The World’s Biggest Church for the Unchurched
8 min read

Rick Warren’s story dates back to 1979, when he was doing much of the groundwork to find a place where he could establish a new church congregation. He wanted to build a church for the unchurched.

During his search for a new location he stumbled upon a description of a place called Saddleback Valley in Orange County California. He learned it was the fastest-growing region in the fastest growing county, in one of the fastest-growing states in America. He spotted the market opportunity with hard facts. As far as he could see, there were a number of churches in the area, but none large enough to accomodate the quickly expanding population. He also contacted religious leaders in Southern California who told him that many locals self-identified as Christian but didn’t attend services.  

Before gathering any hard data about the opportunity, Rick gained some deep insights on how to start building a church for the unchurched while working as a missionary in Japan. The best insights he gained were from a man called Donald McGavran. Donald McGavran was focused on building churches in nations where most people hadn’t accepted Christ. In these countries the barriers to adoption were high. 


Meet people where they are

The advice Donald provided Rick was that missionaries should imitate the tactics of other successful social movements by appealing to people’s social habits, social identities and support systems. In short, work on strategies to fit and connect before you start to think about how to stand out. 

Donald wrote: “only the evangelist who helps people to become followers of Christ in their normal social relationships has any chance of liberating multitudes.”

For Rick this insight served as a revelation. Donald instructed church builders to speak to the people in their own language, to create places of worship where congregants saw their friends, to play the kind of music they already listened to, and experience the Bible’s lessons in digestible metaphors and familiar ideas. 

Armed with hard facts and deep insights Rick arrived in the Saddleback Valley. He spent twelve weeks going door to door asking strangers why they didn’t go to church. He worked hard to be empathy fit.  He listened and learned that for many potential community members the answers were practical – it was boring, people said, the music was bad, the sermons didn’t seem applicable to their lives, they needed child care, they hated dressing up, the pews were uncomfortable. 

For the practically-minded, these were easy things to address and Rick’s church addressed each of those preferences. He told people to wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts – if they felt like it. An electric guitar was brought in. And Rick’s sermons, from the start, focused on practical topics, with titles such as “How to Handle Discouragement”, “How to Feel Good About Yourself”, “How to Raise Healthy Families, and ‘How to Survive Under Stress.” His lessons were easy to understand, focusing on real daily problems, and could be applied as soon as parishioners left church. Rick was applying Donald McGraven insights with rigor and passion. The church was growing fast and Rick was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, answering congregants’ phone calls, leading classes, coming to their homes to offer marriage counseling, and, in his spare time, always looking for new venues to accommodate the church’s growing size. Like any good C.E.O, Rick had a clear strategy, he knew what to do. The problem was that it all landed on his shoulders. He had many implementation issues. 

One Sunday, in mid December, Rick stood up to preach during the eleven o’clock service. He felt light-headed, dizzy. He gripped the podium as he began to fall. Rick had a breakdown, it had become too much.


Recognizing other co-creators of value

Rick took a much needed rest and befittingly went for a walk through the desert, where he  had an epiphany. Two things became clear to him. The first was that he should focus on the people and let God build the church. The second was that he had to figure out how to make running the organization of his church less work. Rick was humble enough to seek support, not only from God, but from the people he wanted to serve. He returned to Saddleback with the plan to expand a small experiment he had started a few months earlier to make it easier to manage the church.

His solution started out as a solution to a very practical problem. The practical problem he was first trying to address was his concern for providing a place where people could come for Bible study. He  was never certain he would have enough classrooms, so he asked a few church members to host classes inside their homes. He was concerned that people might complain about going to someone’s house for Bible study, rather than a classroom, but congregants loved it. The small groups gave people a chance to meet their neighbors, which is not always easy when you are moving to a new place. The small groups also gave more people the  autonomy to take initiatives and feel they could take responsibility for each other. They could take leadership and ownership of something they already dared to care for. And together they could build the success of their church. They were active co-creators of value for themselves and for others. They were an important stakeholder group of the church and key creator of meaningful value.    

As Rick states: “Now, when people come to the Saddleback and see the giant crowds on the weekends, they think that’s our success”. But the biggest benefit the small groups provided people of the church was that it created a safe place to practice faith and be vulnerable together. According to Rick the small group formation was one of the most important decisions he ever made. It transformed church participation from a decision into a habit that drew on already-existing social urges and patterns. The 5000-strong small groups made the church manageable, without which Rick would have worked himself to death and 95 percent of the congregation would never have received the attention they came there looking for.


Stepping stones to grow in ‘purpose’ .  

Growing with purpose needs more safety and less bravado. Where purpose leaders often go wrong is that they demand too much courage and bravery from people and communities to grow in purpose.  For Rick, the purpose of the Saddleback church is to help people in his communities grow in spiritual maturity. It is a clear purpose which many people and social groups both can and want to buy into. Rick designed pathways of commitments to grow in the purpose. 

He started by first allocating people in one of six levels of spiritual commitment:

The first level he called the Community and actually takes no commitment at all. It is  everyone within driving distance of the church. Nothing is expected from the people in this group – although he hopes they will come to the weekend worship services.

The second level is called the Crowd. Here a person makes a commitment to come to the weekend worship services.

The third level is once people come to the membership class. That’s where they learn what it means to be a member and get a chance to make a commitment to church membership by signing a covenant. When they do that, they become part of the Congregation, a part of our church family.

The fourth level is taking another class, where they learn about how to grow as a Christian. They focus on the great habits of the Christian life – prayer, quiet time, giving, and attending a small group. Then, just like they do in membership class, they ask people to sign a covenant committing to practice these disciplines. Once people make that decision, they move into the circle we call the Committed.

The fifth level is the next class to learn more about how God has shaped them for ministry. People learn a lot about themselves during this class. They also get a chance to meet with a guide who helps them find ministries that fit their unique spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, and experiences (S.H.A.P.E.). 

At the end of the class, everyone is encouraged to sign a ministry covenant committing to use their S.H.A.P.E. in ministry. That moves the person from the Committed to the Core

Rick helped people grow in spirituality by defining categories for development and setting expectations for commitments. In most organizations these levels would be ranks or levels of expertise, but in a purpose driven church they reflect the level of commitment to the purpose with observable behaviors.   


So what can purpose leaders learn from Rick ? 

Rick is an inspiration for purpose leaders and organizations because his success provides us with another example of how to unlock a different kind of growth; growth which people can make meaningful together. Growth that is built on strong empathy foundations, starting with where people currently are. We have to be intentional about growing with purpose, and we need stepping stones and social expectations to progress with purpose. As a leader of several businesses, I can only share that creating value « people to people » has always mattered to me. What Rick highlights, however, is that large masses of people remain bound by personal ties. This is called social network value, and it is a value that organizations do not own. With the right purpose, they can enable this value and benefit from it. Rick also highlights that purpose has a personal, social and structural dimension. A meaningful purpose serves as an important guide to unlock value between us.

Christophe Fauconnier