The new evangelism: The man who put conscience on a coffee cup

Rick Warren's megachurch attracts more than 20,000 each week. His book tops the non-fiction bestseller lists. Andrew Gumbel meets a preacher with a world mission in Lake Forest, California
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The Independent US

Rick Warren is not your typical American evangelist. He's not an especially charismatic speaker, keeping his rhetoric deliberately folksy and low key. He's unassuming, a little bit pudgy and has a fondness for Hawaiian shirts, even when he's delivering his weekend sermons.

A long time ago, he decided he never wanted to be on television. He doesn't think a lot of televangelists or the powerful, media-anointed leaders of the Christian right, whom he accuses of "self-centred consumerism" and self-aggrandisement at the expense of their spiritual mission. Until relatively recently, he worked almost entirely under the radar and, despite building a movement of extraordinary power and reach in churches around the world, was barely known in the broader culture.

And yet he has achieved extraordinary things, and intends to keep achieving many more. His church, which he founded from scratch 26 years ago in the freshly planted suburbs of Orange County, south of Los Angeles, attracts more than 20,000 worshippers each week, making it one of the three largest congregations in the country. His sermons, which he posts on the internet, are downloaded and used by thousands of churches around the world.

His book, The Purpose-Driven Life, has been America's top non-fiction seller for the past two years, doing twice as much business as The Da Vinci Code with 25 million copies. He and his congregants have adopted a unique method of organisation that has permitted them, among other things, to set up drug treatment programmes in southern California and the Mexican border town of Tijuana, provide three square meals a day for the entire homeless population of Orange County for 40 days, and offer training to more than a quarter of a million priests around the world - everyone from pastors in big-city churches to ministers in the smallest villages in Africa.

Business journals such as Forbes and Business Week have likened him to a spiritual version of Starbucks or McDonald's, spreading his "brand" irresistibly around the world. Starbucks has even honoured him with a long quotation printed on its coffee cups, part of a series in which customers are offered words of wisdom from major writers and thinkers. Warren's line - asserting that none of us is an accident, that we are all part of God's plan - is the only one from a religious figure.

And Warren has much more up his sleeve. He believes he knows how to tackle what he calls the "global Goliaths", problems so intractable that nobody has managed to come up with a solution. He's talking about poverty and illiteracy and pandemic disease, and even more abstract concepts like spiritual emptiness and egocentric political leadership. What he really wants to do is launch a new Reformation, in which the organisational power of churches - any churches, representing any faith - is harnessed to deliver what politicians and international aid organisations and NGOs cannot.

"The first Reformation was about creeds, and this one is going to be about deeds," he said in an interview in his Green Room - a soundproofed office right next to the cavernous Worship Centre where thousands of people gathered for a Mother's Day service last Sunday. "The church is the body of Christ, but really its hands and legs have been amputated and all it is is a mouth."

This is heady talk, of course, but those who have known Warren for a long time know he has an uncanny habit of delivering on even his most outlandish forecasts. Already, he has the ear of presidents and prime ministers. He has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, at major universities around the world and at America's Council on Foreign Relations. Among his friends he counts business leaders, prominent management consultants and Bono of U2.

The key to his operation is not theology - he preaches a relatively middle-of-the-road, intellectually undemanding form of evangelism - but organisation. Warren may not be on television, but he's been a presence on the internet since 1992, before Netscape or Microsoft Explorer. A bit like Howard Dean's insurgent campaign for the US presidency (until it fell apart), or the approach taken by guerrilla organisations such as al-Qa'ida, Warren sees the internet not only as a tool of communication but also of empowerment.

People are not only encouraged to take their own decisions in his system; figuring out what they should do to help others is at the core of his message. "It's not about you," reads the opening line of his book, and he means it. The purpose of life, he believes, is to figure out what God intends each of us to achieve, and then to set about achieving it. The internet makes it that much easier for everyone to thrive as individuals, but also to feel part of a vast, growing support group.

Warren's Saddleback Church may be huge, but he has also split the congregation into manageable "small groups" of eight to fifteen people, who act as each other's church family, set goals and go about achieving them - whether it is helping someone's troubled relative or setting off on a mission to Cambodia.

