When you’re the author of a book that is America’s bestselling hardcover ever—more than twenty-five million copies sold plus translations into fifty-six languages, with more on the way—and the head of a worldwide network of churches in 162 countries and recognized by the likes of US News & World Report and Time magazine as one of the world’s most important leaders, it’s not so hard to imagine that tackling the most intransigent problems on the African continent is something you’d be willing to do. Rick Warren is such a man, and he’s decided to use all his resources and his oratory and managerial talents to assist a country that twelve years ago was ravaged by one of the most hideous episodes of internecine warfare in the twentieth century.
As reported in these pages last year, The Purpose-Driven Life , Warren’s phenomenally successful book, is a handbook for change. It’s a practical and biblically inspired program for shifting the focus of one’s life from getting for oneself to serving others through acts of charity and altruism. Baseball players, armed murderers, and even presidents of countries have been affected by Warren’s simple yet compelling manual for spiritual renewal. The book has spawned a culture of its own, with Purpose-Driven churches, study groups, and conferences now spanning the globe.
Among those millions who have taken Warren’s message to heart is Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda and rebel leader who ended the genocide there when he defeated extremist militia groups in the summer of 1994. A staff member from Saddleback Church, Warren’s megachurch in southern California, had given Kagame a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life, and the president responded by inviting Warren to Rwanda. “We want our country to become a ‘purpose-driven’ nation,” he enthusiastically told Warren, and Warren replied by making Rwanda the pilot country in which to unroll his ambitious P.E.A.C.E. Plan.
The P.E.A.C.E. Plan is Warren’s blueprint for eradicating what he calls the five “Global Goliaths”: spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, extreme poverty, pandemic disease, and illiteracy and lack of education. P.E.A.C.E. stands for how these evils will be combated—Planting churches, Equipping servant leaders, Assisting the poor, Caring for the sick, and Educating the next generation. Warren intends to mobilize one billion Christians around the world to carry out the plan and to implement it in eighty-five countries. This is a vision on the scale of the World Bank and global nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and seemingly would require a staff of thousands. But Warren, who is recognized for his managerial genius and who was a protégé of the pioneering organizational thinker Peter Drucker, has an entirely different strategy.
The P.E.A.C.E. Plan will be a grassroots effort, a church-to-church, person-by-person undertaking. Warren and his staff will focus mainly on providing the inspiration and facilitating the process through using innovative technology to knit churches internationally, whether evangelical or not, into a unified network for action. Congregations will respond to specific needs of partnered churches in underdeveloped countries and raise the necessary funds to carry out projects they undertake. Warren’s team will also oversee the assemblage of kits—“clinic in a box,” “business in a box,” etc.—which will give nonprofessionals in the field pragmatic tools to use on missions of service to Rwanda and other countries.
Decentralization and collaboration among small groups of people are the keys to the plan’s feasibility. It’s also how Warren grew his own church, and it was a lesson he had to learn the hard way. After collapsing during a Sunday service and going through a difficult period of introspection, Warren realized that he couldn’t continue to do everything himself, that as a leader he had to give up control. It was then that Saddleback’s growth took off, making it the second largest megachurch in the United States, with a weekly average attendance of twenty-two thousand people.
Warren’s small-group approach lands squarely in the camp of what is being called “anti-planning” in the current debate about what works best in the multibillion-dollar business of international development. In spite of the expenditure of masses of money and the enormous efforts of NGOs, conditions in Africa have not really improved. William Easterly, a former World Bank economist and current professor at New York University, argues in his recent book, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, for more hands-on, indigenous efforts based on the real needs of people for whom the aid is intended. But there’s more to Warren’s vision than working from the ground level up. He’s fundamentally talking about using the church, in collaboration with government and business, as an agent for social change on a worldwide basis. That’s revolutionary.
Christianity has been well established geographically for many hundreds of years, and many churches are currently in a phase of accelerated growth. In the United States, Peter Drucker sees the rise of megachurches as “the most significant sociological phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century.” With an unusual blend of business savvy and evangelical fervor, Warren understands both how to drive that growth and how to harness its potential for addressing—and hopefully making a real difference regarding—some of the most serious problems facing humanity today. He says that he wants “the local church on the front edge.” And the P.E.A.C.E. Plan is the engine for that transformation to happen on a worldwide scale. In Warren’s words, “the Purpose-Driven paradigm is the Intel chip for the twenty-first-century church.”
So far he’s made at least five trips to Rwanda since his initial visit in spring 2005, and this past summer the first contingent of twenty small teams (125 people in total) spent ten days working with local Rwandan churches. The P.E.A.C.E. Plan is also under way at the Kibuye District Hospital, where staff are identifying specific equipment and medicines needed to care for the 300,000 people within the West Province. Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States, Zac Nsenga, has nothing but praise for Warren’s activities to date. “His plan is a very comprehensive package,” Nsenga said, “planting churches and helping Rwandans heal through spiritual aspects. But he also looks at the socio-economic aspects of the Rwandan community—education, health, economic development. Wherever Rick Warren goes, he takes people who are going to look at the potentials for investment in our country.”
One can’t help but be impressed by the enormous amount of energy and goodwill Warren and his P.E.A.C.E. Plan bring to the daunting challenges they’ve taken on. When that zeal gets funneled down to direct contact between individuals, it could open up new horizons in the lives of many people on both sides of the exchange. As William Beasley, an Anglican pastor who traveled with Warren on his first trip to Rwanda, put it, “A country that was abandoned by the world has been adopted by the church.” If Warren and President Kagame do actualize their dream of making Rwanda the “world’s first purpose-driven nation,” it could make a significant difference in both how we view the prospects for development and how development actually occurs in Africa and elsewhere. Now there’s a purpose worth embracing.