The name of Rick Warren, Saddleback Church’s founder and senior pastor, has become synonymous with terms like “purpose-driven” and phrases like “It’s not about you.” But since 2002, this California native has added another signature word to the list: AIDS. Named by U.S. News & World Report (October 2005) as one of America’s top 25 leaders, Warren, 52, has used his success and influence to call the Church to action. Warren spoke with Outreach about what drives his commitment to stop HIV/AIDS and the No. 1 message he has for pastors today.
Rick Warren: Four years ago, Kay read a news magazine article about AIDS orphans in Africa. Until then, she’d had no idea about the magnitude of AIDS, specifically that 12 million children were orphaned in Africa due to AIDS. The article ripped the blinders off her eyes, and she couldn’t stop thinking about it. A month later, she was still thinking about it and by that time had committed to let this new reality become a part of her. She began to talk to me about it, and I said, “That’s great, honey. I’m going to support you. But it’s not my vision.” We both agreed that it didn’t have anything to do with Saddleback.
But as Kay began to read more articles and tell me about them, I began to sense that AIDS and these orphans were not only dear to Kay’s heart, they were also very near and dear to God’s heart. And we had been missing it. God used Kay to grab my heart.
Kay went to Africa and came back saying, “You have to go.” So in 2003, at the invitation of Bruce Wilkinson, we went to Johannesburg to help lead an HIV/AIDS conference. That trip changed me.
OM: What happened specifically?
RW: After the conference, I asked our host to take me to a village where I could talk with some pastors. We went to Tembisa. When we arrived, a pastor walked up to me and said, “I know who you are. You’re Pastor Rick.” I was speechless. He told me that once a week, he walks 90 minutes to a post office with an Internet connection to download my sermons, and then he preaches them on Sundays. He said that I was the only training he’d ever had.
It overwhelmed me. I burst into tears, thinking I will give the rest of my life for guys like that—the real heroes out in the bush. That night, I prayed, “God, what are the problems so big that no one else but You can solve them?”
OM: And that night, you came up with your P.E.A.C.E. plan (Plant new churches or partner with existing ones; Equip leaders; Assist the poor; Care for the sick; Educate the next generation), right?
RW: Yes, I’m a fan of acrostics. It all kind of clicked into place with me. The P.E.A.C.E. plan offered a strategic way to approach these issues that we had been praying and caring about, but didn’t know what to do with.
OM: We’ve heard you re-examined Scripture in light of this newfound commitment?
RW: I found those 2,000 verses on the poor. I went to Bible college and two seminaries—how did I miss God’s compassion for the poor? The Church is the body of Christ. But the hands and feet have been amputated and now we’re just a big mouth, known more for what we’re against. I prayed, “God, would you use me to re-attach the hands and the feet to the body of Christ, so that the whole Church cares about the whole Gospel in a whole new way—through the local Church?”
OM: What convinces you that the Church is the agent of change in a world crisis like AIDS?
RW: Long before businesses ever began thinking of “globalization,” the Christian Church was already there. In fact, the Christian Church is the only truly global organization, existing in every country with thousands of indigenous people groups that are not represented by the United Nations or multinational corporations. With 2.1 billion people claiming to be followers of Christ, Christianity is the largest organization, has the widest network and offers the biggest volunteer force on the planet. The Church is larger than any country, government or business. In many parts of the world, the Church is the only civil society structure.
At first, our hope was simply to add another voice in speaking up for those who are being ignored. But as we studied the pandemic and the related problems, such as the lack of a grassroots global distribution network for medicine and nutrition and the need to mobilize millions of volunteers, we realized that the missing part of the solution was right in front of our eyes—local congregations.
OM: Have you seen the efforts the Church is making to care for those infected and affected by AIDS building inroads to the unchurched?
RW: We are starting to catch the attention of a watching world—a world that believes the Church doesn’t care about global and humanitarian issues. Yes, we’re behind; we’re late to the table. But we’re here. We’re here to stay. We continue to repent of our apathy and ignorance, and we just want to serve. And I think more people who don’t know Christ but care deeply about the AIDS crisis are starting to see that.
OM: I know that your vision is to have lay people involved. What needs to happen in our churches?
RW: Every local church needs to be addressing AIDS, starting at home. The effort doesn’t have to begin overseas. And that means providing an environment in our churches that allows people to come in and say they are sick. Every church leader should know the scope of this pandemic and should be communicating the magnitude to his or her congregation. We also need a time of repentance and confession, acknowledging before God and others that most of us have not truly cared about this devastation and its victims.
OM: What are you and Kay doing at Saddleback to ignite a fire for AIDS prevention/relief in your Orange County congregation?
RW: We talk about it. We preach messages about our biblical responsibility to care for our suffering neighbors, and we work to incorporate it into all the weekend messages. We make World AIDS Day a time of commemoration and create a visual experience that compels people to care and want to get involved. More than 600 people from the church attended our conference last year. And we continue to show our congregation how much we believe in this by the time and resources we commit to it. We have a staff focused solely on our HIV/AIDS ministry. We have small groups that are planning mission trips. Worldwide, we hope to enlist 1 billion people in local churches for mission projects.
OM: For so long, we’ve seen non-govern-mental organizations (NGOs) take the reins on the AIDS crisis. Why is it important for churches to get involved?
RW: Unfortunately, in the last century evangelical Christians have turned their back on the poor, the needy and the sick, and NGOs have sprung up to fill the gap the Church has left. There is a prevalent philosophy out there that the Church should give to the “professionals,” step aside and let the NGOs do the work, and that has resulted in complacency. We believe that God is asking all of us who follow Him to get involved. Giving money to NGOs is good, but He is asking more of us.
OM: In some corners of Christendom, strong anti-gay sentiments exist. How does this type of thinking affect the work you’re doing?
RW: In the United States, the largest number of HIV-positive people are gay, but around the world that’s not true. In this country, it’s hard to talk about HIV/AIDS without connecting it with same-sex attraction. Our churches are uncomfortable talking about sex, much less homosexuality or HIV. But when you go back to the Bible, you see that we are to ask how we can help so that we can continue the conversation later, like Christ did when he asked the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?”
We need to ask ourselves some hard questions: If we talk with someone who is living with HIV or AIDS and learn that he or she is homosexual, does that change our compassion level? If it does, then we need to look at our own lives and see our levels of brokenness and failure. For ourselves, we want mercy; for others, we want justice. If we want to be like Christ, then we must extend mercy and compassion.
We receive criticism from all sides: the gay community because we don’t believe homosexuality is God’s plan for sexual expression; the Christians who say that we’ve gone soft and are not following the Bible. But I know that God called Kay and then He called me. God loves every person He created, and we will keep moving forward no matter what the criticism is.
OM: Rick, if you could say one thing about the Church and AIDS to every pastor in America, what would it be?
RW: Pastors, you cannot delegate this one to your staff. You take the lead. God is looking for someone to use. He’s not looking for your ability, but for your availability.
OM: How do you, personally, pray for the AIDS pandemic? For the church leaders who’ve engaged in the fight? For the church leaders who haven’t?
RW: We can stop AIDS. It is a preventable disease. It isn’t good enough to just manage it. We know how to keep it from spreading—this pandemic can be stopped if our churches care enough to enter the fight. That gives me hope, and that is what I pray for. For those not involved, we pray that the blinders will fall off their eyes like they did with ours. For those who think we’re misunderstanding God’s Word and oppose this vision and mission, we pray that they will know the heart of God and through that, they will form their own response. For those who have joined the fight, we pray for determination to keep going in a battle that gets messy and will get messier in the years to come. When you’re doing this kind of ministry, you take a lot of hits.
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