Are there any Jewish Rick Warrens?
That's not a fair question.
There are few people of any faith like Warren.
As I sat listening to him speak at Sinai Temple's Friday Night Live Shabbat services last week, I thought of the only other person I'd met with Warren's eloquence, charisma, and passion -- but Bill Clinton carries a certain amount of baggage that Warren doesn't.
Warren spoke at Sinai as part of the Synagogue 3000 program, which aims to revitalize Jewish worship.
Rick Warren's speech at Sinai Temple. Audio added 8/14/2008
The program's leader, Rabbi Ron Wolfson, met Warren a decade ago and was influenced by the pastor's first book, "The Purpose-Driven Church" (Zondervan, 1995). And to demonstrate what such a church looked like in action, Wolfson brought two busloads of synagogue leaders to Warren's Saddleback Church in South Orange County to experience firsthand the pastor's success. The church has 87,000 members. Its Sunday service draws 22,000 worshippers to a 145-acre campus in the midst of affluent, unaffiliated exurbia. Clearly, Warren has reached the kind of demographic synagogues had all but given up on.
There are two aspects to Warren's success, and both were on display Friday night. First, he is an organizational genius. His mentor was management guru Peter Drucker.
"I spoke with him constantly," Warren said, right up until Drucker died last year at age 95.
It is Drucker's theory of "management by objectives" that Warren replicates in every endeavor -- translating long-term objectives into more immediate goals. Here let's pause to consider that Jews are learning to reorganize thier faith from a Christian who was mentored by a Jew.
In his church, Warren serves as pastor to five subordinate pastors, who in turn serve 300 full-time staff, who administer to 9,000 lay volunteers, who pastor 82,000 members spread out among 83 Southern California cities.
"It's the individual cells that make the body," he told the Sinai crowd. All his church's endeavors -- from working to cure diseases in African villages to reinventing houses of worship -- work according to a model that parcels larger goals into smaller ones, empowering believers to take action along the way.
The other secret to his success is his passion for God and Jesus. Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus -- a testament to his savvy message-tailoring. But make no mistake, the driving purpose of an evangelical church is to evangelize, and it is Warren's devotion to spreading the words of the Christian Bible that drive his ministry.
Good for him and his flock -- and not so bad for us either. His teachings apply to 95 percent of all people, regardless of religious belief. As he put it to a group of rabbis at a conference last year -- using a metaphor that might be described as a Paulian slip: "Eat the fish and throw away the bones."
Warren told Wolfson his interest is in helping all houses of worship, not in converting Jews. He said there are more than enough Christian souls to deal with for starters.
The success of Warren's second book, "The Purpose-Driven Life" (Zondervan, 2002), demonstrates his ability to turn a particular gospel into a universal one. As Sinai Temple's Rabbi David Wolpe told the capacity audience of some 1,500, "The Purpose-Driven Life"turned the self-help model on its head by asserting that the answer to personal fulfillment does not reside with the self.
"Looking within yourself for your purpose doesn't work," the book begins. "If it did, we'd know it by now. As with any complex invention, to figure out your purpose, you need to talk to the inventor and read the owner's manual -- in this case, God and the Bible." "The Purpose-Driven Life" has sold 25 million copies in 57 languages.
As Warren pointed out -- with an odd ability to be humble and matter of fact about it -- it is reportedly the biggest-selling nonfiction book in American history. It brought him fame and fortune. Warren spent much of his sermon describing how he dealt with his new-found money and influence, turning his personal solutions into lessons on confronting the spiritual emptiness and materialism that all comfortable Americans face.
The pastor said he practices an inverse tithe -- giving away 90 percent and keeping 10 percent of his income. He takes no salary from the church and returned the 20 years of income he received from it.
I haven't checked his portfolio to verify this, but the message is an impressive and important one.
"We do not go into this line of work to get rich," he said. "If you give it to God, he will bring you to life."
Similarly, Warren has leveraged his fame to bring attention to AIDS in Africa and other global problems. He said he'd just come from a photo shoot at Sony Studios with Brad Pitt and was about to meet overseas with the leaders of 11 countries in 37 days. While he was at Sinai Temple, his wife, Kay, was at the White House.
"The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have none," he said.
Warren wore a kippah made by the Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda and gifted to him by the country's president. Before his sermon, he sang enthusiastically with musician Craig Taubman, who performed along with Saddleback Church music director Richard Muchow.
"This is my kind of service!" he said when he took the stage to deliver his remarks.
Afterward, as one Friday Night Live contingent repaired to a ballroom to carry on the hard work of scoping out other singles, another filled Barad Hall to get more time with Warren in a Q-and-A.
Along the way, he described in detail how he organized a national Purpose Driven Church campaign to get some 30,000 houses of worship across the world to define and implement their mission. He also punctuated his anecdotes with simple statements about God's role in our lives: "God created you to love you," he said, "and to love him back."
I have no doubt the people who turned to Warren to help them reinvent synagogues for the 21st century can and will learn a lot from the man's organizational skills. But the deeper message he conveys, his unstintingly devoted and enthusiastic faith -- how in the world can we Jews learn that?