Pastor Rick Warren (Los Angeles Times )
When in pain, pray. When you worry, worship. When in grief, share it in your small group.
The Facebook post, sent in the early morning hours Friday by famed pastor Rick Warren, was short on words but deep in meaning. Since the suicide of his son a week earlier, the pastor of Orange County's sprawling Saddleback Church is indeed sharing his grief.
But his “small group” includes not only his parishioners, but nearly a million Twitter followers as well as those who read his Facebook page.
Over the last seven days, Warren has written about his son's struggles with mental illness, talked about forgiving the person who gave his son an unregistered gun, cited Bible verses that give him comfort and even taken on Internet “haters” who said they “celebrate your pain.” His wife, Kay, has also used the Web to write about 27-year-old Matthew and cope with his loss.
"Kay and I are personally reading every note we get. Your practice of Galatians 6:2 has left us speechless."
Some pastors said they've never seen anything quite like it, a prominent religious figure leading an ongoing digital sermon about loss in 140-character Twitter bites and brief Facebook posts.
“He's inviting others to grieve with him. Inviting others who are suffering to learn with him.” said Mark Driscoll, pastor of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle.
Greg Laurie, another high-profile pastor who runs the Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, said Warren was “modeling how faith works in the real world.”
“He told me once Twitter was the best form for him because Rick thinks in sound bites. For him to use the platforms is a natural way to express what he's going through,” Laurie said. “You get information out to people immediately; you get feedback immediately.”
Warren has been on the cover of Time magazine, gave the invocation at President Obama's inauguration in 2009 and founded one of the nation's largest churches (its main south Orange County campus sees 22,000 parishioners a week).
But this week, he has shied from public appearance or press statements, choosing instead to control his own message on his own terms.
Word of the suicide first came from a brief statement Warren made via his church's website Saturday afternoon:
"[Matthew] struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America's best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life."
It wasn't long before Warren began taking to social media to unspool his thoughts and emotions, spreading his message, allowing others to respond.
His Twitter post the day after Matthew's death was written in the condensed and hash-tagged form required in the social media world.
"We pray 'Thy WILL be done on earth AS IT IS IN HEAVEN,' since in heaven God's Will is done #always. On earth, it's done rarely."
Warren's Facebook and Twitter sites, usually places offering references to Bible passages and notes of casual encouragement — Love you, friend! @MCHammer Thank You — quickly became a place for his followers to offer their own support. Dozens of responses quickly poured in, mostly simple, caring notes meant for the pastor and his family.
But at least one follower, responding to a string of messages assuring that Matthew was now in heaven, shot back with a refrain commonly used by critics of conservative Christians like Warren. One of them read: "That is against what Rick Warren & his church believe!! He says gays and suicides are in hell."
The note was typical of a broader Internet conversation about theology sparked by the suicide, with some asserting that Matthew's soul was doomed and others taking pot-shots at Warren and others for believing in God at all. Warren didn't directly respond. Instead he moved on, over the weekend typing several more posts, giving thanks, quoting Scripture. But Monday, self-reflective, he gave a nod to the critics:
"Grieving is hard. Grieving as a public figure, harder. Grieving while haters celebrate your pain, hardest."
Warren moved on. But his posts were not reading for the faint of heart. On Tuesday, he noted that he'd just been allowed to view his son's lifeless body:
"After 4 days, finally got to see my son's body. He wasn't in it anymore. Absent from the body is to be home with the Lord.”
He also shed more light on Matthew and mental illness. One post read: "We've known for years God would use us to fight mental illness but were protecting Matthew's right to share his own story."
Another: "Over the years, hundreds have written @KayWarren1 and me about mental illness in their families too. We've helped each other."
By Wednesday, as the pastor remained out of public view, he took time to write how good it felt to hear about a follower's 4-year-old daughter who'd asked to pray for “that boy Reck
Warren responded: "Your tweet made my day."
In one of his latest posts, he blended his faith with breaking news about his son:
"Someone on the Internet sold Matthew an unregistered gun. I pray he seeks God's forgiveness. I forgive him. #MATTHEW 6:15."
Watching from afar has been Driscoll, the Seattle pastor, who has long been friends with Warren.
“The way he's handled this has opened up in the Christian community a bigger discussion about mental illness, clinical depression, which I think is very, very helpful, and pushed that conversation to the forefront,” Driscoll said. “If it helps Christians to mobilize and help to support, there's a positive from a really tragic event.”