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.