Editor's note: Warren has announced that his son Matthew on Friday, April 5, 2013, died due to suicide after a long struggle with depression.
Rick Warren is going to the moon. Over ten years ago, the pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, authored The Purpose Driven Life, a book he wrote in about seven months while on sabbatical.
More than 32 million copies of the book have since been sold, making it the best-selling nonfiction hardback in history and catapulting the 59-year-old Southern Baptist onto the global media stage. He's been anointed as the next Billy Graham—as well as pilloried in the media as antigay, a schmoozer with dictators, and a false teacher.
This year, Warren is republishing The Purpose Driven Life with fresh material, and launching a public campaign based on the book's subtitle: "What on earth am I here for?" Warren describes his Peace Plan, the global outreach effort connected to the book, as the equivalent of President Kennedy's moon shot—putting a man on the moon within a decade. Warren's focus is the 3,400 people groups without Christians or a Bible in their own language.
Warren has set the deadline for reaching these 3,400 groups at the end of his final decade as Saddleback's senior pastor. In 1980, Warren vowed to retire in 2020, after 40 years in the pulpit. He spoke recently with Christianity Today senior editor, global journalism Timothy C. Morgan.
Was it really necessary to relaunch the second most translated book in the world, next to the Bible?
I started spending time with the 20-something crowd, and I realized a girl who was 12 years old when the book came out is now 22. She needs to know the purpose of her life as much as her parents did.
What I learned in the past 10 years was from reading thousands of letters. The two greatest barriers that keep people from fulfilling their purpose are envy and people-pleasing. Envy is the idea that I must be like you in order to be happy. If I'm envying you, then I'm going to miss God's purpose for my life. We live in a competitive culture where envy is the indoor sport of Americans—the envy trap.
The other barrier is people-pleasing, which says, "I must be liked by you to be happy." I got letters from people who said, "I know what God wants me to do, what I should be doing with my life, but my husband wouldn't approve." "My wife wouldn't approve." "My parents wouldn't approve." The fear of disapproval and the need to please people are barriers to living your purpose.
When I wrote Purpose Driven Life, I had absolutely no idea how often I was going to be tested personally by the first sentence of the book: "It's not about you." It's really all about God, and your purpose is far greater than your personal fulfillment.
I had no idea that sentence would haunt me daily. People want to either put you on a pedestal or knock you off it, and both [places] are not where you're supposed to be.
I summarize my life like this: A great commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission will grow a great Christian. It will grow a great church. It will grow a great country. It will grow a great company. But primarily it will grow a great Christian.
More resources are expended on evangelism in America than in almost any other nation. Yet surveys say the country is becoming less Christian. What's your take?
Cultural Christianity is dying. Genuine Christianity is not. The number of cultural Christians is going down because they never really were Christian in the first place. They don't have to pretend by going to church anymore.
I don't trust all the surveys out there. Newsweek did a cover on the decline of Christian America based on a Pew survey that said the number of Protestants has dropped precipitously. That's an old term. It's like saying I'm a Pilgrim. Nobody calls themselves a Pilgrim or a Puritan anymore. So the number of Pilgrims and the number of Puritans have dropped precipitously in America! That's a straw man.
Of course Protestantism has dropped. The only people who might still call themselves Protestants are the liberal Protestant churches—the ones that have died the most.
Pastors across the board seem much less influential in the larger culture than they were a generation ago. What happened?
My generation fell in love with the parachurch. My generation and the generation before me built all the great parachurch organizations: Focus on the Family, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Wycliffe, Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, Young Life, Youth for Christ, and so on.
The reason why the church doesn't have greater impact is because the smartest brains and the most money have gone outside the church. If you go to a missions conference at any Christian college, go out and look. There won't be a single local church organization. It will all be parachurch—100 percent.
You are starting outreach in 12 cities worldwide. Some of these cities—London, Hong Kong, and Amman, Jordan—have had churches for centuries. So what's the point?
No local church, including Saddleback, is meant to last forever. Every church is a living organism. The local body has a cycle of birth, growth, maturity, plateau, decline, and death.
New churches need to be born. We're not going to these cities to replace the churches that are there. We're going to resource the churches that are there. Let's build a base in different places around the world, so that we can help resource and train the churches of that area without them having to come to America.
We use two metaphors: Mount Everest base camp and NASA. In 1961, when Kennedy announced, "We're going to the moon," it was physically and technically impossible. They divided the effort into Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.
We adopted the same phasing: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Our "going to the moon" goal is reaching the 3,400 unengaged people groups. Unreached means less than 2 percent of the population is Christian. Unengaged—that means no Bible, no church, no Christians.
This is the final frontier. Twice Revelation says that around the throne in heaven will be people from every language, every nation, and every tribe. I take this literally. Yet there are still 3,400 unengaged tribes because they're very small. None of them have more than 100,000 people.
