The pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church is breaking ranks with his denomination by accepting an invitation to speak at next year’s Baptist World Congress.

Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of the best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life, is joining former president Jimmy Carter as a featured speaker at the Baptist World Centenary Congress in England.

In accepting the invitation, Warren breaks ranks with the Southern Baptist Convention, which is expected to sever ties with the Baptist World Alliance next month because leaders believe the group is too liberal.

But Warren said he isn’t worried about being criticized by SBC leadership for his decision. “One reason Saddleback has never stopped growing is because I’ve never wasted any time worrying about criticism,” Warren told in an e-mail interview. “I just do what I think Jesus would do.”

The global aspect of the meeting appealed most to Warren. “We’ve been working with many of these conventions and denominations around the world, so I was honored to be asked to speak to them all at once,” he said. “Almost all my focus these days is helping churches overseas.”

Warren said he has taught his “Purpose Driven” training to more than 250 denominations and 320,000 pastors from 122 countries. His 1995 book, The Purpose Driven Church, is available in 25 languages.

His most recent book, The Purpose Driven Life, currently sells about a million copies a month. It has been either No. 1 or No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly two years, selling 16 million copies since coming out in October 2002. It is recognized as the best-selling hardback non-fiction book in history, quickly surpassing the previous religious-publishing phenomenon, The Prayer of Jabez, which sold about nine million copies over three years.

Christianity Today and Time magazine have called Warren the most influential minister in America. His Saddleback Valley Community Church, which Warren started as a Bible study in 1980, today averages upwards of 20,000 in attendance each weekend in services on its 120-acre campus. With more than 80,000 names on the roll, Warren says it is the largest Baptist church in the world.

Warren finds irony in that in the early days Saddleback was criticized for not including “Baptist” in the church name. “Now I’m offered the wonderful privilege of speaking to the Centenary Congress of Baptists around the world,” he said.

Following the BWA meeting, Warren plans an extended tour of Europe to teach both the Purpose Driven Life andPurposeDrivenChurch to church leaders. Six hundred churches in the United Kingdom are already involved in Warren’s “40 Days of Purpose” program, which revolves around a study of the book, and thousands of English Baptists are expected to come to the meeting to hear him.

The Baptist World Congress, which is held every five years, is expected to draw 15,000 people. BWA president Billy Kim predicted, “It will be one of the greatest Congresses in history,” according to a BWA news release.

While Warren doesn’t hold leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention, he has been a popular speaker among Southern Baptists for years. In September he is scheduled to speak at Jerry Falwell’s annual “super conference” at Liberty University. It will be a return engagement.

Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and a darling of SBC conservatives, teamed with Warren last October for the first-ever East Coast training for Warren’s “Purpose Driven” concepts. Some 13,000 ministers and students from 47 states and a variety of denominations attended the event in Lynchburg, Va., according to Baptist Press.

Warren said one lesson he learned from Billy Graham, whom he regards a mentor, “is to ignore divisions and political infighting and to go wherever you get invited to share the gospel.”

He said his church defies stereotyping, “because we’re conservative theologically but radical when it comes to methodology. That confuses and upsets a lot of different folks.”

“My conviction is that if you love Jesus, we’re on the same team, whether or not we agree on everything else,” Warren said.

A report expected to come before next month’s Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis takes a contrary view of the BWA, labeling it an organization that “no longer efficiently communicates to the unsaved a crystal clear gospel message that our Lord Jesus Christ is solely sufficient for salvation.”

Convention leaders are proposing that the SBC withdraw from membership in the BWA, and end its $300,000 in annual support, in order to develop new strategies to build relationships with “conservative evangelical Christians around the world.”

An earlier report by an SBC/BWA study committee accused the BWA of being soft on liberalism, seeking to advance women’s ordination and expressions of “anti-American” sentiment at BWA gatherings.

Warren told that Saddleback Church does not have the BWA in its budget but would likely add it once the SBC votes to withdraw funding. When Southern Baptists reduced their level of annual support from $425,000 to $300,000 last year, Warren said, he and his wife quietly sent a personal check of $20,000 to the BWA from a foundation they started with royalties from the Purpose Driven Life.

At the BWA meeting, Warren will share the stage with perhaps the best-known ex-Southern Baptist. Former President Jimmy Carter is slated to teach an international Sunday school class on Sunday of the congress.

Winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize and first recipient of the BWA Human Rights Award, Carter in 2000 renounced his longstanding ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, saying the denomination’s leaders had departed from his beliefs.

Carter, who in his 1976 presidential campaign introduced the term “born again” into America’s political lexicon, was often described as the most famous Southern Baptist layman.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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