Pastor Rick Warren and Missing the Point

I’m not one of the 566,235 people who have liked Pastor Rick Warren’s Facebook page—no offense intended, it’s just that I have a hard enough time keeping up with my Facebook feed as it is—but I was troubled when I learned that his page had posted an image of a determined-looking young woman in Red Army uniform with the caption “The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.”

By the time I looked for the page, the offending post had been removed along with its 3000 likes, the comments pointing out the painfully inappropriate image, Pastor Warren’s defensive “It’s a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me!”, and the 180 likes for that comment which I found just as troubling.

For those who may not be familiar with this cultural history and its continuing impact, I encourage you to read Rick Warren, Cultural Sensitivity and Mission; It would not be funny if I said Rick Warren was the ‘Rick’ in ‘Rickshaw Rally’; and Dear Pastor Rick Warren, I think you don’t get it. If you still think the Red Army reference is funny after reading these excellent posts, well I guess I’m glad that I don’t have a sense of humour! I am indebted to these writers for seeking to preserve the record and to address the issues of cultural sensitivity and mission, humour and human misery, feedback and response, and much more.

The only thing I’d like to add from my writerly perspective is that this is a clear example of missing the point. From Pastor Warren’s comments, I’m quite sure that the original post was intended as a light-hearted and positive portrayal of the Saddleback staff, but the impact of the image and caption was just the opposite. When this was first brought to his attention, he missed the point, and in the comments back and forth that followed, his original message about the dedicated and hard-working staff was lost. His readers missed the point that he was trying to make because of the way it was being communicated.

I think there are a number of lessons here for writers:

  • Culture matters. Whether it’s a Facebook status, blog post, sermon or other form of communication, historical and cultural references need to be used with care. Make sure you know what they mean and that they communicate in the way that you intend.
  • Communication goes both ways. It’s not only about what we put out there — it’s also about how it’s received. With social media, the response time is much more personal and immediate than in print, but in both it pays to pay attention to your audience.
  • Images are powerful. For effective communication, words and images need to work together. In this example, another image with the same caption would have made his point.

Writing/Reflection Prompt: What’s your take on this? What lessons would you identify? // Black Screen
I generally include at least one image with each blog post, but I’m omitting an image this time to underscore the point. If an image doesn’t communicate what you want to say, then leave it out.


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19 thoughts on “Pastor Rick Warren and Missing the Point

    1. Yeah, I don’t have any particular affinity for Warren. He makes mistakes, as all leaders do, and I don’t think his teaching is particularly deep or meaningful. I do love, though, that he does show humility such as in this case and when #RickWarrenTips went Christian-trending and he joined in making fun of himself.

  1. He should have apologized for the poor choice of the image. Hopefully he will do so. I do think we also have a responsibility to take someone at their word when they say or do something we find offensive and they tell us they didn’t mean it in the way we perceived it – and I still think they should apologize for it. At that point, it’s a choice to continue to be offended. They don’t have to apologize for us to forgive them.

    Mel @ Trailing After God

    1. Melinda,

      As pointed out above, he did apologize. Which is really pretty cool that he took the time to make it right, not just by pulling down the image, but by trying to make amends.

      Something else to remember… While the page is “Rick Warren’s Page”… most likely, there are staffers who put stuff up for him “in his name”. so, it might not ACTUALLY have been Rick who put up the picture… but it was Rick who apologized for it because it was done in his name… Again, takes humility to do that kind of thing…

  2. I don’t see any apology from Rick Warren at all, on Robert’s link at all.
    And to especially say ” it’s a joke people”, makes it all even worse.
    A true apology claims ownership of what he did, admits it was wrong, says why it was wrong and apologizes, saying he’ll never do that again.

    Very, very sad – Rick did none of that.

    1. The apology itself isn’t on my link.. follow Eugene’s blog, go to the end, there are links to other articles. This is the relevant comment.

      And you can see, on Eugene’s article, the following from the author of Engage the Pews that says:

      “Today I received and accepted Pastor Rick Warren’s apology. If you wish to see it, it’s still on my previous blog. I think it speaks volumes about him. I must admit that I didn’t expect a personal apology stated publicly on my blog. For that reason, I want to leave the blog up for historical record to show that a good man is good not because he is right all the time but because he owns up to this mistakes. I think he’s doing the best he can in his response. Of course, I’m still a bit confused about the joke in the original post…”

      So, yes, Rick apologized, took down the picture, and accepted the critique as a teaching moment for him.

