Study leave report by Alan Sharp

The Purpose Driven Church Conference

Saddleback Church, Orange County, California

May 17th – 20th 2005



the main building





the grounds





part of the inside of the building





more of the grounds


I attended the Purpose Driven Church Conference at Saddleback Church, Orange County, California from May 17th – 20th 2005and attended two of the worship services there on 22nd May.  I went for a number of reasons: I am constantly looking for ways to enable our church to grow, I had read Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Church” and I am convinced that those who have produced healthy growing churches have more to teach us than any academic, I am aware of the influence of  the Purpose Driven philosophy and its impact on many churches.  Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life has become the best selling book in the US, and of course the Californian sunshine had its appeal as well.

Saddleback Church

Saddleback Church is certainly impressive. Rick Warren and his wife Kay started the church 25 years ago.  Rick Warren told the story of how when he finished as a student at Seminary, he prayed for God to show him where he should go, and he looked for a place where there was a growing population and a lack of churches. The Saddleback area stood out so he wrote to the Baptist Superintendent for the area to ask if he could go and start a new church there. The next day he received a letter from the same man inviting him to come and plant a church at Saddleback. The letters had crossed in the post – he took this as a confirmation.  They formed first a home bible study group and then launched a service in a school. The form of the invitation that they circulated and the kind of service were informed by the results of a questionnaire which he put out.  Some sixty people attended that first service. At that service Rick Warren set out his vision of the church:

It is the dream of a place where the hurting ... and the confused find love, ... forgiveness, … and encouragement. It is the dream of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the hundreds of thousands of residents in south OrangeCounty. It is the dream of welcoming 20,000 members into the fellowship of our church family ... It is the dream of developing people to spiritual maturity ... It is the dream of sending out hundreds of career missionaries and church workers all around the world ... It is the dream of starting at least one new daughter church every year. It is the dream of at least fifty acres of land, on which will be built a regional church for south Orange County ... I stand before you today and state in confident assurance that these dreams will become reality. Why? Because they are inspired by God! ... "

Saddleback now has 25,000 members; through services, classes and especially small groups members are being brought to maturity and engaged in Christian service.  I would be interested to know the number of missionaries sent out, and the number of daughter churches, but they certainly have more than 50 acres of land, a lot of which is reserved for future building or occupied by temporary structures as they don’t know how big the church is going to get.  At present they have a Sanctuary which holds about 4000 people, plus overflow venues with live worship in a variety of styles and the sermon relayed from the sanctuary.  There are six service times: 2 on Saturday night, 2 on Sunday morning, and 2 on Sunday evening.  I attended the “Overdrive” satellite service (a mistake – I know I’m getting old when I’m complaining that the music is too loud), and then the main service.  The main sanctuary had a very able worship band - drummer, guitars, four singers, brass section.  They played in a contemporary rock style (anathema to the ‘19th Century good, 21st Century bad’ mindset)  and obviously engaged the congregation in joyful worship. The service also included quite two moving solos. There were 5 large screens at the front. Opening prayers and closing prayers were very short, two or three lines. The sermon was a real effort at communication. It was clearly aimed to be relevant – describing how to be a Christian at work -  part of a series entitled “24” and introduced by a short video drawing visual elements from the TV series 24 and describing a dilemma facing a harassed office worker.  The Preacher Doug Fields referred back to his previous sermon where he had been encouraging people to spend time with God each morning, so he went to a bedroom set at one side of the stage, took them through praying, reading the bible, then did his commute to work (with child’s scooter) to an office set at the other side of the stage. He pointed out how at work we are tempted to forget about God and act like everyone else, and instead called people to live out their faith at work.  The sermon lasted about 40 minutes but he kept me engaged even the second time through. References to scriptures were given throughout, the verses were put up on the screens.  They tend to use a wide variety of translations which has opened them to the accusation of picking the one that suits their purpose.  This was a successful attempt to communicate in the TV age.  Most ministers will be aware of the value of visual aids when talking to children, they help with modern adults as well.  As an additional help to memory and comprehension a sermon outline was given to everyone as they went in.

Popular services always draw the criticism of being  shallow, “bible lite” and so on, usually by those who are engaged in boring to death a dwindling band of saints.   But there was plenty of meat in this sermon, and a lot of relevance.  Also the weekend services are only part of the teaching program, there are classes, courses and a house group program which involves almost all of the membership.  Certainly the Saddleback folks that I spoke to had been brought to faith in Christ at the church (on average there is a year between folks coming for the first time and seeking (adult) baptism).  Thousands are baptised every year.  The folks that I spoke to had a mature Christian faith, one had come from a background of alcoholism and addiction and owed a great deal to the “Celebrate Recovery” course which the church runs. These folks would stand out for their sincerity, maturity and enthusiasm in most churches.

