LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–Exactly 205 people attended the first worship service of Saddleback Valley Community Church when the congregation started in 1980. So, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye, God led exactly that same amount — 205 people — to make commitments to Christ in the first of Saddleback’s 20th anniversary worship services. With 34,790 attending the seven services throughout the celebratory weekend, first-time commitments to Christ tallied to 1,774.
It’s difficult to tell Saddleback’s story without citing numbers: They’re simply so astounding. In 1980, a young couple from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, moved to just south of Los Angeles to plant a new church. That church now has 16,000 in weekend worship services and lists 11,200 on the active membership roll.
Saddleback baptized 1,740 last year and has averaged more than 1,000 baptisms a year for the past six. Despite requiring new members to sign a covenant that commits them to tithing plus participation in a small group, a lay ministry and a missions outreach (and, amazing among Baptists, bans them from gossip), the church welcomed nearly 2,500 new members last year. The names of active attenders listed on the church computer rolls currently swells to nearly 52,000.
But the story of Saddleback is not a story of numbers, says Rick Warren, the church’s founding pastor. It’s the story of individual lives changed one at a time. “Every number represents a real person transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. We simply start where people are, teach them God’s purpose for their lives, and the Holy Spirit does the rest,” Warren says.
This purpose-driven approach to ministry is the essence of Saddleback’s strategy, one that focuses on people rather than programs. “Whenever anyone suggests we need a certain ministry, I say, ‘Go for it! Start it yourself!'” Warren says. “Unlike most churches, we don’t create ministries and then go out looking for workers. We teach people how to discover what God shaped them to be and do and then we create a safe place for them to succeed at doing it. When people know their purpose, you don’t have to continually motivate them to serve and share. They do it out of joy, not duty.” The church has 160 different lay ministries started and staffed by over 5,000 volunteer lay ministers.
Warren explains Saddleback’s non-traditional approach to ministry in his book, “The Purpose Driven Church.” With more than 1 million in sales, the book helped define the church health movement and has since been translated into 18 languages. It’s a required textbook in most Southern Baptist seminaries.
“We’ve done almost everything exactly the opposite of conventional thinking in order to grow Saddleback,” Warren acknowledges. “Traditional thinking says you must build a building in order to grow. But we waited 15 years and were averaging over 10,000 in attendance before we built our first building.
“Traditional thinking says you build the church on the Sunday school organization,” Warren continues. “Instead, we built Saddleback on a series of high-commitment purpose-driven classes that require members to sign covenants before they can progress to the next class. These classes create doers of the Word, not just hearers.”
Among Saddleback’s many innovations: dropping a come-forward invitation and instead using a weekly commitment card. Don’t people have to make a public commitment to Christ? Warren says the New Testament form of public commitment was baptism.
Surprisingly, Saddleback has never had an organized visitation program. “Instead, we created a seeker service designed for members to bring their unchurched friends,” Warren says. “That’s why we average more in attendance than we have members. Our members are always bringing their friends to church.”
From the beginning, Saddleback’s focus was on lost people who were unreached by traditional churches and methods.
Dorothy Beck, for example, says she was filled with anger and resentment because she didn’t want to be a mother. Then she was invited to a Bible study fellowship at Saddleback: “I went because they had childcare, but at the Bible study, they showed me where Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee. I knew I needed him to calm the storms in my life.”
Saddleback member John Draper says he came to Saddleback while still a functional alcoholic. “As I sat there every Sunday — always nursing a hangover — the services would move me to tears,” Draper says. “In all my previous years attending church, I never really grasped that I mattered to God.”
Draper eventually joined Celebrate Recovery, Saddleback’s Christ-centered eight-step recovery program developed by John Baker and Rick Warren and based on the Beatitudes. The Celebrate Recovery curriculum is now being used in state prison systems in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
In the past 20 years, the congregation has planted 34 daughter churches, established a partnership with Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary for offering a lay ministry degree and built mission partnerships with a dozen countries including Ukraine, Kenya, Philippines and China.
Another major ministry of Saddleback is its Purpose Driven Church seminars designed to help pastors and lay leaders grow healthy churches. “We’re far more interested in helping churches be healthy than big,” Warren says. “Not all churches are meant to be large, but God wants every church to be healthy and balanced. And if a church is healthy, then growth will happen naturally.” Last year more than 69,000 church leaders worldwide were trained for Purpose Driven ministry.
Warren’s latest innovation is an Internet site — Pastors.com — created to provide resources, community and free e-mail for pastors around the world.
More information about Saddleback is available at Saddleback.com or at pastors.com.
Walker is the former editor of HomeLife magazine.