Does God Want You To Be Thin?

A Bible passage inspired Pastor Rick Warren's congregation to lose a collective 260,000 pounds. How faith can fight obesity

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Bryce Duffy for TIME

Pastor Power, Warren has lost 55 lb. so far, with 35 to go.

Correction Appended: June 6, 2012

Rick Warren was once a very fat man. It's not as if he's skinny now, which as you discover when you meet him is kind of a nice thing. "Have you hugged a pastor today?" he asks as he enters a room. "It's good for your health." And it does seem that way, since to share a hug with Warren is to be gathered into a big, benign, bearish embrace — a feeling that makes you hope he never loses another ounce.

But Warren, 58, once weighed 295 lb. — 90 lb. too much for his 6-ft. 3-in. frame — and still needs to drop another 35 lb. to reach a healthy weight. It hasn't taken him all that long to lose as much as he has; he began getting fit only in the past 18 months, which is an awful lot less time than it took him to get fat. "I've only put on 3 lb. a year," he tells the members of his evangelical Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. "But I've been your pastor for 30 years."

Nearly everything about Warren is big. Saddleback has a stunning 20,000 weekly attendees across 10 campuses. He is the author of multiple books, including The Purpose Driven Life, the best-selling nonfiction hardback in American history — after the Bible, appropriately — with 32 million copies in print worldwide and editions published in 97 languages. He gave the invocation at the 2009 presidential Inauguration and interviewed candidates Barack Obama and John McCain one on one on national TV in 2008, a gig most news anchors would kill to land.

But in 2010, Warren discovered a problem in his church. It was after a high-volume baptism session, when he and other Saddleback pastors administered the rite to some 800 congregants in under four hours. That's three per minute, and since Warren prefers to baptize by immersion, he wound up having to dip and lift a whole lot of cumulative weight. "Man, we're all fat," he recalls thinking.

And so they were. As the church members later learned, the average weight of Saddleback women was 170 lb., and it was 210 lb. for men — which meant Warren and the others immersed 160,000 lb. of very unhealthy humanity that day. Before the ceremony was even over, he decided to do something about it. The answer, he believed, lay in the Book of Daniel.

One of the 39 books of the Old Testament, Daniel tells the story of four Jewish boys who were taken to the court of the conquering King Nebuchadnezzar to be trained and fed in the royal manner so that they might serve in the King's palace. The boys, led by Daniel, accepted the King's teaching but would go nowhere near the King's table, refusing to defile themselves with the meat and wine he offered them. They chose vegetables and water instead — and grew fitter and finer for their efforts.

Warren's congregants were moving in precisely the opposite direction, and Americans in general have been doing the same: two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese, as are up to one-third of children. More than 20% of all adolescents have diabetes or prediabetes, up from 9% in 2000. Portion sizes and waistlines are out of control, and the current generation of kids is on track to be the first in American history to be less healthy than their parents.

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