Jesus’ Man Has a Plan

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?

New York Miracle

There’s a storefront church next door to my friend Bill’s apartment in New York City’s East Village. I’m staying with him for a week, so I pass the church a lot, and the sign in the window becomes like a refrain.

“Free: hugs, foot washing, Band-Aids & money. While $upplies last.”

You can also drop off your prayer requests through a slot in the door, and a note promises your prayers will be sent out daily.

An enormous tabby cat sits in the church window, perched atop a child’s wooden chair. Another sign reads: “Coming soon: miracles.”

The foot-washing, as evidenced in several black-and-white photos, holds a certain appeal.

All I’ve done in New York is walk. I can’t stop walking. I’ve rotated my shoes to disperse the blisters, but it hasn’t helped much. Still, I walk.

The East Village is more engaging than anything. I’m convinced of that. I’m here to do a reading at a Jewish cultural center on the Upper West Side, but that’s really just an excuse to see some friends and my old stomping grounds. I haven’t been back in seven years.

I walk for days, while Bill works his office job. I pick up flowers for his apartment and stock the freezer with ice cream. I walk looking for old haunts and accidents, like the Jivamukti yoga class I stumble into that makes me sign a release. I live to walk some more.

I stop in at my old dorm, pass familiar coffeeshops, restaurants and corner delis. I pass that church a dozen times a day, and I guess the thoughts going through my head are something like prayers. Mostly thanks. Even though the old neighborhood is familiar, something is so different — in a good way. I can’t place it. I’ve learned to just walk until I answer my own questions or forget them. I walk, and I know what it is.

Before, when I was a student, I was broke and bewildered, like most people I knew, but it was worse than that. Things were worse in my head. My default setting used to be miserable, and now it’s at least three-quarters content. I never really noticed the shift until now. Anxiety and self-flagellation still visit, like me crashing on Bill’s couch, but they don’t live here anymore. They aren’t on the lease.

Every time I see an old place but feel a new way, I’m thankful. It seems so simple, this basic shift in how I walk through life, but no one tells you it’s possible to just change the default setting and be OK in the absence of anything terrible or miraculous happening in your life.

Some of the prayers going through my head are the greedy, old-fashioned kind (you don’t go to one yoga class and become the Dalai Lama). I wish for a job that would afford me an apartment in New York with a bathtub to call my own. I wish to end up on my old university’s big-brag board, the one I stared at for a while, the one that’s covered with news clippings about alumni success stories. I’m not on the brag board, but I’ve done OK for myself, I think, walking some more. I’ve certainly done better than anyone thought I would.

This thought is so satisfying that my ego decides to pay a surprise visit to my mouth. The sound “Ha”comes out, loud and to myself, and no one cares. “Ha ha,”I mutter, a little softer, as decorum and humility creep back in.

Outside the Public Theater on Lafayette, people are camped out on lawn chairs playing Scrabble and reading about publicist Lizzie Grubman. They are enduring the festival of abuse that is being stuck on a Manhattan sidewalk in July for the privilege of getting tickets to “The Seagull.” Their dedication moves me.

Needless to say, this is something you wouldn’t see in Los Angeles. The only Chekhov that draws a crowd in Los Angeles is that dude from “Star Trek,”and maybe not even him. A pretzel vendor gets in a fight with a sidewalk art dealer, and I use the word “art”loosely. Nothing comes of the exchange but finger-pointing and swearing in various native languages. I walk on.

I’ve eaten at every friend’s favorite restaurant, from Tibetan to Sicilian. My stomach loves it here as much as I do.

There’s that saying, “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” That’s one little axiom I never thought would work in my favor. This week, it does.

I pass the church again. The fat cat slumbers in a patch of sunlight. I have yet to see the place open, but maybe their signs are all they need of a ministry. It seems like a pretty ramshackle place to promise miracles, but who knows? Maybe clean feet and Band-Aids are miracle enough, if you know how to read signs.

Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at