Riding God’s Wave

The secret of Rick Warren’s spectacular success.

There are those who come up with an innovative idea, develop the skills necessary to realize it, and use every bit of their creative capacity to make it succeed. Then there are those who believe that human beings have no power to change the world but are mere pawns directed by a supernatural force whose decisions are arbitrary and inscrutable. Finally, there are rarities like Rick Warren who fit into both categories at the same time.

Warren is the founding pastor of Orange County’s Saddleback Church and the author of The Purpose-Driven Life(2002), the best-selling hardback book of all time, according to Publishers Weekly. He is the vivid subject who Jeffrey Sheler, a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report, takes on in this engaging and fair-minded biography, Prophet of Purpose, written with Warren’s cooperation. While managing to avoid hagiography, Sheler generally keeps himself in the background, allowing the reader to appreciate just how remarkable Warren’s rise to prominence really is.

The son of a not particularly successful Baptist preacher, Warren grew up mostly in Ukiah, Calif., and hit upon his great idea in 1979 when he was 25 years old. Poring over census data and maps, he learned that the Saddleback Valley was the fastest growing section of America’s fastest growing county and therefore the best rock upon which to build his church. He rushed through seminary to complete his divinity degree, then set to work, walking door-to-door to attract people to the high-school auditorium that constituted his first place of worship. Before long, word began to spread about his warm preaching style and remarkable ability to talk about God to people skeptical of organized religion. Although a Baptist church like his father’s, Warren’s avoided the hell-and-damnation preaching associated with the South in favor of an emphasis on forgiveness and redemption, well-suited to its Southern California location. A student of church growth, Warren presided over one of the fastest-growing churches in the country.

Finding sufficient land in development-crazy Orange County to accommodate his expanding flock was no easy task. In 1989, when Saddleback’s weekly attendance figures had reached the 2,500 level, Warren, frustrated by failed real estate deals and confining zoning restrictions, decided to exercise a little political muscle. “Sir,” he said to a country supervisor as he plopped down a book on his desk, “there are eighteen thousand names in this directory. They are all in your district and they all vote. Now, you have a problem. Either get us permission to start using that land or do something else because you’re going to have a mutiny on your hands if you don’t.” A bit of horse-trading followed, and Saddleback as we know it today—a congregation of some 20,000 members spread over eight worship sites and sponsoring countless workshops and missions—came into existence.

Warren’s fame as an author followed the same path of utter determination.  When an editor from the Christian publisher Zondervan ghost-wrote a manuscript based on Warren’s sermons, the preacher tore it up and took four months to write his first best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Church(1995). Warren was no genius as a writer, but he was one as a marketer, and his outlet was well-organized: a national network of pastors he had trained to reach out to seekers and the unchurched by stressing the importance of fellowship and service as well as more traditional forms of worship. They pushed the book’s sales beyond anyone’s expectations and created the framework for the astonishing sales of its successor. Cut the price, all but give the book away, and ignore all those Christian bookstores: Those were his instructions to the executives at Zondervan, who reacted in sheer horror. But Warren didn’t budge and before long those pastors who got their hands on The Purpose-Driven Life recommended it to others willing to pay full price.

“If you want to know why you were placed on this planet,” readers of Warren’s opus were told, “you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.” Warren’s book was anything but 12-step recovery in Christian language; the purpose-driven life strongly insists that only through Jesus can one find the right way to live and for that reason, the individual must understand how powerless he or she is in the face of God’s commanding authority. 

Had Warren been as passive as he preaches, though, he surely would never have become a religious leader capable of swaying millions. The same paradox applies to his flock. Saddleback Church is located in one of the most prosperous regions of the country, and those who attend it, in sharp contrast to the evangelicals of the William Jennings Bryan era, are educated professionals living in gated communities. The secret to Warren’s success is that he found people responsible for their own success in life and convinced them that it was all due to God.

This is certainly the way he talks about his own fame. “God makes the waves; surfers just ride them” is how he puts it. “Our job as church leaders, like experienced surfers, is to recognize God’s spirit and ride it.” For Warren and those to whom he preaches, worldly accomplishments matter but so does God’s grace. American and capitalist values instruct us that we rise in life due to our own efforts. Warren teaches above all that it happens because we are fulfilling God’s plan. The combination is irresistible: We can take pride in what we have become without viewing ourselves as selfish egoists.

Not completely satisfied with being merely a best-selling author and a mega-popular pastor, Warren followed up his publishing career by moving to one area of life in which no one looks out for you: politics. Warren has done more than persuade both Sens. McCain and Obama to appear with him in church during the 2008 presidential campaign and land an invitation to pray at Obama’s inauguration. Warren’s political ambitions are global.

He has taken calls from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and tried to persuade him to soften his hostility toward the Palestinians. He has helped Rwanda’s Paul Kagame to turn his country into a purpose-driven nation. He has shared faith testimonies with Tony Blair. He has traveled to Syria and tried to preach in North Korea. “I’m a pastor, not a politician,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “And I report to a higher authority.” But God is not a travel agent. It is Warren himself who has chosen where he goes and with whom he speaks. Although not a missionary bent on converting everyone in the world to his views, Warren does believe that the Gospel’s emphasis on Christ’s love can bring peace where strife has reigned.

To be sure, Warren himself has occasioned some strife, but the real interest of the Warren phenomenon is not the occasional controversy over his position on gay rights. Nor is it his efforts to wrestle the leadership of conservative Christianity away from the Robertsons and Dobsons, whose sin-obsessed conception of human nature—which views all of us as inherently corrupt and shortsighted—is such a contrast to his vision. What marks Warren out as one of America’s most influential figures is his blend of individual effort and assertions of dependency, which offers one great advantage to this country and one crippling disadvantage.

The Warrens—Rick and his wife, Kay—are capable of astonishing generosity. Rick plows the profits from his ventures back into his faith-based initiatives; in his life, you will not find even a whiff of the scandals that accompanied Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Kay Warren, while suffering from breast cancer, developed the idea of using every bit of her influence and money to fight the suffering caused by HIV/AIDS in Africa, a courageous venture for a conservative Christian, or indeed for anyone else, to undertake. The Warrens have put to rest the shadow of Elmer Gantry. It really is possible to be both religious and sincere. When you attribute all your success to God, you are no longer focused on your own self-interest.

At the same time, however, Rick Warren, who shares his wife’s larger commitments, can be insufferably sure of himself. Seemingly surprised by gay and lesbian opposition to the decision to allow him deliver the inaugural prayer, he tried to deny that he had equated gay marriage with incest when he clearly had. Warren, it would seem, does not take criticism well. Displace your own abilities onto a supernatural power and you are easily led to blaming others for the messes you cause. Avoiding self-interest, you can fall into self-importance. Warren’s ego is hard to miss. One can only wonder what the presidents of Israel and Syria really think of this provincial from California who seems to believe that he has a proper place on the world stage beside them.

One does not have to be an evangelical to realize that a world of ruthless calculators living for no higher purpose is as shallow as a world in which religious faith allows no room for individual self-development. Rick Warren, Sheler’s book makes clear, has found a message that reconciles profit and high purpose, faith and individual effort, and offers a form of humility that, at its best, galvanizes without aggrandizing. It may not be how I, or others, would balance the relationship between individual striving and a life of meaning, but it is plainly a formula uncannily well-timed for our disoriented, driven moment.