Regardless of prevailing opinions and criticisms, one cannot deny that Rick Warren is a dominant figure on the American religious landscape. Jeffrey Sheler's book Prophet of Purpose: the Life of Rick Warren effectively chronicles the rise of this ecclesiastical star, tracing his early influences to his current fame (as of 2009) as the Billy Graham successor and church growth wunderkind. It offers a fascinating read for those interested in learning the background of what leads to the mercurial rise of the famous and successful. Sheler, however, does not omit the struggles or the missteps along the way, and one is afforded a picture of a man, while confident in his future, nevertheless finds himself almost unprepared for the inevitable fame. The title seems well chosen, considering that his seminal work, the Purpose Driven Life, is the defining statement of his theology and the direction of his life and ministry. Warren is undoubtedly a man driven by pragmatics, a prevailing philosophy that fits well with the American culture. While Stiller reveals the beginning of a Southern Baptist preacher and evangelist, it is the picture of the successful -CEO-turned-media-darling that captures much of this book. Warren may lead one of the largest churches in the U.S., but one is pressed to see his role as a pastor. Early on the pastoral work was essentially passed on down the ranks, first to associates in ministry and then ultimately to the laity who formed and maintained the small groups that became the churches within a church.
Warren comes through as a man on a mission, driven to capture his dream and then more. Although the mission is always carefully cast as 'winning souls for Jesus,' one openly wonders if this is, at best, merely a means to an end. Baptists count success by the number of faith decisions and Warren tabulates these as one would expect a leader in industry to count sales. As long as baptisms and 'decisions for Jesus' keep increasing in ever exponential degrees, his mission must be a God-blessed success. Now the goal is to help others find this secret to success, and thus is born the 'network' of pastors eagerly sitting at his feet and snatching the pearls of wisdom that fall from his lips. As Sheller reveals, all this is 'heady stuff.'
But not as heady as what was yet to come. For a man who must always find a bigger and better mission challenge, it was inevitable that he would seek out experiences on a global scale. Funded by the unexpected explosive success of his writing now totaling in the multiple millions, Warren now entered into that elite club of entrepreneurs who do business with world leaders and business moguls. Taking calls from the rich and famous on his cell phone while standing in line at the local Starbucks, this once humble pastor now struggled to find time even to stay home and tend to church matters.
When one steps onto the world stage and begins to project the image of importance that comes with the role, it was to be expected as well that Warren would find himself friend and enemy to many on all levels. He would also discover that his words would be dissected mercilessly and casual conversation would now be a liability. Yet the picture Sheller gives is a man who relished the fame and the controversy, usually always defending his actions and words and decrying the unfair treatment from his detractors. Yet it is dangerous to walk that fine line of needing to please your friends who are on the other side of the ideological fence. After a while condemning something as wrong becomes complicated and you find yourself endlessly parsing your words to find discover a way to make everyone happy.
Sheler's book is an interesting read and reveals well the dynamics of what happens in a rise to fame and fortune, especially for the son of a poor Baptist preacher. I do not count myself among the disciples of Warren, having long dispensed with the church growth techniques in favor of Word and Sacrament theology. That said, seeing how others think and act can always be informative, and I suspect I will be unpacking some of the insights of this book for a while yet to come.