Has Rick Warren become a media darling or what? The man certainly knows how to communicate a message and apparently has no trouble using the mainstream media to do so. And reporters are eating up this guy and all the wonderful things he does, including his "reverse tithing," in which he says he keeps 10 percent of his income and gives the rest away ($14 million in 2004). In a glowing Washington Post story Saturday, reporter Paul Nussbaum gives us an update on what the sandal-wearing, goatee-sporting, Hawaiian shirt-clad Rick is up to these days:
"One of my goals is to take evangelicals back a century, to the 19th century," said Warren, 51, shifting painfully in his chair because of a back sprain suffered during an all-terrain-vehicle romp with his 20-year-old son, Matthew. "That was a time of muscular Christianity that cared about every aspect of life."
Not just personal salvation, but social action. Abolishing slavery. Ending child labor. Winning the right for women to vote.
It's time for modern evangelicals to trade words for deeds and get similarly involved, Warren contends.
Warren was tagged as the next Billy Graham a long time ago, but I think many reporters miss a critical distinction between the two. Graham was an evangelist unassociated with a church or a denomination. Warren is a fourth generation Baptist preacher and his church is Southern Baptist.
By all accounts, Warren is on the brink of becoming the most influential evangelical Christian in the United States. And this Washington Post story is dripping with The Message that Warren preaches.
At the end of his second sermon on that recent Sunday, he reminded his largely affluent Orange County audience: "Life is not about having more and getting more. It's about serving God and serving others."
That, simply put, is his message: Give your life to God, help others, spread the word. It is the same message that Christians have been preaching for 2,000 years. Warren has updated the language, added catchphrases and five-step guides, but he readily admits that "there is not a new idea in that book."
Well is that the same message Christians have been spreading for 2,000 years? Did Warren say that, or is that the reporter helping us readers along? Cite the source, Mr. Nussbaum.
Other than that small beef, I am having difficulty finding something to pick at in this story, except that it may have been too positive. The muscular Christianity theme worked well -- for Warren -- and there was little a negative word to say about the guy.
Warren "is able to cast the Christian story so people can hear it in fresh ways," said Donald E. Miller, director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.
"The Gen X-ers are sick and tired of flash and hype and marketing," Miller said. "The soft sell of a Rick Warren is far more attractive to them than a highly stylized TV presentation of the Christian message."
Among evangelicals, Warren is more influential than better-known and more divisive figures such as religious broadcasters Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell or radio psychologist James Dobson, and he is often seen as the heir to the Rev. Billy Graham as "America's pastor."
This could all easily backfire on Warren. He is human and he will make mistakes. And with the increasing public scrutiny, any mistake will be blown sky high. Just ask Peyton Manning.
Warren is riding high, but as I'm sure he is aware, many popular American preachers have been taken down tragically. And the media will not hold back in trashing him, even if all he does is trip up a bit. Perhaps Warren's connection with a church structure will help keep him straight. He answers to other humans in a formal way, unlike most independent television evangelists.