This evangelist has a ‘Purpose’

USA Today, July 21, 2003
http://www.usatoday.com/
By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY

LAKE FOREST, Calif. — The Rev. Rick Warren — the most influential evangelist you’ve never heard of — has the answer to the meaning of life.

He has built an overflowing mega-church here in the mountain foothills southeast of Los Angeles.

He “chaplains” regularly with power brokers from Hollywood to Wall Street to Capitol Hill.

Warren’s latest book, best seller The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?, outsold Billy Graham’s autobiography — 4.5 million copies sold so far.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, and advisers such as Karl Rove and Karen Hughes have read it. So have the chaplain for NASCAR, LPGA golfers and enough book shoppers to propel it to 23 weeks on The New York Times’ advice best-seller list, several as No.1, and months on USA TODAY’s Best Selling Books list.

By 2004, about 2 million people will have joined in one of his “40 Days of Purpose” evangelism campaigns. They commit to read one of Life’s 40 chapters a dayand participate in an intense program of worship, study, fellowship and service.

Rick Warren is the master marketer of a single message: “You are here for God.”

Yet, the fellow behind this sophisticated international high-tech operation appears more like a backyard barbecue host — Hawaiian shirt, deck shoes, no socks. And no pretensions.

“I couldn’t care less about people coming to see me; I just want to build an army of the faithful,” says Warren, a fourth-generation pastor who often recalls his father’s dying wish: to “reach one more for Christ.”

Rick Warren aimed to first build one great church, then show others how to build theirs. He has devoted decades to teaching 300,000 pastors his principles for revival and renewal.

Now that “all the gatekeepers know me,” Warren has launched Life, his first mass-market book. It’s intended to take the Gospel house to house, onebeliever opening the door to the next. “I’ve been the stealth evangelist,” Warren says, chatting in the flower garden beside his office. A hummingbird hovers nearby.

Like that bird — wings whirring so fast they’re virtually invisible — Warren, 49, works furiously without celebrity flash or fuss.

No appearances on Oprah. No financial or sexual scandals. No benedictions at public events. No news conferences on the Supreme Court steps.

“He’s not the typical mega-church preacher in the modern era: witty, slick, media-oriented and bantering like a talk-show host,” says Terry Mattingly, who teaches mass media and religion at Palm Beach Atlantic University. “You cannot overstate how unusual he is in evangelical circles, in that he isn’t personal and confessional and ‘Me! Me! Me!’ “

Still, Christianity Today dubbed Warren “America’s most influential pastor” in a cover story last fall. And evangelical publishers and Christian booksellers just named The Purpose-Driven Life (Zondervan, $19.99) their book of the year.

Warren calls it “an anti-self-help book.” His first line: “It’s not about you.” Instead, Life details in 40 chapters how to become “what God created you to be.”

Five eternal purposes

The book is packed with lists and exhortations, not anecdotes. The chapter headings outline humanity’s “five eternal purposes”: You were … “Planned for God’s pleasure … Formed for God’s family … Created to become like Christ … Shaped for serving God. … Made for a Mission.”

Read for 15 minutes. Memorize a Bible quote. Get going.

“It’s very practical. It makes you think about the life you live every day in the light of your Christian values,” says Hughes, former senior adviser for Bush and now a Texas political consultant. “I underlined and wrote notes in the margins and stars all over it.”

Warren, an evangelist since his youth in Ukiah, Calif., has always been methodical — making lists, looking for patterns, creating structures as steel-strong and deceptively simple as silk threads.

“I’ve always been this way. I collected rocks, coins, stamps, shells, National Geographics. I once made a necklace out of wishbones. I was just wired by God to see how things relate to each other. I’m a synthesizer and systematizer,” says Warren.

Saddleback Church has grown from a Bible study in his condo in 1980 to 15,000 baptized members today. Another 70,000 people who’ve attended at least one service are in the church’s database.

Every weekend nearly 19,000 worshipers choose from among nine “venues” as varied as the 3,000-seat main sanctuary, the coffee bar or the “beach hut” for high-schoolers. Built into the landscape — designed by theme park experts — are settings for 40 Bible re-enactments, including a stream that can part like the Red Sea.

From everywhere but the acres of asphalt parking, a visitor can see, live or on tape-delay like GospelTiVo, Warren at the pulpit, expounding on the Bible’s script for your life.

Fill in the verb

The sermons are interactive: Everyone gets notes with fill-in-the-blank spots. From a sermon on When the Odds Are Against You: “_ _ exactly how you feel.” The missing words usually include verbs — in this case, “Tell God.”

James 1:22 says, ‘Be doers of the Word, not hearers only,’ ” says Warren, whose ordinary speech is laced with Bible quotes.

In the pulpit, Warren delivers 40 minutes of preaching. Then, midsermon, he literally chills out for 20 minutes, behind a bank of fans or in his icy office, to avoid blackout headaches from a rare adrenaline disorder. Another of the church’s 13 pastors carries on until Warren returns for a wrap-up.

The tag-team approach keeps him going physically. It also ensures that Saddleback’s success isn’t a one-man show. He proudly notes that during the seven months he was writing Life, he preached only Christmas and Easter services.

Christian radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt salutes Warren for being Warren — effective, entertaining and “uncompromising on the Bible … without blowing up every bridge to the unchurched.”

Warren is part of the ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Convention, and all his senior staff sign on to the SBC’s doctrines, such as the literal and infallible Bible and exclusion of women as senior pastors. Yet Warren’s pastor-training programs welcome Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, Jews and ordained women.

“I’m not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials. I won’t try to change other denominations. Why be divisive?” he asks, citing as his model Billy Graham, “a statesman for Christ ministering across barriers.”

‘Attraction evangelism’

Warren does draw absolute lines theologically. It’s Jesus or hell. “Every human being is created by God, not everyone is a child of God,” he writes in Life.

But that line is buried in the book. Rather than threaten sinners with fire and brimstone, Warren says, “we believe in attraction evangelism. We believe in loving people into the Kingdom.”

His 1995 book for pastors, The Purpose-Driven Church, was all about surfing pop culture’s waves to draw in the unchurched.

This approach has its critics. Even some fellow Baptist leaders love Warren at arm’s length. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary head Al Mohler praises Warren as an “organizational genius and communicator of profound ability.” Beyond that, Mohler simply says, “I’m more traditionalist.”

Nonetheless, Warren’s “40 Days of Purpose” campaign will reach nearly 1 million people through more than 2,600 churches in October. One enthusiastic participant will be Don Kitt, 68, a Nashville auto dealership manager. He bought seven copies of Life, enough for all the men in his family, because “reading it with the guys helps us walk more closely with the Lord.” They e-mail each other daily with their insights, just as his wife has done with their daughters.

For Warren, this means he’s right on schedule.

“I’ve got a target,” he says. “It’s called the globe: The whole Gospel for the whole world.”

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