When Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren, 25 years old and fresh out of seminary, started Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with his wife, Kay, they made a 40-year commitment to the community.
His long-range ministry plan focused the first 10 years on building the church. Launching on Easter 1980 with 205 in attendance, Saddleback by the end of the decade grew to about 6,000 members. Today is one of the largest churches in the nation, with 82,000 names on its computer roll and a weekly attendance of 23,000.
The 1990s focused on teaching other churches. About 250,000 church leaders attended Warren’s “Purpose Driven” training events during the 1990s. Since then, Warren’s Purpose Driven Life has become the best selling non-fiction book of all time. More than 20,000 churches have done 40 Days of Purpose events based on study of the book.
In the first decade of the new millennium, Warren is going global. “We now want to help the whole world,” Warren says.
Church volunteers are field testing prototypes for a Global P.E.A.C.E. Plan, an initiative set for launch next fall to mobilize small groups for evangelism, ministry, compassion and justice.
The plan attacks what Warren says are the biggest problems on the planet. He calls them the “Global Giants.” They are spiritual lostness, lack of leadership, poverty, disease and ignorance.
“I believe God gets the most glory when you attack the biggest giants,” Warren says.
Warren says there is only one organization large enough to handle those problems: local churches. The church has the best distribution, most volunteers, moral authority, the power of God on its side and the assurance that the church will last forever.
An acrostic spells out the plan of attack:
“P” stands for “Plant churches,” as a method for sharing the gospel with unreached people groups around the world. Warren says he no longer believes sharing Christ is the best thing one person can do for another. Rather, helping to start a church will influence more people and have a more lasting effect.
“E” is for “Equip leaders,” employing not self-centered American leadership models but emulating “the perfect leader,” Jesus.
“A” is for “Assist the poor” with low-interest loans to spur economic development. “The acid test of your faith is ‘how do you treat people in unfortunate circumstances?'” Warren says.
“C” is “Care for the sick.” This most controversial component of the plan grew out of Kay Warren’s “Damascus call” concerning neglect for people suffering from HIV/AIDS. Rick Warren speaks of the “stewardship of influence” in the context his platform as author of Purpose Driven Life. “The purpose of influence is to speak up for people who have no influence,” he said in a sermon. “And I intend to do that.”
“E” stands for “Educate the next generation,” attacking illiteracy with small church-sponsored schools.
Warren envisions small groups, in short-term missions the length of a vacation, using reproducible methods to start churches, small business and schools. The plan links churches with other churches and focuses on “exponential” growth—multiplication instead of addition.
“We’re going to reinvent missions in the 21st century,” Warren predicts.
While the vision sounds ambitious, Warren recalls that people told him he was crazy when he and Kay set out from Texas to start a church in California.
“I feel as confident about this plan as I did 23 years ago,” Warren said in a message last year. “We are going to make history.”
The runaway success of Purpose Driven Life caught even Warren by surprise. He says he never wanted to be famous and has always lived modestly. But when his book sold 6 million copies in the first year, he and his wife experienced a whole new level of income. After praying about it, they determined they would make no change in their lifestyle. They didn’t buy a bigger house or a new car. “I like the Hummer,” Warren quips, “but I’m driving Ford.”
Last June Warren stopped taking a salary from the church and began a non-profit family foundation, where the bulk of the book’s profits go. He paid back all the salary he had drawn from Saddleback for 23 years, “because I don’t want anybody to ever think that we did this for money.”
Warren has also used his platform to reach out to what he calls “cultural influencers,” opinion leaders willing to listen to him because of the success of his book.
A recent tour promoting the two-year anniversary of Purpose Driven Life included a Bible study with generals at the Pentagon and a gala for media elite invited by 20th Century Fox owner Rupert Murdoch (whose empire includes the book’s publisher, Zondervan) celebrating the 20 millionth copy of Purpose Driven Life sold.
Other stints included a segment on NBC’s “Dateline” and a message at the Mothers of Preschoolers convention in Nashville. “There is not a more significant group of cultural changers in the world than mothers,” he said.
The MOPS convention also featured the release of three children’s books from Zonderkidz based on Warren’s book. “I don’t think you’re ever too young to begin to learn you’re not an accident,” he said.
Warren’s current emphasis, 40 Days of Community, is now underway in pilot churches. It focuses on building community through small groups and community service. At Saddleback it includes feeding every homeless person in OrangeCounty—35,000 people—three meals a day for 40 days.
Warren’s book was No. 5 last week on the Wall Street Journal best-seller list.
Bill Leonard, dean of WakeForestDivinitySchool, said the Purpose Driven model is “one way of re-energizing American Christians concerned about the growth of religious non-affiliation as well as denominational declines and endless debates.” But Leonard said it is too early to know if it will make a lasting impression, like predecessors such as Billy Graham.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.