The Purpose Driven Church

Warren states that if a church is healthy it will grow.  To be healthy a church should be ‘purpose driven’; that is, concerned with the basic biblical agenda which is God’s agenda for every church: worship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship, and discipleship. 

It is easy to see that worship and ministry (for us ministry often infers clergy but Warren means serving others) derive from the great commandment (Matt 22:36) to love God and to love others. Similarly evangelism and making disciples are explicit in the great commission (Matt 28:19).  Warrenderives fellowship from the command to baptize, meaning for him adult baptism as an entrance into the church. However fellowship is certainly one of the purposes of the church, it would derive more naturally from the new commandment that we are to love one another as Christ loves us (John 15:12). Warren asserts that if we balance these issues so that each is finding its expression in our churches then the church will be healthy and if the church is healthy then it will grow. So, says Warren, we need to ask:  What is  KEEPING our church from growing?

While the purposes of the church are important and give the program its name they are not the whole story.  Churches cannot by driven by stated aims like good businesses. Mission statements and core purposes are of course popular with American business and they have come across here - even hospitals display their mission statement.  However, this is not a simple steal from the business world.  “Vision”, “mission”, and “purpose” are biblical concepts which business has borrowed. We understand from scripture the need for vision.  There is also in Warren and in the church a real commitment to pray, to seek the will of God.   So Warren would say ‘We need to stop praying, “Lord, bless what I’m doing” and start praying, “Lord, help me to do what you are blessing.” ’ Warren would also use the surfing analogy (it’s Californiaafter all!) - only God can make the waves, we just try to catch them and stay on them.  So in ‘Purpose Driven’ what actually drives is the wind of the Spirit and our commitment to the purposes of God is the sail that we hold up to that wind.

Equally important to the growth of Saddleback and now many other purpose driven churches is that they have strategies and programs in place for every step that is required to build up the church.  Most of us would recognise the picture of the local church as a series of concentric circles. At the centre is the core – highly committed, serving people, the next circle out is the committed - maturing members, the next circle is the congregation – the members, then the crowd – the attenders and then the community.  Saddleback has found ways of attracting a crowd, the services are unashamedly populist. They have found ways of getting the crowd to commit to Christ and join the congregation. The congregation become committed and the committed are drawn into the core.  4 classes are offered  (101, 201, 301 and 401 – in American terminology) these classes are the formal way of moving from one circle to the next.  I would want to study this more but I suspect that the other programs that the church offers - house groups, ministry (serving) groups, classes and Celebrate Recovery (help with addictions) all play their part in this. Individuals are able to find what works for them among all the different paths that are on offer.

The Second Reformation

The church had recently celebrated its 25th Anniversary with a celebration which filled the Angel Stadium in Los Angeles, 30,000 people.  At that service Rick Warren announced that the original vision for the church had been fulfilled. He placed before them a new vision, to spearhead a second reformation of the church. That call was repeated at the conference.

This new reformation was a call to unify the church and not divide it, it would be about behaviour not beliefs, and deeds not creeds.  Only the Christian church, not nations or even the UN, could defeat the five global giants of spiritual lostness, bad leadership, poverty, sickness and illiteracy. To tackle these 5 giants he sought to mobilize one billion Christians in a global PEACE plan. P.E.A.C.E. is an acronym that stands for "Plant churches, Equip servant leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick, and Educate the next generation”. He wants church house groups to be paired with        villages and communities in the third world and to work with the Christians there.  World wide communication is now possible through the internet which God could use to drive this new reformation even as the printing press served the first reformation. The church is rapidly expanding in the southern hemisphere.  Warren hopes to mobilise 10 million churches, with 100 million housegroups, and one billion Christians in this.  If this is a grandiose, ego driven fantasy, then it will fail (though just who are we rooting for if we want it to fail?).  Saddleback has been quietly field testing this for the last two years. He spoke of “Clinic in a box” medicines distributed to poor communities with on the spot and just in time training for the local Christians to use. Similarly he spoke of “church in a box” materials for church planting and “School in a box”.  The plan is now to be rolled out first in Rwanda and the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, spoke at the Angel Stadium celebration welcoming this initiative.  Some twenty leaders of the church in Rwanda attended the May conference.  All 2,600 small groups in Saddleback will now be paired up with communities in Rwanda.

The goals of this new reformation are certainly ambitious: engaging every believer in service, planting millions of new churches, slaying the five global giants, building cooperation between churches, taking the gospel to the whole world. Rick Warren is not setting himself up as the new Luther (not in those Hawaiian shirts he wears), he would argue rather that the spirit of God is moving, our task is just to get on board with God and “ride the wave”.

Saddleback holds conferences twice yearly – I recommend it – I also got a tan!


Details on UK events and resources at

Further reading: Rick Warren: “The Purpose Driven Church” and “The Purpose Driven Life”

Here you can see the church and even hear the music and preaching

Applied purpose driven philosophy to presbyterian churches

Introduction to the purpose driven life at

Resources for ministers at: