Rick Warren is considered to be one of the most important Evangelical leaders in the United States. He turned the small Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, with a congregation of barely 200, into one of the largest mega churches in the country. Not necessarily through inspiration, but with clever marketing.
Not stopping there, he developed material for church growth seminars, and more than 400,000 pastors from 162 countries have been trained in Warren's corporatizing of religion techniques. His book The Purpose Driven Church, has sold over a million copies.
One of the pastors to be educated in the Warren system, as well as that of another "church growth" marketeer, Bill Hybels (Willow Creek), is Stephen Harper's friend and spiritual advisor, Brent Trask, who was able to turn his small Bow Valley Alliance Church in Calgary, into an investor's dream.
Founded in 1986 by a few dozen families who gathered in a school, Bow Valley Alliance had grown at such a heady rate that it was obliged to move to a shopping mall and a community college before taking over the Dutch Canadian Club hall, where Brent Trask, its ambitious young pastor, was turning Bow Valley into one of the high-energy experiments in conservative Protestantism that were erupting across continent. Like Harper, Trask took his inspiration from the U.S., where two gurus of church growth, Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, were transforming contemporary worship, using Christian rock music and corporate marketing techniques to attract the enormous memberships that have made the evangelical movement a force to be reckoned with in American politics.(1)However, many critics suggest that Warren, Hybels, and others in the church growth movement, are not converting, but stealing the already converted from smaller, struggling churches.
Theologian Michael J. Penfold writes:
The new packaging is all about replacement. A ‘stage’ with a moveable Perspex lectern replaces the old wooden pulpit. PowerPoint graphics replace the hymn books. A rock band replaces the organ. A casually dressed and jovial audience replaces the reverent congregation. A charming minister in a t-shirt and jeans replaces the suited ‘preacher’. Fun replaces holiness as the tone of the service. Loud music, side-splitting drama, multimedia presentations and a humorous ‘talk’ replace hymn singing and preaching. But, we’re confidently assured, the message remains the same.It is said that when these mega churches move into a community, they become the Walmart of Christianity, driving others out of business. And when they don't close up shop, they are bought out in "corporate mergers".
Judging by numbers alone the new model has certainly proved a success. Prominent ‘church growth’ pastors like Robert Schuller (Crystal Cathedral, LA), Rick Warren (Saddleback Church, California), Bill Hybels (Willow Creek Church, Chicago) and Joel Osteen (Lakewood Church, Houston) attract thousands to their churches each Sunday. Though a majority of this ‘growth’ occurs by transfer rather than ‘conversion’... (2)
And it's not only the corporate style worship centres that small community churches have to compete with, but also the para-churches, like the Promise Keepers, brought to Canada by Harper MP David Sweet, and countless "family values" groups, that have turned Christianity into a cottage industry.
There is only so much money to go around, and as with society now as a whole, all the wealth is going to the top.
Rick Warren: the Buck Stops Here
Rick Warren is a very wealthy man. His books are selling like wildfire, and his publisher, Rupert Murdoch, couldn't be happier.
ATOP 30 ROCKEFELLER PLAZA in one of Manhattan's most celebrated ballrooms, media mogul Rupert Murdoch stepped up to microphone. It was September 2004, and gathered before him was the Who's Who of the New York publishing elite. "When an author sells a million copies of his book, we think he's a genius. When he sells twenty million, we say we're the geniuses."Murdoch is not only a publisher for the Religious Right, but is now the official publisher to the Tea Party.
Murdoch was introducing Rick Warren, a folksy Southern Baptist preacher from suburban southern California. As head of the media conglomerate that published Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life, Murdoch had much to smile about. The book had become the bestselling work of nonfiction in history (other than the Bible) and had been translated into more than fifty different languages. Long before this, Warren had made a name for himself in evangelical circles. An earlier book, The Purpose-Driven Church, had sold a million copies, and over the years thousands of pastors had attended conferences to hear Warren and his staff talk about their approach to church growth. (3)
Because his books are selling so well, Warren, in a seemingly magnanimous gesture, is now tithing 90% of his salary obtained from the Saddleback Alliance to that church.
Just how generous an offer is that? Why not simply forgo taking a salary, or reduce his salary by 90%?
He can claim that 90% against royalties from his book, but then tap into it tax free, as the church covers all of his travel expenses.
In an unguarded moment, Warren revealed his feelings toward paying taxes. When President Obama sent out the alarm that the country is losing revenue at an alarming rate, making it difficult to sustain social programs, Warren tweeted that instead of going after the wealthy to pay more, Obama needed to go after the lower class, many of whom, he claimed, paid no taxes at all.
A ludicrous assumption. Everyone pays taxes in some form.
After getting into a verbal battle with a woman, Warren removed the tweet, and simply left it with her, that he was going to pray for her soul. I don't think it's her soul that is in trouble.
As Michael Lindsay reminds us, when speaking of the enormous wealth of the new religious leaders, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Matthew 10:25
The Saddleback Church is located in the heart of Orange Country, one of the wealthiest districts in the U.S. In fact, many of these mega churches deliberately move into upscale neighbourhoods.
However, there is another story in Orange County that gets little attention. I recently watched a documentary about the homeless children in O.C., who live in motels with their parents.
Families living in one room, washing their dishes in the bathroom sink, simply because that's all they can afford. And they are not welfare recipients, but at least one of their parents work. One mother was a nurses aid at the local hospital, and another worked at Disneyland.
Are these the tax exempt people that Warren refers to?
He is currently behind a project called PEACE, an acronym for Promote reconciliation - Equip servant leaders - Assist the poor - Care for the sick - Educate the next generation. It is a call to other Evangelicals to come to the aid of the globe's most distressed, especially in Africa.
However, given Warren's strong opinions on abortion and homosexuality, will this end up another Uganda, where hatred is exported to regions who felt no such hatred?
Making poverty history around the world is important, but it should include his backyard. Paying his fair share of taxes, would go a long way into ensuring that the homeless children of Orange County can look forward to a better life.
One of the scenes in the documentary show the children pledging the oath of allegiance. When asked the importance of the oath, all agreed that it was about freedom and rights.
One young man was asked what having rights meant, and he answered "the right to remain silent". The only "right" he understood.
He was six.
The fastest growing industry in Schaeffer's Northern Europe, is corporate religion. They sell dreams, but the only ones cashing in on the dreams are the elite of the movement, while the rest are simply told that if they believed in God more, and gave more money to the elite, they too will be blessed with wealth beyond their wildest dreams.
It's certainly understandable why Stephen Harper would be drawn to a mega church. The tax free privatization of souls.
1. The Armageddon Factor, By Marci McDonald, Random House, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-307-35646-8, p. 23
2. The Purpose Driven Church (a critique), By Michael J. Penfold, Penfold Book & Bible House, 2007
3. Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, By D. Michael Lindsay, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-19-532666-6, p. 1