He was once the hottest evangelical in America. Now, 10 years after the book that made him a star, the pastor wants the spotlight again. This time, it may not be so easy.
"Have you hugged a pastor today!?"
Without waiting for an answer or even an introduction, Rick Warren, megachurch minister and bestselling author, crosses his Manhattan hotel suite and swallows me up in a teddy-bearish embrace. A coterie of aides and handlers look on in amusement but not surprise. Warren is all about the agape, and he is a fierce and frequent hugger.
This seems only fitting. Since exploding onto the global stage in 2002 with his phenomenally successful book The Purpose Driven Life, Warren has been the warm and friendly face of evangelicalism--a welcoming, avuncular alternative to hellfire-and-brimstone finger waggers such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. With his goatee and dressed-down aesthetic (for our meeting he's sporting jeans, a bright blue and robin's-egg plaid oxford, and black slip-ons), 58-year-old "Pastor Rick" cultivates the casual, cool-dad aura of the boomer generation to which he belongs. (He has the Korean rap phenomenon "Gangnam Style" as his ringtone and, in classic SoCal fashion, shuns socks unless visiting wintery climes such as New York in late November). Warren's ministry, similarly, presents Christianity in a relatable, user-friendly package, much in keeping with his book's uplifting promise that every one of our lives has meaning.
These days, however, the aggressively upbeat Warren is increasingly disheartened by what he sees as a "malaise" afoot in the land. "I feel America is in the emotional doldrums," he says sadly. The economy is sluggish, the political system is a disaster, and citizens are at each other's throats. He observes, "I think America is more divided today--and it's sad--than at any time since the Civil War."
Warren voices special concern for younger generations. "There's a lot of people in their 20s and even early 30s still waiting for their lives to start," he observes. They can't find jobs. They're moving back in with their parents. "They're like, where's the American Dream for me?"
Bottom line, says Warren: "This nation is in desperate need of some direction and purpose and meaning. Somebody's got to speak up now. And I thought, OK. If nobody else volunteers, I'll step up."
Which is precisely how the good reverend plans to spend the coming year. This holiday season, a 10th-anniversary edition of The Purpose Driven Life hits stores, updated with two new chapters and scads of links to video and audio extras designed for the age of social media. Next month Warren will launch a nationwide church "campaign" (as he did with the first edition) that enables ministers to order DIY teaching kits to help spread the purpose-driven message within their own congregations. With this reboot, Warren aims to introduce a new generation to the Good News--perhaps even spark a "Great Awakening" among the grassroots, he notes hopefully.
It is a tall order--and one that s ome in the evangelical community doubt Warren still has the juice to pull off. In the past couple of years, Warren's star has unquestionably dimmed a bit. His profile outside evangelical circles has dropped--most notably in the political realm, where he cast a long shadow in the 2008 campaign but was largely invisible this time around. Even within the evangelical community, Warren is no longer a central focus of the movement's energy, as fresher, feistier players have risen up in his wake.
Indeed, Warren is in New York as part of a massive PR tour he's doing for the revised book. ("Twenty interviews in two days!" he tells me.) After years of staying largely out of the spotlight, he is now energetically courting it. A decade after reassuring us all that God has a purpose for our lives, Rick Warren is attempting a revival not only of his message but of his position in the firmament of spiritual leaders.
A feel-good field guide to Christianity, The Purpose Driven Life rocketed Warren to global fame. Featuring 40 easy-to-digest chapter-a-day lessons bearing pithy titles like "You Are Not an Accident" and "Becoming Best Friends With God," the book sold 32 million copies in hardback and was translated into more than 50 languages. Warren points out that this makes it the No. 2-most translated book in history, second only to the Bible. Warren's 20,000-member home church, Saddleback, which he founded in Southern California in 1980 at the tender age of 25, spawned scores of satellite congregations (including 35 Spanish-speaking churches in Orange County alone).
With the book's proceeds, Warren launched a massive global-outreach effort in 2005 aimed at merging spiritual and humanitarian work. Known as PEACE, the plan has drawn praise from everyone from Billy Graham to Bono to Hillary Clinton. Warren's aim was to put volunteers in every single nation on the planet--a feat recently realized with Saddleback's dispatch of members to St. Kitts. Thus, much of Warren's time in recent years has been spent, as he puts it, "overseas in little villages you've never heard of."
Source: The Daily Beast | Michelle Cottle