How Rick Warren Harnessed the Power of Social Habits
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
February 28, 2012
400 pp., $17.64
In the summer of 1979, a young seminary student who was white, had been one year old when Rosa Parks was arrested, and was currently focused mostly on how he was going to support his growing family, posted a map on the wall of his Texas home and began drawing circles around major U.S. cities, from Seattle to Miami.
Rick Warren was a Baptist pastor with a pregnant wife and less than $2,000 in the bank. He wanted to start a new congregation among people who didn't already attend church, but he had no idea where it should be located. "I figured I would go somewhere all my seminary friends didn't want to go," he told me. He spent the summer in libraries studying census records, phone books, newspaper articles, and maps. His wife was in her ninth month, and so every few hours Warren would jog to a pay phone, call home to make sure she hadn't started labor yet, and then return to the stacks.
One afternoon, Warren stumbled upon a description of a place called Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California. The book Warren was reading said it was the fastest-growing region in the fastest growing county in one of the fastest-growing states in America. There were a number of churches in the area, but none large enough to accommodate the quickly expanding population. Intrigued, Warren contacted religious leaders in Southern California who told him that many locals self-identified as Christian but didn't attend services. "In the dusty, dimly lit basement of that university library, I heard God speak to me: 'That's where I want you to plant a church!'" Warren later wrote. "From that moment on, our destination was a settled issue."
Warren's focus on building a congregation among the unchurched had begun five years earlier, when, as a missionary in Japan, he had discovered an old copy of a Christian magazine with an article headlined "Why Is This Man Dangerous?" It was about Donald McGavran, a controversial author focused on building churches in nations where most people hadn't accepted Christ. At the center of McGavran's philosophy was an admonition that missionaries should imitate the tactics of other successful movements— including the civil rights campaign—by appealing to people's social habits. "The steady goal must be the Christianization of the entire fabric which is the people, or large enough parts of it that the social life of the individual is not destroyed," McGavran had written in one of his books. Only the evangelist who helps people "to become followers of Christ in their normal social relationship has any chance of liberating multitudes."
That article—and, later, McGavran's books—were a revelation to Rick Warren. Here, finally, was someone applying a rational logic to a topic that was usually couched in the language of miracles. Here was someone who understood that religion had to be, for lack of a better word, marketed.
McGavran laid out a strategy that instructed church builders to speak to people in their "own languages," to create places of worship where congregants saw their friends, heard the kinds of music they already listened to, and experienced the Bible's lessons in digestible metaphors. Most important, McGavran said, ministers needed to convert groups of people, rather than individuals, so that a community's social habits would encourage religious participation, rather than pulling people away.
Teaching the habits of faith
In December, after graduating from seminary and having the baby, Warren loaded his family and belongings into a U-Haul, drove to Orange County, and rented a small condo. His first prayer group attracted all of seven people and took place in his living room.
Today, thirty years later, Saddleback Church is one of the largest ministries in the world, with more than twenty thousand parishioners visiting its 120-acre campus—and eight satellite campuses— each week. One of Warren's books, The Purpose Driven Life, has sold 30 million copies, making it among the biggest sellers in history. There are thousands of other churches modeled on his methods. Warren was chosen to perform the invocation at President Obama's inauguration, and is considered one of the most influential religious leaders on earth.
And at the core of his church's growth and his success is a fundamental belief in the power of social habits.
"We've thought long and hard about habitualizing faith, breaking it down into pieces," Warren told me. "If you try to scare people into following Christ's example, it's not going to work for too long. The only way you get people to take responsibility for their spiritual maturity is to teach them habits of faith.
"Once that happens, they become self-feeders. People follow Christ not because you've led them there, but because it's who they are."
When Warren first arrived in Saddleback Valley, he spent twelve weeks going door-to-door, introducing himself and asking strangers why they didn't go to church. Many of the answers were practical—it was boring, people said, the music was bad, the sermons didn't seem applicable to their lives, they needed child care, they hated dressing up, the pews were uncomfortable.
Warren's church would address each of those complaints. He told people to wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts, if they felt like it. An electric guitar was brought in. Warren's sermons, from the start, focused on practical topics, with titles such as "How to Handle Discouragement," "How to Feel Good About Yourself," "How to Raise Healthy Families," and "How to Survive Under Stress." His lessons were easy to understand, focused on real, daily problems, and could be applied as soon as parishioners left church.
Building people vs. building the church
It started to work. Warren rented school auditoriums for services and office buildings for prayer meetings. The congregation hit 50 members, then 100, then 200 in less than a year. Warren was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, answering congregants' phone calls, leading classes, coming to their homes to offer marriage counseling, and, in his spare time, always looking for new venues to accommodate the church's growing size.
One Sunday in mid-December, Warren stood up to preach during the 11 a.m. service. He felt light-headed, dizzy. He gripped the podium and started to speak, but the words on the page were blurry. He began to fall, caught himself, and motioned to the assistant pastor—his only staff—to take the lectern.
