September 29, 2020

iMonk 101: “Mr. Spencer, How Would You Like Your Crow?”

UPDATE: Read how Obama and Warren defied the culture war, from the current Christian Century.

Here’s a reposting of my official withdrawal from the ranks of predictable critics of Rick Warren. I was wrong, and I said so. This first appeared at IM November 1st, 2007.

BTW, I think more highly of Warren now than when I wrote this, but I still think he gets theology a bit muddled in print and interviews. That may be the unpardonable sin for the discernablog set, but it’s a human error. Warren can preach in my chapel anytime.

crow.jpgI haven’t blogged all that much about Rick Warren in the 7 years I’ve had this web site, but the times I have- which amount to a couple of essays and a lot of asides, comments and occasional references- it’s generally been negative.

Some of that has been deserved- such as my essay prompted by Warren’s declaration that we shouldn’t “criticize what God is blessing” or his contention that musical style is the key element in a church plant- and I don’t regret or apologize for my opinions at all.

I have, however, reconsidered my evaluation of Rick Warren and I think it’s time to eat a plate of well cooked crow.

I’ll admit seven things up front:

1) I want to get as far as I can away from any possible similarity to the weirdness that goes on at the “discernment blogs” when it comes to Warren. Somewhere in all those collections of name-calling rhetoric about Warren was the straw that broke this camel’s back. Anyone that these theological Barney Fifes think is as bad as they believe Warren to be deserves a sympathetic second look.

2) I want to admit that I did not do adequate research on Warren in order to say some of what I’ve said. I’ve read a lot in his two popular books, but I’ve heard very few Rick Warren sermons and most of what I’ve responded to came to my attention from already hostile third parties, some of them pretty slimy. In other words, in contrast to what I’ve put myself through with Joel Osteen- listening to the man for many, many, many hours of my life that I’d like to have back- I didn’t listen much to Warren.

3) Every church is flawed and that includes Saddleback and its children. It also includes the 12-members-8-of-whom-are-my-family churches that front some of Warren’s critics.

4) I recognize and will continue to recognize the flaws in the Saddleback inspired model of seeker-sensitive spirituality and ecclesiology. I am not in any way accepting, approving or defending what is in error. But I’m going to admit that most of Warren’s critics are far more attuned to his errors than to their own. That doesn’t mean they can’t speak, but it does affect the overall impression that’s left.

5) Rick Warren has said and written some boneheaded things from time to time. He’s not in my league, but he’s up there. When he first came to prominence, he wut nut dat hot wit de mikeyphone on dem der news channel thingys. I’m sure now he could smile, blink and say “I just never thought about that, Larry,” like a pro.

6) In many ways, Warren represents evangelicalism, SBC-style, in all the good, bad, ugly and wonderful that makes evangelicalism a circus and the work of the Spirit. The rule is this: If you hate someone whose main problem is they are a lot like you, you might want to turn the volume down a bit on your tirade.

7) My own commentary on Warren has too often been blind to what Rick Warren and his church network are doing right. I’ve played the reformed watchblogger with my Warren comments when he is clearly a brother. An erring brother, but a brother who has done a lot right that should be recognized, commended, celebrated and imitated.

So what’s on the menu tonight?warren.jpg

For starters, Warren has inspired the planting of thousands of new churches. Christianity is a church based, church planting movement. That’s as basic as it gets, and Warren gets that right. You need to contrast that with the church planting record of Warren critics.

I once found myself in a PCUSA Presbytery meeting where a church plant was being discussed. The word that comes to mind to describe this situation was “strangulation.” What I heard in that meeting was an education on why church planting is just about the last thing most established churches care about these days. (And with the denominational red tape I sat through, it’s no wonder.)

That church plant died, mercifully. Rick Warren has a lot to teach anyone who wants to plant churches. Not that his ideas do it perfectly, but his ideas do it.

Next, there’s Warren’s evangelistic zeal. Warren’s critics, with some notable exceptions, are distinguished by a great suspicion that evangelistic zeal is always a sign of bad theology. If you are zealous for evangelism, you are not likely a Spurgeon. You’re almost certainly a Finney or worse.

At this point, I can say everyone needs to find and read every word written by Iain Murray on John Wesley, particularly on what everyone can learn from the early Methodists about evangelistic zeal.

You see, Murray acknowledges that Wesley had some theological problems, but for some odd reason, Murray hasn’t gotten the memo that any theological error at all disqualifies what you do in evangelism from being commendable.

The seeker model isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in many ways, and I am not a fan of much of what has been done with it. But I do believe that if we look closely at those men- across the spectrum- who have an evangelistic zeal that overflows into what their church says and does- you’ll find that it’s the same Holy Spirit, calling people to Christ, energizing Christians to love and take risks for Jesus sake and for the lost.

