Megachurch Megaplanners: Rick and Kay Warren Set Out with a Road Map and a Dream 35 Years Ago
As a Baptist seminary student in Fort Worth, Texas, Rick Warren launched an idea that, years later, would propel a seven-person Bible group in a Laguna Hills condo into one of the nation’s largest megachurches.
Saturday, Saddleback Church celebrates its 35th anniversary, in front of an expected crowd of 50,000 at Angel Stadium.
Over the decades, Saddleback has grown to include 10 Southern California campuses averaging 27,000 weekly worshippers and 7,500 small groups meeting in homes, according to church statistics. Saddleback members can be found in Berlin; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Hong Kong; and South Manila, Philippines.
Warren, 60, has written eight books, including “The Purpose Driven Life,” the most popular nonfiction hardback in history, selling nearly 40 million copies in English, according to Publisher’s Weekly. It is also the second-most translated book after the Bible.
In 2005, Time magazine named Warren one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
Warren created Saddleback Church for those who weren’t interested in religion.
“We wanted to capture people who had given up,” said Kay Warren, Rick’s wife of nearly 40 years.
“Busy, yuppie, O.C. couples who didn’t see any need for church.”
By 1978, the Rev. Robert Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral were entrenched in Garden Grove. Chuck Smith ran Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa.
That same year, Kay and Rick Warren drove from Texas to Orange County to attend a conference conducted by Schuller.
Kay Warren, still working as a receptionist at Acme Brick while Rick Warren completed seminary school, supported his plan to start out with his own church instead of working as a pastor in an established congregation.
“On our drive back, we chattered like magpies to map out what our church would be like,” she said. “We crafted and laid out a road map.”
Rick Warren believed the most successful churches served areas with fast-growing populations and longtime pastors. His plan: Begin a church in south Orange County and stay as pastor for 40 years.
Kay Warren still laughs at how her husband stretched maps of the U.S. across the walls of their small Fort Worth home. He marked an X where the 405 and 5 freeways merge.
“I figured that new communities would need new churches. Kay and I prayed about it,” Rick Warren said. “We moved here with no members, no money and only a dream.”
THE NEW CHURCH
The Warrens held their first Bible study on Jan. 25, 1980, in their Laguna Hills home near Moulton Parkway and Via Iglesia.
That same day, Kay Warren’s grandmother died. The couple wondered if they should cancel the church launch. They didn’t.
The first public service took place weeks later, on April 6, 1980, at Laguna Hills High School. There were 205 in attendance.
“It was confirmation that this was really going to work,” Kay Warren said.
Rick Warren would preach at Laguna Hills High and Trabuco Hills High for 12 years before the couple secured land in Portola Hills and money to build their campus.
Saddleback Church has gone on to launch international initiatives, such as global HIV and Orphan Care. It has worked across Southern California as well, through community outreach programs including the Food Pantry.
“History will most certainly confirm that Rick Warren is one of – if not the – most positive influential pastors of our generation,” said Phil Munsey, who with his wife, Jeanne, pastored Life Church in south Orange County for 30 years.
Rick Warren said what he believes has made him successful is his real love for the people of Orange County.
"People tend to like you if you really like them," he said. "I've loved the residents of this county for 35 years. You might be able to fake love for a couple of years but you can't fake love for 35 years. People figure out quickly if your're the real deal and whether they can trust you or not."
The Warrens say Saddleback Church grew because of dedicated worshippers, who have scrubbed toilets, washed floors and traveled the world to help with disasters or fight AIDS.
“To stand on home plate, looking out and knowing this is our church family, will be emotional,” Kay Warren said of today’s celebration.
“We would be nothing without them. They are our heroes.”