A How-To Kit for the Ministry

From his Lake Forest mega-church, Rick Warren offers seminars, stats and items on the Internet to help pastors boost attendance.

By William Lobdell
Times Staff Writer

September 19, 2003

Pastor Kelly Walter has a simple explanation for using a week of precious vacation to make a 1,700-mile annual pilgrimage to a Southern California church: "The place just oozes grace."

His unlikely-looking mecca is Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, housed on a 120-acre campus of earth-tone, Mediterranean-style buildings, manicured lawns and endless parking lots near the base of the Santa Ana Mountains.

Walter, of Rock Brook Church in Belton, Mo., has trekked here each year for the past decade, joining more than 250,000 pastors worldwide who have attended seminars designed by Rick Warren, Saddleback's senior pastor, to revive their churches and increase attendance.

"This is like being alive in the day of Martin Luther — and being able to meet him," Walter said. "This is the new Reformation."

Warren, despite a self-deprecating style, speaks in similar terms of his movement: "The first Reformation clarified what the church believes — our message and doctrine. The current reformation will clarify what the church does — our purpose and activities on Earth."

Some religious scholars and ministers recoil at Warren's pragmatic approach to church expansion, where strategies for attracting "seekers" of godly guidance can seem divined more from the corporate than spiritual world.

His "purpose-driven" formula for helping Christians and their churches — it's a trademarked term — is the basis of a multimillion-dollar nonprofit enterprise. Warren applies a business sensibility to ethereal challenges, offering low-cost or free products on the Internet, hosting seminars that give the program a kind of marketing multiplier effect in churches worldwide, and using statistics to measure results.

Dennis Costella, pastor of the small Fundamental Bible Church in Los Osos, near San Luis Obispo, said many struggling pastors falsely see the purpose-driven strategy as a life preserver. "If more pastors from small churches would just be faithful and rely on God, he will bless that faithfulness," Costella said. "He's not going to say, 'Let me see your stats sheet.' "

What can't be denied is that Christian churches around the world — and increasingly individual worshipers as well — see Warren, an ordinary-looking 49-year-old from the suburbs, as a spiritual superman.

His latest book, titled "The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?" has sold 7 million copies in 12 languages since it was published last fall. The book has earned Warren a fan letter from President Bush, as well as a lofty ranking on secular best-seller lists, and is being used as a form of Bible study for prisoners, NASCAR drivers and U.S. postal workers. Grieving parents in Memphis recently gave out close to 2,000 copies of the book at the funeral of their 21-year-old son. "The Purpose-Driven Life" lays out a step-by-step, 40-day plan to discover God's purpose for one's life. Its first sentence — "It's not about you." — sets the tone, putting it at odds with self-help groups and some preachers who focus on achieving personal happiness and financial success.

Warren instead touts a Bible-driven approach to finding God's revelations. And unlike television ministries, which try to reach national audiences, he urges local churches to use his message to reenergize themselves and capture millions of disaffected Christians and the non-religious. The book has a related campaign — "40 Days of Purpose" — that has had thousands of congregations going through it together in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

A conference at Saddleback Church in May that highlighted the book's campaign attracted 3,100 pastors from 94 denominations, 47 states and 37 countries. One seminary in Kentucky sent 400 students.

In July at the Christian Booksellers Assn. convention in Orlando, Fla., where "The Purpose-Driven Life" was named Book of the Year, Warren was often introduced as "America's pastor."

Warren's own Saddleback church, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, began in his condo in 1980 with only his real estate agent's family attending. It is now one of the nation's largest, with 17,000 members, an annual budget of $19 million and payroll of 330 people. Small-church pastors can find all that intimidating — until they meet him. Then they discover Warren looks and sounds a lot like them — the kind of person one might imagine goes bowling every Tuesday night.

His language is simple and straightforward. He wears khaki pants and untucked Hawaiian shirts, even for Sunday services. He prefers bear hugs to handshakes. He reflects the laid-back nature of his rural upbringing in Northern California, seemingly having time to chat with anyone who crosses his path.

"Rick is just a normal guy," Walter said. "There's a feeling that if he can do it, so can we."

But there's another side to Warren: a driven nature that propels all his ventures. He talks about the dying days of his father, a Baptist pastor who spent 50 years in ministry. Bedridden with cancer, Jimmy Warren, hallucinating, started to chant over and over again, "Save one more for Jesus." That has become Rick Warren's mantra.

"[God] wants His lost children found," Warren said. "I decided a long time ago I'm not going to waste my life. Life is too short and eternity is too long."

