I don’t read many books cover to cover, but Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren by former U.S. News and World Report religion editor Jeffery L. Sheler was so engaging and informative that I read every word – 336 pages, including 8 fascinating pages of photos.
Rick was one of the early pioneers in the use of the Internet, so the websites are quite rich at Saddleback Church and especially at Pastors.com, which includes a year of free sermons and the free “Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox” newsletter. Plus he’s been all over the mainstream media, such as a 3/29/04 cover article in Time magazine, and with increased media presence in more recent years. A Google search easily turns up a month of reading material about him.
So what’s new to write about the man Christianity Today calls “America’s most prominent pastor” and other media have called “the most influential evangelical in America”? Sheler was able to obtain something that no other writer has accomplished until now: Rick Warren’s personal cooperation and thus a new degree of access to his family, close associates, and other sources of information. Over two years of research Sheler went to California, Texas, and Rwanda. He met in Rick and Kay Warren’s home, attended Saddleback Church, and observed Rick in both public and private meetings. Yet Rick did not edit or approve any of the book’s content, and so Prophet of Purpose is not an official or authorized biography.
I learned a lot from the book. The chapters on his childhood, youth and college years – including his and Kay’s turbulent early years of marriage – helped me understand some of the major influences on who he is today. He faced many challenges, from depression to a rare fainting disorder.
I was especially interested in those patterns that I would describe as innovations in ministry:
– Dreaming that his new congregation could quickly become a large-attendance church. The expectation and pattern when he launched Saddleback in 1980, based on other southern California churches in his denomination, was for him to develop a congregation of 50. (Indeed, attendance at Saddleback according to the book, reached 900 at year 5, and 2,000 at year 8.)
– Developing Saddleback as a church for the unchurched, and involving new believers quickly in ministry. This approach was quite unusual for most churches, opening Rick to a lot of criticism especially when he chose not to include the word “Baptist” in the church name.
– Moving to a role where he is both pastor and leader. This approach to church was a learning experience for him personally. In the church’s opening years, it was also a challenge for the people from Crescent Baptist Church, the Southern Baptist congregation in nearby Anaheim that sent people and money to help Saddleback get launched.
– Marketing of the book Purpose Driven Life through church-sponsored 40-day campaigns. It helped the book go viral, selling 20 million copies in its first 24 months, and remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for 188 weeks.
– Going public about the “tons of money” (his term) he made from Purpose Driven Life, including how he’s committed not to change his lifestyle and instead to give away 90% of his income.
I’m not a Rick Warren expert, but I have studied and learned from his ministry for years, interacting with him personally on several occasions. (In fact, Rick just wrote the foreword to a book Ed Stetzer and I co-authored named Viral Churches, slated for 4/10 release). I found Prophet of Purpose to be quite accurate including the half dozen event narratives where I happened to have been present or in some way associated.
More important, I felt the author caught Rick Warren’s heartbeat. Time magazine thinks Rick is influential because of his politics. Many pastors admire Rick for developing new curriculums and discipleship systems. As Rick voiced in a World magazine interview, “People don’t understand that I am fundamentally, foremost an evangelist. It’s what I care about. I don’t care about politics, I don’t care about political correctness, I don’t care about what established groups want me to do. I care about getting people into heaven.” In a surprisingly sympathetic way, Sheler brought out those passions. Sheler agrees, as he writes online in his personal comments about why he wrote the book: “While I count myself a Warren admirer, I am first and foremost a journalist with a passion for truth.” While Rick Warren and Saddleback are understandably avoiding comment on the book, it’s hard to imagine a more suitable writer – an award winning national journalist with strong research skills who himself has been part of a wide range of churches, and thus understands and even appreciates the culture of Rick Warren’s world.
There also is a website related to the book, www.prophetofpurpose.com, which includes free sample chapters and other relevant material.