In the late 70s a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was finishing his masters studies and wondering what to do next. He and his wife had been told by the Lord that they should stay in the US, despite their desire to go anywhere in the world with the Gospel.
He researched all the parts of the US where he thought there might be a need for a new church for people who didn't attend church, and plumped for a valley in Orange County, California (close to the metropolis of Los Angeles).
As southern Baptist, the student wrote to the area superintendent in the Saddleback valley - an area destined for phenomenal population growth. He mailed the letter, and was astonished to find a letter from that very area superintendent in his mailbox a few days later. He had heard of this student's interest in church planting and wondered if he had ever considered Saddleback - the letters had crossed in the post. God was at work.
The student was Rick Warren and the church that he planted with his wife Kay in 1980 consisted of just two families. Today Saddleback Community Church averages around 20,000 at their weekend services and has had 79 locations in their first 13 years before moving to their present facility in Lake Forest. Warren has become known worldwide through his book charting the principles behind his growth 'The Purpose Driven Church' (1995) and more latterly 'The Purpose Driven Life' (2002), which is one of the best selling Christian books of all time. He is also active in teaching and equipping pastors worldwide.
The Purpose Driven Church UK recently organised the first ever European Purpose Driven Conference, in conjunction with the Evangelical Alliance, at which Rick and Kay and other colleagues outlined how UK churches can be driven by similar purposes. Christianity sent deputy editor, Andy Peck to meet the man who lives on purpose.
Q. What are you hoping to achieve in the next few days?
Rick My first goal is to learn. I always come to learn and get ideas. In the last 20 years I have trained 400,000 pastors in 162 countries. As I go into each country I learn the strengths of each country and find what I can take back. I am really a cross pollinator; I get ideas like a bee and spread them round.
I also come to encourage and give hope. I realise that people are not much interested in church and Christianity but they are very interested in God and spirituality . This is the feature that I believe that the Purpose Driven Life book appeals to. A lot of people who would never get caught dead in church would read the book. So I believe that as we are able focus our churches on giving meaning and purpose to life that they will grow. The focus here is not on growing a big church but a healthy church.
Q. Helping other church pastors has always been part of your ministry. Is there anything that explains that emphasis?
Well yes, I am a fourth generation pastor. My father was a pastor, my grandfather was a pastor and my great grandfather came to Christ under Charles Haddon Spurgeon in London, went to Spurgeon's College, London and was sent to America as a circuit writing preacher. So I have deep roots here. Actually my family tree goes back to William Warren who fought against William the Conqueror in 1066.
Q You are very relaxed about letting other people use your material. Why is that?
Well I believe we are all on the same team. So it doesn't really matter what denominational background you are. If you love Jesus it doesn't matter whether you are Anglican or Catholic, Presbyterian, or Baptist or Pentecostal. The goal is not to compete but to cooperate. I feel that no one is really original. I learn from other people and pass things and so I think that if my bullet fits your gun shoot it. Two heads are better than one. If I take a message or write some curriculum, I do the best that I can come up with. But if someone else takes that material and adds their ideas to it then it becomes twice as good. So we not only allow people to use our material, we allow them to improve it!
Q In your book, 'The Purpose Driven Church' you talk about the importance of building healthy churches. Have their been 'illnesses' you have had to battle with at Saddleback over the last 25 years that have threatened the health of the church?
Yes. The number one disease I call it 'koinonia-itis'! (from the Greek meaning fellowship). That is, we become ingrown and we stop caring about the unchurched. We don't even expect people to come to church, we don't prepare for them to come, we don't invite them, and if they did come we don't welcome them! I always talk about the balance of the scales of the church. On the one side we have 'serve-us' and the other 'serv-ice'. The tendency is to become a serve-us church. The church is the only organisation that was created for non-members. It was created for the world.
Q So that is the answer to some who would say that you are just about building a mega church, that plays into a consumer mentality within Christianity which wants a church to serve their needs with multiple staff teams and good facilities?
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.
Q. You say in The Purpose Driven Church that it is important for pastors to stay at a church for a long time.
You've been at Saddleback as Pastor for over 25 years. Could you explain why you think it's important that pastors should stick around?
When a church changes a pastor every two to three years it's like kids getting a new father; the kids are going to be schizophrenic. They don't know who to trust. The truth is that if you have integrity and love the people, the better it gets and of course if you don't have integrity and don't love the people the worse it gets! You can fake love for a few years, but you can't fake it for 25. Because I have been there that long I have seen an entire generation grow up. My daughter was four months old when we started the church. Today she is married and has a baby of her own and another one on the way. I have seen an entire generation grow up through school, university, return to the area for work, start families and so on. I have been there through all the stages of life. That gives you great credibility. One of the problems today is that society does not trusts the church. We have to earn trust and that takes time. So people say, "Oh that's pastor Rick, he's been there 25 years", so they follow me. It gives you great credibility when you stay.