The first four years of the Peace Plan was Mercury. We sent 4,400 of our members overseas. The whole idea was [to ask]: Can ordinary people go out and plant churches, equip leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick, and educate the next generation?
For Gemini, the goal was [to ask]: Can we practice all the stuff we're going to have to do to go to the moon? We set a goal that by the end of 2010, Saddleback would be the first local church to go to every nation. There are 196 nations in the world. On November 18, 2010, we sent our team to Saint Kitts, nation 196. I sent out 14,869 of our members in the Gemini phase. We learned about what we call "killer apps." What's a killer app for assisting the poor? What's a killer app for caring for the sick? What's a killer app for planting churches?
The Apollo phase—we're going to the moon, which means we're making sure that we get a church and a Bible, or at least part of the Scriptures, translated, and a Christian in every one of those 3,400 unengaged people groups.
What happened to Mount Everest?
Switch metaphors: You can't climb Mount Everest in a day. You have to climb up a few thousand feet and do a base camp, so that if you get into trouble, your team has a place to regroup.
I got to thinking that we need to put some base-camp churches around the world that are strong and stable, so that all the teams that are going to that particular area have a place that if they need help, they're not coming back to America to get it.
Working in harmony with mission boards, we selected the 12 cities closest to the 3,400 tribes. For instance, we know that 400 of the unengaged tribes on that list are in Sudan. But there's no place safe in Sudan to actually build, so we're doing a base camp in Amman, Jordan. We're doing a base camp in Moscow, which will be the jumping-off place for the unengaged people groups in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
For years your greatest focus overseas has been Rwanda. But President Kagame and his government are allegedly supporting rebels across the border in eastern Congo.
Remember that a number of people outside the country were part of the genocide and absolutely hate Rwanda. People who got kicked out because of the genocide want the government overthrown.
Frankly, a lot of the reporting coming out on Congo isn't true. People who really don't like the Kagame government resent that in six years, the Rwandan poverty rate has dropped from 57 percent to 45 percent—amazing.
I won't defend anything that's indefensible. But I haven't seen the facts yet. Things that I've seen are "reports from the UN." Honestly, the UN has guilt-blood on its hands. I understand why the Rwandans don't trust the UN.
My bottom line? My trust is not in Kagame. He allowed us to do all kinds of stuff that couldn't have been done any other way. My trust is in the churches of Rwanda, not the president. He's a good man. Has he made mistakes? Probably.
Of course there are Rwandans aiding the Congo rebels. Who are those Rwandans? They are the genocidaires who escaped into Congo and have lived there since 1994.
In spite of all the flak and criticism, Rwanda for the past two years has been rated as the safest African country to live in. Somebody there is obviously doing something good.
There's fresh debate among experts over the influence of religion on foreign policy. Some see religion as part of the problem. How do you see it?
There's a religious root to every single problem on the planet. Poverty has a religious root. Conflict has a religious root. Disease. All of these problems involve behavior, and behavior involves religion.
One of the problems we've had in American foreign policy is the unwillingness to actually name the ideology opposing us. During the cold war, there were clearly two ideologies: communism and capitalism. Today there is a radical wing of Islam that is a clear ideological enemy of America, and nobody wants to say it. So they talk about a "war on terror." You can't win a war on terror, because terrorism is a tool, a method. We don't have a war on a method. We have a war on an ideology that wants to destroy either Israel or America or Western culture.
What these radical Islamists believe is not the same thing as the typical Muslim. The radical Islamist views no more represent all of Islam than the KKK represents Christianity.
What is the ideal strategy for the church?
Working with moderate Muslims. This is the whole idea of the Peace Plan: Promoting reconciliation [means] to find a man of peace. I have found men of peace who do not at all hold to what I believe about Scripture and certainly aren't Christians, but we can work together.
I still point to Rwanda. I've never found a country where 19 years ago they were hacking each other up and now they're living side by side without barbed wire. They figured out something about how to get people who literally killed each other's families to live next to each other. The reconciliation model is important.
Reconciliation is essential, but what about religious persecution? Saddleback has been criticized by people like Rep. Frank Wolf for being silent about Christians who are suffering.
I saw that. It was hilarious. I wrote a note to him: "Frank, what are you talking about?" The guy who ran Open Doors is one of my former staff members. We've done three civil forums on persecution. We're getting ready to do another one.
It's estimated that 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day. Who's going to get your job when you retire?
A year ago we started our Caleb and Timothy plans. When I started Saddleback in 1980, I announced that I was going to give 40 years to the church, then turn it over to younger leadership. At 65, I'll still have more energy than any young guy. [But] they need a new face. I have seven more years at Saddleback. It's no secret.
I don't even manage Saddleback anymore. It's managed by the next generation. The Caleb generation is everybody over age 40. The Timothy generation is everybody under 40. The Caleb generation, retiring in the next 10 years, I intend to mobilize for the Great Commission. I say, "You think you're going to go home and play golf? Not a chance."
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