Purpose-Driven Empire

Pastor Rick Warren Partners with Reader’s Digest

While no plans yet exist for the building of a Disneyland-like “Warren’s World,” and while a Rolling Stone cover remains unlikely, Pastor Rick Warren, author of the worldwide best seller, The Purpose Driven Life, and the Reader’s Digest Association have entered into a partnership that is destined to turn heads and enhance Brand Warren.

The ubiquitous “celebripastor,” who hosted the Saddleback Civil Forum on Global Health for World AIDS Day at the Newseum in Washington, DC—where he will be honoring President Bush with an “international medal of peace”—recently announced that he and Reader’s Digest have formed a “partnership” aimed at “produc[ing] an inspirational multimedia platform called ‘The Purpose Driven Connection.’”

The Plan: According to a Reader’s Digest press release, “the organizations will pool their international resources to produce and publish this Purpose Driven platform to help people who are seeking their purpose in life and wish to interact with others on their spiritual journeys.” The goal is to “provide a suite of bundled multimedia tools: The Purpose Driven Connection, a quarterly magazine; small group study materials delivered in DVDs, workbooks and downloadable discussion guides; and a state-of-the-art Christian social networking Web site.” All for a $29 membership fee.

The new partnership has an “unprecedented potential for international impact,” said Warren, who will serve as Editor-in-Chief and will be heavily involved in the conception of each element. “The Purpose Driven Connection represents more than simply integrated multimedia resources; it will become a platform for a movement of people to change the world.”

“We are delighted to be working with Rick Warren and the Saddleback team,” said Alyce Alston, president of RDA’s Home & Garden and Health & Wellness affinities. “This is one of our company’s most important and far-reaching ventures ever. Together we will create a category-busting multimedia suite that will help millions of people in their daily lives, including those who already follow the Purpose Driven principles as well as seekers everywhere looking for greater fulfillment.”

The theme, “Your Life Matters,” “mirrors” Warren’s book, which, since 2002, has sold more than 30 million copies “and has been read by 60 million people and translated into nearly 100 languages.” The project is also “relate[d] to Saddleback Church’s PEACE Plan, initiated by Warren, which mobilizes Christians to combat global problems affecting billions of people, including spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, extreme poverty, pandemic diseases and illiteracy. To date, the PEACE Coalition has advanced the program among the public, profit and faith sectors in 68 countries.”

Michelle A. Vu, writing for the Christian Post, pointed out that the Purpose Driven Connection magazine, which “will serve as the main platform in which all the other formats will connect,” and “will feature stories of everyday people living out God’s purpose and making a difference with their lives.” The first issue “will feature some of the best-known Christian authors, including Tim Keller, Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, Anne Graham Lotz, Chip Ingram, Lee Strobel, and Kay Warren.”

As the Washington Times’ Julia Duin noted in a blog post titled “Rick Warren—he’s the man”: “With Focus on the Family laying off people in droves and Rick Warren ramping up his product, you can see where America’s religious focus has shifted.”

Watch a recent Fox News Channel interview with Warren, where he discusses the evangelical vote, the economic crisis, and his support for Proposition 8.

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Faith-Based Community’s Ongoing Response to Hurricane Katrina

Over the past eight years, stories about faith-based groups have often centered on the buzzworthy and sexy, the headline-grabbing tale; the ins and outs; critiques and support for President Bush’s faith-based initiative; the religious right’s ongoing battles against gay rights, abortion rights, and stem-cell research, and its ridiculous harping about a “War on Christmas;” the fall of one self-righteous preacher after another. Overlooked are stories about the men and women of faith who have been on the front lines fighting poverty and hunger, who have stepped up to the plate when the government either turned its back or was too hamstrung to respond.

In August of this year, the Institute for Southern Studies published (PDF) “Faith in the Gulf: Lessons From The Religious Response To Hurricane Katrina,” a comprehensive study documenting the role that faith-based groups have played in responding to Hurricane Katrina, both in its immediate aftermath, and today, over three years later. Researched and written by Desiree Evans, Chris Kromm, and Sue Sturgis, the report—the seventh installment in the Institute’s Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch Series—looks at the work that more than 80 faith-based organizations have done since Hurricane Katrina hit.

