A new graduate from a Baptist Theological Seminary is explaining his vision to 60 adults at a High School in Orange County, California (close to Los Angeles). These strangers had been invited by the fresh-faced Bible college graduate to hear about the launch of a new kind of church: ‘a place where the hurting, the depressed, the confused can find love, acceptance, help, hope, forgiveness and encouragement.’

“I have a dream of building a church with 20,000 members, located on 50 acres of land, sending out hundreds of career missionaries, and starting at least one daughter church a year,” declared the young man. “I stand before you today and state in confident assurance that these dreams will become reality. Why? Because they are inspired by God!”

So clear was this dream that he had turned down the offer of the pulpit of a 5,000-member Texas church preferring to take his wife and baby daughter and possessions in a U-Haul truck and head west for Orange County to where he believed God was leading him.

That young man was Rick Warren and the first service he held consisted of just two families. Today Saddleback Church averages around 25,000 at their weekend services in their 120 acre campus in Lake Forest, California. His book, Purpose Driven Life has sold a staggering 30m copies. An equally impressive 300,000 church leaders in 25 languages have been trained in the Purpose Driven Church philosophy, which he espouses. There are Purpose Driven congregations in 120 countries, with some 1,600 churches in the UK having been through the ‘40 Days of Purpose’ – where churches study Purpose Driven Life in their congregation and small group meetings.

So who is the man behind the phenomenon? What is ‘purpose driven’? And why are so many churches finding it scratches where they itch?

Exploding stereotypes

To understand Purpose Driven we focus first on the man behind the movement, not because it is personality driven but because of his disposition towards the local church. Rick Warren is very different from what you might expect from a mega pastor. He dresses to reach the neighbourhood - trademark Hawaiian shirt and deck shoes, often without socks. His wife Kay says they met when they were both 16, at a Baptist training meeting for evangelism. “He was imitating Billy Graham at a talent contest,” she says. “He was way too brash, way too loud, way too everything I wasn’t interested in.” He is certainly well built and admits a passion for Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Warren himself is delighted to explode the stereotype about highly paid senior pastors of mega churches. When Time magazine asked him what he earned he was able to tell them that he doesn’t cost the church anything, having just paid back the church for all the salaries he had ever received in the previous 25 years through the proceeds of his book, Purpose Driven Life. He and his wife are now ‘reverse tithers’ they give away 90% and keep 10! They live in the same house and drive the same four-year-old Ford SUV they did before the book took off.

His ministry has always focused on the local church; as a College graduate he asked God to be able to serve in the same church ‘for the rest of his life’. Those that say a church must have a building in order to grow are confounded by a church of 25,000 which had a staggering 79 locations in their first 13 years as it outgrew each temporary building. Warren jokes that you could join the church if you could find it!

So his concern for local churches shaped his approach from the start. He grew up in a village in northern California, with a population at 5,000 making it smaller than the congregation he serves. He has maintained a concern for the small church and especially bi-vocational pastors. His father and grandfather were pastors and his great grandfather was converted under the Baptist minister, CH Spurgeon in London. Warren has chosen not to move into a TV preaching ministry which might take people from other churches. Even today the worship services on the web are for members only, non-member visitors are encouraged to find a Bible teaching church themselves. He aims to model things at Saddleback, which could, in principle, be done at a smaller church. Meanwhile his daily e-mail from pastors.com goes out all over the world.

Although a ‘Southern Baptist’, Warren maintains a focus on the essentials of reaching seekers and building the church. Hence his broad evangelical focus, which doesn’t not focus on partisan theology. This makes him as welcome in other denominations as Billy Graham or Bill Hybels. Indeed Warren keeps clear of the more politically motivated ‘religious right’ and what is called ‘fundamentalism’. In the UK he would be one of few who would be not out of place as a speaker at a broad range of conference settings such as Spring Harvest, Keswick, New Wine and Greenbelt. The criticism he receives tends to be from those who struggle with the seeker-sensitive approach or feel their views on scripture are not emphasised.