Warren likes to use hard numbers to show spiritual progress. He says that the health of a church can usually be found in its increasing attendance, membership, giving, volunteers and mission trips.

Warren's books, conferences, Web site ( and church all use as a spiritual compass five principles, or purposes: worship God, be part of a church family, study God's word, serve others and evangelize.

"The Intel chip of the 21st century church is the five purposes," said Warren, who distilled the principles from the New Testament and argues that the biblically based program can be the internal engine to make every church thrive, whether it's urban or rural, denominational or independent, American or African, rich or poor.

He has a mountain of anecdotal evidence to back up his claims. His philosophy has been officially embraced by an estimated 30,000 churches in America that now describe themselves as "purpose-driven."

'My Parents' Model'

Warren grew up in a community of 500 called Redwood Valley in Northern California's rural Mendocino County. His father worked mostly in small churches and, using his carpentry skills, helped construct more than 150 church buildings on mission trips around the world.

Warren said strangers in need often appeared at the family breakfast table, fed partly by his father's one-acre vegetable garden, grown specifically so they could give away food. His family also traveled to sites of natural disaster, pastoring and cooking meals for the displaced victims.

"My life has been profoundly affected by my parents' model of generosity and service," Warren said.

In 1970, as a high school junior, Warren believed God began encouraging him to be a pastor. A skinny, long-haired guitar player with John Lennon glasses, Warren began evangelizing at school. He started a Christian club on campus, sponsored rock concerts after school, gave out New Testaments, produced a Christian musical and published an underground Christian newspaper.

As word got out about his success as a teenage evangelist, he was invited to speak to other Christian groups across California. By age 20, Warren says, he had spoken to about 150 churches, camps and rallies on the West Coast.

He attended California Baptist University in Riverside and married Kay, a woman he met a few years earlier at a training session for evangelism.

He attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, where his desire to start his own church and distaste for classical rhetorical sermons marked him as different. "I didn't fit the system."

During his final year in seminary, he researched the most unchurched states in the country, which included California, and then discovered that Saddleback Valley was the fast-growing area in one of the fast-growing counties in the United States. Though he had never been to the community, he decided to start a church there.

Warren wanted his church built around unbelievers. He wanted casual dress, popular music and friendly ushers to appeal to those who'd been repelled by traditional Christian rituals and who didn't have a church home.

He and other volunteers — ones he befriended or who were sent by his seminary and other churches — sent out 15,000 direct-mail pieces. Saddleback's first Sunday service, at Laguna Hills High School, attracted more than 200 people on Easter 1980. Over the next 15 years, the Saddleback congregation would meet in 79 buildings, including schools, recreation centers, restaurants and theaters.

The itinerant nature of Saddleback was driven by two factors: the church's rapid growth and Warren's stubborn belief that Saddleback should wait to build or buy its own building until membership reached 10,000.

"I wanted to prove to the world that you don't have to have a building to grow a church," he said.

Saddleback has matured into 120 acres of office buildings, worship centers, education buildings and parking lots. The church's latest addition is a 100,000-square-foot children's ministry center, with two biblically themed playgrounds, a kind of jungle gym built to look like ancient ruins, and a stream that parts like the Red Sea. It's not coincidence that the center, which draws about 3,000 children each weekend, has a Magic Kingdom feel; Disney engineers helped with the project.

Tyra Rikimaru, during his 12 years of marriage, was a good sport and went to church as a favor to his wife, Gina. When the family moved to south Orange County three years ago, Gina took her husband and three young girls to Saddleback, where she noticed a transformation in her husband: He liked church.

The family joined the church, and went through the "40 Days" program last fall.

"It revealed to me that we're not here by accident, that I'm not just a number," Tyra Rikimaru said. "I realized that God has a plan for each of us and even for me."

Warren contends that pastors everywhere can attract families like the Rikimarus with some simple strategies. Reserve your best parking spots for first-time visitors. Avoid mystical religious symbols and technical terms in church bulletins. Keep restrooms sparkling clean. Provide plenty of entry-level ministries to ease people into volunteerism.

Warren makes available practical material, tested at Saddleback, at a low cost. Pastors can download sermons by Warren on purpose-driven topics, complete with PowerPoint presentations, for $4. He says he doesn't do anything that can't be replicated by a small church.

"I am at heart a small-church pastor," says Warren, who has attention deficit disorder, a condition that allows him to welcome new ideas but creates a disdain for the routine, such as meetings. "I resonate with these guys and love them."

