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The Shockingly Ordinary Purpose-Driven Life of Rick Warren

How a Krispy Kreme-loving, Hawaiian shirt-wearing Baptist preacher is changing the way Christians think.
Rick Warren

Rick Warren

credit Baptist Press

Before his junior year in high school, future megachurch pastor Rick Warren knelt in a cabin at summer camp. "God, if you're really alive, I want to know you," he prayed. The response? Nothing he could hear or see. "No thunder, lightning," Warren says. But it didn't deter him.

Some three decades later, Warren writes nonfiction bestsellers and leads one of the largest evangelical congregations in America. His book The Purpose-Driven Life has hovered on The New York Times best-seller list for several months, selling more than 6 million copies so far. Saddleback Community Church, the congregation he pastors in the Los Angeles suburb of Lake Forest, California, shot from seven at its founding in 1980 to the more than 17,000 who currently crowd into six weekend services. He has counseled Hollywood celebrities, Wall Street power brokers, and has been a guest in the George W. Bush White House.

"It's not about you. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God."
— from The Purpose-Driven Life

The secret of his preaching and publishing success? Warren sees himself as a communicator, as someone able to transmit the mysteries of the faith to ordinary 21st-century people. USA Today recently described him as a master marketer of a single message: "You are here for God." And Warren probably wouldn't quibble with that summation of his ministry.

"I am in essence a translator," he says from his comfortable office at Saddleback. "I love to challenge myself to teach theology to non-theological people, without telling them it's theology and without using theological terms." Indeed, this self-described "stealth evangelist" may be, in the words of Christianity Today, "the most influential pastor in America."

By next year, more than 8,500 churches and an estimated 2 million people will have signed on for one of Warren's "40 Days of Purpose" discipleship campaigns (see "What's Driving The Purpose-Driven Life?" below). In the program, people agree to read a chapter a day from Warren's latest book and take part in a systematic regimen of Bible study, worship, and outreach. For a local pastor that no one outside of church leadership circles had ever heard of before, Rick Warren is having quite an impact.

A Regular Guy

Just where did this guy come from? is the $64,000 question that has been on a lot of people's minds this year.

Warren, 49, doesn't appear on radio or TV. He rarely speaks outside his church, and avoids politics in both denomination and government. (Saddleback is Southern Baptist, but takes no part in denominational controversies.) Before The Purpose-Driven Life, Warren had published just a handful of books that were mainly of interest to other pastors. For instance, 1995's The Purpose-Driven Church contains chapters on such unexciting topics as sermon preparation and how to organize a class for people joining the church.

What people know about Saddleback Church is that it's seeker-sensitive, big, suburban, and Southern Californian, "which are the very things we care least about," says Warren. Indeed, nobody cares much about them. The seeker-sensitive approach is old stuff, and Saddleback started it years after Willow Creek Community Church, outside Chicago, did. Few congregations wish their pastor preached without tie and socks, as Warren does to match his casual community. And who wants to attend a behemoth? As Warren points out, "The only people who like big churches are pastors."

Warren preaches with the voice of a Regular Guy, making light of his partiality to Krispy Kreme donuts, stuttering a little, stepping on his own lines. In the pulpit or out of it, he drapes a Hawaiian shirt over a shapeless middle-aged body. His personal sense of style, he jokes, is clothes that don't itch. With the face of a friendly butcher, Warren is to preaching what John Madden is to football. You don't listen for oratorical skill—though he does have a great sense of comic timing. You listen because he doesn't seem all that different from you. Pastors who hear him have got to think, I can do that.

Those who hear and read Warren believe he makes his message not only clear, but also relevant. Paul Wilkes, author and program director for Pastoral Summit, a North Carolina-based organization dedicated to strengthening individual churches, says Warren is "understandable to people. There's a hunger in people's hearts he … has an insight into." He "really hits people where they live."

