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Pastor of Megachurch Making Equally Big Splash With Book

Media: Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest began 'The Purpose-Driven Life' as a series of sermons. The launch is a kind of virtual Sunday school.

October 12, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rick Warren, a superstar pastor in the megachurch movement, will kick off one of the most ambitious book promotions in Christian publishing history today by beaming via satellite a sermon based on his book to an estimated 500,000 people in 1,500 churches worldwide.

The campaign for the book, "The Purpose-Driven Life," is called "40 Days of Purpose" and is meant to be a 21st century form of Sunday school for Christian adults who are fuzzy on the fundamentals of living a God-centered life. And it's only the latest entrepreneurial move by Warren, head of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.

In recent years, Warren has earned international recognition by training more than 250,000 pastors from 125 countries, launching the pastors.com Web site for those in the ministry, and signing up 60,000 pastors for a free e-mail newsletter, Rick Warren's Ministry Toolbox.

Advance sales of the book, an outgrowth of a sermon series Warren has given at Saddleback for three years, topped more than 500,000 copies before it hit retailers Oct. 1.

The publisher, Zondervan, said the figure is the second highest in company history, after Billy Graham's autobiography, "Just As I Am," which was co-published with Harper Collins in 1997.

The early flood of sales stems from Warren's popularity with evangelical Christians and a carefully planned and expensive book launch designed to get the faithful reading a chapter daily for the next 40 days.

Pastors across the nation--and at 52 churches in Los Angeles and Orange counties--will gear their next six Sunday messages to the book's material, with sermon outlines provided by Warren.

They'll have access through the Internet to videos of Warren's services built around "The Purpose-Driven Life" theme at Saddleback, which started two weeks ago.

A national marketing campaign takes in all forms of media, secular and Christian. And a CD, "Songs for a Purpose-Driven Life," features recordings by popular Christian artists.

"The [promotion] budget for 'The Purpose-Driven Life' is two to three times more than any book we'll publish this year," said Greg Stielstra, associate marketing director for trade books.

Warren said his book answers three of life's most basic riddles. The question of existence: "Why am I alive?" The question of significance: "Does my life matter?" And the question of intention: "What is my purpose?"

Scott L. Thumma, who studies the megachurch movement at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research in Connecticut, said Warren has created an evangelical teaching program dealing with the basic tenets of faith for those drawn to "seeker-friendly" churches.

"It's a contemporary rendering of confirmation and catechism classes," Thumma said. "But it's slick, user-friendly and media-savvy.

"There's never been a curriculum that the whole entire adult congregation was going to go through at the same time," he said.

Warren has made books more affordable to churches by waiving his royalties for those sales. He bought 25,000 copies for his church, which started in 1980 with two families and now averages crowds of 16,000 for weekend services.

The new book is the follow-up to Warren's seminal book, "The Purpose-Driven Church," a pastor's blueprint for a spiritually healthy church, which has sold 1 million copies and been translated into 20 languages. It was also listed in "100 Christian Books That Changed the 20th Century."

Warren said evidence already shows the positive effects of the book's materials. The first test program was rolled out in 1999 at Saddleback Church. He said there were dramatic increases in baptisms, church membership, daily Bible reading and small-group study. A broader pilot program "quietly tested" last year at 50 churches produced similar results.

Because of the new campaign, attendance at Saddleback in the last three weeks has increased 3,000 for weekend services, Warren said. "What I am most excited about is the 25,000 we have meeting in homes in 2,400 small groups" to study the material.

Scott Flippin, senior pastor of the 300-member Blue Ridge Christian Fellowship in Galax, Va., has spent $3,500 on copies of Warren's book and $15,000 more to market the "40 Days of Purpose" campaign. He took out five billboards near the church, had novelty key chains made and placed ads in local papers.

"We feel that strongly that will change their lives," Flippin said.

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