Warren has declined numerous opportunities to have a regular television program and has been generally media-shy, preferring to work through pastors and churches. A rare physical disorder — he passes out if his system gets too much adrenaline — has led to fainting spells on stage, most recently at international engagements in the Philippines and Mexico City. At his home church, he recovers afterward on a bed in a small office backstage that is cooled to 62 degrees.

He drives a 3-year-old Ford truck and announced to his congregation Sunday that he had paid back 23 years of salary (he made $110,000 in 2002) to Saddleback Church with the royalties from his book. He also outlined how the rest of the royalties will be spent, promising to keep a modest lifestyle and funnel profits from the book into a nonprofit foundation.

"Now that our church knows I've done this, I'm eager for the non-believing public to know it too, because it counteracts the popular perception by skeptics that all ministers are all in it just for the money, especially large-church pastors," Warren said.

When he took off the first five months of last year to write "The Purpose-Driven Life," Warren said, attendance continued to climb at Saddleback, showing that his "purpose-driven" principles work no matter the pastor.

With all his success, he worries about the two traps — sexual and financial misconduct — that have caused the downfall of other high-profile pastors. He doesn't handle any of Saddleback's finances. And in more than three decades of ministry, Warren says, he's never been alone in a room with a woman. He won't even ride in an elevator alone with someone of the opposite sex.

A Baseball Analogy

Warren's latest effort, the "40 Days of Purpose" campaign, is designed to get congregations to read the book together, a short chapter daily.

The goal is to get participants all the way around a figurative baseball diamond, with each base representing a deeper commitment to the Christian life. You reach first base when you join the church. Second base when you become part of a small Bible study group. Third base when you volunteer to serve others. And home plate when you venture out on a mission trip.

So far, more than 2,600 churches in 19 countries have participated, with Saddleback providing a kickoff simulcast message from Warren, seven weeks of sermons, and guides for Bible studies, prayer and memorization of Scripture.

Saddleback has about 4,000 churches signed up to participate next month.

Church officials say 180 churches from 15 denominations that completed the 40-day program showed a 21% rise in attendance, a 16% jump in donations and a 79% increase in the number of small Bible study groups, according to a mail-in survey.

Ministers attending Warren's seminars say his principles translate across denominational, language, cultural and generational barriers that have hamstrung other faith-boosting programs.

Seventy-five-year-old Lake Gregory Community Church in Crestline, a town of 8,000 in the San Bernardino mountains, took part in a pilot "40 Days" program last fall, a turning point in the congregation's life, says Pastor Dave Holden.

"We're just rockin'," he said. The church's Bible study groups jumped from seven to 72.

At the end of the 40 days, Holden made a quick pitch to his congregants for an extra donation if the experience had changed them. The church received $112,000, enough to wipe out all its debt and begin spending $5,000 a month on the poor in Africa and Asia.

Jimmy Davidson, a pastor at Virginia Highlands Christian Fellowship in Abingdon, Va., said that after his 40-day campaign, attendance rose from 1,700 to 2,500 people, participation in small groups soared from 30 to 160 people, and giving jumped 34%.

"We're still trying to recover and put structure in place," Davidson said.

Scott L. Thumma, who studies the mega-church movement at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research in Connecticut, said many programs promoted by consultants give churches initial bursts of growth that last six months to a year. But over the long term, attendance often declines.

"Everybody gets excited and says, 'This is wonderful!' " said Thumma, noting that when attendance starts dwindling again, the church members feel like "we've failed. It leaves the church worse off than before."

Thumma said he would be surprised if that happened with Warren's campaign, since it's built around core Christian principles: "He's just packaging it in a different way."

Not that people have always had success enacting Warren's game plan.

Rock Brook Church's Kelly Walter failed with purpose-driven principles in three churches before finding success. In two of the churches, he said, he was too impatient to enact changes in established but stagnant congregations. Those ranged from updating the music to increasing the emphasis on small Bible groups.

Scholars agree that Warren has a knack for tapping into needy psyches, giving people a sense of purpose when life can seem materialistic and meaningless. But critics wonder if intimacy with God gets steamrolled by "driven" pastors and Christians who look at routines and statistics to define their spiritual lives.

"At its best, I suspect the purpose-driven church could be the hub for genuine discipleship and Christian formation," said Philip D. Kenneson, an associate professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College in Tennessee and co-author of "Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing."

"At its worst, I fear that it may simply offer the latest venue for American consumers to forge an identity, only here it comes through purchasing certain religious goods and services."