A Baptist childhood and changing times helped shape Rick Warren’s emerging religious style.
Rick Warren stands at a lectern, wearing a blue and white Hawaiian shirt. His feet are jammed, sockless, into blue and red Docksiders.
“God designed you to make a difference,” Warren, 52, says to 4,000 upturned faces at Saddleback Church’s main worship center. “You were not put on this planet to take up space.”
Behind him, a movie-screen-sized map of the world shines with pinpoints of light. The light over Orange County shines the brightest.
One week later, Rick Warren is at the Lake Forest lectern again, this time clothed in a mustard-green Hawaiian shirt. He is quoting Daniel Burnham, a 19th-century architect.
“Make no small plans,” he says. “For they have no power to stir humanity’s blood.”
And again, two weeks later, this time in a navy blue polo shirt. The saxophone of a smooth-jazz band wails behind him.
“Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” Warren intones. “‘Cause when you finally do criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.”
The audience sits silent for a tick. Then, a slow ripple of laughter warms the hangar-like room. Warren smiles.
“Just seeing if you’re there,” he says.
Sermon after sermon, week after week, Rick Warren is demonstrating the wide-angle vision, self-deprecating humor, historical breadth and contemporary touch that have helped him build one of America’s largest and possibly most influential churches, Saddleback Church.
It is October 2005, and these sermons are about the PEACE Plan, Warren’s ambitious new program to grow the kingdom of God not just in his own church, but in churches around the world.
“Most churches stop growing and grow inward after 20 years,” Warren says. “They become safe, smug and satisfied.”
“I can definitely say that this church will not turn inward.”
Hearing the call
Rick Warren was 12 when he was beckoned to church by a man with two mutilated fingers.
It was the 1960s and Warren was living with his family in Redwood Valley, a tiny burg of loggers and farmers tucked deep in the somber, green Mendocino mountains.
His father, Jimmy, a Southern Baptist pastor, took him to a neighboring church so small it had no trained staff. What it did have was an illiterate Sunday school teacher named Gar Gunter with a gap on one hand where his third and fourth fingers were supposed to be.
Gunter was a logger. The missing fingers were an occupational hazard. Gunter was also a resourceful teacher. He asked the children to read Bible passages to him so he could discuss their meaning.
“And I thought: God used that guy; God can use anybody,” Rick Warren says. “You don’t have to be an elite.”
It was the first inkling of a call to ministry. But Warren hated public speaking, in part because of a dizziness that overcame him before an audience. A succession of fainting spells throughout his childhood and early adult years resulted ultimately in the diagnosis of a brain disorder so rare that Mayo Clinic doctors “were talking about naming a syndrome after me,” Warren says.
Medication now controls the problem – an inability to process adrenaline – but he says he suffers still from “excruciatingly painful” disorientation on stage. At age 12, all he knew was pain. The childhood call to ministry went unanswered.
“But even at that age, I was like, I think something’s happening in me,” Warren says.
Instead, he concentrated on two areas where he excelled – making friends, and grades. He and little sister Chaundel (older brother Jim had left home) were honor students at nearby Ukiah High. He helped found a 140-member “Fishers of Men” Christian club.
At home he had a sometimes eccentric curiosity. Warren collected National Geographic magazines and political buttons. He hung quotations of famous men in his bathroom, including Harvey Cox’s famous adage: “Not to decide is to decide.” He strung chicken wishbones together on a string.
“Why? Why not?” Warren says, laughing. “I literally was interested in everything. But what was interesting to me was not the collection but … the sorting and categorizing.”
His parents, Jimmy and Dorothy Warren, were by all accounts good-natured and industrious, renovating a white-clapboard home, digging vegetable and rock gardens, and tending farm animals, including a calf their middle child, Rick, would occasionally try to ride.
It was wholesome, “normal … happy,” Chaundel recalls – but in the context of change.
Outside on the quad, mores were tumbling like the walls of Ukiah High’s Spanish-colonial schoolhouse, knocked down to make way for a modern building.
‘The big change years’
Between 1969 and 1972, Warren’s high school years, the school’s dress code was abandoned. Skirt lengths shortened. Hairstyles lengthened. Hippies and earth mothers flocked to Mendocino, as well as less desirable types. Jim Jones, the suicidal Pied Piper of Jonestown, housed his People’s Temple less than two miles from Warren’s house, and taught at Warren’s high school. In 1978, dozens of Redwood Valley’s residents – including some of Warren’s classmates – were among the 914 cult members who followed Jones to Guyana and to a metal bucket full of purple, cyanide-spiked Flavor Aid.
“Those were the big change years,” says Mark Pardini, 51, an appliance salesman and fellow classmate.
Pardini served with Warren on the student council. He remembers a tall, pencil-thin guy with shaggy, shoulder-length blond hair and contemporary tastes.
Rick donned tights to play a prince in a school play, and worked as a techie for still-obscure visiting musicians named Janis Joplin and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
“He was very mellow, composed, and he always wanted to be the person who could explain things,” says Pardini. “He would talk so softly, and he was listening as well as he was talking.”
As war protests gripped the nation, Warren dreamed of being president. He favored Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater, but was also “kind of anti-draft and anti-war,” his sister Chaundel recalls, “although he wasn’t fanatical.”
Then, in 1970, the call to ministry returned. Warren was a sophomore camp counselor at Cazadero Baptist Camp, a tumble of log cabins dwarfed by hundred-foot-high Mendocino County redwoods.
Under that immensity, and inspired by the devotion of his fellow counselors, Warren fell to his knees. “I was raised obviously in a Christian family my whole life,” Warren says. “But there’s a point at which your parent’s faith has to become your faith.”
Long hair, a coffin and a van
Warren says he committed himself to God and to a goal as lofty as the towering trees around him: to grow God’s kingdom on Earth.
His father, Jimmy, preached to churches of less than 100 members. Warren would be different. As a student at Riverside’s California Baptist University, and later at seminaries in Texas and Pasadena, Warren fused his natural political gifts with a fierce ambition to master the mechanisms and management of church growth.
His first efforts to do so were awkward, to say the least.
As a long-haired undergraduate, Warren affixed a coffin to the roof of his Jesus-sticker festooned white van and drove it to Los Angeles. The idea was to pop out of the coffin and preach.
“What was I thinking?” Warren says today. “But those were radical days. You just look back and laugh.”
He went on to travel to South Korea to study the stadium-sized church of Paul Yonggi Cho, a 100,000-member megalith divided into thousands of small, personalized “cells.” He wrote to 100 of the largest churches in America to discover the secrets of their success.
“I always saw unusual gifts, abilities, leadership qualities,” says Roy Fish, a professor of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who mentored Warren. “He probably knew as much about church growth as any seminary professor.”
Among Warren’s findings: America’s biggest churches were marked by the long-term presence of a single, usually highly charismatic pastor.
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