Mass Appeal

The secret to Rick Warren’s success.

It’s a cloudless summer Sunday and the vast parking lots are filling early at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, 50 miles south of Los Angeles. New SUVs, guided by marshals, queue for the best spots before their occupants spill out happily into the sunshine, heading for a huge auditorium.

They make their way up imposing steps, past palm trees and crystal-clear waterfalls tumbling down artificial rocks. The children’s play area has a stream that parts like the Red Sea, courtesy of two invisible plastic sheets. On a nearby hillock, a replica of Jesus’ tomb has a hydraulic stone that can be rolled away.

The Saddleback campus, opened in 1992, has the eighth-largest congregation of any church in the United States—expanding from its first gathering of 200 in a high school gym in Easter 1980 to a current average weekly attendance of 17,500.

Inside, the only religious symbol is a wooden cross and, during the service, there is no communion and none of the familiar liturgy. Instead, there’s slickly executed Christian rock from a live band.

Saddleback’s founder is Rick Warren, 57, the US’s most famous pastor. He bounds across the stage wearing his trademark goatee, a black T-shirt, Converse trainers and jeans. He is preaching about self-examination: “If you’re doing something that’s messing up your marriage or destroying your finances, it’s because there is some kind of emotional pay-off. I don’t know what it is—maybe it’s to mask your pain, maybe it’s to cover up a fear, maybe it’s an excuse to fail, maybe it’s to compensate for guilt.”

Warren is America’s leading “Pastorpreneur”—a kind of avuncular chief executive of evangelism. His 2002 book The Purpose Driven Life is one of the bestselling hardbacks in US history, and he has fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter.

There are up to 80 million U.S. Christians who call themselves evangelicals—they believe in the literal truth of the Bible and have been “born again” through a personal conversion. Warren, who is part of the 16m-strong Southern Baptist Convention, is the only evangelical churchman sought out by rock stars, Democratic politicians and world leaders. In 2009, he preached at Barack Obama’s inauguration. He is also on the board of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the former U.K. prime minister’s interfaith charity, which aims to “promote understanding” between major religions. “He’s been here at Saddleback,” says Warren of Blair. “I’ve given him relationship connections I have because I know religious leaders around the world.”

When Obama chose Warren to offer prayers at his inauguration, it was a decision that much of the president’s liberal base regarded as a sell-out to appease conservatives. The TV host Rachel Maddow described it as “the first big mistake of Obama’s post-election politicking”.

So where does Warren stand politically? When I meet him after the service, he is keen not to be labeled: “People say, ‘Am I left or rightwing?’ I say that I’m for the whole bird. I prayed at President Bush’s inauguration and President Obama’s because both happen to be friends. I’m actually registered independent because I minister to both sides.”

Warren is a new kind of evangelical leader—neither an oleaginous televangelist type nor a lectern-thumping fundamentalist. But his reach goes far beyond US religion and politics. As well as mixing with world leaders, he is championing the role of churches worldwide in ameliorating global poverty and tackling Aids.

Richard Duane Warren was born in 1954, in San Jose, California, the second son of a Baptist minister and a high school librarian. As a teenager he grew his hair long and nursed ambitions of being a rock star. After a conversion experience while he was a 19-year-old freshman at a local Baptist college, he was called to the ministry.

We meet after his second service of the day, and talk over an abstemious lunch of grilled chicken, eggplant, and vegetable squash. This meal is part of his “Daniel Plan”—a diet that he’s promoting to his congregation. It involves forsaking sugar and bread, and is named after a Bible passage in which the prophet Daniel opts for vegetables and water rather than “defiling himself with royal food and wine.” Warren is an advertisement for its success—his previously bear-like figure has shrunk by 40 pounds.

He tells me his calling when he left the seminary was to set up a “church for the unchurched” in southern California. First, he examined the hundred largest churches in the country and found out what had made them successful. The common factor was that they were in fast-growing areas with a transient population. Warren settled on the vast suburbs of houses and malls being developed in southern Orange County, one of the fastest-growing areas in the US. He arrived there in December 1979 with his wife, Kay. (The Warrens now have three grown-up children.)

Warren went door-to-door, asking people whether they were churchgoers and, if not, why not. He found that objections to church were often sociological rather than theological: “If a young couple walk into a church, the first question they’ll ask is: ‘Are there any other young couples here?’ If all they see is grey hairs, they’re not staying.”

The wider trappings of religion are a problem for Warren: “We sing 16th-century songs called hymns played on an 18th-century instrument called an organ on 19th-century chairs called pews, and wonder why they’re out of date. There is no other place in the world where you sit in pews. So why don’t I have my individual seat? We are as orthodox as a church 500 years ago. But we are relating it in the culture of Southern California today.”

So the Saddleback campus offers a supermarket of different worship forms—all demographically targeted. There is a “Praise” tent offering a gospel service; “Traditions,” where old-fashioned stirring hymns are sung; a Spanish-language service; and “Overdrive,” where a band plays heavy Christian rock.

All run simultaneously so that, in between the music, the same address from Warren can be patched in via video-link. The message (“sermon” is not a term used here) is also screened to Saddleback’s nine other churches in southern California, streamed online and available via an iPhone app.

Warren encourages his flock to join a “small group”—four or five people meeting for Bible study in their homes each week. It is this small-scale personalization that helps the Saddleback megachurch brand to retain the loyalty of members. It is a franchise where local initiative is encouraged, providing members follow the program of scripture and study drawn up at HQ.

