a message that might be too user-friendly and that his methods sometimes seem overly commercial. Glen Stassen, an ethics professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., says Warren has skillfully adapted his church to the surrounding culture, but that he wonders whether the pastor is serving a watered-down Jesus to an affluent community groping for an anchor of meaning in a materialistic world.

”He’s making worship very informal to go with the informal culture of Southern California, and he’s studying the attitudes of people in the area to try to make the church conform to the surrounding culture,” Stassen said. ”The way of Jesus has been thinned down so it won’t offend any of the reigning ideologies, so you get a very thin Jesus. I want a thick Jesus.”

Despite such concerns, Warren’s success reflects the mainstreaming of American evangelicals. In addition to the phenomenon of ”The Purpose Driven Life,” Warren says his ministry has reached 400,000 pastors in 162 countries. His counsel for godly living and growing churches is disseminated through seminars such as the AIDS conference, DVDs, tapes of sermons, books, pamphlets, and weekly newsletters that reach more than 250,000 people through the Internet.Pastor rivets many without politics, The Boston Globe, USA, Oct. 11, 2005

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First published (or major update) on Monday, March 27, 2006.
Last updated on February 29, 2012.

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