      1. as many have pointed out, it was not an apology at all. he merely acknowledged that the picture was posted and took it down, making no effort to acknowledge the fact that people were hurt by his error. as jill and brander mcdonald said, an apology takes ownership of the mistake and acknowledges that it has hurt others. pastor warren’s post does none of that – instead, he mentioned that he’d planted churches in japan and some other places in asia, as if that were even relevant to the dialogue. this is so representative of the western evangelicalist desire of “fixing” things without trying to understand the cultural context they are “fixing.” it’s so typical of people like pastor warren to raise their hands and say something like “whoa, whoa! i’m not a racist! i’ve planted churches in japan and asia!”, much like the common refrain, “whoa! i’m not a racist! i have black/hispanic/asian/arabic friends!”

        this speaks volumes about the grace and humility of the blogger, dr. sam tsang, rather than that of pastor warren. the asian-american christian community has every right to be hurt by this.

      2. Robert, it is because I do not represent all the offended (or indeed ALL) Asian people. That’s why. The degree of flippancy Pastor Rick and his staff took this whole matter is clearly quite offensive. I only can speak for myself, and I will add that I’m less than satisfied with the apology, but what can I do. As Ms. Yamasaki clearly state in the blog, he didn’t get the point. The apology then becomes secondary since he did not learn any lesson. Since then, he has never contacted any of the Asian American pastoral leaders, most of whom I know. So, what does this say about learning a lesson? Nothing! The apology is just a PR move to me, but I accepted it not because I liked it but because it’s my “Christian duty” to do so.

  3. April it must be wonderful knowing that you have never made a mistake, never offended anyone unintentionally and that every word you have ever written is always perfectly understood by everyone whatever their culture. Unlike you I have made many mistakes which is why I needed the forgiveness of Christ and why I take Him at His word when He tells me to not judge other Christians but to leave that over to Him

    1. Like everyone, of course I have made mistakes, offended people unintentionally, and been misunderstood. I need the grace of God as much as anyone, and am thankful that God is faithful to forgive. My intention in this post is not to pass judgement, but to outline some of the lessons that can be learned about communicating more clearly. In the body of Christ, I hope that we can learn from and extend grace to one another. After reviewing the comments in this thread and the related links, I believe this is what Pastor Warren and Dr. Tsang are trying to do, and I thank them both for their efforts and transparency.

      1. If as you say your intention was to “outline some of the lessons that can be learned about communicating more clearly” then you must now understand what Rick Warren feels as your attempt was a very poor example and ended up causing offence to many.

        Finally here is what Rick Warren posted today.

        Pastor Rick Warren
        Finally back home. Staff handed me a hard copy of an email from someone offended by a picture I posted. If you were hurt, upset, offended, or distressed by my insensitivity I am truly sorry. May God richly bless you.

  4. I regret any hurt caused by my post and appreciate your taking the time and trouble to leave a follow up comment. It is good to know that Rick Warren has also responded which I appreciate. May God bless and keep you.

    1. For my part, no hurt here. 🙂 You pointed out something important… we need to make sure we take into consideration the potential ramifications of our actions and the potential insensitivity. And, as Rick did, when it’s pointed out to you that you did something stupid, be “big enough” to say, “I screwed up and hurt some folks. I’m deeply sorry and will aim to better myself.”

      The dialog is good, April, and important and necessary. Thanks for starting the dialog!

    2. Why should you apologize, Ms. Yamasaki? You’re speaking the truth of the entire matter. There’s a whole lot of stuff that went on behind the scene (since I was involved) that you probably didn’t see, but having known what I know, you have nothing to apologize for. What you said above is 100% true as far as my experience through this crazy ordeal tells me. Your blog is exactly what the church needs! Keep it up!

      1. I’m so glad you stopped by and left a comment here and also above – I appreciate your perspective on this especially since I’m very much a third-party observer and realize that for any situation there is always more happening behind the scenes. Thanks for your encouragement!

  5. It is so easy to be misunderstood. Perhaps writers and communicators need a motto similar to that of physicians “First do no harm”. Impulsiveness is dangerous and it behooves us all to be careful before posting and to avoid questionable images Thanks for sharing this sobering lesson, April.

    That’s a good note to end on. Thanks, Vera. – April

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