A Regular Purpose-Driven Guy
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 has little interest in fame, but he cares about reaching pastors. That's his stealth strategy. Through pastors he intends to change the world.
Ironically, Warren got his greatest publicity last spring as "the guy who almost messed up pastors' housing allowances." That's the way one minister put it, though it's not really fair. Warren says he took on a complicated court case to stand up for pastors against arbitrary irs decisions. It was not his fault that a judge used the case to challenge pastors' special exemptions. (Congress has since passed and President Bush signed a bill reaffirming the clergy's generous housing exemptions.) In the resulting news stories, Warren's deduction of $79,999 for his 1995 housing expenses was widely publicized.
That suggested a megapastor defending his luxuries. In reality Warren lives unostentatiously. His home, purchased for $360,000 in an upscale market, is no mansion. He drives an SUV. Colleagues say Rick Warren is generous to a fault, an unpretentious, fun-loving man without boat or beach house. They say he is in private exactly what he seems in public: a Regular Guy.
Warren preaches with the voice of a Regular Guy, making light of his partiality to Krispy Kreme donuts, stuttering a little, stepping on his own lines. In the pulpit or out of it, he drapes a Hawaiian shirt over a shapeless middle-aged body. His personal sense of style, he jokes, is clothes that don't itch. With the face of a friendly butcher, Warren is to preaching what John Madden is to football. You don't listen for oratorical skill—though he does have a great sense of comic timing. You listen because he doesn't seem all that different from you. Pastors who hear him have got to think, I can do that.
Warren says he doesn't wake up in the night with a detailed vision in his head. He started out 22 years ago, loaded with ideas for Saddleback, but many of them—like building a school and a recreation center—never took shape. He's needed years of experimentation to develop Saddleback's approach, which is called, in shorthand, Purpose-Driven. When a pastor says, "We've decided to go 100 percent Purpose-Driven," this means the church has adopted the outline of ministry Warren now teaches at pastors' training conferences.