Already established as perhaps the most important voice in contemporary American Evangelical Christianity, Rick Warren last week pressed the button that he hopes will take his "brand" to the ends of the earth. Almost offhandedly at the conclusion of a three-day meeting of 1,700 pastors that Warren later told TIME was "the most important conference of my life," the author of the Purpose Driven Life threw open participation in his PEACE coalition to the wider Evangelical community. It was the Evangelical equivalent of a long-awaited IPO of a tech start-up whose brand the cognoscenti have predicted will become a global juggernaut: The PEACE coalition is a plan of epic ambition, to turn at least half of the world's tens of millions of Christian churches into a giant "network of networks" dedicated to relieving the poverty and misery of the developing world.
Over the last four years, Warren has "beta-tested" his plan by sending almost 8,000 members of his own 22,000-member Saddleback Church congregation, and an undetermined number from 12 other congregations, to work in 68 nations. The flagship project has been in Rwanda, whose President, Paul Kagame, has declared his intention to make his country the world's first "Purpose-Driven Nation."
If last week's conference increases the number of participant congregations in the PEACE plan from 12 to 1,200 a reasonable estimate, given that 1,700 pastors were in attendance and many actually head networks of congregations then the number of PEACE missionaries would jump from roughly 2,000 a year to 200,000, vaulting the network to the forefront of the missionary field. Nor has Warren confined his invitation to those pastors in attendance. He is sending DVDs to the 30,000 churches that have participated in his rigorous "40 Days of Purpose" programs. And it was streamed from his website in hopes of capturing some of the half-million church leaders Warren and his team claim to have trained in his theological and organizational tenets over the last quarter-century. Even if only a fraction of those sign on, the resources at the disposal of the PEACE plan will continue to mushroom.
Despite being offered few details of the plan, the response of the pastors was enthusiastic. Not that it surprised Warren. "These are people who have been with me for a long time," he told TIME. "I knew they were already on board. It wasn't like they had come here to hear me persuade them to start. I was giving permission for them to start." His plan also carries an impressive sheaf of endorsements: from Billy Graham ("the greatest, most comprehensive and most biblical vision for world missions I've ever heard or read about."), President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush ("This is a miracle brought into being by love of God and neighbor"), John McCain and Bono.
Warren is particularly excited by the hands-on involvement of some of the larger players in the Evangelical community. "A guy was going, 'I'll take Mozambique,' and another guy was going 'I'll take Nigeria,' " he said happily, adding that he's already secured personal commitments from influential leaders in the Salvation Army and the Assemblies of God (the largest Pentecostal denomination.) "They've said, they're in, and they have to get their boards along," he reported.
There was a peculiar offhandedness to the way Warren invited the conference, at the very end of the proceedings, to join his coalition an approach that may reflect concern about getting drawn too deeply into the specifics of a plan that promises to be extremely complicated and possibly controversial. The PEACE program is an attempt to radically re-engineer Evangelicalism's huge missionary culture, connecting individual churches in the U.S. to congregations in target countries rather than funneling aid and evangelism through agencies that send trained professionals into the field. One of the coalition's theoretical benefits would be efficiency; another would be reach, since tiny churches exist in places that even the most dedicated missionary professionals don't get to. Originally, Warren was aggressive in his critique of the big missionary agencies but more recently, it has seemed likely that he will cooperate with them.
Warren seems intent on tamping down expectations of speedy results from his ambitious project a desire that runs somewhat counter to his inborn salesman's instinct. "This plan could take 50 years, so it might not be completed in my lifetime," he said at one point. "That's why I call the next generation the reformation generation."
Still, Warren has passed the point of no return. Until now, he could easily have pulled the plug on the PEACE coalition. Now, that would mean hauling back people like Ray Hammond, youth minister for the Brockport Free Methodist Church in Brockport, N.Y., who signed up along with his senior pastor and three other colleagues. "We're taking this home to our people," exulted Hammond, "and saying, 'We've got to get more involved in the mission of what God's doing in this world.' To be part of getting churches connected to each other globally, and not just sending professionals out, but each one of us having a part in the mission of God, to the ends of the earth. That's huge."