Online Extra: Evangelism Gone Entrepreneurial

Rick Warren believes evangelism means devotion to both social issues and God. The Internet is one tool he uses to spread the word

Right now, Rick Warren may be the most celebrated of the nation's evangelical pastors. A Southern Baptist, he's also an effective entrepreneur who has started three remarkably successful ventures. First, Warren founded Saddleback Church from scratch in 1980, aiming to reach those who don't regularly go to church. Today, more than 20,000 people attend its services every weekend. Second, he launched Pastors.com, a Web site that provides sermons, resources, and other tools to more than 140,000 ministers each week.

Third, Warren has launched a movement -- built around his blockbuster best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Life -- in which more than 20,000 churches and numerous other organizations have conducted programs aimed at helping people discover their spiritual purpose. The movement also has a Web site, Purposedriven.com.

On a recent trip to Boston, Warren met with William C. Symonds, BusinessWeek's Boston bureau chief. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

Q: For all the talk about evangelicals these days, there's a lot of confusion about who they are. How do you define evangelicals?

A:

Evangelicals have three characteristics: They believe that the Bible is literally God's word. The second thing they would say is that Jesus Christ is who He says He is: He claimed to be God. The third would be that we have a responsibility to pass this good news on to other people.

Q: Are you a fundamentalist?

A:

No. Fundamentalists tend to be more reactionary than evangelicals. Fundamentalists think the golden age is the 1950s. Just as the Amish have decided that a certain period in the 1800s was a golden age, the fundamentalists would be happy to go back to the Eisenhower Administration. But they are a much smaller group than evangelicals.

Q: Are evangelicals also members of the Religious Right?

A:

There is a difference. I'm an evangelical, but I'm not a member of the Religious Right. The Religious Right is a narrow group of activists who do not represent evangelicals per se. In my church, I have more than 20,000 people on Sunday, and I might have 10 people who call themselves Religious Right. But that is certainly not the church.

Q: Still, many political scientists argue that the evangelicals voted with the Religious Right in 2004 and thus created a huge mass of Red States, handing the election to President Bush.

A:

I don't buy the Red State/Blue State thing. My state, California was supposedly very blue, but it was very red when you look at everything except San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Nationally, Bush took 2,500 counties, and Kerry took 500, but they were almost equal in the popular vote. But the counties that Kerry took were the urban counties. And the cultural differences [you see] are the differences between urban values and the values of the rest of America.

Most evangelicals realize the limitations of government. Starting with Reagan and all the way up to [the current] Bush, all of the Republican presidents have talked about abortion, but nothing has changed.

Q: You have argued that evangelicals need to talk about more than what they're opposed to -- i.e., abortion and homosexuality. What are you for?

A:

We are for helping the poor and the sick. I still believe abortion is wrong. But there is so much more [to be concerned about] than just a handful of social issues.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A:

A lot of us care about poverty and AIDS and justice, issues that are not the hallmarks of the Religious Right. I am talking about five issues: 1) Global poverty. 2) Diseases that affect billions of people. 3) Illiteracy -- half the world is illiterate. 4) Spiritual emptiness -- billions of people don't know their purpose in life. 5) Self-centered leadership.

And these issues are so big that there has to be an alignment of three segments to solve them: the church, government, and business.

Q: What role could the church play in solving these massive problems?

A:

There are millions of churches spread all over the world. That is more distribution than all the Wal-Marts (WMT ) and Starbucks (SBUX ) put together. So the church has the distribution channel. And if we can work with the expertise of business and have governments giving their blessing [and aid], I think something could be done.

Q: That's beginning to sound like the "social gospel" preached by mainline Protestant churches, including the United Methodists and the Episcopal Church.

A:

Protestants have been split into two groups. The mainline churches have tended to take the more liberal social values and say that we're going to care about justice, equality, racial issues, and poverty. And the evangelicals focused on personal salvation, that you need Jesus as your Savior.

So each took half the truth. I think we need both. So I believe the new Reformation in the 21st century is to talk about both those values.

Q: Do you think we're seeing a spiritual reawakening in America?

A

: We see a number of signs. The speed of society is getting faster. So [people ask me] all the time, "How do I slow it down?" Society is getting more complicated, so people ask me, "How do I simplify it?" And we have information overload. So there is a hunger for meaning. Otherwise, how do you explain that [my book, The Purpose-Driven Life] is the best-selling book for two years? There is no other explanation than that there is hunger for meaning and purpose.

There have been two national reawakenings in U.S. history -- one in the 18th century and one in the 19th -- and both were preceded by a time of polarization. And we are polarized now.

Q: Why are evangelical churches growing so much faster than Protestant mainline churches?

A:

My church has been growing because it has changed lives. People don't go to a church because of its size. You go because there is something that is changing your life. Evangelical churches are giving meaning to people. They are helping people simplify their lives.

Q: Why do we see so much entrepreneurial activity among evangelicals?

A:

We've always been entrepreneurial. But 50 years ago, most of the evangelical entrepreneurs went into organizations like the Campus Crusade for Christ, World Vision, etc. The spirit used to be that you had to leave the church [to accomplish something great]. But now all of the smart guys I know are going out to become pastors and starting churches. We've helped thousands of churches get started. I've trained more than 350,000 pastors.

Q: What impact has the Internet had on all this activity?

A:

Every time the Bible is made available through a new technology, there tends to be an awakening. The Protestant Reformation occurred after the invention of the printing press. And now we have the Internet. So now I can talk to pastors all around the world.

I have a newsletter -- Ministry Toolbox -- that I e-mail to 140,000 pastors every week. That kind of networking promotes growth, but it was not possible 10 years ago.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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