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`Purpose Driven’ Pastor Rick Warren Goes Global

c. 2006 Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly TORONTO _ He may have written the best-selling book in the world for three years running, but the Rev. Rick Warren insists he’s first and foremost a pastor. And on Sunday mornings, he can usually be found at his Saddleback Church in Southern California, greeting worshippers with a handshake […]

c. 2006 Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

TORONTO _ He may have written the best-selling book in the world for three years running, but the Rev. Rick Warren insists he’s first and foremost a pastor. And on Sunday mornings, he can usually be found at his Saddleback Church in Southern California, greeting worshippers with a handshake _ or, more often than not, a giant bear hug.

“People say, `Oh, that’s old Pastor Rick. He’s been there nearly 30 years,”’ Warren said.

“Old Pastor Rick” may be a local minister at heart, but now he’s going global. The “Purpose Driven Life” author is mobilizing other pastors and churches to tackle some of the biggest problems in the world. He says churches are uniquely qualified to do the job.

“Nothing comes close to the size of churches _ the broadest distribution network, the most volunteers, local credibility,” he told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” “All these different things make the church poised to deal with these issues of spiritual emptiness, and corrupt leadership and poverty and disease and illiteracy, which are problems that affect billions.”

He and Kay, his wife of more than 30 years, have launched an ambitious new program called the P.E.A.C.E. Plan, one of Warren’s trademark acronyms and lists.

“P.E.A.C.E. stands for P-E-A-C-E: Partner with congregations, or plant a congregation if there is not one there; Equip servant leaders; Assist the poor; Care for the sick; and Educate the next generation,” Warren said.

The Warrens and Saddleback members are developing a plan of action in Rwanda that they hope will be applied by other churches in other countries.

They are not deterred by criticism that their agenda is too broad _ and perhaps a bit naive.

“I think we often set our goals too small and try to accomplish them too quickly,” Warren said. “This is not something we intend to do in five years or 10 years.”

“Or by ourselves,” Kay Warren added.

“Or by ourselves,” Warren agreed. “It’s giving the rest of our lives and mobilizing the network that’s already there.”

It is a path the couple never could have imagined when they met as teenagers.

“I know it sounds really cheesy, but it’s the truth,” Kay Warren said. “I knew when I was 17 … that God had his hand on this young man in a way that I had not experienced in other people that I had met. Of course, I had no idea what that was going to look like.”

Warren laughed. “Neither did I,” he said.

“We’re both from small churches, lower middle income families, I mean I had no idea,” she continued. “I say it’s both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s exhilarating because we’re partnering with God. And it’s terrifying, because we’re partnering with God.”

Rick Warren divides his ministry in 10-year increments.

In his first decade he focused on Saddleback, the church he and Kay started in 1980. Saddleback is now spread over a 120-acre campus and draws some 20,000 worshippers weekly. It is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, although the word “Baptist” doesn’t appear on any signs. A network of small groups keeps people connected to the congregation _ and to each other.

There are multiple services each weekend. Worshippers can choose from eight venues offering different atmospheres and styles of music, all with the same sermon broadcast over a live video-feed from the main sanctuary. In the second decade, the ministry went national. Based on Saddleback’s success, Warren began training other pastors, borrowing heavily from management guru Peter Drucker.

In 2002, he wrote “The Purpose Driven Life,” which has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. While some critics called it a simplistic and slogan-filled view of the faith, the book became a publishing phenomenon that even Warren can’t fully explain.

“There is nothing new in the book that hasn’t been said in historic Christianity in the last 2,000 years,” he has said repeatedly in public appearances.

But the book’s runaway success brought him tens of millions of dollars and worldwide attention.

“So I began to pray about what I called the stewardship of affluence and the stewardship of influence,” he said. “What do I do with the money and what do I do with the notoriety?”

Kay Warren was the catalyst for what came next. While recovering from treatment for breast cancer in 2002, she read a magazine article about the more than 12 million children in Africa orphaned by AIDS.

“It was as though someone just ripped this huge blindfold off my face,” she said. “And it haunted me. I realized that God was calling me to care about people with HIV. And I did.”

HIV/AIDS has become a defining issue for the Warrens. They’ve made it part of nearly every aspect of their ministry _ at Saddleback, across the United States and around the world.

The Warrens launched a foundation that ministers to those suffering from the disease and urges evangelical churches to get more involved with the issue. Last year on World AIDS Day, they sponsored an awareness concert at Saddleback with high-profile musical guests. They also organized a conference urging church leaders to overcome the stigma that often surrounds HIV. At the conference, Rick Warren publicly took an HIV test to demonstrate how simple _ and important _ it is.

In August, the Warrens attended the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto where Rick was the keynote speaker at a forum for faith-based groups.

“I wasn’t wasting my life, but God just said, `Rick, you don’t care about the people I care about the most. I care about the poor and sick, And the needy. And the oppressed,”’ Warren told the conference. “And I said, `God, I’m sorry. I will use whatever affluence or influence you give me to speak up for those who have neither for the rest of my life.”’

Warren’s new international focus has also generated some controversy. This summer, he raised eyebrows when he announced plans to preach in North Korea next year.

“I knew that I’d be criticized,” he told Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. “And people say, `Well, you’re being a pawn. You’re being used’ and things like that. Well, the truth is, I want to get the good news out.”

With the proceeds from his book, he repaid Saddleback for every penny they had paid him in salary. And the Warrens are reverse tithers: they give away 90 percent of their income and live on 10 percent.

“I find the generosity the easiest part,” he said. “I find the most difficult part is this constantly being under the spotlight. I think being under the spotlight all the time blinds us. I don’t think it’s good for your character.”


Editors: To obtain photos of Rick and Kay Warren, go to the RNS Web site at On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

A version of this story first appeared on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” This article may be reprinted by RNS clients. Please use the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly credit line.

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