Then there is Warren’s leadership in ministries of mercy and compassion. He has a heart for suffering people and makes responding to pain and suffering a priority. This is obvious in his commitment to Africa and the response of his church to the recent fires in California. Saddleback’s generosity and leadership in these areas are a persuasive witness.

I am well aware that good works are not the Gospel, but I am also aware that the Gospel is evidenced by good works, particularly compassionate ministries to the suffering and to the “least of these.” While some can certainly fault Warren and Saddleback when comparing their theology to a Grudem volume, it is difficult to not be impressed by Warren and Saddleback’s genuine, convincing willingness to put themselves in the place of leading out with compassion and personal involvement.

I also see this in the ministry of Celebrate Recovery, an immensely successful Christian adaptation of the classic 12 steps of recovery. CR is spreading into many churches that are not Saddleback networked, but who are looking for a way to open the doors and ministry of the church to hurting people. Of course, the recovery movement earns the special ire of many of Warren’s critics because it deals with specific sins and repentance in community, concepts that, for some unexplained reason, turn some theological watchdogs into ranting orcs.

I thank God that Celebrate Recovery is being used by a church in our area to touch the lives of drug addicts who feel excluded and uncomfortable in the traditional church.

I’ve discovered that Warren is very much a church centered leader. He invests himself in pastors. I don’t agree with all his advice and I don’t jump for joy at all the spiritual leaders he considers worth giving a turn in his pulpit, but these flaws fail to outweigh the heart for pastors that Warren has evidenced for his entire career as a prominent leader.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Saddleback’s web site, and I’m amazed at how basic it is in regard to the church. Heres one of the largest churches in the world, but in many ways it is stressing, teaching and reinforcing the same basic concepts as a brand new church. Would I like to see more theology “up front?” Yes. But is there something wrong with the theology of the church I see at Saddleback? No. It’s a model of how to keep the basics up front and emphasized.

Finally, Warren is a model of personal integrity. I can’t imagine what it’s been like to go from being a church planter, to a leader of a moderately innovative growing church, to the best selling author in the world. It’s true that Warren isn’t John Piper, but he’s not Joel Osteen either. I’m listening to Warren as I type, and there’s been more of the Bible’s central message in the last 3 minutes than I’ve ever heard from Osteen.

Warren’s critics hate the fact that he uses so many different translations when he shares all those Bible verses. Good grief people. Listen to yourselves.

Warren is honest. He’s not comfortable as a media star. He doesn’t play the “generic spiritual leader” role very well. He’s learned how to use his opportunities to point clearly to Christ. I seriously doubt we’ll see Warren doing a Ted Haggard anytime soon. He seems to be the very basic, down-to-earth person he’s always been.

So there you have it. I’m eating crow on this one. Warren is an average preacher. I’m not convinced that his seeker sensitive methods are dependable Biblical. But I am convinced he’s a good man, with a good ministry, who presents the Gospel, encourages pastors, starts churches, demonstrates compassion and lives with integrity.

These days, that resume goes a long way.


  1. Loved this piece the first time you posted it.

    I suspect it’ll go over about the same as one I did on ten things the seeker movement got right.

    But it’s a good one, anyway. Yours, I mean.

  2. The hammering Warren is getting in the blogosphere today saddens me, and I really can’t get much more cynical. Is there no end to this?

  3. When Rick Warren stood before the nation and prayed that sincere STRONG Christ centered prayer, calling on our nation to repent and come to Him I was astounded. How did that unapologetic Christian prayer make it through the many hands that needed to approve it? It was brave and it was right for such a time as this.

    It takes a strong brother to reach out in humilty.
    God bless you for this wonderfully written post.

  4. Ky boy but not now says

    “Is there no end to this?”

    There are way too many in the evangelical camp that believes all public figures and leaders must be perfect. And if not shot so they can be replaced with someone who is.

    “The rule is this: If you hate someone whose main problem is they are a lot like you, you might want to turn the volume down a bit on your tirade.”

    The problem is these folks are deaf. Totally. And there’s a lot of them.

  5. Agreed with all of this, Mr. Spencer. (Though I still can’t say I’m a fan of the guy, theology aside.)

    Another Christian leader who’s been crucified because of politics? Jeremiah Wright. If you really want to see the fur fly, write about what he’s got right over the years- and it’s been a lot. (CC did an excellent piece on him, too, shortly after all hell broke loose in his world.)