Q One of the difficulties of being there 25 years is that you have had to change with the culture?
Q. You talk in the book about the importance of music in reaching a culture. Has the music changed in those 25 years?
Well you are asking good questions. Yes the music styles have changed four times in 25 years because culture changes. That's the thing about being a purpose driven church. The purposes are unchanging and eternal - they remain the same: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. There are not four or six, there are five. They are in the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. They are explained in Acts 2 they are prayed for by Jesus in John 17, they are talked about by Paul in Ephesians 4, but they are best described in the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. When you have that foundation, that never changes, it gives you great freedom to change how you do it. You don't change what you do, but you do change how you do it. Worship styles change, evangelism approaches change, discipleship approaches change, but the purposes don't.
Q I greatly enjoyed your tape preaching series Preaching for life Change.
One of the things I took from that was the way you make your application points your main points. Could you explain a little bit more about that and why you think this is important for communicators?
How you state your points determines whether you are a commentator or a communicator. They are not the same. A commentator is someone who simply comments on the text. You make your points historical. 'See Jonah running, See Jonah repenting, etc..' But you don't want people to remember a historical alliteration of the text. You want them to remember the life applications of the text - the principles. So you study the text of the past and in order to relate it to the culture of today you must find the timeless principle and then you make those principles your points. So I always put a verb in my points, that way we become doers of the Word and nor hearers only.
Q You have been a student of church growth. As you look around the world today are there things that encourage you?
Well all the encouraging signs area all basically south of the equator.
I see the greatest vitality in the church in Africa, South America and South Asia.
I believe that in the 21st century these people will have much to teach us north of the equator. I believe that if a new reformation is to happen in Europe and North America.
The largest churches are not in North America. There's a church in Lagos Nigeria that runs at 120,000 in attendance, there's a church in Buenos Aries Argentina that runs at 250,000 and of course there's a church in Seoul South Korea, that has 500,000 in attendance. I do not think that every church is intended to be a mega church. I am totally against that. The Purpose Driven Church Conference is not about how to be a mega church, but how to be a healthy church. Healthy churches reproduce. For instance we have planted a church for every year that the church has been in existence. We have started over 30 churches in 25 years. Our goal is not just to grow larger but also to grow broader. My goal would be that churches in the UK would learn how to have babies - we need new kinds of churches to reach new kinds of people. In a typical city there would be a100 cultures or niches and each need a church to reach it; economic niches, cultural and linguistic, lifestyle etc…
Q Is there an ideal number required to plant a church?
No. You can plant a church with any number. I planted a church with seven people, which was actually just two families. I have actually found that the most difficult growth is getting a church above 250. The reason is that most churches are structured in a traditional way, which is bound and determined to stop it growing above 200 people.
Q Some in the UK will have heard about Willow Creek Community Church, who have been coming to the UK to run conferences since 1992.
There are some similarities between you and them and I know you are good friends. Are there any similarities and differences that you would like to highlight?
The similarities are that we have the exact same goal of reaching people for Jesus Christ and building them up to maturity and send them out to mission in the community and around the world.
In a sense they are a purpose driven church although they don't use the same terminology. Saddleback is different in that we have a different structure that ensures that we balance all five purposes. Unless you have an organisational structure that forces you to give equal emphasis to worship, to fellowship, to evangelism, to discipleship and to ministry, you will always tend to overemphasise the purpose that the pastor is passionate about and de-emphasise the ones that he is not so keen on. It is more about structure than goals.
Q. What would you say to those who are sceptical about another strategy, especially given the antagonism by some towards American ideas?
Number one, please forgive me for being an American! I did not choose to be an American and in many ways it would have been easier to be something else. But I would also say that this is not about America. In fact there are far more Purpose Driven Churches outside America than inside. This is a biblical strategy, not an American strategy. If it is biblical it is trans-cultural - it will work anywhere. So I would say ignore my nationality and listen to the scriptures.
Q How do you stay focused yourself?
You have to balance the physical, the mental, the emotional and the spiritual with the five purposes of the church. The purposes are not just of the church but for the individual. So the purpose of the church is to help us grow in our purpose for God. So I ask myself, am I growing in worship? Is my life growing in fellowship and relationship? Am I growing in discipleship, am I becoming a better servant? Am I sharing my faith. And if I am doing those and I balance them with the physical I am going to keep growing.