Harvest House Publishers
By the time Rick Warren was born in 1954, his parents—Jimmy and Dorothy (known as “Dot”)—had been serving the Lord for many years. Jimmy had the “gift of giving.” Dot had the “gift of hospitality.” And their union made for a remarkable team that manifested God’s love in the most basic of all Christian ways: service to others.
They met at church in 1943, dated for two months, and got married at the close of a three-week engagement that began on Valentine’s Day. Then, after only two months of marriage, Jimmy left his bride for the war in the South Pacific. Dot recalled, “When he returned two years later we were total strangers, but we were married to each other.”
War was only the first of many life twists that would challenge the couple’s faith. For example, soon after God called Jimmy into full-time church work, they hit a major financial crisis—despite the “whopping salary” of $5 a week that Jimmy was earning as pastor of one of his first churches. But the couple never stopped trusting God. As Dot would later say, “God has miraculously, and I mean miraculously, paid our bills and met our needs when we had no idea where the money would come from.”
To say that the Warrens had an open-door policy at their home would be an understatement. There was a constant parade of church folk (known and unknown) traipsing in and out—not just to visit, but also to enjoy Dot’s home-cooked meals. Guests would arrive at some point during the day, remain for dinner, then just stay. “Every night somebody was coming,” Rick Warren once told his congregation. “I’d wake up in the morning and wonder who was going to be there for breakfast.”
The number of meals Dot served to others would eventually total well into the thousands. This, despite the fact the family was quite poor. To compensate for their monetary shortfall, Jimmy always maintained a lush fruit and vegetable garden. He planted all kinds of trees, flowers, and grass. He was happiest when working with his hands—the quintessential “‘hands-on’ kind of guy.”
Jimmy loved planting and building, especially churches. His carpentry skills proved invaluable in constructing sanctuaries, missionary homes, and Sunday schools. He would ultimately help start some 150 churches worldwide—including one in his own barn, using old theater seats. In 1999, Rick fondly remembered this particular project, explaining, “I grew up watching both Mom and Dad create something out of nothing.”
Such acts of service would profoundly affect Rick’s own vision, with regard to his belief that one of the five main purposes of a Christian is to serve. From many of his sermons it is obvious that his father had a particularly profound affect on him. As he once said, “The older I get, the more I see how much like my dad I really am.”
This is strikingly evident in Warren’s sermons, which are punctuated by nuggets of wisdom from Jimmy, a simple country preacher. Consider these godly gems:
Although Warren grew up in a very loving home under the care of godly parents, he also grew up as a pastor’s kid—a difficult role, to be sure. He attended Sunday school on Sunday morning, Sunday church on Sunday morning, Training Union on Sunday night (as well as Sunday-night service), and a midweek Bible study. Add to all of these meetings his obligatory “quiet times” during the week and, as he once remarked, he was supposed to get “eleven new truths into his life every seven days.”
The last thing on his young mind was leading a church. He had other interests, like politics and music. In fact, he wanted to be a guitar-playing rock star! If anyone would have told him as a teenager that in less than 20 years he would be pastoring one of America’s largest churches, he would have told them, “You’re crazy!” He had “no intention of ever being a pastor!”
But everything started going in a different direction around 1970, just before his junior year in high school. Rick was working as a lifeguard at a Christian summer camp, where he saw other kids living how he wanted to live—in service to God. He prayed, God, if you’re really alive, I want to know You. Perhaps even more important than this moment, however, was a special sermon he heard preached the same year. It essentially became his own life message. He later recalled the pastor’s words:
He said something like this, “What are you going to do with your life? Are you going to make it count or are you just going to waste it? You’ll never be happy until you do with your life what God made you to do. And until you be what God made you to be.” Bam! That was right on the forehead to me! It got my attention and it was a turning point in my life.
Warren was never the same. He changed the course of his life and began thinking that maybe he was supposed to be a pastor—not a rock star. He first gave evangelism a shot by preaching to the kids back at school, eventually starting a Christian club, and going so far as to sponsor Christian music concerts. He even “gave out New Testaments, produced a Christian musical, and published an underground Christian newspaper.” He also started listening more intently to how others preached. As he listened he found himself writing three letters in his Bible’s margins—“YBH” (“Yes, But How?”):
“We need to be godly men!” Yes, but how? “We need to have strong families!” Yes, but how? “We need to be filled with the Spirit!” Yes, but how? “We need to be strong witnesses!” Yes, but how?
What Warren found lacking in the messages he heard would eventually contribute to his coming up with a clearer way of spreading the Gospel—a way he thought would help people better understand both the eternal and temporal benefits of knowing, loving, and serving Jesus. The seeds of his purpose-driven life had been planted.
By the time Warren graduated from high school in early 1972, it was clear God was doing an extraordinary thing in his life. Church leaders in California responded by inviting him to speak at various West Coast gatherings. Within two years he would do “over 120 revivals and crusades.” His honorariums actually paid for most of his education at California Baptist University (in Riverside).
Nothing was more important to him than growing in his knowledge of God and discovering the best ways to tell people about Jesus. In 1973, for example, he and a friend drove 350 miles just to hear the great Baptist preacher W.A. Criswell (1909–2002) speak in San Francisco. At that time, Criswell was pastoring the largest Baptist church in the world (First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas).
Warren, who at the time was only 19 years old, would later explain, “For me, as a young Southern Baptist, the opportunity to hear Criswell in person was the equivalent of a Catholic getting to hear the Pope.” He still views Criswell as “the greatest American pastor of the twentieth century.” Criswell was “a powerful preacher and leader,” “an organizational genius,” and “incredibly innovative,” to use Warren’s own words.
If anyone can be credited with being his spiritual mentor and model, it would be this stalwart of Christianity. In fact, it was at the San Francisco event that God confirmed Warren’s calling. He still remembers the interaction—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!’” Criswell then asked God to bless him. “That holy experience confirmed in my heart that God had called me to pastor a local church,” Warren recalled. The die had been cast. He was destined to be a church pastor.
Warren’s uplifting encounter with Criswell would always remain a spiritual marker in his life. But many equally significant milestones would quickly begin to come into view as time passed. Even before meeting Criswell, Warren was already attending California Baptist University, a place where he gained some of his most valuable theological training. It was there, too, that he eventually met Kay Lewis, the love of his life, whom he would marry in 1975—the same year he was ordained. Then, after graduating together in 1977, the two aspiring missionaries would move to Fort Worth, Texas, so Rick could attend Southwestern Theological Seminary.
The doctorate Warren earned by the end of 1979 at Southwestern would officially mark his attainment to an extremely important foundation of biblical knowledge, one especially critical to his capacity as the founder of a new church. His education also would contribute in no small measure to the various books that lay in his future: Personal Bible Study Methods (1981); The Purpose-Driven Church (1995); Power to Change Your Life (1998); Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Questions (1999); and The Purpose-Driven Life (2002). And of course, Warren would not only become a bestselling author, but would also end up pastoring one of America’s largest churches.
Back in early 1979, however, neither Rick nor Kay could see any of these blessings. But all of that began changing by December of that very same year, as Rick was finishing up his final classes in seminary. He and Kay were about to make one of their biggest leaps of faith—all for God’s glory. Saddleback Church was about to be born.
Excerpted from Rick Warren and the Purpose That Drives Him by Richard Abanes. Copyright © 2005 by Harvest House Publishers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.