Rick Warren and Pope Frances Show the Church How to Talk about Jesus

Two things happened in the last couple of weeks that changed the playing field for Christians and the church. Many people missed them by just glancing at the headlines and not getting into the substance. The more I think about them, though, the more I believe we saw the beginnings of a fresh, new season for telling the world about Jesus.


The first was Rick and Kay Warren’s interview with Piers Morgan on CNN.  Televised on September 17, the interview was the Warrens’ first public statement since the death of their son last April. Matthew, 23, took his own life after suffering since childhood with mental illness.


Warren, pastor of one of the nation’s largest churches, Saddleback Church in Orange County, California and the author of the New York Times best-seller, The Purpose-driven Life, had not spoken publically since Matthew’s death. He and Kay went on national television to share their own struggle as an encouragement to other families dealing with the same kind of tragedy.


They intentionally chose a secular venue like CNN in order to speak about the role their faith played in their tragedy. They felt that their loss could be others’ gain if they could show how their relationship with Jesus allowed them to get through it.


Here was godly, believing couple who had spent their lives in service to the Lord and to his church, who were had been overwhelmed by the worst news any parent could ever hear, and yet had somehow were finding the strength to live through it with their faith intact.


Their interview contained no canned religion. None of that God-talk that we in churches fall into when we try to explain the unexplainable. No artificial language about hiding their pain and being a positive role model for others. Just the raw, brutal reality of suffering and loss.


It was hard to watch. No parent can bear the thought of losing a child under any circumstances and to see a couple that many of us felt were at the top of the mountain in terms of successful ministry go through such loss was not only sad, it was also troubling.


I found the interview also to be incredibly effective. The reason, I think, was that it was so real. Rick and Kay Warren’s essential honesty, transparency and humility were all on display, and that made their message both profound and effective. They weren’t shouting through the mega-phone of the pulpit of their nationally recognized church. They whispered as grieving parents, and the nation leaned close to listen.


The second event was Pope Francis’ interview with America magazine, published on September 19. The new head of the Roman Catholic church was so unexpectedly candid, thoughtful and humble that I couldn’t help but to be impressed. I’m not endorsing Catholic theology, but I came away from reading his remarks thinking he was a spiritual leader of rare character. I could see why so many Catholics are enthusiastic about the direction he’s leading the church.

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The interview began with the question, “Tell us who you are.” For most popes, I think, the response would have been the standard recital of family, education, pastoral experience. Not Francis. After a long, thoughtful pause (this pope is a thoughtful man), he said, “I do not know what might be the most fitting description….I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”


His vision for his church reflects the same sort of humility. While maintain traditional Catholic doctrine, Pope Francis is leading his church into a season of patience, mercy and service. The way to reach the world for Jesus, he believes, is through authenticity.


Our experience with many church leaders is the polar opposite. They crave publicity, love drama, and believe themselves to be larger than the church they’re called to serve. And when they surround themselves with bodyguards and handlers—a practice followed by many of today’s celebrity pastors—I believe they’ve not only lost touch with reality but also lost touch with their calling.


Not so with Pope Francis. At one point in the interview he acknowledges that he’s a “Son of the Church.” By that phrase he simply acknowledges that he serves a larger cause than his own ego.  His words were a breath of fresh air. As I read the transcript of his interview I couldn’t help but to think that there may be hope for real spiritual leadership after all.


I know that many people have problems with the theology of both Rick Warren and Pope Francis. But that’s not the point of thinking about their interviews. Instead, what I’m so impressed with is how their respective statements have been received in the public forum. People across the country are fascinated by both men—and their faith.


Without compromising their basic convictions, both leaders are showing a way forward in connecting with our secular—and hostile—culture. It’s a way of honesty, transparency and authenticity. Neither claims to know all the answers. Rick Warren can’t explain why Matthew wasn’t cured of his mental illness. Pope Francis can’t solve every problem faced by his church. But each one can and does hold on to an authentic faith even while going through the suffering the world brings.


Their character gives credibility to their message and provides a platform for them to speak to this unbelieving generation. As all of us in church leadership struggle to bring the gospel to our world, we need to pay attention to what these men show us. The way forward in our mission is in our own authenticity and humility.


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