Jeffrey L. Sheler's Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 26 2009 7:12 AM

Riding God's Wave

The secret of Rick Warren's spectacular success.

Prophet of Purpose by Rick Warren.

There are those who come up with an innovative idea, develop the skills necessary to realize it, and use every bit of their creative capacity to make it succeed. Then there are those who believe that human beings have no power to change the world but are mere pawns directed by a supernatural force whose decisions are arbitrary and inscrutable. Finally, there are rarities like Rick Warren who fit into both categories at the same time.

Warren is the founding pastor of Orange County's Saddleback Church and the author of The Purpose-Driven Life(2002), the best-selling hardback book of all time, according to Publishers Weekly. He is the vivid subject who Jeffrey Sheler, a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report, takes on in this engaging and fair-minded biography, Prophet of Purpose, written with Warren's cooperation. While managing to avoid hagiography, Sheler generally keeps himself in the background, allowing the reader to appreciate just how remarkable Warren's rise to prominence really is.

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The son of a not particularly successful Baptist preacher, Warren grew up mostly in Ukiah, Calif., and hit upon his great idea in 1979 when he was 25 years old. Poring over census data and maps, he learned that the Saddleback Valley was the fastest growing section of America's fastest growing county and therefore the best rock upon which to build his church. He rushed through seminary to complete his divinity degree, then set to work, walking door-to-door to attract people to the high-school auditorium that constituted his first place of worship. Before long, word began to spread about his warm preaching style and remarkable ability to talk about God to people skeptical of organized religion. Although a Baptist church like his father's, Warren's avoided the hell-and-damnation preaching associated with the South in favor of an emphasis on forgiveness and redemption, well-suited to its Southern California location. A student of church growth, Warren presided over one of the fastest-growing churches in the country.

Finding sufficient land in development-crazy Orange County to accommodate his expanding flock was no easy task. In 1989, when Saddleback's weekly attendance figures had reached the 2,500 level, Warren, frustrated by failed real estate deals and confining zoning restrictions, decided to exercise a little political muscle. "Sir," he said to a country supervisor as he plopped down a book on his desk, "there are eighteen thousand names in this directory. They are all in your district and they all vote. Now, you have a problem. Either get us permission to start using that land or do something else because you're going to have a mutiny on your hands if you don't." A bit of horse-trading followed, and Saddleback as we know it today—a congregation of some 20,000 members spread over eight worship sites and sponsoring countless workshops and missions—came into existence.

Warren's fame as an author followed the same path of utter determination.  When an editor from the Christian publisher Zondervan ghost-wrote a manuscript based on Warren's sermons, the preacher tore it up and took four months to write his first best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Church(1995). Warren was no genius as a writer, but he was one as a marketer, and his outlet was well-organized: a national network of pastors he had trained to reach out to seekers and the unchurched by stressing the importance of fellowship and service as well as more traditional forms of worship. They pushed the book's sales beyond anyone's expectations and created the framework for the astonishing sales of its successor. Cut the price, all but give the book away, and ignore all those Christian bookstores: Those were his instructions to the executives at Zondervan, who reacted in sheer horror. But Warren didn't budge and before long those pastors who got their hands on The Purpose-Driven Life recommended it to others willing to pay full price.

"If you want to know why you were placed on this planet," readers of Warren's opus were told, "you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose." Warren's book was anything but 12-step recovery in Christian language; the purpose-driven life strongly insists that only through Jesus can one find the right way to live and for that reason, the individual must understand how powerless he or she is in the face of God's commanding authority. 

Had Warren been as passive as he preaches, though, he surely would never have become a religious leader capable of swaying millions. The same paradox applies to his flock. Saddleback Church is located in one of the most prosperous regions of the country, and those who attend it, in sharp contrast to the evangelicals of the William Jennings Bryan era, are educated professionals living in gated communities. The secret to Warren's success is that he found people responsible for their own success in life and convinced them that it was all due to God.

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