The Man With The Purpose

  • When Mel Gibson began looking for influential ministers to endorse his controversial film, The Passion of the Christ, high on his list was the Rev. Rick Warren, founding pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. (Warren loved the movie, reserved blocks of seats at local cinemas for his parishioners and on two weekends last month delivered sermons on the Passion and plans another one for Easter.) When the White House wanted advice on how to observe the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, aides called Warren to meet with the President, the First Lady and West Wing staff members, many of whom have dog-eared copies of his best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life.

    Movie stars and political leaders aren't the only ones turning to Warren for spiritual guidance. Over the past 17 months, 15 million copies of The Purpose-Driven Life have been sold. And since it was published in 1995, an additional 1 million copies of The Purpose-Driven Church have been snapped up as well. Meanwhile, nearly 300,000 ministers from 50 states and 120 nations have participated in Warren's pastor-training seminars and Internet classes, and more than 10,000 churches of various denominations have offered his 40 Days of Purpose group-study course. Beyond the chapel, millions of people — from the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour members to Coca-Cola executives to high school students to prison inmates — meet regularly to discuss Warren's belief that the only way to discover who you are and what you're living for is to divine God's purpose for you.

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    The first line of the first chapter of The Purpose-Driven Life puts it bluntly: "It's not about you." Explains Warren: "Looking within yourself for answers doesn't work. If it did, we'd know it by now. As with any complex invention, to figure out your purpose, you need to talk to the inventor and read the owner's manual — in this case, God and the Bible."

    The widespread appeal of this philosophy suggests that Warren just might be, as Christianity Today has declared, America's most influential pastor. The reverend himself takes a slightly less exalted view of his role. Says Warren: "I'm translating the truth into 21st century language, and evidently a lot of people are listening." He's convinced that the nation is on the verge of a spiritual awakening, as people seek fulfillment they don't get in fast-track jobs and can't buy with gold cards. "The culture is asking, 'How do I fill this hole in my heart?'" he says. "I think religion has the answer."

    Warren found his own purpose at the end of 1980, when he was the young minister of a 150-member congregation that had no church home and held services in whatever high school gym he could rent. Disillusioned and burned out from trying to keep his flock together, Warren collapsed in the middle of his sermon one Sunday and fell into a depression. He spent the next year soul-searching for a way to meet all his obligations without getting overwhelmed again. "I needed to figure out what mattered and how to do it and not worry about the rest," says Warren, 50. "I wanted to be guided by purpose and not pressure." Through prayer and Bible study, he rediscovered the Christian doctrines that formed his blueprint for "living a life of purpose and meaning."

    The Purpose-Driven philosophy offers instruction for individuals and churches. Warren writes in his book that God has five purposes for people's lives: to bring enjoyment to him, to be a part of his family, to behave like him, to serve him and to act as his missionary. The payoff for abiding by these precepts, Warren promises, is reduced stress, sharper focus, simplified decision making, greater meaning to life and better preparation for eternity. For Purpose-Driven church leaders, he has developed an "evangelism strategy" that includes a casual dress code, convenient parking, bright lights, live bands, short prayers and simple sermons that accentuate the positive. The result, he says, will lead not only to filled pews but, ultimately, to more saved souls. For Warren, that's the best barometer of church health.

    His critics say Warren's plan may not be the best prescription for every person's long-term spiritual growth. And some argue that he's using the Lord's name for commercial gain. "The Purpose-Driven ministry is a marketing strategy," says Dennis Costella, pastor of the Fundamental Bible Church in Los Osos, Calif. "We believe the Bible tells us to present the word of God without packaging it for a contemporary cultural context." What his detractors call commercialism and marketing, Warren calls evangelism. "I believe I have the key to meaning and purpose in life with God, and I'm trying to share it with as many people as possible," he says. "That's what evangelism is — sharing good news."

    Remarkably, Warren has managed to spread his approach to the gospel without extensive national media coverage or a TV ministry. He turned down an invitation from Oprah to be on her show, though he says he'd like to meet her someday. "Too many ministers start out as servants and end up as celebrities," he says. "I want to use my influence to do some good, and I can get more done out of the limelight."

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