Book that freed a hostage was already making waves

'The Purpose-Driven Life' has spread the ideas of a California preacher everywhere from the Chinese government to the hands of Fidel Castro.

When ex-hostage Ashley Smith appeared on TV and told how she gained her freedom - and her captor's surrender - by reading to Brian Nichols from "The Purpose-Driven Life," her stirring story sent thousands off in search of the book.

Author Rick Warren, though, didn't really need her help. His work was already the bestselling nonfiction hardback in US history. Since the book's release in October 2002, people apparently hungry for a clearer sense of purpose and direction have snapped up more than 22 million copies.

Indeed, the story behind "The Purpose-Driven Life" is every bit as remarkable as that of Ms. Smith and the book's recent spurt in sales. It's the tale of a 20-something pastor who settled in a community full of "the unchurched," and, beginning in 1980, built Saddleback Valley Community Church in southern California into one of the largest megachurches in the US. And of how his paradigm for personal and church growth has since influenced tens of thousands worldwide.

Rick Warren has been a guest at two state dinners in China, where he told the country's leaders they couldn't have real economic progress without the underpinnings of freedom of religion and information. Fidel Castro has asked for an autographed copy. In the Philippines, the government wants to make use of the study program linked to the book - called 40 Days of Purpose.

Management guru Peter Drucker calls Warren "the inventor of perpetual revival" and his organizational model "the most significant sociological phenomena of the second half of [the 20th] century."

Yet there's also criticism that the purpose-driven approach reflects too much of a corporate mindset, and that its seeker-sensitive model goes too light on the demands of Christian living.

Despite a desire for a low profile (he gives few interviews), Warren is thrust increasingly into the spotlight. During a recent stop in Boston, he spoke at Harvard University and at a breakfast of the Marketplace Network - to some 600 evangelical business leaders. The tall, solid, sandy-haired pastor revealed his penchant for simple, straightforward language flecked with humor and clarity, and free of religious jargon.

"I'm more interested in [fostering] a relationship with God than a religion," he said. And he challenged the idea of just looking within for life's answers.

"I didn't create me, so I can't possibly tell myself what my purpose is," he told the curious, but somewhat skeptical Harvard crowd.

As a teenager in Northern California, the son of Baptist missionaries already hoped to help friends find God, starting a Christian club and newspaper and holding rock concerts after school. As a pastor fresh from divinity school, he shied from a traditional assignment to form a church designed for those who didn't attend church.

Going door-to-door for 12 weeks in his new California community, Warren says he found the main reasons people strayed from church were not theological: "Church members are unfriendly to visitors;" "Sermons are boring and don't relate to my life;" "They are more interested in your money than in you as a person."

So he designed his church services in response to those concerns. And, intent on showing that church was not about a building, he refused to build a church structure for 15 years, until the membership reached 10,000. (Now more than 20,000 attend each week.)

As Warren's stature grew, he declined a television ministry and focused instead on teaching local pastors of many denominations how to renew their churches. "Churchianity and Christianity are not the same thing," he says. And the great need is "to move churches from self-centeredness to selflessness."

Today, he also has a global Internet community that mentors more than 100,000 pastors around the world, and he travels abroad "planting" new churches.

Yet whatever the task, the laidback pastor - who at Saddleback gives 15-minute sermons attired in Hawaiian shirt and khakis - always draws on the same direct message: "if you turn your life over to [God], He'll do amazing things."

"The Purpose-Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?" is an antiself-help book, taking the reader on a personal spiritual journey. The book explores God's intent for each of us, the essential role of a church community, the need to become like Christ, the importance of serving God and others and undertaking mission. Warren's church-growth strategy focuses on the same principles of worship, growth, community, service, and outreach.

Grace Chapel in Lexington, Mass., participated in the "40 Days of Purpose" program a year ago.

"People were amazed at how ready their friends and neighbors were to talk about spiritual things and to read the book," says the Rev. Bryan Wilkerson, senior pastor. Some churches say the program helped them grow by 30 percent or more.

But Warren's "purpose-driven" approach also has its critics. Some take issue with what they call watered-down theology (light on repentance and sin); others criticize the focus on numbers and a "market-driven methodology." ("The Purpose-Driven Life" was launched with a mass-marketed CD of songs, a radio campaign, and an invitation to churches to join the 40-day program.)

"It's been somewhat maligned, but it provides a necessary corrective to trends in conservative Christianity such as the prosperity gospel," says Scott Thumma, of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

Still, some younger pastors say its appeal is more attuned to baby boomers than to young people, who want more theological questioning.

Saddleback's pastor says that the message of Christianity stays the same and only the methods need to change. With his new-found affluence and influence, however, he's also had to take stock personally. To show he is not looking for money, he says, he has repaid all his salary of the past 25 years, and is tithing 90 percent and living on 10 percent of his income.

Praying to know what to do with his growing influence (he's considered second only to Billy Graham in his impact on churches), Warren says God woke him up: "He told me to use my influence for those who have no influence."

When Ashley Smith picked up "The Purpose-Driven Life" and read to her captor, Warren was in Africa, working with pastors on a new plan to strengthen churches there and meet the dire needs their people face.

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