Before he became one of the world's most influential Christian leaders, evangelical pastors had already coined Rick Warren an innovator.
His breezy, everyman style of teaching attracted members to his growing flock. On Sundays, he preached in Hawaiian shirts and went sockless. He experimented with ways to get the young more involved in church and to read the Bible. And he grew a church of gigantic proportions long before megachurches were mainstream.
Fast forward 30 years.
Today, Warren is so wealthy from the sale of his Purpose-Driven Life books that he donates 90 percent of his yearly income to charity. Media outlets, from Fox News to CNN, view him as the voice of progressive evangelicals. His pulpit, in southern Orange County in California, is the lectern politicians of all parties around the country seek most.
Warren, 54, will give the opening prayer Tuesday at President-elect Obama's historic inauguration. Warren's selection has riled liberals who find his stance on homosexuality untenable. He's a Southern Baptist who supported California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
Some conservatives lament that Warren, known as a bridge builder, will fall short as a standard bearer for traditional Christianity. Chiefly, they worry that his invocation will not explicitly recognize their God. They expect to hear a prayer in Jesus' name that will clearly assert Warren's belief in the Trinity.
Warren has declined interviews until after the inauguration. The preacher "will let his prayer speak for itself," spokeswoman Kristin Cole said.
But those who know Warren say he will deliver.
"The Rick Warren I know is not going to back up, let up, shut up, until he's taken up," said the Rev. Ken Whitten, Warren's friend of more than 20 years and senior pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. "He's not trying to please the masses. I would be shocked if there's a deviation here."
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Culture watchers often cite Warren as "America's Pastor," the apparent heir to the Rev. Billy Graham. It's a bequest even Warren's supporters say goes a little too far.
"Billy Graham earned that over long obedience in the same direction," said Tom Wilson, president and chief executive of Leadership Network, a Dallas-based organization that promotes church innovation. "Right now, there's only one Billy Graham. I haven't met anybody else like that."
Although Graham and Warren both accepted their callings to preach early in life, the similarities largely end there. Graham, 90, dedicated his life to evangelism and crusades. Warren, who began preaching in high school, chose the traditional pastoral route.
After finishing seminary, Warren researched large churches around the country and methodically chose a location for his own ministry. He picked Lake Forest, Calif., a city with planned communities and few churches. Warren would help fill the void in one of the most affluent areas in the country.
The preacher started Saddleback Valley Community Church with one family in his condo in 1980. It now has 22,000 weekly attendees and sits on 120 acres.
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Rick Warren the brand was born when he penned the Purpose-Driven Life in 2002. The book is a self-help tome that encourages readers to discover their divine purpose. It sold more than 30-million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages, according its publisher, Zondervan.
Now, Warren trains pastors globally through the Purpose Driven Network, which claims 400,000 pastors in 162 countries. Warren provides sermons, advice and church growth tips on pastors.com. Inspired by his wife, Warren's ministry has focused on fighting the global AIDS epidemic, and he teaches churches to care for AIDS sufferers.
Warren also has charged his members to take on global issues. He hopes to mobilize 1-billion Christians to target poverty, pandemic disease, illiteracy, spiritual emptiness and self-centered leadership. Since 2003, the church has sent more than 7,700 church members to serve in 68 countries. The church also adopted Rwanda, calling it the first purpose-driven country.
Warren "is probably the most influential in terms of a religious leader except perhaps somebody like the pope or the Dalai Lama," said Scott Thumma, an expert on megachurches at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Thumma cited Warren's book sales and the number of pastors who reference or repreach his sermons as proof of Warren's reach. "When you put it all together, it's quite an influential web that has been woven."
Critics say Warren is too commercial and, through his books, touts a watered-down Christianity that is more self-help than Bible-based. His efforts abroad are seen by some as too ambitious given religious groups' Sisyphean work in developing countries. Even Warren's AIDS efforts have been knocked by those who criticize him for being late to the game and for not fully embracing gays.
Still, Warren has continued to spread his influence and make headlines. He hosted Obama and Sen. John McCain for separate hourlong interviews about their faith and values in August. In December, he spoke to the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Last week, Warren offered to share Saddleback's campus with disenchanted Anglicans who left the Episcopal Church and now have no place to worship.
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It remains to be seen if Warren, like Graham, will become a pastor to the presidents. Scholars say such a close alliance is unlikely, at least in an Obama administration that will probably be well to the left of Warren on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
But Warren appears poised to have the new president's ear. And he will likely continue to be a chief among religious leaders, particularly since he has managed to sidestep many of the criticisms that often befall successful preachers.
For example, he's maintained a three-decade, scandal-free marriage. And a longtime critic of the prosperity gospel, Warren also appears to have steered clear of financial misconduct and lavish living. A spokeswoman at Saddleback church said he still lives in the same $360,000 house he purchased in 1992 and still drives the same Ford.
"When you meet him, he's just an ordinary guy," Thumma said.
Information from the Orange County Register was used in this report. Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.