US & World

Orange County pastor Rick Warren's prominence grows

It's hard to imagine Pastor Rick Warren's profile growing any larger. Warren heads Saddleback Church in Orange County, one of the largest congregations in the United States. He's written a best-selling Christian devotional. But on Tuesday, his audience will expand even more when he delivers the official prayer at the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama in Washington D.C. KPCC's Frank Stoltze has this profile of the minister.

Frank Stoltze: During a recent talk in Long Beach, Rick Warren described recruiting his first congregant almost 30 years ago. It was his real estate agent.

Rick Warren: We were driving to this little condo and I said "Hey, don't you go to church anywhere?" and he goes "Oh no, I hate church." I said, "Great, you're my first member." (audience laughs). I said, "I'm starting a church for people who hate church." (laughs)

Stoltze: Fifty-thousand members later, Saddleback Church occupies a sprawling campus on a Lake Forest hilltop. Archibald Hart taught Warren at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. A few years ago, Warren asked him to preview a manuscript for his book, "The Purpose Driven Life."

Archibald Hart: He wanted my opinion about it. And ya know, I didn't think it was going to sell much. It didn't strike me as being a very impressive book.
Stoltze: Why not?
Hart: It was nothing dramatic. There was nothing profound about it. But it was rooted in the needs he perceived people had.

Stoltze: The book sold more than 30 million copies and catapulted Warren toward the top of the Christian bestseller lists. Only the Bible's been translated into more languages. The book's first sentence reads, "It's not about you."

It's a self-described blueprint for Christian living in the 21st century. Fuller student Steve Smith says that in six short years, this book and its offshoots have become ubiquitous among evangelical Christians.

Steve Smith: Purpose Driven life, Purpose Driven Church, Purpose Driven Youth Ministry, Purpose Driven journals, Purpose Driven notebooks. It's hard to miss Rick Warren – especially living in Southern California.

Stoltze: His fame doesn't stop here.

Warren: Hello. I'm Rick Warren, pastor here at Saddleback Church, and I just want to say a word to you pastor to pastor. First, thanks for watching this. You know...

Stoltze: On the Internet, 54-year-old Warren speaks to pastors around the world and posts his sermons. He's traveled the globe urging Christians to embrace his five-point plan to recruit people of all faiths to fight poverty, AIDS, and climate change.

Warren: The United Nations has failed, and the United States has failed. There's only one organization or organizations big enough to take it on – it is the spiritual bodies.

Stoltze: Kurt Frederickson directs the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary.

Kurt Frederickson: It's a broader look at redemption. Redemption is not just taking care of my soul and making sure that I'm going to go to Heaven.

Harvey Cox: They call this "evangelical lite."

Stoltze: Harvey Cox teaches at Harvard Divinity School. He said some evangelicals have problems with Warren's sermons.

Cox: Which are almost exclusively how to apply your faith in everyday life – not very much emphasis on doctrinal issues, or even divisive moral issues.

Stoltze: That doesn't mean Warren doesn't maintain traditionally conservative views. He believes that abortion is killing. He's compared gay marriage to pedophilia.

The pastor's since said that comparison was wrong, but he reportedly will not allow gays to join his church. That position has generated protests and it doesn't sit well with some younger evangelicals, like seminary student Steve Smith.

Steve Smith: It is a shame that Christians are known for what they disapprove of more than what they do approve of. And whether homosexuality is a sin or not and what your view is, it is only a sin of many sins.

Stoltze: While he hosted a presidential candidates' forum last year, Warren has not been particularly active in electoral politics. President-elect Obama's invitation to offer the inaugural invocation next week has thrust him onto the political stage. Fuller's Kurt Frederickson said evangelicals will watch closely.

Frederickson: This is a huge event. I want to know how broadly he is going to define his religion or how narrowly he is going to define his religion. Is he going to speak from his heart about a very strong sense of conviction, or is he going to offer a broader embrace of the entire nation?

Stoltze: Some gay rights activists say they'll wave rainbow flags in protest during Warren's prayer. Whatever the message, Warren's likely to deliver it in his trademark relaxed style.

Warren: I still live in the same house I've lived in 16 years. I drive a 10-year-old Ford truck. I bought my watch at K-Mart. You know, my idea is, you got a good pair of jeans and a t-shirt, what else do you need in life, really?

Stoltze: Warren's famous for wearing Hawaiian shirts on Sunday mornings. But he's said to have a jacket and tie ready for Tuesday's inauguration.