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Sunday Best: Warren, on a recent Sunday, believes in the power of the people

Olivier Culmann / Tendance Floue for Newsweek

Sunday Best: Warren, on a recent Sunday, believes in the power of the people

Rick Warren
Saddleback Church

Mobilizing Christians worldwide to heal the sick and feed the hungry It starts as an ordinary success story.

Rick Warren, a Baptist boy from California, dreams of being a pastor like his dad. He goes to seminary and starts a church. He begs and borrows, he preaches in living rooms. He builds a congregation—Saddleback Church, in Lake Forest, Calif.—from nothing in 1980 to 20,000 members.

Then, something really extraordinary happens. Warren describes it as a rocket-ship ride. In 2002, he published a book that began with the words "It's not about you." The message was simple: by serving others, you serve God. Since its publication, "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold 30 million copies in English, making it by some accounts the best-selling hardcover ever. It is a phenomenon, a movement. It has given Warren access to world leaders at Davos, to corporate chiefs and rock stars. It has generated "tens of millions of dollars," Warren says—enough for him to pay his own salary back to his church, retroactively, for the past 25 years, enough to launch three foundations. "PDL" allows Warren to "reverse tithe": he gives away 90 percent of what he earns.

Now things get exciting. Another pastor might be content to diversify into "PDL" DVDs and gift books, but Warren is more ambitious. If "2.3 billion people in the world claim to be followers of Jesus," then why not take the next step and mobilize those people to do important things, like stop poverty, improve literacy, feed the hungry, heal the sick? Conventional relief organizations are fine, but why not tap what Warren calls "the faith sector," the armies of motivated religious volunteers who are sick and tired of polarizing rhetoric and professional crusaders? "The old paradigm was, 'You pay, you pray, you get out of the way'," he explains, but in today's global and wired world, troops of caring volunteers can be deployed to communities in need with the push of a button. Such was the case on Christmas 2004, when Warren, awake and online at 4:30 a.m., received news of a massive underwater earthquake via e-mail from a pastor in Sri Lanka. Warren, who has an e-mail list of 200,000 pastors worldwide, notified churches in Thailand and Indonesia, that immediately mobilized volunteers to tsunami disaster sites. "It's universal distribution," he says, excitedly. "There's a church in every village in the world ... the potential sits there like a sleeping giant."

As always, his own church is his R&D department. Earlier this year he launched a plan called "PEACE," in which small groups of church members choose a remote village that needs help, travel there, provide aid (water sterilization? mosquito nets?), make sure the leaders can replicate it, and then leave. Already, more than 6,000 Saddleback members have made such pilgrimages, and soon PEACE training materials will be available online for any interested church group. Says Warren: "Reformations always start with the peasants; they don't start with the elites." Any good pastor can see the potential in one soul; it takes a maverick to see those souls as instruments of God's work all over the world.

—Lisa Miller