President-elect Barack Obama's selection of the Rev. Rick Warren to offer the invocation at his inauguration immediately prompted controversy as well as questions from those curious about the Californian's role in the ceremony, played in half of the last six inaugurations by preaching icon Billy Graham.

Is Warren the 21st-century Graham? Why is he important? And what's the Catholic angle on this successful pastor and author of the best-selling hardcover book in American publishing history?

Seeker-sensitive

Warren, a native Californian, is the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. He earned a master's in Divinity from Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and in 1980 returned to Lake Forest, Calif. (in the Saddleback Valley in Orange County) to plant a church.

The gathering that began in the Warren living room has today grown into a church -- Saddleback Church -- which claims 20,000 in attendance at weekend services, 200 ministries and several "satellite" campuses.

The Saddleback theology is Southern Baptist in its fundamentals. However, from the beginning, Warren prioritized not doctrinal teaching but outreach to the unchurched in non-threatening ways.

This seeker-sensitive model of church was not invented by Warren, who developed his church-growth philosophies under the tutelage of C. Peter Wagner at Fuller Theological Seminary. But he has played an important role in rendering it a powerful force among American evangelical congregations.

The seeker-sensitive model de-emphasizes explicitly "churchy" aspects of Christianity. The idea is that nonbelievers and the unchurched, those most in need of hearing about God's love, are often put off by church talk, symbols and ritual -- even the Bible.

Warren writes in his 1995 book "The Purpose Driven Church": "The ground we have in common with unbelievers is not the Bible, but our common needs, hurts, and interests as human beings. You cannot start with a text, expecting them to be fascinated by it. You must first capture their attention then move them to the truth of God's word. ... Each week I begin with a hurt, need or interest then move to what God has to say about it in his word."

So, in this paradigm, worship services tap into contemporary trends in music and culture to draw attention and attendance. Sermons -- or "messages," as they're usually called -- emphasize the practical angle of the spiritual life: how God can help us be at peace, navigate our troubles, manage our finances and find our purpose. "Whenever Jesus encountered a person," Warren writes, "he'd begin with their hurts, needs and interests."

So, says Warren, should the church.

'Lose the suit'

Warren promoted his church growth philosophy not only through the book but through comprehensive programs designed to help pastors transform their churches into the Saddleback model.

Southern Baptist writer and teacher Michael Spencer, who blogs as "The Internet Monk," told Our Sunday Visitor: "What Warren did was to seriously step away from the 'church culture' that Protestants took for granted. Lose the suit. Change the music. Be informal. As strange as it may sound, this was a big deal. Doing things that signal to the unchurched that this is 'all about you' proved to be significant."

Warren made a bigger societal splash with his book "The Purpose-Driven Life" in 2002. It is a 40-chapter program for personal spiritual growth, inviting the reader to reflect on his or her unique purpose in life. The book's first sentence is, "It's not about you," succinctly summarizing Warren's point that life is about doing God's will and serving others.

Critics

Catholics unfamiliar with the intricacies of contemporary American evangelical life may be surprised to learn that there is no one-size-fits-all American evangelical and also that mild-mannered Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Rick Warren has fierce critics among his fellow Protestants.

The critics fault the "church-growth" and seeker-sensitive movement Warren has popularized for producing churches that are slaves to popular culture, fixated on numbers and, ultimately, failures in nurturing serious disciples of Jesus.

Warren and his wife, Kay, are passionate about global missions and poverty issues, and make this an important element of Saddleback ministries. Some critics from within evangelicalism have questioned what they say is an implication that holding correct doctrinal views is less important than charity and justice work, and also disapprove of the alliances Warren makes in serving those causes.

This leads into critiques of Warren's theology, since it involves the persistent question of faith versus works. Warren is regularly accused of falling on the wrong side -- works -- of that question, as well as downplaying issues of sin, repentance, and justification by faith alone, so central to historical Protestantism.

Catholics and Warren

"The Purpose Driven Life" has sold 30 million copies, and it's probably safe to assume that a few Catholics are among those millions.

Does Warren's work hold any benefit for Catholic readers? Any dangers?

There is nothing terrible about "The Purpose Driven Life," nothing that approaches the danger and shallowness of the "Left Behind" or "Prayer of Jabez" fads. Warren offers far more than the platitudes of Joel Osteen or the promises of the prosperity preachers on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Ironically, what provokes Warren's critics -- the downplaying of traditional Reformation themes -- is one factor that might make Catholics feel at home. Warren's emphasis on being formed in the likeness of Christ and living sacrificially resonates with a traditional Catholic emphasis on sanctification.

There are indeed serious problems with Warren's perspective. His use of Scripture is arbitrary and idiosyncratic. He favors paraphrased versions like the "Living Bible" or "The Message" and regularly takes scriptural references out of context. The journey of a Christian he outlines is not the journey of a disciple we can discern from the witness of apostolic Christianity and preserved in Catholic and Orthodox tradition, one rooted in the corporate life of the Body of Christ, beginning with baptism as a regenerative sacrament. His Christology is typical low-church Protestant Christology, which emphasizes Jesus as teacher and guide rather than his divine nature. Because of these and other problems, Warren's work is entirely unsuitable for use by Catholic groups or parishes.

A Catholic seeking to explore the possibilities of discipleship on a deeper level would do better, for example, to delve into the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, who writes with clarity, simplicity, an understanding of the challenges of faith and a passionate love of Christ and what he frequently calls the "adventure" of discipleship.

The Catholic spiritual tradition has countless riches that have enabled believers through the centuries to grasp and live the connection between faith and life, to be passionate about mission, service and growing in Christ, every day, in every way of life.

They also wrote the book on the "purpose-driven life." They're called saints.

Inaugural firestorm

No one, it seems, is happy with Rick Warren.

Homosexual activists strongly object to Warren for his traditional views on sexuality and public support for Proposition 8 in California, which wrote traditional marriage into the state constitution. John Solesme of Human Rights Campaign wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post, "It is difficult to comprehend how our president-elect, who has been so spot on in nearly every political move and gesture, could fail to grasp the symbolism of inviting an anti-gay theologian to deliver his inaugural invocation."

From the other side, some conservative evangelicals deplore Warren's inaugural participation, characterizing it as offering a blessing to the Obama administration and fearing it implies approval of Obama's abortion-rights stand.

Warren, whose acquaintance with Obama goes back to 2006 when he invited the candidate to speak at an AIDS convocation at Saddleback (also a controversial move), has spent the month since his invitation affirming his belief that marriage shouldn't be redefined, as well as his appreciation of homosexuals as persons. Melissa Etheridge has called on her homosexual and lesbian "brothers and sisters" to chill out and give both Obama and Warren a chance.

In a recent interview, Warren is clear about his intentions: "Prayers are not to be sermons, speeches, position statements, nor political posturing. That's the fastest way to kill a prayer. They are humble appeals to God. My hope is that all Americans will pray for the new president."

Amy Welborn, author of "Study Guide for The Fathers by Pope Benedict XVI" (OSV, $4.95), writes from Alabama.