Several thousand church leaders swarmed the spacious grounds of the Saddleback Church mega-campus last week seeking to replicate the potent formula for church health and success popularized by Pastor Rick Warren.
"The church here is so famous because of church growth," said Pastor Michael Chua, of the Makati Gospel Church in the Philippines. "I want to learn how they were able to do this," he said. Pastor Chua found out about the conference overseas and enrolled over the Internet, as did church leaders from 34 other countries.
Pastors streamed into the modernistic hall with its aluminum roof and exposed ceiling ducts painted in designer colors. Many left behind much smaller and more traditional churches throughout America, but a glint of expectancy filled their eyes as they dared to consider their own churches transformed by the purpose-driven model. A 50-voice choir and ten-piece band added to the spirit of excitement and celebration as Pastor Rick Warren ambled onto the stage.
"The bottom line is to produce changed lives," Pastor Warren said, with a genial and unaffected quality that belies the fact that he is the organizational genius behind one of the largest and fastest-growing congregations in America. Some 22,000 church leaders have attended his seminars and more than 60,000 pastors worldwide subscribe to his free, weekly email newsletter, "Rick Warren's Ministry Toolbox."
"We want every life to be purpose-driven," Warren said. "We want to help people live the life God intended." His introductory remarks were brief, then his choir broke in singing "Lives are changing, lives are changing...We're united in thought, united in purpose" as video images on three jumbo screens above displayed the smiling congregation at Saddleback engaged in various church events-from weddings to beach baptisms.
The videos are reminiscent of Pepsi commercials from the '60s, except the smiling faces are not dancing in the sand with soda bottles, but filled with newness of life after a baptismal dipping in the Pacific Ocean. Over 8,000 were baptized last year at Saddleback, a figure Warren related with satisfaction.
"I am addicted to changed lives," Warren said. "My basic message is repentance, but I rarely use the term," he said. "We are in the mind-changing business. Behind every sin is a lie you're believing."
In Warren's opening remarks he spoke often of God and his purpose for our lives. "You were made by God and for God," he said. "God has never created anything without a purpose. You have to decide if you will live for temporary pleasures or God's eternal purposes."
After a few more remarks, the praise band broke in again singing "You've gotta have meaning...There's a life to be risen in everyone, Come alive, Come alive!" The song that aroused the greatest response from the assembled pastors was Matt Redmond's "The Heart of Worship." Instead of just watching the praise band perform, the pastors actually joined in the worship themselves, singing "It's all about you Jesus," with heartfelt enthusiasm.
Warren's preview introduction to 'The Purpose-Driven Life' was frequently punctuated with scripture references-over 90 citations primarily from modern paraphrases of the Bible.
Cultural relevance is an important part of the mix here, evidenced by Warren's casual dress, paying homage to the surf culture surrounding the giant church. He's serious about reaching the minds and hearts of unbelievers in South Orange County, and will defy preconceived ideas about how to conduct his services if he finds methods that work with greater effectiveness.
His 399-page book, "The Purpose Driven Church," was given away in droves to attendees. It has become a how-to manual for admirers of his pragmatic approach and has now been translated into 21 languages. In the book he defines success as fulfilling the Great Commission. "Ministry must be both faithful and fruitful," he writes, identifying numerical growth of the church as important evidence of fruit. Warren criticizes those "communicating in an outdated style" that doesn't produce any fruit, especially those in the church still "perpetuating the culture of the 1950s."
Pastors were eager to lap up the message. "Everything we do we ask, 'What would an unchurched person think about what we're doing?" said Richard Sundermeyer, pastor of the Family Life Church of the Nazarene. While Warren maintains pastors can't allow the unchurched to "drive the total agenda of the church," the "needs, hurts, and interests of seekers" should be a top priority in planning services.
Pastor Sundermeyer is responsible for a four-year old church plant using the purpose-driven model. Sundermeyer denied the seeker-sensitive approach waters down the gospel. "It's still the same message," he said. "We just say it in terms they understand."
"We can't do business the same way we've always done it," said Jimmy Ezell, pastor of the North Baptist Church in Wilmington, Delaware. "Our church has a hundred years of legacy, but the neighborhood has changed," Ezell said. "We're in the process of transitioning to a purpose-driven model so I came here to get it straight from the horse's mouth," he said.
Pastor Ezell replaced the pipe organ with a praise band and initiated more small-group activities. "Our Wednesday night meeting has a coffee house feel to it, and it's more discussion oriented." Ezell's sermons now employ Powerpoint, with visual illustrations and other dramatic effects. "The seniors in our church have graciously given their energy to the same vision."
"The outside of our church looks traditional, but when you come inside there's a whole new feeling of relevance," Ezell said. The purpose-driven formula "gives a life and energy to the service that wasn't there four years ago," he said.
The pastors' conference in Lake Forest drew 3,800 church leaders from remarkably diverse backgrounds-over 93 different denominations. The mass convergence of beliefs seems to imply that methodology is the valued commodity here, and that doctrinal purity is much less consequential.
"We're not talking about doctrine," said Doug Slaybaugh, one of four executive pastors as Saddleback. "We're talking about how to do church in a way that meets people where their needs are," he said. "We unapologetically preach the gospel, but we try to do that in ways that are clear, relevant, and not confusing."
The motivation for Warren's softening of evangelical language is clarity, Slaybaugh believes. "The motives are, 'How can I say it that is in a way that people understand it and receive it," he said. "He would probably not use the term born-again."
"He would probably talk about making God the CEO or boss of your life, putting him in charge," Slaybaugh added.
Crossing Denominational Lines
It is a remarkable thing to see Baptists and Episcopalians sitting side by side, soaking in Warren's teachings. "Our diocese is just getting the word on this," said David Price, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. "The bishop has taken a keen interest in recent months and has begun to push it," he said. "This year, there are five Episcopal churches from Houston here."
Rector Price says he had to rewrite Warren's basic courses (Classes 101-501), "to reflect a different vocabulary." For example, when Warren speaks of "reaching the lost," Price speaks of "reaching out to people who haven't heard of God's love." Price admitted that Warren has already "done a lot of softening of the language of evangelical churches."
Because Price doesn't hear conversion language in the Episcopal Church, he said he "de-emphasized the conversion of life emphasis."
"Now I seriously emphasize people waking up to their own salvation," he said. "People either remember a (salvation) moment or they don't," he said. "At any moment you can turn to him and make him the center of your being."
Saddleback Church doesn't use altar calls or ask people to publicly acknowledge receiving Christ in the service, but makes use of response cards and phone follow-up, in which trained volunteers lead seekers through the sinner's prayer, according to Pastor Slaybaugh. There are other opportunities to receive Christ in their introductory classes.
In Warren's preaching seminar, he said the overriding purpose of his speaking is to make people more like Jesus Christ. "To be like Christ is to think like Jesus Christ and to feel like Jesus Christ and to act like Jesus Christ," he said. "I have failed as a preacher if people aren't becoming more like Jesus Christ."
Mark Ellis is a Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service. He is also an assistant pastor in Laguna Beach, CA.