The Man With The Purpose

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Saddleback has become a bustling megachurch, with an annual operating budget of more than $19 million, and now sits on an immaculate 120-acre campus, designed by some of the folks who planned Disney's theme parks, in the placid Orange County community of Lake Forest, 65 miles south of Los Angeles. On weekends the 15,000 members and about 5,000 visitors choose from services at six different times and 10 different venues around the campus — some with live preachers, some on closed-circuit TV — offering a variety of worship and music styles ranging from quiet hymns in an intimate setting to a tent gathering with roof-raising gospel singing. The hub is the cavernous worship center. Take away the 3,200 seats, the six-piece band, the suspended wooden cross and the giant video screens, and it could be a 747 airplane hangar. In booths outside, ministry leaders promote church workshops on marriage enhancement, parenting, budget planning and addiction recovery. At the children's center, Sunday school meets Fantasyland with a biblical-themed playground. Teens hang out at the student zone's beach cafe. It's all managed at a two-story building resembling a corporate office, where 400 paid staff members and 5,000 volunteers handle the church's far-flung missions, ministries and programs.

Wade Clark Roof, author of Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, says Saddleback's megachurch ministry appeals to the notion that size equals success. "We're told that [his philosophy] not only does something for you in the sense of giving your life meaning but it also makes you happy materially, religiously and spiritually," Roof says. "What Rick is marketing is a kind of American religious ideology that conflates growth with salvation."

Much of Warren's outside proselytizing is done at churches across the country in weekly gatherings at which small groups are schooled in Purpose-Driven living. At one of those churches, Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church in Gulf Breeze, Fla., there have been as many as 110 such groups. Before the Purpose-Driven philosophy came along, says the Rev. Chris Nelson of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minn., "the idea was for ministers to proclaim the gospel and let people figure out what to do with it in their daily lives. Now we are far more application oriented." When Bethlehem Lutheran member Jean Westberg lost her job as a marketing executive three years ago, she found inspiration in Warren's teaching that people who want to be servants of God should "think more about others than about themselves," and she accepted a job as interim executive director for the Episcopal ministry at the University of Minnesota, where she supervised the construction of a new worship center. "What's more important now is service to others rather than service to myself," says Westberg.

Such experiences are enlivening congregations and enriching coffers. At Bethlehem Lutheran, attendance was languishing at around 650 a decade ago but is now more than 1,200; similarly, the church budget has more than doubled, from $800,000 to well over $2 million. Warren says Sunday attendance at Purpose-Driven churches grows about 20%, on average: "The Purpose-Driven principles are like Intel chips, and they can be inserted into any congregation, whether it's a megachurch or a tiny one, Lutheran, AME, Pentecostal or Baptist."

In person, Warren, an affable, bespectacled bear of a man, is as unadorned and low-key as the plainspoken prose of his books. He receives visitors to his office in the same casual attire he wears at the pulpit — khaki pants, floral cotton shirt and rubber-soled shoes. That suits his members just fine. "From the beginning, I was impressed by his humility," says Patricia Miller, who has attended Saddleback since 1998. "When I joined, he asked all the new members to form a circle and lay our hands on one another's shoulders. Then he stood in the middle and, while choked with emotion, he prayed that he would be capable of the task of leading us." Says fellow parishioner William Nared: "At most churches they just preach and preach about how I ought to be a good Christian man. But what's so powerful about the Purpose-Driven ministry is it also teaches me how to do it." All Saddleback members must abide by strict covenants to tithe regularly, do mission work locally or abroad and live by Christian doctrines. "You can't just be a consumer here," Warren says. "You have to participate and contribute."

The son of a Baptist minister and a high school librarian, Warren was drawn to political activism and, growing up in Northern California, thought about one day running for public office. But he ultimately decided it would be more effective to follow in his father's footsteps "and change one heart at a time." After graduating from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Warren moved back to California with his wife Kay and started Saddleback in their rented apartment in 1980.

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