"I'm sorry, folks," Warren told the audience. "I'm going to have to sit down."
For years, he had suffered from anxiety attacks and occasional bouts of melancholy that friends told him sounded like mild depressions. But it had never hit this bad before. The next day, Warren and his family began driving to Arizona, where his wife's family had a house. Slowly, he recuperated. Some days, he would sleep for twelve hours and then take a walk through the desert, praying, trying to understand why these panic attacks were threatening to undo everything he had worked so hard to build. Nearly a month passed as he stayed away from the church. His melancholy became a full-fledged depression, darker than anything he had experienced before. He wasn't certain if he would ever become healthy enough to return.
Warren, as befitting a pastor, is a man prone to epiphanies. They had occurred when he found the magazine article about McGavran, and in the library in Texas. Walking through the desert, another one struck.
"You focus on building people," the Lord told him. "And I will build the church."
Unlike some of his previous revelations, however, this one didn't suddenly make the path clear. Warren would continue to struggle with depression for months—and then during periods throughout his life. On that day, however, he made two decisions: He would go back to Saddleback, and he would figure out how to make running the church less work.
The small group glue
When Warren returned to Saddleback, he decided to expand a small experiment he had started a few months earlier that, he hoped, would make it easier to manage the church. He was never certain he would have enough classrooms to accommodate everyone who showed up for Bible study, so he had asked a few church members to host classes inside their homes. He worried that people might complain about going to someone's house, rather than a proper church classroom. But congregants loved it, they said. The small groups gave them a chance to meet their neighbors. So, after he returned from his leave, Warren assigned every Saddleback member to a small group that met every week. It was one of the most important decisions he ever made, because it transformed church participation from a decision into a habit that drew on already-existing social urges and patterns.
"Now, when people come to Saddleback and see the giant crowds on the weekends, they think that's our success," Warren told me. "But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Ninety-five percent of this church is what happens during the week inside those small groups.
"The congregation and the small groups are like a one-two punch. You have this big crowd to remind you why you're doing this in the first place, and a small group of close friends to help you focus on how to be faithful. Together, they're like glue. We have over five thousand small groups now. It's the only thing that makes a church this size manageable. Otherwise, I'd work myself to death, and 95 percent of the congregation would never receive the attention they came here looking for."
Without realizing it, Warren, in some ways, has replicated the structure that propelled the Montgomery bus boycott—though he has done it in reverse. That boycott started among people who knew Rosa Parks, and became a mass protest when the weak ties of the community compelled participation. At Saddleback Church, it works the other way around. People are attracted by a sense of community and the weak ties that a congregation offers. Then once inside, they're pushed into a small group of neighbors—a petri dish, if you will, for growing close ties—where their faith becomes an aspect of their social experience and daily lives.
Developing the habits that Christ had
Creating small groups, however, isn't enough. When Warren asked people what they discussed in one another's living rooms, he discovered they talked about the Bible and prayed together for ten minutes, and then spent the rest of the time discussing kids or gossiping. Warren's goal, however, wasn't just to help people make new friends. It was to build a community of the faithful, to encourage people to accept the lessons of Christ, and to make faith a focus of their lives. His small groups had created tight bonds, but without leadership, they weren't much more than a coffee circle. They weren't fulfilling his religious expectations.
Warren thought back to McGavran, the author. McGavran's philosophy said that if you teach people to live with Christian habits, they'll act as Christians without requiring constant guidance and monitoring. Warren couldn't lead every single small group in person; he couldn't be there to make sure every conversation focused on Christ instead of the latest TV shows. But if he gave people new habits, he figured, he wouldn't need to. When people gathered, their instincts would be to discuss the Bible, to pray together, to embody their faith.
So Warren created a series of curriculums, used in church classes and small group discussions, which were explicitly designed to teach parishioners new habits.
"If you want to have Christ-like character, then you just develop the habits that Christ had," one of Saddleback's course manuals reads. "All of us are simply a bundle of habits. … Our goal is to help you replace some bad habits with some good habits that will help you grow in Christ's likeness." Every Saddleback member is asked to sign a "maturity covenant card" promising to adhere to three habits: daily quiet time for reflection and prayer, tithing 10 percent of their income, and membership in a small group. Giving everyone new habits has become a focus of the church.
"Once we do that, the responsibility for spiritual growth is no longer with me, it's with you. We've given you a recipe," Warren told me. "We don't have to guide you, because you're guiding yourself. These habits become a new self-identity, and, at that point, we just need to support you and get out of your way."
Warren's insight was that he could expand his church the same way Martin Luther King grew the Montgomery bus boycott: by relying on the combination of strong and weak ties. Transforming his church into a movement, however—scaling it across 20,000 parishioners and thousands of other pastors—required something more, something that made it self-perpetuating. Warren needed to teach people habits that caused them to live faithfully not because of their ties, but because it's who they are.
This is the third aspect of how social habits drive movements: For an idea to grow beyond a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help them figure out where to go on their own.
Excerpted from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Copyright © 2012 by Charles Duhigg. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.