“While America’s public institutions failed… when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, many nongovernmental agencies did significantly better,” writes Rabbi David Saperstein and Rabbi Marla Feldman in one of the forwards to the report. However, “despite these efforts, hundreds of thousands remain dislocated, New Orleans faces an uncertain future, and ravaged communities still flounder, powerless to address the structural causes of deprivation that afflict them and their families.”

But “Faith in the Gulf” is more than merely an indictment of the Bush Administration’s pathetically tardy response to the crisis, and FEMA’s ongoing misdeeds. (According to Newsweek, a recent report by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that “the well-being of the poorest Katrina kids has ‘declined to an alarming level’ since the hurricane.” Respiratory infections and other related problems “may be linked to formaldehyde and crowding in the trailers that FEMA had supplied,” the magazine pointed out.) It is a tribute to those faith-based organizations and individuals that unhesitatingly stepped quickly into the breach, armed with food, water, clothing, financial assistance, medical support and crisis intervention and counseling.

Among the findings of the report: “Faith groups have been leaders in the Katrina response;” “Successful faith initiatives share common ingredients;” “National faith support has been crucial for the Gulf;” “Faith groups are a necessary voice for better Gulf rebuilding policy;” “Faith groups are a valuable voice for national action.”

The report’s authors modestly note that while it looks at the “role faith groups have played and continue to play in the region’s recovery and renewal since Hurricane Katrina,” it is “by no means a comprehensive account” but rather an attempt to show “how important faith groups’ work has been in helping Gulf Coast residents rebuild their homes and communities, and in helping to fulfill the promise of America as a land of religious liberty and justice for all.”

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Churches for Sale

The usually optimistic J. Lee Grady has some bad news about the current state of charismatic ministries. In his November 19 “Fire In My Bones” column, Grady, the editor of Charisma magazine, wrote: “In the last two weeks, three charismatic churches that once enjoyed huge popularity have fallen on hard times.” Without Walls International Church, a Tampa, Florida-based charismatic church, “which once attracted 23,000 worshipers and was heralded as one of the nation’s fastest-growing congregations,” is facing foreclosure. Part of Without Walls International’s problem may be related to the 2007 announcement by co-pastors Randy and Paula White that they were getting a divorce. “On Nov. 4 their bank filed foreclosure proceedings and demanded immediate repayment of a $12 million loan on the property.”

In Georgia, the Duluth-based Global Destiny Ministries received a visit from the sheriff who “ordered Bishop Thomas Weeks II to leave the property.” Weeks—who recently divorced “popular preacher Juanita Bynum in June”—was $511,000 in arrears in “back rent” to the building’s owners. According to Grady, “He was escorted out of the building on Nov. 14 while a church service was in progress.”

Leaders of the Cathedral at Chapel Hill, another Atlanta-area church, recently announced that their church is officially for sale. “The massive Gothic building—which at one time housed one of the nation’s most celebrated charismatic churches, with a membership of 10,000—has slipped into disrepair after lurid sex scandals triggered a mass exodus. The church’s founder, Bishop Earl Paulk, has turned the 6,000-seat church (valued at $24.5 million) over to his son, Donnie Earl, who in recent years has abandoned orthodox Christian doctrines and embraced universalism,” Grady pointed out.

Once high-flying enterprises, divorces, sex scandals, the fancy manipulation and maneuvering of large sums of money have all led to the crises. “Was it supposed to end like this? How did a movement that was at one time focused on winning people to Christ and introducing them to the power of the Holy Spirit end in such disgrace?” Grady asks. For his answers, check out “Preparing for a Charismatic Meltdown.”

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Breakaway Episcopalians

It may sound like an oxymoron, but yes, Virginia—both the girl and the state—there are breakaway Episcopalians. Or as John McCain and Sarah Palin might put it: “Rogue Episcopalians are getting all mavericky!” If the results of the presidential election didn’t get the folks at the Institute on Religion & Democracy to jump for joy, the announcement that leaders of 100,000 “disaffected former Episcopalians will unveil a proposal for a new 39th province of the Anglican Communion” on December 3 at the evangelical Wheaton College, just might.

