When Rick Warren speaks of his "stealth strategy," one is tempted to grin. Perched on a 120-acre campus in the hills of southern Orange County, California, Saddleback Church and its 15,000 weekly attendees can't elude anybody's radar. This is one of America's largest and best-known churches.
What people know about Saddleback is that it's seeker-sensitive, big, suburban, and Southern Californian, "which are the very things we care least about," says Warren, who started the church 22 years ago. Indeed, nobody cares much about them. The seeker-sensitive approach is old stuff, and Saddleback started it years after Willow Creek Community Church, outside Chicago, did. Few congregations wish their pastor preached without tie and socks, as Warren does to match his casual community. And who wants to attend a behemoth? As Warren points out, "The only people who like big churches are pastors."
Warren doesn't appear on radio or TV. He rarely speaks outside his church, and avoids politics in both denomination and government. (Saddleback is Southern Baptist, but takes no part in denominational controversies.) Warren has published five books. One is on Bible study methods, written while he was in seminary. Another, The Purpose-Driven Church, contains chapters on such crowd-pleasing topics as sermon preparation and how to organize a class for people joining the church.
All of this means that Saddleback's profile is big, but not particularly distinctive. To most people, it's just another megachurch. Only one population definitely pays attention to Saddleback: pastors. Thousands of pastors flock to the church's annual Purpose-Driven Ministries conference—3,800 in May this year. They made The Purpose-Driven Church a bestseller. Warren apparently ...