His preaching style is clear, down-toearth and intensely practical. He reads a book a week on a range of subjects and has a volunteer team of researchers who send him background notes for the series he is working on. Few would realise that a medical condition means that he is unable to focus on the congregation for the early minutes of any talk. He has a brain malfunction which means that when his adrenaline levels increase (as is common when he begins preaching) he nearly passes out and can’t see the congregation during the early minutes of any talk.Though he is clearly the leader, he trusts those around him. When on sabbatical writing Purpose Driven Life, the church grew by 800.

Exporting principles

Warren remained focused on building Saddleback for the first 15 years. He rarely travelled, eventually becoming known outside California because of his books Purpose Driven Church (Zondervan 1995) and Purpose Driven Life (Zondervan 2002). The first book outlined how he grew Saddleback and introduced people to the very simple, but profound methodology at the heart of Purpose Driven. He believes church should be arranged around what he regards as the five main purposes: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism.

Saddleback arrange the five purposes around the four points of a baseball diamond with base one: Belong (membership), base two: Grow (maturity), base three: Serve (ministry), base four: Share (missions), with Worship (magnification) at the centre of the diamond. The aim is for each attender of the services to reachthe stage where they take the four classes that take them through the bases. Each of the ministries dovetails with the others, there are staff set aside to facilitate each stage and everyone understands the process.

The Saddleback diamond is not the only visual explanation of the process. A second diagram of concentric circles represents the target audience for each base:

  • Community: the outer circle targeted by evangelism.
  •  Crowd: those who come to church and experience the seeker-sensitive worship.
  •  Congregation: those who become Christians and become church members.
  •  Committed: those who are seeking to mature in their faith.
  •  Core: those who are committed to ministry of the church.

The aim is to bring unchurched nonbelievers through to being core ministers within the church family. A newcomer thus moves from the community to the care through the four bases of the diamond.

As church leaders read Purpose Driven Church, they decided to come and see for themselves. David Beer, then senior minister at Frinton Free Church (on the Essex coast), flew to Saddleback during his sabbatical in 1997. “We were 400 strong and wondering what the next stage was. I met with Rick and liked what I heard. The beauty was that I gently introduced a purpose driven approach to the church without anyone saying ‘but that’s American!’ because no one could disagree with seeking to have a balanced emphasis on the five purposes. ??It wasn’t until the book, ‘Purpose Driven Life’ was brought out that they twigged what I was doing."Slowly other churches became interested in what Frinton Free Church were doing. People visited Frinton, the Evangelical Alliance (EA) organised trips to Saddleback and the seeds of what was to become Purpose Driven UK were sown. David Beer’s links with Saddleback were maintained and he is now Regional Co-ordinator for Purpose Driven in Europe leaving the church in Frinton to become full-time two years ago.

The momentum in the UK was boosted by two things: the publication of Purpose Driven Life (2002) and Rick and Kay Warren’s visit to Nottingham in 2005 (go to www.christianity magazine.co.uk for an interview with Rick Warren from that conference) when The EA who had been keen to invite Warren over, partnered with Purpose Driven for the first European Purpose Driven Conference.

The Purpose Driven Life (which was in the New York best sellers list for 43 weeks in a row) applies the five purposes to personal life. It is the basis of a ‘40 days of Purpose’ programme – an integrated approach whereby churches focus on aspects of Purpose Driven Life in their Sunday sermons, small groups and individual studies as members work their way through the book. Churches report that attendance at main services and mid week small groups increase and although it is essentially a discipleship tool, many find the first session ‘what am I here for?’ is a great event to which seekers can be invited. Churches can also do 40 days of Community, which asks the second question, what are ‘we’; and is ‘the next step in spiritual growth, designed to help deepen authentic community within the church family and reach out to the local community outside the church’.

Mark Macklin was one of those to visit a Purpose Driven Church conference at Saddleback on an EA trip in 1999 with a group from Christian Community Church, an Assemblies of God church in Hounslow West London, where he serves as senior minister. He tells Christianity: “We were a traditional church of 250-300, and so introduced ideas slowly so that we took people with us. We ran 40 days of purpose twice and this became a great catalyst for growth with increased numbers attending small groups. Later we ran 40 days of community and have seen a strengthening in our ministry to the community, linking in with the local police force and ‘Each’ a secular group that help deliver information to the homeless.

