A Conversation with Pastor Rick Warren
The evangelical Christian movement historically has been defined by its members’ distinctive doctrinal standards and practices. Yet in recent years many Americans have come to understand evangelicals more by their political, rather than religious, identity.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church
The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life invited Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., to discuss how this political association has affected the evangelical movement, what evangelicals’ most important concerns are today, and how the movement is evolving. Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” hosted a presidential candidate forum at his church during the 2008 campaign. Several months later he delivered the inaugural prayer at President Barack Obama’s swearing-in.
Rick Warren, Pastor, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Calif.
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics and Public Policy Center
In the following excerpt, ellipses have been omitted to facilitate reading. Find the full transcript at pewforum.org.
WARREN: The last 50 years has seen the greatest redistribution of a religion ever in the history of the world. There is nothing even to compare to it. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century, in 1900, 71% of all, quote, “Christians” lived in Europe. By 2000 only 28% claimed to be Christian, and I’m sure it’s far smaller than that who actually even go to a church.
On the other hand, Christianity was exploding in Africa, Asia and Latin America. If you want to know the future of evangelicalism, it is in those continents. To give you an example, in 1900 there were only 10 million Christians in all of Africa — 10% of the population. Today there are 360 million Christians in Africa, over half the population. That is a complete turnaround on a continent that’s never, ever been seen or done in history.
You may be surprised to know that there are more Christians in China than there are in America, by far. There are more Presbyterians in Ghana than there are in Scotland, where they came out of with John Knox. There are more Baptists in Nagaland, a state in India, than there are in the South here in America. There are more Anglicans in either Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria — any of these — than in England. There are 2 million Anglicans in England. There are 17 million Anglicans in Nigeria.
The Church of England is a misnomer. It is now the Church of Africa. I have been involved in the ordination of many of those Anglican leaders. They have spread all over. Last Sunday there were more Christians who went to church in China than all of Europe combined. That is a fundamental shift. If you want to know the future of Christianity, it is the developing world. It’s Africa, it’s Latin America, and it’s Asia.
In fact, there are about 15,000 missionaries now working in England from Brazil, China, Korea, other countries that you used to think, well, those would receive missionaries. In fact, Brazil sends out far more missionaries than either Great Britain or Canada combined. So that’s a fundamental shift.
That’s all I’m going to say about the future of evangelicalism. It ain’t here. Okay? It isn’t Europe. Now, I will say this: The world is becoming more religious. There are 600 million Buddhists. There are 800 million Hindus. There are 1. billion Muslims. And there are 2.3 billion Christians.
That means the actual number of secularists outside of Europe and Manhattan is quite small. It really is quite small, and we don’t understand it. We’re in this little bubble that we think most people don’t have a faith. Well, you need to get a life and get around the world because most people have some kind of faith.
What I’m going to do is I’m going to give you an outline of the signature issues of Saddleback Church. If you want to talk about any of those, we can. So I’ll just quickly give them to you. I started Saddleback Church in January of 1980. Our first service was on Easter 1980, in April. I had one member — my wife. I preached the first sermon. She thought it was too long. It’s been downhill ever since.
Today Saddleback is a 120-acre campus. It looks like a college. We typically will have 25,000 people on the weekend. I have over 100,000 names on a church roll. You need to understand I grew up in a little town in Northern California during Haight-Ashbury, and in the town I was in we had 500 people, so my church is like 1,000-times bigger than the town I grew up in. I could be a mayor.
I actually know my valley far more than any politician will ever know them because I’ve spent 30 years there. This will be my 30th anniversary year. I’ve been listening to them, talking to them, praying with them, walking through the weddings and the funerals and the proms and all those different divorces and different things like that.
When we started Saddleback, we said, we’re going to develop what we call signature issues that we want our church to be famous for because we think that they’re important. Not every church is called to do these, but we are called to do these. There are actually six signature issues.
The first one is what we call purpose-driven training. We began that signature issue in 1983 and today that network of churches, as I said, is in 162 countries. It’s global leadership training. We do training of what we call the three legs of the stool: business leadership, church leadership and public leadership in government.
The second signature issue of our church we started in 1993. Celebrate Recovery is a Bible-based recovery program. It’s similar to AA but it’s built on the actual words of Jesus. It began in 1993. In our church alone we’ve had over 13,000 people go through recovery. We’re talking about addictions and you name it. You couldn’t name a problem we haven’t dealt with in our church over those years. Now thousands of churches around the world use Celebrate Recovery. It is the official recovery program in 17 state prison systems here in America. It’s an official program in Russia and many, many other countries use this.
This fall we did a 50-day campaign called Life’s Healing Choices based around that. It’s the third time we’ve done it in our 30 years, and thousands of churches will begin that in January. You’re going to be hearing about churches doing Life’s Healing Choices, a recovery program, there.
The third signature issue we began in 2002, and that is our AIDS initiative for people infected and affected with AIDS. I credit my wife for this. My wife got cancer, and one day, laying on a couch after some chemo and radiation, she read an article that said 14 million kids were orphaned by AIDS in Africa. And she said, I have to admit I didn’t know a single orphan. I couldn’t imagine them being orphaned by just one disease.
