The high-risk, questionable venture is a staple of biblical narratives Noah building the ark, the Israelites heading out into the wilderness without any provisions, the idea that a couple of loaves and fish could feed a crowd. So maybe Rick Warren was reading Scripture instead of the business pages when he decided to expand his ministry this year by launching a glossy new magazine with a $10 cover price.
Purpose Driven Connection, which debuted last month and is published by the Reader's Digest Association, is a leap of faith for Warren at a time when newspapers and magazines are under great financial strain. The launch also took place just months after Warren faced his first real barrage of public criticism, for his support of California's anti-gay-marriage ballot referendum, Proposition 8, and for his prominent role in Barack Obama's Inauguration ceremony. So while the magazine may be a financial gamble, it's also a test of Warren's influence and golden touch. (See the 25 most influential Evangelicals.)
The secret to Warren's success isn't a mystery. The Southern Baptist has built his Purpose Driven empire with hard work, a knack for inspirational and anodyne messages and, until recently, an ability to publicly distance himself from the kind of controversial politics that have defined other Evangelical leaders, like James Dobson and Pat Robertson. He built Saddleback Church in Southern California from nothing into a congregation of 22,000 members. His first book, The Purpose Driven Life, is the best-selling hardcover in U.S. history, according to Publishers Weekly. And he was the religious leader both presidential candidates trusted to interview them on national television during last year's campaign.
If there is a comparable secular figure, it is Oprah Winfrey. It's no surprise, then, that the Reader's Digest executive who oversees Purpose Driven Connection launched O magazine for America's favorite talk-show host during a previous tenure at Hearst. Alyce Alston knows that the greatest asset a celebrity like Oprah or Warren brings to a publication is the power of their brand. And so just as O is all about Oprah, from the cover shot to the features inside, there's a lot of Warren in Purpose Driven Connection. (See pictures of a drive-in church.)
The premiere issue features a softly lit, smiling Warren on the cover (though his spokesman Larry Ross is quick to make clear that the cover images will change "this isn't going to be like O"). Inside, no fewer than seven articles are written by Warren or his wife Kay. Two additional pieces are transcripts of Warren's Inauguration prayer and his August 2008 forum with Obama.
Even two long features that are ostensibly about other subjects rebuilding efforts in Rwanda and the Cambodian trial of a former Khmer Rouge official who became a born-again pastor are really about the international Purpose Driven work that has helped make Warren so popular. The Cambodia article is a solid work of journalism, and shows how Comrade Duch's religious awakening led him to be the only Khmer Rouge leader on trial who has confessed his crimes, an insight that is missing from virtually all of the mainstream coverage of the trial. But the Rwanda story veers toward hagiography as it praises the Warrens' compassion and commitment to healing the African nation, which is still haunted by the genocide of the 1990s. (See the top 10 religion stories of 2008.)
The pastor's partners at Reader's Digest aren't worried about readers being turned off by a Rick Warren overload. On the contrary, they're counting on his global appeal. "He's a powerhouse," says Alston in explaining the publisher's decision to take on the new title. "Nearly 50 million people read The Purpose Driven Life that's nearly 20% of America!" The math added up for Reader's Digest, even as the company is preparing to either undergo financial restructuring or file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. "If we touched just 1% of Evangelicals in America," Alston continues, "that's 900,000 members." (The publisher printed 400,000 copies of the premiere issue and plans to roll out half a million copies of future editions.)
The use of the word members instead of subscribers is another clue as to why Alston and her colleagues believe this new Purpose Driven venture will succeed and why they're not worried about those who first heard about Warren through the backlash for his role in Obama's Inauguration. "We're not really focusing on newsstand sales," says Alston. That's because, for all of its gorgeous photography and professional design, Purpose Driven Connection is really more of a multimedia curriculum for Evangelical small groups than it is a traditional magazine a trade more than a consumer publication. The magazine, which will come out four times a year, comes packaged with a DVD that features six half-hour talks by Warren and a pullout companion guide for groups to facilitate discussion. (Read "Finding God on YouTube.")
The idea is to market the magazine through Warren's existing pastor networks. Reader's Digest has already sent out "pastor kits" (with copies of the new issue and DVD) to 100,000 churches that have worked with Warren in the past and contacted an additional 130,000 pastors with e-mail pitches. Congregants who subscribe in groups are eligible for a discounted membership that goes for less than the annual $29.95 rate.
There is already a market for Christian magazines, including Christianity Today, Guidepost and Relevant. And religious leaders including Warren have published subscription newsletters. What Warren and Reader's Digest have created is essentially a new marketing and distribution network for Christian small-group materials, packaged in a glossy newsletter-on-steroids that features full-spread ads from groups like Compassion International and Regent University. (See pictures of John 3: 16 in pop culture.)
While they didn't foresee the current recession when the project was first conceived in 2007, everyone involved insists that the economic downturn will make church members more eager to subscribe. "Tough times are often good for the church," says spokesman Ross, "because people are looking to connect with each other and to connect with God." If that sounds like spin, it is but it also happens to be true. Church attendance does tend to spike during tough economic times as people search out community for spiritual and material support. Warren's message is particularly likely to resonate with those who have lost the jobs, homes and possessions that defined them. Left to rebuild their lives, they are literally looking for a purpose. But while churches become more crowded when people are hurting, their budgets usually tighten, and giving decreases. It's not clear if the church members who have cut back on their tithing will be willing to shell out $30 for a Purpose Driven membership.
More than anything, Purpose Driven Connection may need a retooling to become more immediately relevant to its readers. The many testimonials scattered throughout the first issue provide encouragement for surviving life's trials, and there are plenty of suggestions for how to help others in need. But many churches these days are offering practical help to their members, holding financial-planning seminars and rediscovering the values of thrift and stewardship. In contrast, of the 144 pages of Warren's premiere issue, only one includes specific suggestions for weathering the recession, in the form of a sidebar, "4 Blessed Ways to Get By." Warren will need to apply his golden touch once again to convince readers that one of those blessed ways to save doesn't include passing up the cost of his magazine.