These small groups, in turn, communicate with other small groups, perhaps half a world away. Always, the focus is on finding someone with credibility as a community leader and working through them. This is not a traditional, paternalistic model of missionary work, in other words; it's more about creating a decentralised, cellular model of organisation that can reach the sorts of people who usually remain invisible and entirely powerless.

Churches, in his view, are uniquely able to do things that government or business cannot. "One, they can provide universal distribution, since there is a church or place of worship in every village in the world. In many places, in fact, they are the only civil service structure available," he said. "Two, they are able to provide the largest possible pool of volunteers. And three, they have local credibility."

Warren's interest in addressing the world's thorniest economic and social problems is relatively recent. It was stirred by his wife's interest in Aids, and then confirmed during a trip to South Africa when he asked to be taken to a village, more or less at random.

To his amazement, the pastor of the local church (which met in a tent) knew who he was - he had been downloading Warren's sermons for years from a post office computer an hour and a half's walk away. To his consternation, one-third of the 75 people attending the service were children orphaned by Aids.

"It was a shock, a wake-up call," Warren said. "That night I stretched out on the ground to pray under the African sky and asked, 'God, what else am I missing?'" And so he launched his so-called PEACE programme - a kind of viral marketing project for global stability, economic justice and access to health care and education. For now, his organisation has undertaken a series of pilot projects in 67 countries, just to see how it goes.

At first, missions go out with tools they think will be useful to help out the local population - school and medical supplies, and the wherewithal to start small businesses. Mostly, though, the job of these groups is to find what Jesus, in the Bible, describes as finding the local "man of peace", the person with decisive influence over the local community.

Already, his approach has had an electric effect on leaders in Rwanda, a country for which he has a special fondness. His ambition is to turn all of Rwanda into a "purpose-driven nation".

It is hard to get an idea of the scale and scope of Warren's plans by visiting the Saddleback Church. Certainly, the place is huge - a campus of several buildings and vast car parks spread over 120 acres beneath the hills of southern Orange County. But this is a conservative, highly affluent part of the world, and the congregation reflects it - lots of trim, elegant, perfectly coiffed people in Sunday best.

One part of the campus feels a bit like a biblical theme park. Three crosses are perched on top of a hill behind a mini-amphitheatre. On the far side of the hill is a replica of Christ's tomb, complete with an electronic device that permits church staff to roll back the boulder at the flick of a switch. A system of pumps and plexiglass dividers along a small stream allows the waters to part, Red Sea-style.

Some of Warren's core philosophy comes across on closer inspection. Aside from the main Worship Centre, there are smaller venues - one with gospel music, one with a Polynesian theme, and one in which services are conducted in Spanish. Even on a campus swarming with tens of thousands of people, decentralisation is plainly evident.

Warren said: "Nobody comes here because of its size. They put up with the size because of what they get out of it."

In the centre of the campus is an open-air terrace where the church's multiple activities - everything from a 12-step style-addiction recovery programme to overseas missions - are advertised. Anyone interested in participating has instant access to contact people and a lot of background information.

The system works. Warren himself has made several personal adjustments since the runaway success of his book made him rich and famous. He and his wife, Kay, decided right away they would make no changes in their personal life. They still live in the same house, and drive the same Ford truck, which is now six years old.

Rather, they decided to make some aggressive decisions about the money flooding in. Warren not only stopped accepting a salary from the church, but paid back his accumulated salary from the past 25 years. Rather than giving away 10 per cent of their income to charity - the traditional tithing system - they decided to give away 90 per cent.

After some grappling, Warren also understood how best to deal with his own celebrity. He turned to Psalm 72, in which Solomon prays for more influence, not less. Warren said that opened his own eyes. "The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence," he said. In other words, becoming famous didn't have to be a distraction; it could be a tool in attaining his goals.

"I could have bought a Pacific island and spent the rest of my life having people bring me drinks with little umbrellas in them," he said. "But this is not about me, as I wrote in the book. It's all about others."