Rick Warren apologizes for Sunday school video that included Asian stereotypes

Pastor Rick Warren speaks on faith
Pastor Rick Warren speaks on faith | Screengrab: Saddleback Church

Popular California megachurch Pastor Rick Warren has issued an apology after a Sunday school curriculum video posted online by Saddleback Church last weekend featured Asian stereotypes. 

Warren, the 67-year-old author of The Purpose Driven Life and head of the Lake Forest-based ministry, offered the apology in a statement shared through Twitter Sunday night after a children’s video drew backlash from many on social media. 

“Earlier today, I was notified that a children’s Sunday School curriculum video posted this weekend contained racially offensive content,” Warren explained, adding that he issued his statement before seeing the entire video. “[B]ut the moment I saw a screenshot of it, I was upset and embarrassed.”

Warren assured that the offensive video was immediately removed.

In the video, Saddleback’s former children’s pastor “dressed up as an Asian martial arts sensei in an attempt to teach Bible truth.” Warren said that although the video was posted last weekend, it was produced over four years ago. 

“My instant fear was that thousands of Asian American children who are part of our church family would feel made fun of and that their families and so many others would rightfully be offended,” Warren stated. “I apologize that this video was ever made and that it was ever posted.”

Warren stressed that what he saw in the video is the “kind of racial insensitivity that we’re trying to eradicate in our church family.”

“It’s unchristlike, demeaning, and it’s never appropriate to use a stereotype to teach,” he argued, adding that racial stereotypes “can not be separated from racism.”

“[E]ngaging then under the banner of humor doesn’t lessen the damage. It makes it worse. I ask for your forgiveness.”

According to the pastor, Saddleback has put a process in place to “ensure that any curriculum that might be insensitive, hurtful or demeaning never sees the light of day.” He said the church elders discussed in a meeting earlier last week the idea of launching a review “of every area of our church” to ensure that “we are the All Nations Congregation that Jesus wants us to be.”

“In a church family where our members speak 168 languages, we want to model the right way, not the wrong way, to do things,” Warren continued.  

“Because all churches are made up of imperfect people, I can’t promise you that failings will never happen in our church family, but I CAN promise you that we will always own up to our failings immediately, admit them freely and correct them as fast as we can.”

After the video was posted online, it drew criticism from online activists and Christian leaders, including one who argued that “Asian culture is being used as a prop for slapstick humor.”

“Church, do better,” Michelle Ami Reyes, vice president for the Asian American Christian Collaborative, wrote on Twitter. “Hire sensitivity readers and consultants for church resources. Better yet, don’t include segments that make fun of other people’s cultures at all in your teaching materials. It’s disrespectful and dishonoring.”

Jeff Liou, who serves as director of theological formation for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, wrote an editorial voicing his thoughts about the video. 

“Consider the number of hands that this video from Saddleback passed through: a planning team, video shoot, editing, communications, web hosting, and children’s ministry staff, volunteers, parents, and then, finally, to children in the early stages of formation,” Liou stated. “If there was ever an illustration of how racial stereotyping does NOT come solely from an individual’s malicious intent, but from the faults within systems, this is it.” 

Liou, who has also worked as a pastor, university chaplain and adjunct professor, said that the Saddleback video “reflects the ways that the church and its people are together pressed into a mold that deforms them by rejecting a wide range of human cultural gifts at the door.” 

“Consider also the pattern that Saddleback and other culture-shaping institutions have displayed,” he remarked. “This latest incident is not the first by Saddleback and is situated among a number of other incidents that sparked outcries from Asian Americans — Zondervan’s Deadly Viper book, Lifeway’s Rickshaw Rally VBS curriculum, and Pastor Rick Warren’s “Red Guard” post on social media.”

Liou contended that to “repeatedly replicate anti-Asian ridicule is indicative of a serious, embedded problem.”

“Christian organizations have invested in the power of old tropes to make some feel foreign while claiming normalcy and legitimacy for themselves,” he wrote. 

Richard Lee, director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission, thanked Saddleback Church for its quick response in taking down the video. He urged followers on Twitter to take a moment to read about the experiences of pain being posted by other users commenting on the controversial video. 

“People are expressing their experience of pain. Certainly that is enough for us to give pause,” Lee tweeted. “Especially, in the family of faith. Even more, ask an Asian friend why someone might find this offensive and painful.”

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