30 million copies of Purpose Driven Life sold.
25,000+ members of Saddleback Church.
1 Presidential forum with both candidates in 2008.
When talking about Pastor Rick Warren it is easy to focus on the numbers, the influence, the people he has met and hosted and spoken to. It was with some interest, then, that I picked up Jeffery L. Sheler’s Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren, and spent a very enjoyable extended session reading through it. While it looks like a dauntingly large book, it is eminently readable, well laid out, and – like its subject – engaging, humorous and thoughtful.
I think it is quite difficult to review a biography, so I hope it will whet your appetite to read a fascinating book, without containing spoilers. Sheler covers the period of Warren’s life from his relatively humble birth – to a young Baptist pastor and his wife – up until around 2008, where Warren famously led the prayer at Obama’s inauguration. Whilst this is, obviously, now 8 years out of date, it would be fascinating to see what a second volume might look like in ten years or so, as the period from 2008-2016 has been an important and sobering one for the Warrens, including the suicide of their son Matthew, Rick’s participation in a Vatican conference on sex and family, and growing division in America.
One of the key threads running through this book is family – both the complex (At least initially!) marriage of Rick and Kay, and Ricks strong relationship with his parents and siblings – which can also be seen to echo in the way that Saddleback Church is run and set up. Sheler sees Warren’s entry into pastoral ministry as entirely reasonable, given his parentage and upbringing, but does’t sugar-coat it, with some fascinating observations about the difficulties Warren encountered. On the flip-side, one of the most helpful elements of this book, in my mind at least, was the essentially neutral, journalistic style in which Sheler described the early preparation for ministry in Warrens life; Christian groups at school, summer camps, and holiday mission teams.
There is one episode which I have to mention, surrounding Warren’s experience of his fathers deathbed. Some of his fathers final words were “Got to save one more for Jesus!“, which can be seen to have had a great impact on Warren’s ministry. The evangelistic growth and uncompromising vision of Saddleback – which has its critics, whom Sheler does engage with – is a fascinating blend of theology, sociology, and simple reporting on how Saddleback grew. Pastors of church plants will be glad to know that Saddleback was not always huge, seriously struggled to find land, and has been embroiled in a wide range of lawsuits and controversies for a variety of reasons.
Overall, this book is a well written, engaging and informative recounting of the life (thus far) of one of America’s most well known pastors. I would heartily recommend reading this book – whether you are a Baptist or not, an evangelical or not, or a pastor or not. I think it gives, through Sheler’s careful prose and Warren’s honesty, a unique insight into American evangelicalism (which, whether you like it or not, is a force in global culture) and into one of the key figureheads of the movement. As someone fascinated by what happens when a theological vision is carried out, Prophet of Purpose was a fascinating read, and I hope Sheler decides to (As I said above) do a follow up volume.