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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

A How-To Kit for the Ministry

From his Lake Forest mega-church, Rick Warren offers seminars, stats and items on the Internet to help pastors boost attendance.

September 19, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

Pastor Kelly Walter has a simple explanation for using a week of precious vacation to make a 1,700-mile annual pilgrimage to a Southern California church: "The place just oozes grace."

His unlikely-looking mecca is Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, housed on a 120-acre campus of earth-tone, Mediterranean-style buildings, manicured lawns and endless parking lots near the base of the Santa Ana Mountains.

Walter, of Rock Brook Church in Belton, Mo., has trekked here each year for the past decade, joining more than 250,000 pastors worldwide who have attended seminars designed by Rick Warren, Saddleback's senior pastor, to revive their churches and increase attendance.

"This is like being alive in the day of Martin Luther -- and being able to meet him," Walter said. "This is the new Reformation."

Warren, despite a self-deprecating style, speaks in similar terms of his movement: "The first Reformation clarified what the church believes -- our message and doctrine. The current reformation will clarify what the church does -- our purpose and activities on Earth."

Some religious scholars and ministers recoil at Warren's pragmatic approach to church expansion, where strategies for attracting "seekers" of godly guidance can seem divined more from the corporate than spiritual world.

His "purpose-driven" formula for helping Christians and their churches -- it's a trademarked term -- is the basis of a multimillion-dollar nonprofit enterprise. Warren applies a business sensibility to ethereal challenges, offering low-cost or free products on the Internet, hosting seminars that give the program a kind of marketing multiplier effect in churches worldwide, and using statistics to measure results.

Dennis Costella, pastor of the small Fundamental Bible Church in Los Osos, near San Luis Obispo, said many struggling pastors falsely see the purpose-driven strategy as a life preserver. "If more pastors from small churches would just be faithful and rely on God, he will bless that faithfulness," Costella said. "He's not going to say, 'Let me see your stats sheet.' "

What can't be denied is that Christian churches around the world -- and increasingly individual worshipers as well -- see Warren, an ordinary-looking 49-year-old from the suburbs, as a spiritual superman.

His latest book, titled "The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?" has sold 7 million copies in 12 languages since it was published last fall. The book has earned Warren a fan letter from President Bush, as well as a lofty ranking on secular best-seller lists, and is being used as a form of Bible study for prisoners, NASCAR drivers and U.S. postal workers. Grieving parents in Memphis recently gave out close to 2,000 copies of the book at the funeral of their 21-year-old son. "The Purpose-Driven Life" lays out a step-by-step, 40-day plan to discover God's purpose for one's life. Its first sentence -- "It's not about you." -- sets the tone, putting it at odds with self-help groups and some preachers who focus on achieving personal happiness and financial success.

Warren instead touts a Bible-driven approach to finding God's revelations. And unlike television ministries, which try to reach national audiences, he urges local churches to use his message to reenergize themselves and capture millions of disaffected Christians and the non-religious. The book has a related campaign -- "40 Days of Purpose" -- that has had thousands of congregations going through it together in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

A conference at Saddleback Church in May that highlighted the book's campaign attracted 3,100 pastors from 94 denominations, 47 states and 37 countries. One seminary in Kentucky sent 400 students.

In July at the Christian Booksellers Assn. convention in Orlando, Fla., where "The Purpose-Driven Life" was named Book of the Year, Warren was often introduced as "America's pastor."

Warren's own Saddleback church, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, began in his condo in 1980 with only his real estate agent's family attending. It is now one of the nation's largest, with 17,000 members, an annual budget of $19 million and payroll of 330 people. Small-church pastors can find all that intimidating -- until they meet him. Then they discover Warren looks and sounds a lot like them -- the kind of person one might imagine goes bowling every Tuesday night.

His language is simple and straightforward. He wears khaki pants and untucked Hawaiian shirts, even for Sunday services. He prefers bear hugs to handshakes. He reflects the laid-back nature of his rural upbringing in Northern California, seemingly having time to chat with anyone who crosses his path.

"Rick is just a normal guy," Walter said. "There's a feeling that if he can do it, so can we."

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