Posted on : Monday July 11, 2011

Warren says it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people

By Jennifer Davis Rash, The Alabama Baptist

PHOENIX—The more than 100,000 names on the roll at Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Calif., could allow famed pastor, conference speaker and author Rick Warren to start and lead his own denomination. He could even be a mayor, he says jokingly.

Rick Warren, Pastor of Saddleback Church

While he’s not interested in doing either, he is interested in sharing some of his latest ideas with Southern Baptists, Warren said during a rare appearance at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting and related meetings June 13–15 in Phoenix, Ariz. He also is interested in completing the fourth decade of major goals for Saddleback before he retires as pastor in 2020.

The new ideas and current goals focus on church planting and reaching the world like Jesus did, helping church members live healthier lifestyles and improving biblical literacy among believers.

“I think our convention is in a huge transition right now. And I don’t think anyone knows where it is going,” he said during a June 14 press conference at the Phoenix Convention Center.

“If the SBC is to have a turnaround, we are going to have to change the way we keep score,” he said. “Whatever gets rewarded gets repeated. What has been rewarded is size of church.”

Large church pastors are given the positions and the accolades, while pastors of small churches are “assumed falsely” to not be as good of a preacher or pastor, Warren said. But the No. 1 characteristic for growing a church is location, not the pastor, he noted. “Some guys just get lucky … like me.

“There is no correlation between the size and strength of a church,” he said. “Bigger isn’t better. Smaller isn’t better. Better is better.

“It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people.”

While large cities need a megachurch because “you need a big rock in a big pond,” not every church should be a megachurch, Warren explained. In fact, “the vast majority of churches are never going to be megachurches.”

Along with changing the mind-set that a church’s size matters, Warren said a church planting emphasis is vital to continue growing the denomination. And no church is too small, he said, noting Saddleback began planting churches its first year of existence with less than 100 members.

“Every church typically grows 15 years then plateaus and starts on a decline, either slow or rapid … and the only way to stop the decline is to start a new bell curve at the top of the curve,” he said. And the only way to start a new bell curve in church life is to reach a new generation, he added.

And if anyone knows about creating a new bell curve and reaching a new generation, it’s Warren.

When he moved from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, to Lake Forest, Calif., in 1980 to plant Saddleback, he made a 40-year commitment to the church during the first service. He also began leading the church to plant more churches on day one.

He has kept the church from declining by initiating a major shift of ministry focus each decade.

In the 1980s, the church focused on the local area. In the 1990s, it focused on North America. In the 2000s, Warren’s five-point PEACE plan to reach people at all points of life went global and Saddleback missions teams made it to all 195 of the world’s recognized nations.

During this current decade, Warren wants to reach all 3,800 unengaged people groups in the world. Unengaged is a missiological term meaning the people group has no established church. Unreached means there are less than 2 percent Christians in a people group. There are 6,000 unreached people groups.

“We’ve known about [these people groups] since 1974, but they are still there this many years later. This is nonsense,” he said. “If we start (reaching them), then maybe we can change the way people keep score. It’s OK to celebrate fruit on other people’s trees.

“The PEACE plan is not an organization; It’s just an idea,” he said. “It’s not enough to just share the gospel, we must do the five things Jesus did:

  • Plant churches
  • Equip servant leaders
  • Assist the poor
  • Care for the sick
  • Educate the next generation

“We are not in competition with the International Mission Board or the North American (Mission) Board,” Warren said, noting IMB’s challenge to “embrace” all 3,800 unengaged people groups over the next year and NAMB’s shift to a major church planting focus. “We are 100 percent behind what they are doing.”

But Warren said he would “love to share” with IMB and NAMB officials “if they are interested” because “we’ve learned a thousand ways that don’t work but also 50 or 60 things that do work.”

Noting he has baptized 22,000 believers at Saddleback, Warren said he makes sure they are given the opportunity to mature as Christians once they join the church. His strategy is to move them like Jesus did “from come and see to come and die” through a series of classes such as what he did with Purpose Driven Life, that later became the best selling book (besides the Bible) of all time.

From there, they are sent out to reach others, he said, noting 14,896 members have gone overseas on some type of missions experience since 1980. And when they go, they go quietly, allowing the local church to get the credit for what is done. “If they want to give out (Samaritan’s Purse) shoeboxes, they can give those to the local pastor and let him give them out, so he is the hero, not the ‘great white American church.’

“The Great Commission is a training mission — teach them to do, don’t do it for them,” Warren added.

As far as promoting healthier lifestyles for his members, Warren said the idea started out with his own conviction to lose 90 pounds when realized he was not being a good model for his congregation.

“One billion people are dying of malnutrition, but there are also 1 billion people dying of obesity,” he said. “We are dying because of lifestyle issues. We are killing ourselves.

“We don’t need to reform health care, we need to reform health,” he noted.

And so he created The Daniel Plan (, recruited three well-known doctors in the area of brain, heart and metabolism and invited church members to join him.

“We had 12,000 people sign up,” Warren said. “It became an evangelistic outreach.”

Since January Warren has lost 37 pounds and the church collectively has lost more than 200,000 pounds.

Coming in January 2012 will be a small-group curriculum focused on biblical literacy — 40 Days in God’s Word.

“We do a spiritual growth study every year. We just don’t always release it,” Warren said. “We do 40 days because it takes six weeks to create a habit.”

He’s releasing this study, however, because “I’m concerned about the lack of Bible literacy and so many people don’t know how to study.”

Then later in 2012, Saddleback will hold a pastors conference to introduce pastors to a new Church Planting Academy Retreat Center coming to the church. Its purpose will be to train and equip church planters, worship leaders and ministry executives in starting healthy and reproductive churches.

NAMB President Kevin Ezell said this new center will be another resource available for Southern Baptists as NAMB develops its new focus on church planting.

“When we do the Send (North America) strategy, we want to use every resource we can to plant Southern Baptist churches,” he said. “We don’t see this as a competition. We’re about helping churches plant churches … and someone like Rick will help mobilize other pastors.”

And while Saddleback has found a renewed role in Southern Baptist life, Warren is less than 10 years away from retiring as pastor.

“In 2020, I’m turning the reigns of Saddleback over to someone else,” he said. “It’s not because I don’t have the energy but because the church needs a younger leader.

“We’ve already made the transition of who runs the church,” he said, noting he handed over the day-to-day management of the church to a church leadership team of younger ministers two years ago. The leadership team that helped Warren plant and grow Saddleback now serves as mentors to the up and coming leaders, while Warren still oversees the vision of the church.