The Peril of Criticizing Rick Warren

Apparently, I have crossed a line. I didn’t realize there was a line, but apparently my last post about Rick Warren was a bridge too far for some folks.

Even though I clearly stated that everything I said about Warren was pure conjecture – meaning an opinion not based in fact – I have been lambasted by Warren defenders. It’s puzzling to me. A while back I wrote a fairly critical piece on Joel Osteen, questioning the motives of his ministry and his low opinion of gays and lesbians as not being “God’s best.” No one took me to task for criticizing Osteen. No one claimed I was way off base, didn’t know my facts, or professed disappointment in me. For some reason, though, Warren appears to be off limits. Criticizing Warren is apparently somewhat akin to badmouthing Gandhi, King, or even Jesus Christ.

Why is that? What is it about Warren that produces slavish devotion by his congregation and even leads those who are not his followers to ardently defend him from freely admitted baseless claims?

Perhaps it could be that I’m too close to the truth for some people. I mean, if my words about Warren didn’t have any truth to them, why is the reaction against them so vitriolic? Why not just disregard them as false and move on? When someone says something I find to be completely baseless, I simply disregard their opinion as uniformed. When, however, someone says something that hits too close to home, or strikes a nerve, then, the dukes go up. Those are fighting words and you’d better take them back.

Anyone who has done church work for just a few minutes knows that money makes the world go round – even the church world. No church survives without a budget and faithfully tithing members. I shudder, though, at mega-churches and incredible bloated budgets. My mother’s church in Georgia raised millions of dollars to build a new sanctuary. I asked my mother, “Weren’t there any poor people in the area you could help?” She gave me a withering look. Capital projects are different budgets than missions and never the twain shall meet.

Warren, who has made millions, doesn’t take a salary, fine. He lives in a modest house, fine. He drives a beat up truck, fine. All good things. I give him props for not having a private jet and a BMW or a Mercedes. But, really, what does that mean? Warren is not poor.  He’s not needy.  He could have made up that $900,000 deficit without dipping too far into his own pocket – yet, he decided to turn to his flock. He knew his flock was hurting – many had lost jobs in this bad economy – but he turned to them anyway. They responded in their faithfulness, and that is admirable – but did Warren really need his flock to keep him afloat? Would a $900,000 deficit have sunk Saddleback? Highly unlikely, but a couple of support staff may have been streeted without it, so hopefully the money saved a couple of jobs at Saddleback. That would be a blessing.

Others have speculated (remember, that’s an opinion without any supporting facts) that perhaps I’m bitter. Perhaps I’m just jealous that Warren is raking in the cash, growing his church, and generally just speaking to a bigger audience than me. Hardly. I have enough challenges helping to tend a small flock in South Carolina. I don’t need the headaches that come with that much “success” in the church business.

Jesus counted success differently than we do these days. He didn’t build a big church, didn’t send letters to his followers asking for donations, didn’t seek to give high profile prayers. He simply went about the business of helping people. He didn’t seek acclaim or write any best- selling books. He simply went to where the hurting people were and healed them. His words so empowered people and helped them to connect to God that those in charge of the government and the religious leaders of the day found him to be a threat to the status quo they had carefully put in place. His words, his actions, his unconditional love for all, moved many and threatened many more.

Warren is no threat to the entrenched government or those in power over the modern church.  He may have a heart for the poor and a genuine desire to help them. God will use that and bless it. But, my problem with Warren is he’s not radical enough. He plays it safe – making people feel good about being Christian instead of challenging them to upend the power structure that keeps them poor and strips them of their dignity.

Warren is not an evil man, he’s just a poor example of how Christians ought to be acting in this world. We should be challenging the government, not praying as it installs a new leader. Instead of asking how we can help the poor, we should be asking why we have poor in the first place – and challenging the world’s leaders, and ourselves, to ensure that no one goes without. We should be challenging the religious mores of the day instead of buying into them and using them for personal gain. In short, we should be in this world, but not of it.

In the end, Warren is far too worldly for me to see him as a blueprint on how to follow Christ.

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