  6. i’ve definitely changed my attitude towards him significantly. especially after the way he handled the saddleback forum and his inaugural prayer.

    apparently popular socal pastors aren’t the antichrist after all.

  7. I appreciated the post Michael.

  8. How about we call those “discernment blogers” by their right name – Fault Finders. They know nothing about biblical discernment.

  9. Rick Warren is a mixed bag with me. I have no problem using the Purpose Driven Life, with a few caveats. However, when you get to the Purpose Driven Church I think it should be burned. Some nice sociological insights but theologically lacking. Perhaps the most dangerous thing he does is hold the Purpose Driven conferences at Saddleback. I watched people return from one just awe-struck by the edifice and personality, but any kind of thought of God seemed to be lacking.

  10. I agree that PDC is the larger problem, and has had the more negative influence, but more from a deficit of what’s needed than the changes he advocates. I mean, everyone with a successful church writes that book.

    But aside from that, all I can say is that when they stick a mic in your face, we all aren’t Al Mohler, and the reason probably is that we all don’t LIKE IT. I speak to hundreds of people a week, but if you interviewed me on CNN, I would be stuttering, etc. Lord knows what I would say.

    Wright said a couple of really boneheaded things about AIDS as a conspiracy, etc. but fundamentalists have been damning America for years over Abortion and Gay marriage. Why was Wright off base for doing what thousands of angry white preachers do?

    That was a FoxNews/Sean Hannity deal.

  11. Imonk,

    I don’t understand this phrase:

    “he wut nut dat hot wit de mikeyphone on dem der news channel thingys”.

    Maybe I’m slow this morning. Please clarify.

  12. Jared, I believe the phrase you’re looking for is “pregnant pole-vaulter”.

  13. The weird irony is that all my liberal friends were up in arms about Warren’s participation in the swearing in ceremony because they found him too conservative and too Evangelical.

  14. I totally agree, Rick and iMonnk. PDC is an utter travesty, but PDL isn’t too bad. It’s fairly biblical and practical, despite being weighed down by too many numerical how-to’s (i.e., six ways to do this, ten ways to do that…)

    PDL actually shines when you compare it to the books it’s often lumped together with at the local bookstore. I mean, the “books” of Joel Osteen and Deepak Chopra make PDL seem like the Desert Fathers.

  15. John,
    As a former “southern boy” I can translate: “He was not that hot with the microphone on them there news channel thingys.” Which means he didn’t produce a prodigious amount of profundity earlier in his opportunities on the TV news shows like Larry King. Or maybe I should say he just did show well at first.
    I really appreciate this piece. I have been a Warren skeptic as well, but not to the point of thinking him less than a brother. I know that megachurch life is both good and bad and should have been more charitable in my thinking as well. Thanks.

  16. internetelias says

    Matthew 7:3 “And why beholdest thou , but the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

    God should write this one in the sky for all of us…daily…in big black trails of smoke.

  17. I too have been a Warren critic, and truth be, to much listening to Hannity and reading of a particular blog site. I have not done my own investigation, so shame on me. “O Lord, help me not to make the same sin/mistake again.”

    I was waiting expectantly for his prayer, and was more than pleasantly surprised with it. When he prayed the “Model Prayer” tears of joy and praise to Father filled my eyes.

    I commend Pastor Warren for his courage, boldness, and faithfulness to God as evidenced by his prayer. He has to know that by praying as he did, it will keep him from the table in many political circles, when pastors are included in talks.

  18. Do 2+2 still = 4 thats all Im asking here.Because if they do,for me anyway, when I see a famous pastor or any prominent Christian leader whom ever they should be lead our country in a prayer with the President of the United States and ask God to bless America.Then the very next day the President puts tax payers money toward funding abortion,2 thoughts comes to mind.
    The 1st is what does God think about all of this ?
    And in all truth the next is…
    “They honor Me with their lips but their hearts are far from me”……….

  19. Monk,
    Wew–I LOVED this post!
    Far too often, Christians rant and rail against brothers and sisters as if they were apostates leading believers to damnation. When will learn it’s ok to disagree but accept a brother or sister in Christ? I write this as one all too often guilty of what I preach.

    Thank you for this post, for convicting me, and humbling me.

    We are ALL members of the body of Christ.
    Even the Calvinists.
    Sorry, cheap shot!

  20. internetelias says

    Caucazhin, I’m sure grateful that it ‘rains on the just and the unjust.’ God commands that we do good for evil. In His infinite mercies, abundant blessings continue to rain on people world wide. While we can’t prevent persons who choose to have legal abortions, we can turn our fervency, energy, and discussion to more productive outcomes. If we simply visit(relieve their suffering) the orphans, homeless children, abused children, hungry children, and the aged children in their afflictions….God will smile. He grieves deeply over the hurts of the children who live and suffer in the here and now.

