Rick Warren's tipping point

RickWarrenI'm not sure these days whether to be thankful for The New Yorker's frequent interest in the Godbeat or to be frustrated that it posts so few religion stories to its website. Fair enough, the web content for the September 12 issue focuses heavily on Hurricane Katrina's devastating effect on New Orleans. When your archives include a 28,000-word essay by John McPhee on efforts to control Mississippi River flooding, you're wise to raid the archives. Still, think of what The New Yorker left out from this week's issue: Eight pages. On Rick Warren. By Malcolm Gladwell.

I've gushed about The New Yorker's Peter Boyer before in this space, and his byline always means thoughtful coverage, but there's a great chemistry between Warren (one of the most significant influences on contemporary evangelicalism) and Gladwell (who can write more than 5,000 words on, geez, personality testing and make every word count).

Gladwell's article includes some tasty details:

• Warren predicted before he wrote The Purpose-Driven Life that it would sell 100 million copies (it's nearly a quarter of the way there).

• Warren's hero is the 19th-century London preacher Charles Spurgeon.

• Warren is a friend of Peter Drucker's, who says, "Warren is not building a tent revival ministry, like the old-style evangelists. He's building an army, like the Jesuits."

• Scott Bolinder of Zondervan Publishing uses the phrase "the tipping point" while speaking to the author who introduced that phrase into widespread usage: "That became the tipping point -- being able to launch that book with eleven hundred churches, right from the get-go. They became the evangelists for the book."

• "Twenty-five thousand churches have now participated in the congregation-wide '40 Days of Purpose' campaign, as have hundreds of small groups within companies and organizations, from the N.B.A. to the United States Postal Service." (We can expect the complaints about church-state separation any day now.)

One disappointment is Gladwell's political reading of the Lord's Prayer, which comes in the middle of an otherwise level-headed explanation of how evangelicals can speak of America as a Christian nation without intending to establish a theocracy:

The New Tesatment's most left-liberal text, the Lord's Prayer -- which, it should be pointed out, begins with a call for utopian social restructuring (“They will be done, On Earth as it is in Heaven"), then welfare relief (“Give us this day our daily bread"), and then income redistribution (“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors").

There are plenty of texts to choose from such as (Matt. 25:31-46) to establish Jesus' radical concern for the poor, and his warnings for those who add to, or do nothing to relieve, their oppression.

Warren indulges in some name-dropping:

"I had dinner with Jack Welch last Sunday night," he said. "He came to church, and we had dinner. I've been kind of mentoring him on his spiritual journey. And he said to me, 'Rick, you are the biggest thinker I have ever met in my life. The only other person I know who thinks globally like you is Rupert Murdoch.' And I said, 'That's interesting. I'm Rupert's pastor! Rupert published my book!'"

Now try to picture Murdoch clapping and swaying to "What a Mighty God We Serve."

For a time it looks as though Gladwell will neglect the crucial role of The Purpose-Driven Life in Ashley Smith's encounter with escaped prisoner Brian Nichols, or his efforts to turn Rwanda into nothing less than a Purpose-Driven Nation. But Gladwell delivers on both angles, and with the subtle balance his admirers expect from him regularly.

Gladwell writes of how Warren saw, in Psalm 72, how King David asked for greater wealth and influence so he could help the poor:

Out of that psalm, God said to me that the purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence. That changed my life. I had to repent. I said, I'm sorry, widows and orphans have not been on my radar. I live in Orange County. I life in the Saddleback Valley, which is all gated communities. There aren't any homeless people around. They are thirteen miles away, in Santa Ana, not here." He gestured toward the rolling green hills outside. "I started reading through Scripture. I said, How did I miss the two thousand verses on the poor in the Bible? So I said, I will use whatever affluence and influence that you give me to help those who are marginalized."

He and his wife, Kay, decided to reverse tithe, giving away ninety per cent of the tens of millions of dollars they earned from "The Purpose-Driven Life." They sat down with gay community leaders to talk about fighting AIDS. Warren has made repeated trips to Africa. He has sent out volunteers to forty-seven countries around the world, test-piloting experiments in microfinance and H.I.V. prevent and medical education. He decided to take the same networks he had built to train pastors and spread the purpose-driven life and put them to work on social problems.

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