“We have transferred the principles into language that works for us: we prefer ‘key priorities’ to ‘purpose driven’ as ‘driven’ has negative connotations for us. We hold four classes around the four purposes and have benefited especially from the first priority as we tell would-be members what we believe and what they would be signing up to.”

Macklin’s experience is typical of the way churches have translated the principles into their local context. Saddleback’s baseball diamond became a key hole in West London. Other churches have used a star, a clock face. A church in Denmark went for bridges and in a church in Brazil a football pitch.

The ‘40 days’ programmes has also helped a church further north. Phil Gleave is one of the elders of Birchwood Evangelical Church, a 50 member church near Warrington, who came across Purpose Driven Church having been sparked off by a CD he heard from an unrelated conference in Manchester which included the question: ‘If your church closed tomorrow would anyone notice?’

“I went back to the church leadership of the 50 member church and said, ‘We’ve got to tackle this question’. We concluded that no one would notice!

And so set about making a difference. That was 18 months ago. We decided that the Purpose Driven Church book reflected what the Bible was saying and so redesigned the church around these purposes. We took the whole church (around 100 attend regularly) through the Purpose Driven Life material (40 days of purpose) and are in the middle of the 40 days of community, during which time we have left our normal venue (in a high school) and met in a function room above the Silver Birch pub. New people have been coming every week. We have charged the five deacons, who oversee each of the purposes, with the responsibility of making sure that when we get to the 41st day, we know what we will be doing next in each of the areas.”

Exciting possibilities

As the director of operations in Europe, Beer is excited by the potential of churches across Europe being helped by his ministry. He has received invitations from many countries in the former Eastern block including Albania, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Romania. He recently led a conference in Slovakia. Western Europe are also keen: with conferences in Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden, 800 leaders gathered in Holland and some 1000 churches in Germany are expected to do 40 days of Purpose in lent 2007.

He tells Christianity: “Those churches that benefit most from ‘40 days’ are those who have already restructured around the paradigm. Some 1,600 churches in the UK, across all the major denominations, have already gone through 40 days of purpose with some 100 already signed up for 40 days of community. One church in the UK baptised 38 people on one Sunday as a direct result of 40 days of purpose.” Not everyone is convinced. “Some are sceptical because they know it comes from the US, even though there are now more Purpose Driven Churches outside the US,” explains Beer. “Others think it is a programmed model. Some leaders of larger churches have admitted to me that they are reluctant to use it because they are seen by other as being innovative and so don’t want to use a model that has come from elsewhere!”

Beer hopes many more discover the benefit both of a balanced approach to church ministry and an awareness of how to reach the neighbourhood: “It helps ask the questions about who is the neighbourhood we are trying to reach? What newspapers do they read, what radio do they listen to? How could that inform our Sunday services so that the style of music is more amenable? Are the lyrics of the songs we have chosen really suitable for outsiders? For some this represents a massive change in thinking. I would love to see more churches balanced and understanding that church is not for me, but for others.”

For some churches Purpose Driven is doing for discipleship what Alpha has done for evangelism. It has some similarities with the Willow Creek approach (their seven step strategy and five Gs are similar to Saddleback’s circles and diamond), which has also affected hundreds of churches in the UK. But the ‘off the shelf’ usability of the Purpose Driven Life book helps churches dip their toe in before making wholesale structural changes.

No one is pretending that the church grows via a new structure, but as leaders have looked at what they do, they have come to re-think where their energies are being placed and whether they are being truly intentional about reaching the lost and building them to maturity. ??It is tough to analyse your activities and discover you have given an aspect of God’s purpose for the church short change. But those that do ‘go there’ clearly discover their church can become the haven for the lost that Warren envisaged back in 1980. Warren himself told Christianity: “The bottom line is that every church caters to something. If you want to know what that is then change your order of service next week and you will know immediately who’s upset and who you are catering for! I am saying that Jesus said that church is to cater for the lost person. He said: ‘The sick need a doctor, the healthy don’t need a doctor. I didn’t come for the righteous.’ The tendency will always be for the church to meet the needs of the members so when we intentionally tilt the focus of the church to the outsider we actually get some balance.”

Many churches in the UK have found the balance Warren speaks of. Maybe it’s time your church was more ‘fit for purpose’ too?