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The Incredible Popularity of The Purpose-Driven Life

From the battlefields of Afghanistan to the locker rooms of the NFL, author RickWarren is captivating millions with his message of self-sacrifice
by Maura R. O'Connor

Ask anyone in the publishing world what's hot right now, and they'll say “religion.” In fact, 2003 saw religious book publishing escalate so rapidly that it trumped the growth of the book industry as a whole by thirty percent. Spearheading some of this remarkable growth is a jovial, youthful-looking pastor from Orange County, California, by the name of Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life. Lauded as a “groundbreaking manifesto on the meaning of life,” Warren's book has swept the nation with its spiritual fervor.

Split into forty small chapters, The Purpose-Driven Life is “more than a book,” Warren declares. “It is a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey that will enable you to discover the answer to life's most important question: What on earth am I here for?” Readers sign a covenant to commit to reading the book every day, and they are encouraged to share the experience in a study group, or at least with one other person. Indeed, Warren places tremendous importance on human fellowship. “In real fellowship,” he writes, “people experience authenticity. . . . It is genuine, heart-to-heart, sometimes gut-level, sharing.”

Some critics of The Purpose-Driven Life claim that it is teaching Christianity “lite” or view it as self-help literature thinly veiled in theology. But even a casual perusal of the book shows that Warren's intention is to give his readers a dose of hard-core spiritual passion for a life fully committed to God. “It's not about you,” the first line reads. “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. . . . If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”

There is a good deal of traditional Christian proselytizing in later chapters. “Your mission,” Warren writes, “is the continuation of Jesus' mission on earth.” Or, as he puts it later, “Now that you understand the purpose of life, it is your responsibility to carry the message to others.” But The Purpose-Driven Life represents a radical break from what Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly, calls “the old 'Health and Wealth Gospel.'” As she explains, “According to this view, if you're faithful and you pray and you're one of God's people, he will bless you financially and in every other way. That is not Rick Warren's message. His message is that happiness does not come from self-centeredness.”

Indeed, Warren's creed of self-sacrifice for the sake of God and charity to others is uncompromising: “The heart of worship is surrender. . . . God wants your life—all of it. Ninety-five percent is not enough. . . . God is a lover and a liberator, and surrendering to him brings freedom, not bondage.” Later he writes, “One thing worship costs us is our self-centeredness. You cannot exalt God and yourself at the same time.”

In the United States, where material gain and individual self-improvement are the fuel most people run on, it seems that The Purpose-Driven Life should have been a flop. Instead, its definition of human purpose as “the wonderful privilege” of being a servant to God is captivating millions. But according to Garrett, this isn't all that surprising. “People are at a point now where they're hungry for the kind of guidance this book offers. People want a way to transcend their old lifestyles in order to achieve a lifestyle that is truly altruistic.” It's hard not to say “Amen” to that.


In the past two years, 250,000 copies of The Purpose-Driven Life have been sent into the deserts of Iraq and the foxholes of Afghanistan, as well as to military installations around the world from South Korea to Germany. Specially designed to fit into army fatigue pockets, this military edition also has a camouflage cover. “We see these eighteen- or twenty-four-year-olds out there, and they have so many questions on their minds,” Mark McDonald, president of the Purpose-Driven Life organization, told WIE. “These guys are watching their buddies get killed. But there are Biblical answers to issues of war in times of war, and we want to answer some of their questions: 'If I'm facing death or I'm around friends who are facing death, what does that mean? Who am I? What does it mean to die?'” Reportedly, many soldiers do the “40 Days of Purpose” studies with a spouse or a parent back home, communicating their insights from reading the book via email and telephone.


  • Number of churches that participated in a live simulcast of the book's launch in 2002: 1,500
  • Number of copies sold since then: 20,000,000
  • Number of copies donated to the Pentagon in September 2003: 40,000
  • Number of languages in which The Purpose-Driven Life is licensed for publishing: 58
  • Weeks spent on the New York Times bestseller list: over 100
  • Number of churches that have done “40 Days of Purpose” study groups: 20,000
  • Number of denominations represented by those churches: 80
  • Attendance at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County, CA, each weekend: 20,000
  • Total number of individuals on Saddleback Church's rolls: 80,000
  • Government institutions that have conducted “40 Days of Purpose” study groups: U.S. Congress, U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the U.S. Naval Academy
  • Sports leagues that have held “40 Days of Purpose” study groups: National Football League (Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots), Major League Baseball (Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals), NASCAR, and the Professional Golfers' Association
  • Number of automobile salesmen in North Dakota who give away a copy of the book with every car they sell: 1


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This article is from
Our Consciousness Issue