RD News Round-Up contacted longtime religious right watcher Frederick Clarkson for his comments about these developments. “The religious right has long coveted the infrastructure and tradition at the heart of American Protestantism,” Clarkson wrote in an e-mail. “Thanks in considerable part to underwriting by theocrats Howard and Roberta Ahamanson, and the help and support of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, they have bitten off a few big chunks of the Episcopal Church, and those chunks have in turn joined forces with some of the most reactionary elements of the worldwide Anglican Communion.”

According to Clarkson, the editor of the recently published Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America, “It is worth underscoring that since GAFCON [The Global Anglican Future Conference] is uncertain that the Archbishop of Canterbury will bless all that they want to do, they are also uncertain that they accept his authority.”

“This is an historic moment in the long-term efforts of conservative Catholic and conservative evangelical leaders at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in their efforts to guide and resource the far right factions in the Episcopal Church,” Clarkson pointed out. “The mainline protestant churches have long stood in the way of the religious right’s religious authority and political operations in the U.S. As moderate and progressive institutions of historic standing in Christianity, they pose a tremendous, if not always exercised counterpoint to the claims of religious conservatives. Now the conservatives have an important piece of that institutional tradition to call their own.”

In addition, “It is worth noting that two of the four renegade American diocese that are part of the proposed new Anglican province—were given special permission not to have to ordain women, despite the equal standing of women in the clergy since the 70s.”

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RD Tidbits:

Ruddy Hearts Stanek: For years, Raymond Ruddy, a multi-millionaire conservative Catholic, had been more at ease operating in the backrooms of conservative philanthropy, rather than in front of the cameras. This past election cycle, however, Ruddy was in the news when it was revealed that he had contributed more than $300,000 to BornAlive Truth, an organization headed by Jill Stanek which ran a series of anti-Obama ads in several swing states. The ads were part of BornAliveTruth’s efforts to brand Obama as a supporter of infanticide.

Now, in her Pro-Life Pulse e-letter, Stanek announced that the Ruddy-sponsored Gerard Foundation had given her $100,000, the “bulk” of which “will go toward a new media project ProLifeBlogs’ Tim Ruchti and I have been working on for months.”

Bob Jones U. Apologizes for Past Racism: In one of those better-late-than-never moments that came one week before Thanksgiving, Bob Jones University of Greenville, South Carolina, issued a belated, but seemingly heartfelt, online statement apologizing for “allow[ing] institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that [segregationist] ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures.” In 2000, Bob Jones III, then president of the university founded in 1927 as a private Christian institution, admitted that the university had been wrong for not admitting African-American students until 1971. At the same time, “he announced the lifting of the University’s policy against interracial dating.”

The Return of Ted Haggard: Early last month, Ted Haggard returned to the pulpit. This time, instead of being at the center of attention at Colorado Springs, Colorado’s New Life Ministries, the former head of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals, “took the pulpit at Open Bible Fellowship in Morrison, Ill., a 350-member church surrounded by cornfields,” the Associated Press reported. This time around, “The former superstar pastor, disgraced two years ago in a sex-and-drugs scandal … returned … as a Christian businessman preaching a message that was equal parts contrition and defiance.”

Abstinence Merge: In a note to “Friends, Customers and Fellow Abstinence Educators,” from Kathleen M. Sullivan, Chairman and CEO of Project Reality (PR)—“Leader in Abstinence Education Since 1985”—the organization announced that it was merging “at the state and national level” with the Abstinence & Marriage Education Partnership, which was founded by Scott Phelps and is headquartered in northern Illinois. Phelps is “one of the authors of [PR’s] Game Plan and Navigator curricula,” and has “worked with” PR “for several years prior to starting the A & M Partnership, a 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, a few years ago.”

According to the note, “The merger will give A & M the ability to offer a broader selection of materials covering several school grades. Project Reality has built a substantial foundation of schools and organizations and was able to serve them through state and federally-funded grants over the years. These grants are no longer available to Project Reality, but we believe this new plan of operation will continue to expand the reach of abstinence education to the youth of our country.”

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