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LIVING WITH "Purpose'

After selling a successful software company he founded, Dominic Sputo said he relished his wealth and changed his priorities.

"It was a combination of money and increased status," said Sputo, a Christian for 15 years. "I was only going through the motions of what God wanted me to do. Inwardly, I was living my own agenda."

Then, in April 2000, Sputo contracted Lyme Disease and became gravely ill. None of the medical treatments he underwent could make him well. His athletic 180-pound frame withered to skin and bones.

Sputo, 44, became completely disabled. Eventually he lost hope. Knowing he would soon die, Sputo prepared his last will and testament. He also began reading a book called The Purpose-Driven Life.

"As my life was ebbing away and the success I achieved didn't matter, all I wanted to do was get back on God's plan for my life," he said. "That realization came from reading The Purpose-Driven Life."

That was 15 months ago. Today, Sputo is healthy again thanks to what he describes as a miracle after reading the book. Suddenly, he said, his body healed.

He's so excited about The Purpose-Driven Life he encouraged his pastors at Idlewild Baptist Church to share it with the whole congregation.

Idlewild and several other churches in northwest Hillsborough have joined thousands of congregations worldwide that are using the bestselling manual for Christian living as a Bible study aid.

"The most powerful thing of all about this book is it helps people understand they do have a life's purpose," said Matthew Hartsfield, pastor of Van Dyke United Methodist Church. "They can discover that purpose and therefore live out their life mission."

Van Dyke United Methodist was among the first churches in the country to enlist in a reading campaign called "40 Days of Purpose." Thousands of congregations are going through the program together.

The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren is a wildly popular step-by-step plan to rediscover God's purpose for one's life. Its 40 short chapters are supported by Scripture and intended to be read over 40 days' time, giving readers food for thought in small doses.

More than 12-million copies have sold since it was released in October 2002, said Vicki Cessna, senior manager of public relations at Zondervan, which publishes the 322-page book.

Cessna said 6,500 churches participated in the "40 Days of Purpose" reading campaign in 2003. This year, she said about 15,000 churches worldwide are expected to take part.

More than just a bestseller, its publisher says, The Purpose-Driven Life is a movement.

Congregants are now reading it at Idlewild Baptist Church and First Baptist Church of Lutz.

Their pastors are incorporating its chapter themes in Sunday sermons. The book is being discussed in their Bible study, and the members have formed nightly reading groups that meet either at the churches or in their homes.

"This isn't a denominational thing," said Mike Kahn, a minister at Idlewild. "It's the first time many churches throughout the country have done anything like this.

"We're real excited about it. We really feel this is a wonderful opportunity to remind our folks about the need to live God-centered instead of self-centered. That makes all the difference in life."

Abe Brown, pastor of First Baptist Church of College Hill, said he and members of his church will attend the Idlewild program to get ideas for doing the "40 Days of Purpose" at his church on 29th Street.

"I really appreciate the challenge it gives to the church and the leadership of the church," Brown said. "It's quite a commitment and quite a sacrifice. The beauty of it is the body of Christ is doing this together."

Charles White, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lutz, said the plain and simple contemporary style of the book makes it easy to read and appealing to the masses.

"We live in a society of people who spend a great deal of our lives trying to achieve positions of power and things," he said. "We miss out on purpose.

"If you've got a big purpose, that can be the thing that bounds you out of bed. If you've got no purpose, it can lead to depression."

The Purpose-Driven Life tries to help readers answer the most basic questions everyone faces: Why am I here? What is my purpose?

But unlike many self-help books that suggest people should look within themselves to achieve their deepest desires and dreams for the future, this one says the starting place must be with God.

"You are not an accident," the book says. "Even before the universe was created, God had you in mind, and he planned you for his purposes. These purposes will extend far beyond the few years you will spend on earth. You were made to last forever!"

Warren writes that our lives begin to have real significance and meaning when we begin to understand and fulfill God's purpose for putting us here.

Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist mega-church in Lake Forest, Calif. with a weekly attendance of more than 15,000. Warren also is the author of The Purpose-Driven Church, a bestseller among pastors.

Ken Whitten, Idlewild's senior pastor, has known Warren for 14 years and considers him a personal friend. He says Warren has declined a salary from his California church because of the wealth his books have earned.

"Rick is everything in action that people would perceive him to be from reading his book," Whitten said. "He has a great sense of humor. He's very compassionate and very passionate about what God put him on earth for.

"Rick's book is trying to point you to The Book - the Bible. We're not using Rick's book in place of the Bible. We're using it as a supplement to God's word."

Whitten said Warren's father, a retired pastor, died a year ago. On his deathbed he had this to say to his son: "Reach one more for Christ."

"Rick's got a passion about reaching people all over the world for Christ," Whitten said. Participating churches, in turn, have been able to reach out to readers outside their congregations. Some are not even Christian.

Craig Altman, the pastor at Grace Family Church, said many new members joined as a result of reading the book and attending the nightly discussions.

"I don't think a day goes by we don't ask the question what am I here for? And what is my purpose? Does my life matter?" Altman said.

"The book is simple, direct and it appeals to many people, whether they are churched or unchurched."

Van Dyke's Diane McGoldrick, 55, said she has been a Christian for 3{ years. The 40-day experience reinforced her faith.

"What jumped out at me is getting a look at God's character," McGoldrick said. "God wants to be in every aspect of our lives, from the big ones to the small ones.

"God is not this distant deity who is up there waiting for us to pray when we are in trouble. This book showed me God wants a relationship with us just as we have with anyone else."

_ Staff writer Connie Drew contributed to this story. Tim Grant can be reached at 269-5311 or at grantsptimes.com.

David Stephens, left, and Jerry Reynolds, join eight others in Reynolds' home recently to read and discuss the best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life. The Bible study group is from Idlewild Baptist Church.

Dominic Sputo says his life was changed by the book, The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren. The book is a step-by-step plan to rediscover God's purpose for your life.

Pat Kelley holds her Bible and study guide as she and other church members discuss The Purpose-Driven Life. More than 12-million copies of the book have sold since it was released in October 2002.

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