Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church has ended its year in the black, thanks to some last minute begging by the head pastor. Just as the 2009 drew to a close, Warren sent out an urgent message to his “Saddleback Family,” informing them that the church budget was some $900,000 shy of its goal.
“I have thrilling news to share with you below but first some seriously bad news: With 10% of our church family out of work due to the recession, our expenses in caring for our community in 2009 rose dramatically while our income stagnated. Still, with wise management, we’ve stayed close to our budget all year. Then… this last weekend the bottom dropped out.
“On the last weekend of 2009, our total offerings were less than half of what we normally receive – leaving us $900,000 in the red for the year, unless you help make up the difference today and tomorrow.”
Lo and behold, a miracle occurred not too long after that message was broadcast – Saddleback received a more than $2.4 million cash infusion from its members:
”This is pretty amazing,” said Warren, who made the announcement by bringing out 24 volunteers each holding a sign for $100,000. “I don’t think any church has gotten a cash offering like that off a letter.”
The pastor said he planned to talk about what he called his church’s “radical generosity” in the rest of the weekend’s sermons. He said the total came from members, and the donations were all under $100.
“We’re starting the new decade with a surplus,” he said. “It came from thousands of ordinary people. This was not one big fat cat.”
So, while Warren starts his year in the black, many more in his church continue their year in the red. Some may have even given beyond their means just to make sure Warren, already wealthy off of his series of “Purpose Driven Life” books, will not have to forgo anything in the New Year. I suspect, however, that the donations came from those who can afford to give – true believers who were simply unaware of the shortfall and reached a little bit deeper when Papa Warren asked.
Warren’s church is certainly not immune to the money troubles that have plagued other churches around the country as the recession has left many congregants without jobs – leaving nothing to put in the plate each Sunday. Most churches, I dare say, don’t have budgets anywhere near what Warren’s church considers a shortfall, however. Warren’s church does not share its total budget publicly, but the shortfall must not have been too glaring if $2.4 million puts it well into the black, as Warren alludes.
It may well be that Warren’s shortfall, however, was due to a drop in giving simply because of economic hardships on members, but I wonder if something else is at play in the drop in giving. Let me, if I may, indulge in a bit of unfounded speculation about Warren’s recent, though now resolved, financial woes.
Warren started 2009 on a high note, delivering the opening prayer for Barack Obama’s inauguration as president. It appeared that this would be the year of Rick Warren – success could not elude him. Then, Uganda happened. The legislature there is considering an “Anti-Homosexuality” bill that would sentence men and women to death for the simple crime of being gay or lesbian. Some reports say that the law may be blunted – eliminating the death penalty – but all the same, the law is draconian, inhumane, and simply unChristian. Warren’s involvement in Uganda has been well known as he launched his PEACE plan with the goal of “Promoting reconciliation, Equipping ethical leaders, Assisting the poor, Caring for the sick, and Educating the next generation, which includes the protection of children.” Yet, when asked initially about this law – Warren demurred, insisting he didn’t get involved in the politics of foreign countries. It took weeks of cajoling and pressuring from many camps before Warren caved and released a statement condemning the pending law.
It makes me wonder if some of the Saddleback faithful began to have second thoughts about their shepherd. While it’s true that most of the church members may believe that being gay or lesbian is a sin, I would hate to think that Warren’s followers would be the sort to support this kind of inhumane law. I would hope that they would see it for what it is and condemn it. Perhaps they saw their leader dragging his feet on the subject and maybe some have decided that Saddleback isn’t the place they want to support with their tithes and offerings anymore.
Again, what I’m saying is complete conjecture. I have no basis in fact to make such a claim and I freely admit that. However, if I saw the man I looked up to as a spiritual leader have to be pressured from all sides to condemn a law that anyone with a shred of human decency would condemn outright without prompting, I think I’d be reconsidering my membership in said shepherd’s flock.
While I’m on a wild conjecture tangent, however, let me go just one step further. Perhaps the money isn’t flowing as quickly into Warren’s coffers this year because the recession has put a big dent in his theology of God as Santa Claus. Warren and other prosperity preacher types have reassured their followers all along that if they’re faithful to their church, faithful to the teachings they proffer, and find that purpose for their lives, that God will reward them with many material goodies.
As Sarah Posner astutely points out in a piece in the Guardian, the religious right is quickly becoming the feel-good arm of Christianity. They’ve renounced their fire and brimstone messages and replaced them with messages of personal prosperity, happiness, fulfillment and “purpose.”
The new evangelicals write books not about how God will smite you, but how God loves you and wants nothing more than your greatest personal, spiritual, and material fulfillment. The middle of the decade saw the publication of televangelist Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (2004) and TD Jakes’ Reposition Yourself: Living Life Without Limits (2007). Joyce Meyer’s Seven Things That Steal Your Joy: Overcoming the Obstacles to Your Happiness (2004) and Approval Addiction: Overcoming Your Need to Please Everyone (2005) are equally at home at Bible study and coffee klatch, in the church bookstore and at Wal-Mart.
But, personal fulfillment, even through Jesus Christ, is a luxury for the comfortable. For those facing foreclosure, unemployment, mounting bills, a bleak employment forecast, and perhaps mounting medical bills, living life without limits can seem a bit trite. When you’re packing up your house, or abandoning it in the night to avoid foreclosure, you need more than seven steps to live to your full potential – you need a job. You need a government that recognizes the needs of all its citizens, not just the wealthy. You need a Congress that understands that health care is a right – not a privilege and that revamping health insurance does nothing to improve a broken healthcare system.
Above all, you need a God that is more than Santa Claus or a vending machine where prayer goes in and things come out. Warren and his ilk have nothing to offer in that category. Their god is too small to handle the randomness and messiness of life. Their god melts when hardship and despair enter the picture. Their god disappears in the face of hunger and homelessness.
Perhaps, just maybe, some of Warren’s loyal followers have realized that his god is far too small for the realities they face. Warren may be thanking God for closing his $900,000 budget gap and then some, but his followers are still deeply in debt and suffering – and they deserve a far better shepherd.