All good brands need a mission statement or a manifesto. Warren’s breakthrough to a mass audience came in 2002 with The Purpose Driven Life. His book describes itself as a “40-day spiritual journey for Christian living in the 21st century”. Though he rejects descriptions of it as a “self-help book” for the religious, it is reminiscent of the genre, with its folksy prose and short chapters. It reassures those with busy lives that they can converse with God “while shopping, driving or working” and that everyday tasks can be devoted to God including “taking out the trash”.

Warren says: “There’s not a new idea in [it] that hasn’t been said in 2,000 years of history. It’s been said all before. If I had a 15-word sentence, how could I say it in nine? How can I say it in five?”

Warren’s revolutionary tactic was to bypass bookshops and market the book directly to evangelical America, through its churches. It became a classic word-of-mouth success: it has sold more than 30m copies in the US, been translated into more than 50 languages and generated sequels.

How does a pastor maintain humility after such success? “It scared me spitless,” he says. “It’s [earned] tens of millions of dollars. The money was the easy part. We just gave it away. We said, ‘First we’re not going to change our lifestyle one bit.’ I still live in the same house I’ve lived in for 22 years. I still drive the same Ford truck that I’ve driven for 12 years.”

Warren also paid back 25 years of salary to the church. Each member of the Saddleback congregation is encouraged to give 10 per cent of his or her income to the church. Warren says he gives more than 90 per cent of his income away.

The harder part was knowing how to cope with the influence he suddenly wielded. “All of a sudden I’m getting invitations to Davos, and to TED and to Harvard and to Oxford and Yale and the UN,” Warren says. “I’m starting to get calls from well-known business leaders saying, ‘Can you help me?’ I’m going, ‘I’m just a pastor.’ I never intended to become an executive coach for global leaders.”

The pastor is not shy of wading into areas traditionally occupied by liberals—including debt cancellation, climate change, human trafficking and HIV. “On abortion, of course I’m ‘pro-life’. But I call myself ‘whole life’. I’m not just interested in that little girl being born: I’m interested in her growing up, getting an education and having healthcare. When I started talking about that 10 years ago as an evangelical and a theological conservative, that was pretty unusual.”

Warren’s most dramatic intervention was to champion help for Aids patients. The wake-up call came when he visited Mozambique with his wife in 2003. He saw a rural village church with a congregation of 50 people looking after 25 children orphaned through Aids. “I thought, ‘This church is doing more to help the poor than my rich megachurch in America.’ It was like a knife to my heart.” Since then, Warren has started an Aids ministry at Saddleback for those with the disease.

Scott Thumma, professor of the sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut, is an expert on megachurches. He thinks Warren, in common with other megachurch pastors, is being distanced from the religious right by the composition of his congregation: “The pastor [and] the church leadership know that they have a diversity of people within their church. If they go too extreme, they know they are going to lose people in their audience. In his language around gay rights or in his handling of Republicans and Democrats, he’s trying to be fair and even-handed … The bigger the churches are, the more they moderate.”

Warren thinks that only religious communities have the scale and reach to tackle entrenched global ills. The world is getting more, not less, religious. “By the end of this decade, China will become the number one Christian nation in the world,” he says. Religions have a universal distribution network that governments have overlooked. “I could take you to villages where the only thing there is a church. There’s no business, there’s no government, there’s no post office. The church was there 2,000 years before Walmart started talking about globalization.”

Warren has devised an initiative, The Peace Plan, which aims to mobilise churches worldwide to help their communities. In 2005, he was invited by Rwandan President Paul Kagame to trial the Peace Plan in that country. “In Rwanda, they’ve trained 2,800 voluntary healthcare workers—including ministering anti-retrovirals to people dying of Aids. No NGO or government could ever have had that kind of exponential growth because they don’t have the local churches.”

This grass-roots, self-help message extends to domestic problems too. Warren is holding classes in the church on personal finances. Eleven per cent of the Saddleback congregation is out of work. “It’s a white-collar church,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of tech CEOs here—and some have been out of work for a couple of years. I’m encouraging members of the church not to be dependent on one income.”

Though he may have softened the image of evangelicalism, Warren is far from a liberal. On a Meet the Press appearance two years ago, he described as a “holocaust” the 46m fetuses aborted since the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. And he recorded a message for his congregation in which he told them the Bible compelled them to support Proposition 8—the 2008 vote to ban gay marriage—in California, though he has subsequently tried to distance himself from it.

He is currently playing down the politics and concentrating on his succession and expansion plans. Like all good chief executives, he is planning for the future. He has said he will retire from his ministry in the next 10 years. First, though, he wants Saddleback Church to become an international evangelical franchise. There are aspirations for churches in Beijing, Buenos Aires, Berlin and London.

It will be interesting to see whether his genius for communication and laid-back Californian ministry will work in skeptical Britain. After this summer of riots and soul-searching about community cohesion, his vision for churches as the social and moral centers of each locality may have more appeal.

It would, anyway, be unwise to bet against this combination of charisma and hard-nosed business acumen. As I leave, one of Warren’s assistants presents me with a copy of The Purpose Driven Life. It has already been personally addressed and signed by the author. With that, I’m dispatched into the heat.

The place is deserted. Then I see a sign: the congregation has disappeared to the coast for beach baptisms, followed by a barbecue.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.