A RECENT COVER STORY for Christianity Today named Rick Warren "America's Most Influential Pastor." That's a big title, but it still understates Warren's influence in the nation and the world. Warren's church, Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, California, draws more than 16,000 worshipers every weekend, and more than 40,000 folks call it their home church. Warren's electronic newsletter has 67,000 pastor-subscribers, and the website he founded, Pastors.com, has up to 80,000 unique visitors a day, the vast majority of them pulpit professionals. More than 1,500 congregations convened for a Warren-designed and led seminar this past fall, and tens of thousands of more churches are expected to follow in the next two years. Warren's methods are what are commonly called force-multipliers: He teaches teachers and pastors preachers. His impact on the country through both the church and the popular culture is enormous.
In addition, Warren is probably the best-selling author in America today. His new book, The Purpose-Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?, debuted at Number 6 on the New York Times Bestseller Hardcover Advice list this past weekend, but only a New York Times abacus could come to that conclusion. The Times refuses to count pre-publication sales of books through churches, for example, and discounts sales through Christian bookstores. Warren's book has already sold more than a million copies, and it has done so despite bookstore placements far from the front shelves and tables and a near-total blackout in the secular media--which continues to believe that genuine influence depends upon favorable notice in the New Yorker. But if influence equals audience times impact times originality, then Warren is quite clearly among the two or three most influential Americans working from the West coast (after Jay Leno, I can't come up with number 3). The news weeklies and the major book reviews convict themselves of the worst sort of prejudice when they refuse to recognize a phenomenon of this magnitude.
Given the impact Warren is having (and has had--his first book sold more than a million copies and was translated into 22 languages), the media should be wondering: What is his message? What is he trying to accomplish?
I asked Warren about his life's goal. He responded that "my life verse is Acts 13:36: 'David served God's purpose in his generation, then he died.' I want the same on my tombstone--that I served God's purpose (which is eternal and unchanging) in my generation." This ambition translates into a relentless focus on helping the American church reorganize and renew itself.
"American Christianity is going through a second reformation," Warren told me. "The first Reformation clarified what we believe. This reformation is all about how we act and operate in the world. It involves the key components of purpose, decentralization, lay mobilization, use of technology, and continuous learning. Churches that change are thriving and growing more effective. Churches that refuse to change will miss the reformation, and are dying."
This is a radical message, far more so than the rhetoric of peace marches or the symbolism of tree-sittings. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that elite media can elevate the marginal and ignore the momentous. But that peculiar perspective does not diminish Warren's genuine effect on his generation.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.