Pastor Rick and wife Kay Warren marked 35 years in ministry at Saddleback Church on March 22 in Anaheim, Calif., celebrating its growth from a seven-member Bible study at the Warrens’ home to more than 27,000 weekly worshippers at 10 U.S. campuses.
More than 20,000 worshippers gathered for the celebration held at Angel Stadium to accommodate the crowd.
“I believe that the growth of any church … is dependent upon both sovereignty factors and human factors,” Rick Warren told the crowd. “Why has God blessed our church in such an unusual way? It’s not because we’re smarter; it’s not because we’re better; it’s not because we’re stronger; it’s not because we’re better looking; it’s not because we’re more deserving, none of those factors.
“But God has blessed Saddleback because we have chosen to believe God for just a little bit more …,” he said of the Southern Baptist congregation. “We chose to say, ‘Let’s go to the whole world. We chose to say, ‘Let’s go after multiple campuses.’“
Photo by Scott Tokar
Rick Warren celebrates 35 years as pastor of Saddleback Church during a March 21 service at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.
The Warrens came to Orange County after he graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1980, and have built a church known for innovative ministry and discipleship, including The Purpose Driven Life, which, according to The Purpose Driven website, has sold more than 36 million copies. Prior to writing The Purpose Driven Life, Warren wrote The Purpose Driven Church that included a series of discipleship resources.
“Kay and I, when I was finishing up seminary in Texas, got out a map of the world and we said, ‘God we’ll go anywhere in the world if you’ll let us spend our entire life in one location. We don’t care where you put us,’“ Warren said during the 35th anniversary sermon posted on the church website. “And God gave me a vision, and God gave me a dream, and God gave me a calling specifically to Southern California and specifically to Orange County.”
In The Purpose Driven Church Warren records an encounter in Texas at age 19 with legendary Baptist pastor W.A. Criswell, who prayed for the young Warren when he greeted Criswell in a receiving line at First Baptist Church of Dallas.
“Criswell looked at me with kind, loving eyes and said, quite emphatically, ‘Young man, I feel led to lay hands on you and pray for you!’ Without delay, he placed his hands on my head and prayed these words that I will never forget: ‘Father, I ask that you give this young preacher a double portion of your Spirit. May the church he pastors grow to twice the size of the Dallas church. Bless him greatly, O Lord.’“
Warren considered the encounter with Criswell, who died in 2002, confirmation of his calling to pastor a local church, he wrote in the book.
Among well known, successful outreaches birthed at Saddleback are the Celebrate Recovery Christ-centered recovery program now in use at more than 27,000 churches; the global PEACE plan ministry, aimed at planting churches that promote reconciliation, equip servant leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick, and educate the next generation; the Global HIV & AIDS ministry, which uses the CHURCH acronym to equip churches in Rwanda and globally to “Care” for and support AIDS suffers, “Handle” HIV testing and counseling, “Unleash” a volunteer labor force, “Remove” the Stigma, “Champion” Healthy Behavior, and “Help” with HIV medications.
Other hallmark Saddleback outreaches include the Local HIV & AIDS Initiative to raise awareness of the illness, promote prevention, lower the stigma, and care for the needs of victims; and the global Orphan Care Plan, aimed at providing vision, tools and training for churches within communities to help children remain in or reunite with families, or regain a family, through kinship care or adoption.
A year after their son Matthew’s 2013 suicide, the Warrens launched a mental health ministry to reduce the stigma of mental illness and help sufferers and their families.
Warren coauthored The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life, a New York Times best-seller. In 2005, Time Magazine listed him among the 25 Most Influential Evangelical Leaders in America.
Warren preached the same sermon at the 35th anniversary that he preached when he held the church’s first service at Laguna Hills High School with 60 in attendance. But instead of preaching it in the future tense, as he did in 1980, he preached it in the past tense, he said, “because it actually happened.”
“In that very first service 35 years ago, I titled the message ‘The Beginning of a Miracle,’ pretty apt, when you think about it. And I listed five choices in faith, and I told those people that because we were going to do these five things in faith, that this church was guaranteed to succeed,” Warren said. He had told the church to dare to dream great dreams, dare to expect God to act, dare to love people unconditionally, risk failure through experimentation, dare to sacrifice and never give up.
Also at the anniversary, Warren launched “Daring Faith,” an initiative aimed at doubling its Southern California campuses from 10 to 20 in the next three years through the use of special small groups and an emphasis on dreaming biblically. Currently, small group attendance averages 7,500 a week, according to a church press release.
In addition to its U.S. campuses, Saddleback has locations in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and South Manila.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)