We began to study that and began to be a part of it and actually took literally millions of dollars from the profit of the book and opened a foundation called Acts of Mercy to help those infected and affected with AIDS around the world. We do an annual global summit on AIDS to which pretty much every world leader who has been involved in that fight has been, including last year or two years ago during the campaign every one of the presidential candidates was represented there, either video or live.
You tell me in prevention whether you want to slow AIDS or you want to stop it, and I’ll tell you what it’s going to take. We are mobilizing churches literally all around the world to work with people with AIDS. That’s a signature issue with us.
The fourth signature issue we began in 2003. It’s called the P.E.A.C.E. Plan. It’s a global humanitarian effort to take on the five biggest problems on the planet: poverty, disease, illiteracy, corruption and conflict. P.E.A.C.E. stands for Promote reconciliation, Equip ethical leaders, “A” is assist the poor, “C” is care for the sick and “E” is educate the next generation. We believe that these problems are so big government can’t do it alone; business can’t do it alone; churches can’t do it alone. Some problems are so big you have to team tackle them.
I could take you to 10 million villages in the world; there’s nothing in them but a church. The church has more locations than all the Wal-Marts and Starbucks and everything else combined. It has more volunteers. The church was global 200 years before anybody started talking about globalization. Nothing has as many people groups, as many languages, as many contacts as the church.
Now you add in Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus — as I said, you’ve basically got most of the world, and so we cannot ignore that area. If you want to talk about that, I would be glad to. As I said, I’m taking Tony Blair with me to inspect some of our P.E.A.C.E. sites in Africa. We intend to be the first church in the history of Christianity to literally fulfill the great commission. Jesus’ last words were: “Go to every nation.”
There are 195 nations in the world. In the last five years, I’ve sent out over 9,000 of my members to 146 countries. We have 49 countries left. We’ll easily meet that goal by the end of this next year. We will be the first church in 2000 years of Christianity to literally go to every nation. And what are we doing? Promoting reconciliation, equipping ethical leaders, assisting the poor, caring for the sick, educating the next generation. That’s our fourth signature issue.
Our fifth signature issue is what we call our Civil Society Initiative. I believe that civilization is losing its civility. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it or not but the world is getting ruder. We’re getting more crass. You may not demonize a person just because they’re different, and differences do not demonize. Somehow we’ve got to follow that great theologian, Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”
You don’t have to agree with someone [not] to be disagreeable. You can walk hand in hand without seeing eye to eye. And the fact is, America is a democracy. In a democracy nobody wins all the time. I don’t. You don’t. Nobody does. That’s called a democracy. It doesn’t mean we pack up and leave the country because we don’t win.
I believe in the “good news.” I’m a Christian, I’m an evangelical and I’m a pastor. I believe in Jesus Christ. But I also believe in the common good and that there are some issues that have to be dealt with everybody on the common good. I don’t win all the time and neither do you, and so we have to learn to be civil. That’s why I spend most of my time not speaking to Christian groups.
In the last year I’ve spoken to atheist groups, secularist groups. I’ve spoken to the two largest Muslim conventions. I was the keynote speaker at the Reform convention of Judaism. I spend most of my time actually speaking to people who disagree with me, but I’m trying to build bridges because we’re on this planet together promoting civility and the common good.
Two other issues and then I’ll open it up [to questions]. The fifth signature issue is our orphan care issue. This is a brand-new one. We just began it two years ago, in 2007. As I said, there are 146 million orphans in the world. Whoever gets to those people first is going to get their hearts and minds — either madrassas or radicals or fundamentalists or whatever. [T]hat’s anarchy waiting to happen, 146 million orphans growing up without moms and dads.
I have been trying to convince both the Bush administration and the Obama administration — it’s the only thing I actually have ever talked to — I don’t talk policy ever with politicians — never. But I do care about orphans. And the one issue that I have talked to them about is it’s just good foreign policy to help the sick and help orphans.
It’s interesting that if you cross Africa — Bush is a hero all across Africa. I can’t tell you how many times people have said, my husband is alive because of PEPFAR [the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]. My wife is still alive because of PEPFAR. It is good foreign policy — and it’s a whole lot cheaper than tanks — to help people get well and to care for orphans.
But in our personal case in Saddleback, we have a goal of 500 families in our church adopting within the next three years. We already have 182 families that have adopted so far in this signature issue of orphan care. My wife Kay is actually right now – she’s spoken to four universities in the last two weeks. She’s in Michigan — spoke last night to 1,700 people on this issue of orphans and orphan care.
The last issue, which is our newest signature issue, is religious freedom and persecution. Many of you know that we do these civil forums. The first one that we ever did was actually on the Holocaust. I brought in six 90-year-old Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and let them tell their stories to 4,000 people in our church. We all wept and said, we must not ever let that happen again.
Read the full transcript at pewforum.org.