  21. Bob Sacamento says

    Thanks for this piece, Michael. Some balance on RW is something evangelicalism desperately needs. He is neither a heretic nor a latter day prophet. I don’t think he is at all in the same league as the leaders who first defined evagleicalism, but he is head and shoulders above most well known preachers today. My two cents.

  22. Great post. On the comments about Wright, I can’t say I think it was all Fox fanning the flames. There is a lot of hate and resentment and racism in some quarters of the black Church, and whites react with just as much hostility and resentment towards it. That doesn’t mean much of the Black resentment is not justified. If just means hate generates hate. And when you are motivated by anger it is all too easy to fall off the Righteous Anger bandwagon and into som variation of hate.

  23. I’ve heard the stories of how hurricane force winds can drive normally harmless objects through telephone poles. That is my take on Warren. His overall message is fine, but the power of his influence drives those seemingly insignificant errors deep into a church’s culture and psyche. Billy Graham wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t dominate not just a church but every church in a major community like Warren has – from Sunday school, to sermon, to small group to the observation of Lent. There’s no escape. And little is left to balance it. And in my case, when my son is taught a Warren-ism in youth group, I have to work really hard to undo it. I don’t have a DVD teaching series that I can put up on the jumbotron for him to watch.

    It’s big-box Christianity; wanting something more than what is on the two-story shelves is treated as nit-picking. It’s easy to feel powerless. One man thousands of miles away can control so much.

    Warren is far better than Osteen, Copeland, or Spong. He’s far better than even some of my favorite theologians. But my church would never let an Osteen or Spong book through the front door, but because of his influence, Warren is everywhere. Maybe it’s just a case of Rick Warren burn-out.

  24. I can’t say that I’m a fan of Warren’s theology and views on church, but in comparison to a lot of other preachers out there, he certainly exceeds them. And especially of the type who are in the limelight.

    His Invocation was as good a prayer as it was a bridge being built between “conservatives” and “liberals” from my P.O.V. in Australia. The man doesn’t deserve any beat up for the work he does for God and if he does get beaten up by conservative talk radio and the conservative blogosphere, then God help us all.

  25. It really pained me to see my gay friends attacking Obama for letting Warren do the prayer. You hate to see “liberals” suddenly be so intolerant.

    I think Obama hit a home run with his selection of Warren. If the right wing and the left wing are both angry at him, it must mean he’s doing something right!!

  26. I am not a Southern Baptist, so there are a number of things about him that I find mildly comical or offensive — I’m sure he would find me odd or pitiful in a variety of ways.

    I have found his books to be peurile and childish….so what.

    If all you have to work with are the books and the public pronouncements of Mr. Warren, then you don’t have the full story. Having lived thru the attempted *Warrenization* of a church, my chief complaint is Mr. Warren’s wholesale advocacy of, and practice of, DECEPTION.

    The deliberate and ruthless misleading of parishioners, especially the elderly, I find to unconscionable, yet that is precisely the methodology advocated by RW. He is a two-bit, cheesy Machiavel who justifies the means with the ends. Check out the seminar materials from years gone by.

    As you well know, Michael, church governance can be a rough and nasty business. RW lowers it even further.

    So when RW’s smiling face pops up yet again on Larry King you may see the African missions, etc; I see old folks bounced out of their churches as part of the “program” and a sizable “folk wandering” of Christians shocked and disillusioned by the shallowness of Warrenism and outraged by the outright pastoral lies foisted upon them as God’s Shepherds carefully followed the seminar script.

  27. internetelias says

    Steve…Persons sitting under the teaching/preaching of Rick Warren or any other pastoral teacher/preacher can blame his/her lack of knowledge of Truth’ on the preacher. Christ is to be the shepherd. But some Christians prefer the ‘fast food drive through’ rather than searching scripture to see ‘whether those things be true.’ can’t stand at the pearly gates and say, ‘It’s Rick Warren’s fault.’

  28. internetelias says

    I ‘double-dog’ dare ya to read some of my posts at My interpretations of scripture are different to the masses….but, hey…that’s a good thing.



  29. I used to frequent a BLOG that saw Warren as the anti-something to Christianity. Of course it was not nice of me to push back on these people who love to push back on everyone else… :-).

    From a purely theological perspective…I have found his books to be shallow…. but I think your right his heart is investing more time in people than most of his critics and we are not out to create religious think-tanks.

    Of course now that he was at Obamas inaugaration these rant and rave BLOGS have more ammunition than ever before.

    Keep it up Rick Warren!!!!