Rick Warren

Thirty-nine years ago today, a San Jose, California native with a divinity degree and a grand vision held the inaugural services for a new church in the foothills of Orange County.

Without a building to call their own, the congregants worshiped in the theater at Laguna Hills High School. Although it was Palm Sunday, only about 60 people were in attendance. Yet the young preacher quickly demonstrated a gift for opening strangers’ hearts to the Christian faith. At that March 30, 1980 service, five people who’d previously felt no attraction to religion committed themselves to Jesus. The pastor’s name was Rick Warren. His church would be called Saddleback. They were destined for big things.

Rick and Kay Warren headed from Texas back home to California on a whim after Christmas in 1979. Recently ordained at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Rick had felt called to “plant” a church in California. The young couple arrived in Orange County on New Year’s Day 1980. “Reverend Rick,” as he would be known, found his first convert at a real estate office, talking to an agent named Don Dale.

“My name is Rick Warren,” he told Dale. “I am 25 years old. I’m here to start a church. I don’t have any members. I don’t have any building. I don’t know anybody here. I don’t have any money — and I need a place to live.”

Within two hours, Dale found the couple a condo to rent, which saved them from having to spend the night in their moving van. Dale persuaded the condo owner to let them stay the first month rent‑free. On the way to look at the place, Warren asked, “Hey, Don, do you go to church anywhere?”

“No, no,” Dale said. “I hate church.”

“Great, you’re my first member,” replied Warren. “I’m going to build a church for people who hate church.”

So those were Saddleback’s first four members: the Warrens and the Dales. For weeks they used that condo as a staging area, preparing invitations to send out to the community, and holding prayer services in the living room.

Rick Warren’s second Sunday in the makeshift pulpit at the nearby high school was Easter. About 200 people showed up. It was the start of something big. By 1992, after having expanded to a larger high school, some 6,000 people attended the groundbreaking ceremony for a permanent home in the town of Lake Forest.

In time, even that sprawling 120-acre campus couldn’t hold all the pilgrims who came.

Today, more than 25,000 evangelical Christians attend services at Saddleback or its 12 satellite churches in Southern California each Sunday, not to mention the thousands who flock to Saddleback’s four overseas campuses (Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, South Manila, and Berlin).

In 1995, Rick wrote a book, “The Purpose Driven Church,” aimed mostly at other pastors, that sold over a million copies. His next literary effort, “The Purpose Driven Life,” is one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all time. It would have made the Warren family very rich, except that its success was so stunning that Warren returned 25 years’ worth of salary to Saddleback and began the practice of “reverse tithing,” i.e. giving 90 percent of his income to charity.

Time and Newsweek have both named the clergyman one of the most influential leaders in the world and he harnessed the power of his church to help relief efforts along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and in Southeast Asia after the 2004 tsunami. He used his access to George W. Bush to encourage the 43rd U.S. president to expand foreign aid and cancel the debt of poor Third World countries. Along the way, Rick Warren not only prayed with U2 before concerts, but worked alongside Bono fighting poverty in Africa.

Certainly, Kay and Rick Warren have had their tribulations and tragedies. These include Kay’s long fight with breast cancer and the devastating suicide of their son Matthew, who had struggled since boyhood from depression and mental illness.

Long before Matthew’s 2013 death, however, Kay Warren’s signature cause was advocating on behalf of the mentally ill and those with HIV/AIDS. These endeavors helped the Warrens earn the respect of gay rights activists. Those feelings of goodwill did not survive Rick’s 2008 foray into politics, specifically his support for Proposition 8, California’s referendum codifying marriage as being between a man and a woman.

That vote is moot now, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Warren has expressed regret about engaging in secular politics in a way that was perceived as partisan. He never demonized the LGBT community, however, and always welcomed gays and lesbians — as well as atheists — to worship at Saddleback. In the summer of 2008, he also invited presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to his church for a “civil forum on the presidency” to discuss the issues of the campaign.

Sen. Obama was sufficiently impressed that he invited Warren to deliver the invocation at his 2009 inauguration.

“Today…we celebrate a hinge point of history with the inauguration of our first African-American president of the United States,” the Rev. Rick Warren said in his prayer that day. “We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where the son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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