"I think he is one of the best teachers in the world," says Matt Moser, a church worker from Zurich, Switzerland, who was among the thousands of pastors and church leaders at a recent "Purpose-Driven Church" conference at Saddleback. Moser especially appreciated Warren's ability to connect with unbelievers.

In his blood

There's preaching in Warren's blood. One ancestor studied under the great 19th-century English evangelist Charles Spurgeon and came to America as a circuit-riding preacher, Warren says. And Warren's father was a minister. But the megachurch pastor made clear he never intended to follow in the steps of his preaching forebears. Growing up in small-town Redwood Valley, California, Warren liked the challenges and opportunities of leadership, serving as class president several years. His keenest interests were politics and government, he says. While a sophomore in high school, Warren won an appointment to serve as a page in the U.S. Senate. The summer before he was scheduled to go to Washington, Warren took a job as lifeguard at a Christian camp. Observing lives of faith he sincerely wanted to imitate, Warren says, he decided to have a talk with God. And despite the lack of proof anyone was listening, the future pastor's life began to change. No longer interested in politics, he turned down the chance to work in Washington. Instead, Warren started a Christian prayer group at school, then started getting invitations to speak in churches. He sidestepped, not marched, into ministry. "I just kind of veered in that direction," he says.

After graduating from California Baptist College, he left for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. While in Texas, Warren wrote the country's 100 largest churches to find out what made them grow. He decided a key factor in developing healthy churches is continuity of leadership. The conclusions of his research mirrored his own longing. If he could only stay wherever he went, Warren promised, "God, I'll go any place in the world." And though he and his wife Kay wanted to go overseas, they felt the divine answer was no. So in January 1980, the couple spent their last $1,000 on a U-Haul and moved themselves, and their baby daughter, back to California, where they hosted the home Bible study that would eventually mushroom into Saddleback Church.

Doing it on purpose

Besides shepherding his own flock, the Saddleback leader reaches out to other ministers. On his Pastors.com website Warren offers an e-mail newsletter, "Rick Warren's Ministry Toolbox." His e-mail ministry tips reach some 83,000 church leaders weekly. "I love to pastor pastors," he says. And his "Purpose-Driven" church-growth principles are inspiring scores of congregations across the world to embrace Warren's baseball-diamond approach of Membership, Maturity, Ministry, and Mission (at the center of the diamond is Magnification, which stands for worship).

The basic idea is that every healthy church must balance these purposes, neglecting none. All ministry programs should be organized to serve one of the purposes, with a specific target audience in mind. And different departments must work together, since they expect to "hand off" members as they go around the bases. As Warren often says, "You don't get credit for people left on base!" That means it's not enough to baptize new believers or place them on the rolls. It's not even enough to get them to tithe or volunteer. Churches need to move members on to maturity, discipleship, service, and mission.

The Purpose-Driven Life has no doubt found a lot of its success among many readers from the business world who are looking for the latest word on leadership. But Warren's principles seem less a result of a business-saturated mind than a Baptist-saturated mind. Though he has dropped much of Southern Baptist culture, Warren's imperatives come straight from the heart of the Baptist way. He cares about the Bible. (It's a point of pride with him that Purpose-Driven Life cites over 1,000 verses of Scripture.) He cares about world missions, pouring money into making Purpose-Driven resources available in the Third World. And most of all he cares about soul-winning. "He lives, bleeds, sleeps, and eats evangelism," says his wife, Kay.

And at the end of the day, even with his newfound "superstar" status, Rick Warren insists his passion is the local church and his goal is not fame but "to build an army of the faithful."

"I'm still dealing with the day-to-day things that pastors go through," he says. "I'm not a bureaucrat; I'm a spiritual entrepreneur."

Adapted from Religion News Service (Aug. 11, 2003), 2003 Ted Parks. With additional material by Tim Stafford from Christianity Today (Nov. 18, 2002), Tim Stafford. All material used by permission.

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