The Magazine

Faith-Based Campaign

What brought John McCain and Barack Obama to Rick Warren's megachurch.

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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The two campaigns saw political opportunities in an event hosted by Warren. Their agreement to participate can be best understood in the context of the intense competition between Obama and McCain for white evangelical voters. In the past two elections, Bush won these voters by overwhelming margins (he got 78 percent in 2004). A shift to Obama of a mere 10 or 15 percentage points in certain states could help win him the White House. The fact that Warren, who has an enormous profile in evangelical circles, would host the event and actually do the interviewing meant that evangelicals across the country would pay attention.

Warren is one of America's most compelling figures, a leader with few peers. Born in San Jose in 1954, he grew up in the tiny northern California town of Ukiah. He graduated from California Baptist University and then, having been called to full-time ministry, received a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. He later earned a doctorate in ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Los Angeles, which had been founded in 1947 as the flagship seminary of the nascent neo-evangelical movement.

When he finished at Southwestern in 1979, Warren and his wife Kay returned to California having decided to start a church--one he could pastor for the rest of his life. He especially wanted to attract those not going to church--the "unchurched." Warren did some research and discovered that Orange County was both the most populous and least churched county in the state. He moved there. Knowing no one, having no money and no job, he somehow managed to rent a place. The guy he rented from became the first member of his church.

Warren spent 12 weeks going door to door conducting a survey in which he asked those who didn't go to church why people didn't go and what they'd look for in a church if they decided to go. The four big reasons people didn't attend church, Warren found, were that sermons are boring and irrelevant; that members are unfriendly to visitors; that churches seem more interested in your money than in you as a person; and that quality children's programs are lacking. Warren called these "sociological reasons," as opposed to theological ones. So he undertook to build "a whole new kind of church"--one without those deterrents. Warren put together a Bible study group and then, 10 days before Easter Sunday in 1980, mailed 15,000 letters describing a new church that was to have its first service on that Sunday. Some 205 people showed up, with only a handful of them people who had ever spent much time in church.

Saddleback Church, which is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, met in 79 different locations before buildings were erected in 1995, the largest being the worship center, which seats 3,500 and has space outside for another 2,000 (this is southern California). Today the average church attendance on Sunday (there are six services) is 22,000.

Saddleback is one of the three largest churches in the United States, a megachurch indeed. Warren is an advocate of big churches, but even as a church grows larger and adds more members, he says, it should grow smaller, as his does, with members joining "small groups" that meet during the week for Bible study, fellowship, and prayer. Saddleback has small groups meeting as far south as Tijuana to as far north as Santa Barbara. The church also has more than 300 community ministries aimed at, among other groups, prisoners, children with Down syndrome, single parents, and people with HIV/AIDS.

Warren is best-known outside his church for the book he wrote in 2002, The Purpose Driven Life. It offers a 40-day spiritual journey (one chapter is to be read each day) during which a reader is to answer the question, "What on earth am I here for?" It has become one of the bestselling books in American history, with sales now exceeding 30 million copies.

But Warren's reach is even more extensive than the church he founded and his bestseller might indicate. Seven years before The Purpose Driven Life he wrote The Purpose Driven Church, in which he said that churches should be driven by the purposes found in the New Testament (worship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship, and discipleship). The book found a huge audience among pastors not only in Southern Baptist churches but in denominations around the world. Warren says he has taught more than 400,000 pastors in 162 countries. Every week he sends out a newsletter to 230,000 pastors, who are free to use the message he preaches on Sunday.