For three days last month, from June 28-30, Pastor Rick Warren lectured a packed, 3,000 seat auditorium on Saddleback Church’s 120-acre main campus in Orange County, California, while hundreds more tuned in via livestream from all over the world. All combined, participants represented all 50 states and 33 different countries. It was the first time in 10 years that Warren has brought his signature “Purpose Driven Conference” to the U.S.
The event, called PDC16, was designed to on-ramp pastors into Warren’s model of church growth and development, ushering them into the “Purpose Driven Fellowship,” a network that reportedly encompasses thousands of churches that have all adopted the “Purpose Driven paradigm.” Since publishing The Purpose Driven Church in 1995 (the predecessor of Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life), Warren boasts that the curriculum has been shared with over 500,000 pastors and church leaders from 164 countries, “in tiny villages you’ve never even heard of.”
For Warren, it’s a numbers game. The celebrity pastor claims that since founding Saddleback Church in 1980, “we’ve baptized more new believers (43,018), put more people into small group Bible studies (over 38,000 meet weekly in 8,420 small groups), and sent out more members on mission (26,846 members have served in 196 countries) than any American church.”
“God is so interested in numbers he wrote a whole book [in the Bible] about it,” he likes to quip. But this isn’t a case of harmless arithmetic—Warren’s numbers add up to a dangerous purpose: the erasure of critical boundaries between business, government, and the church and the imposition of his anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion Christian Right agenda into these three (previously distinct) elements of society.
Warren is implementing this strategy through what he’s dubbed the “three-legged stool” model of development: a multi-pronged strategy that brings together business, government, and the church. He says that public-private sector partnerships are equivalent to a two-legged stool, which will fall over without a third leg—that of the church. According to Warren, the church is the critical missing link affecting a country’s development.
His agenda, however, is cloaked in altruistic intents—he’s just trying to save people from eternal damnation, he explains. Warren points out that this year, about 78 million people will die, and many of them aren’t Christian. “People without Christ go to hell for eternity,” he reminded the audience. “That keeps me up at night. … The church that doesn’t want to grow is saying, ‘You can go to hell’”
According to Warren, there are 3,000 “unreached people groups” remaining in the world, and while he continues to rack up baptisms, book sales, and church plants, he’s on a mission to get that number—of populations of people who haven’t yet been evangelized into the “purpose driven” fold—down to zero. In a November 2015 Facebook post, Warren explained, “Unreached, unengaged people groups are those around the world with NO Bible, NO Believer, and NO Body of Christ.” To reach them, Warren has teamed up on an initiative called “Finishing the Task.” He hosted the project’s 2015 conference at Saddleback, and will play host again for the second annual conference this coming December.
Evangelizing isn’t unique or original to Saddleback Church, but Warren takes the concept to a new level, threading in aspects of dominionism: the theological idea that Christians must assume control over all aspects of society. In 1994, PRA senior research fellow Fredrick Clarkson explained the origins of dominionism, what he refers to as the “stripped-down root” of Christian Reconstructionism:
A key, if not exclusively Reconstructionist, doctrine uniting many evangelicals is the “dominion mandate,” also called the “cultural mandate.” This concept derives from the Book of Genesis and God’s direction to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over it. While much of Reconstructionism, as one observer put it, “dies the death of a thousand qualifications,” the commitment to dominion is the theological principle that serves as the uniting force of Christian Right extremism, while people debate the particulars.
Christian Reconstructionism is a stealth theology, spreading its influence throughout the Religious Right. Its analysis of America as a Christian nation and the security of complete control implied in the concept of dominion is understandably appealing to many conservative Christians. Its apocalyptic vision of rule by Biblical Law is a mandate for political involvement.
This mandate for political involvement is the blurring factor that’s been chipping away at the church/state division over the last few decades, slowly eliminating one of foundational principles on the United States. As Clarkson explains in his 2016 report, “When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right,” “Its long-range goal is to impose a conservative Christian social order inspired by religious law, in part by eroding pillars of undergirding religious pluralism that are integral to our constitutional democracy.”
At a 2009 event organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Warren asserted, “I’m not a politician. If I thought politics could change people’s hearts, I’d go into government. … But I don’t, so I’m not. I have no political aspirations and no aspirations to even influence public policy.”
Nonetheless, both in the U.S. and in countries all over the world, Warren has garnered tremendous amounts of political power and uses it to leverage influence at every level. In 2008, the anti-LGBTQ pastor played a significant role in passing Prop 8, California’s gay marriage ban. In 2014, Warren weighed in on the Supreme Court’s pending Hobby Lobby decision, declaring that he was willing to go to jail if the Christian Right’s version of religious liberty wasn’t upheld. In 2015, he testified before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee in support of continued funding for global health programs that combat the AIDS epidemic abroad.
Warren’s political influence extends well beyond U.S. borders, too. Rwanda has been a central focus of Warren’s international work since 2003, when right-wing evangelical billionaire Joe Ritchie first introduced him to President Paul Kagame, who has served as the country’s leader since 2000. Warren now sits on Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council, for which he was granted a Rwandan diplomatic passport. Through Saddleback’s PEACE Plan, which essentially seeks to develop a Purpose Driven Church network that will serve as the primary distribution sites for healthcare and other social services, Warren has developed an extensive relationship with hundreds of congregations in the country. At last week’s conference, Warren conceded that they might not all be the same “brand” of Christian, but, “If you love Jesus, we’re on the same team.”
Unfortunately, those who aren’t on “Team Jesus” may find that the PEACE Plan’s shrinking of the public sphere (by granting exclusive responsibility for basic services to its church network) will negatively impact their ability to access care. It can be expected, for example, that Purpose Driven Churches won’t provide contraception resources and may even be hostile to LGBTQ people.
The PEACE Plan model isn’t limited to Rwanda, though—at PDC16 Warren made a strong pitch for increased U.S. church involvement in Africa. He explained that presidents from numerous other African nations, including Botswana, the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Malawi, and Nigeria, have all asked him to replicate his Rwandan program in their countries. But rather than doing all the work himself, Warren intends to play the role of matchmaker, assigning pastors from his Purpose Driven network to take the lead in selected countries and regions.
Tim Harlow, senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church—a megachurch in the suburbs of Chicago—and a long time friend of Warren’s, is already on board. He recalls Warren’s initial invitation: “Hey, the President of Malawi called and said she wanted us to bring Purpose Driven and the PEACE plan to Malawi. Why don’t you take it?” Revealing just how ill-equipped Warren’s hand-picked leaders are, Harlow admits he didn’t even know where Malawi was at the time of his commissioning.
As Warren nears retirement—he’s suggested he’ll step down in 2020—he’s accelerating his global expansion and seeking more matchmaking opportunities. Originally planned for 2015, the “All-Africa Purpose Driven Church Leadership Training Conference” is now set to take place in the fall of 2017 in Kigali, Rwanda. The event will bring together leading African evangelicals from each of the continent’s 54 countries, along with a team of American pastors who will “adopt” these new “purpose driven” recruits and usher them into the PEACE Plan’s three-legged stool strategy. With Harlow at the helm, the Malawi program has already recruited a local leader to help guide the project—an evangelical who also happens to be a Member of Parliament.
But first, Warren has to get his American army trained up, readying them for the next surge of dominionist expansion. Country by country, continent by continent, Warren is on a mission—if the All-Africa conference is a success, he has set his sights on Latin America and East Asia next.