Beliefwatch: On Purpose

Time was, not so long ago, that no one ever said a bad word about Pastor Rick Warren. He was the genius grower of churches, the California whiz who found a magic formula for marketing Christianity to the masses, who hit the jackpot with his book "The Purpose Driven Life," by some accounts the best-selling nonfiction book ever. The newsweeklies noticed him, The New Yorker profiled him, members of Billy Graham's family lauded him and Bill Gates himself hobnobbed with him.

In recent weeks he hasn't seemed so bulletproof, and one has to wonder why. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have put him on their front pages in not wholly flattering lights: the former for helping push a tax break for clergy through Congress, the latter for selling a church-revitalization strategy that some pastors say doesn't work. In her blog, syndicated Christian-radio talk-show host and producer Ingrid Schlueter has devoted herself to critiquing megachurches in general and Warren in particular; she is irate about lots of things, including his "hula ministry." A new book, out last month, doesn't take aim at Warren by name but is, without a doubt, an attack on his methods. In researching her book "Christianity for the Rest of Us," a study of smaller mainline Protestant churches with vital, growing congregations, Diana Butler Bass met many people who were "skeptical and critical of 'The Purpose Driven Life'," she says. "They think it creates a one-size-fits-all Christianity."

Has Warren simply gotten so huge--with 400,000 pastors trained in the art of being purpose-driven and more than 20,000 people coming to hear him preach on Sundays--that he's an easy target? Or are American Protestants really beginning to tire of mega-churches? The numbers wouldn't support this latter hypothesis: there are twice as many megachurches in America today as there were five years ago, and Warren himself handles the criticism like a giant shooing a pesky fly. "It's about time someone started to be negative," he says with a smile in his voice. "The media love to build people up, and they immediately love to tear them down." He has important things to do, he says, pointing to his new initiatives to stop poverty, AIDS and illiteracy in Africa. The negative press is nothing--"like a water spider on the pond of life." Then he quotes John 10:37: "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not." A verse that critics and fans alike can take to heart.