LAKE FOREST, Calif. (Christian Examiner) -- Rick Warren last Sunday preached a message he's been waiting to preach for 35 years. Just four words.
"I told you so."
The 61-year-old pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California -- one of America's largest churches -- gathered 20,000 at Anaheim's Angel Stadium March 22 for a 35th anniversary celebration.
Preaching from the pitcher's mound, the hugely popular author of the bestselling The Purpose Driven Life has shepherded the megachurch from a seven-person Bible study in 1980 to a ministry which now involves 27,000 attending 14 campuses on five continents.
"In spite of all of the critics and all of the doubters and all of the naysayers – and all of the people who just don't get how much people matter to God -- God said, 'I'm gonna do something special,'" Warren told his congregation,
Just last year at the Vatican, Warren told Pope Francis and others that Saddleback, a Southern Baptist congregation, had baptized 40,000 adults since it began in 1980.
Saddleback plans to double its Southern California campuses from 10 to 20 in the next three years, and to expand its PEACE Center to each campus, it announced. With growing congregations in Germany, Argentina, China and the Philippines, it has ministries such as Celebrate Recovery, The Daniel Plan, Global HIV and Orphan Care, and Mental Health outreach.
A California native, Warren, who graduated from California Baptist University in Riverside, said after graduating from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, he and his wife, Kay, were willing to go anywhere for ministry -- as long as they could stay put in one place.
The young couple got out a map and had a vision and calling to plant a church in Southern California, specifically in Orange County, despite having no money and not knowing a single person.
For 12 weeks, Warren said he went door-to-door with 15,000 hand stamped letters, inviting people to an Easter Sunday service. At the "practice" service, a week before the actual service, 60 showed up to hear his message and five "got saved."
During the two-and-a half hour service in Anaheim, Warren said he realized a few weeks ago that a new emphasis, "Daring Faith," is the same expression and focus he used 35 years ago in his sermon, "The beginning of a miracle." The same message is as true for today as it was yesterday, he said.
"I wept over the faithfulness of God and that He keeps His promises."
In the message, Warren said he had, and still has "confident faith" because the five essentials he preached 35 years ago have not changed:
- "We will dare to dream big dreams for God;"
- "We will dare to expect God to act; and God honors faith and we will claim His promises and trust His timing to fulfill them;"
- "We are going to succeed – it's a done deal, because we will deal to love people. We are going to love people unconditionally. No matter who you are, where you are from and who you have done it with;"
- "We will risk failure; we are not afraid to try;" and
- "We will dare to sacrifice and never give up because we know how the story ends up and we know that our rewards are going to be certain."
Reading aloud the original vision statement he penned 35 years ago, Warren stopped at certain points to marvel at how aspects of it have come to fruition despite its very specific nature:
"What is the dream of saddleback church? It is the dream of a place where the hurting, the hopeless, the discouraged, the depressed, the frustrated, and the confused can find love and acceptance and help and hope and forgiveness in God. And guidance and encouragement.
It is the dream of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Sharing it with the hundreds of thousands of residents of Orange County.
It is the dream of 20,000 members gathered in the fellowship of God's family, loving, laughing, learning, and living in harmony together.
It is the dream of developing people with a spiritual maturity though Bible studies and seminars and retreats and small groups and a training center for our members.
It is a dream of equipping every member for significant ministry by helping them to discover the gift and talents that God gave them.
It is the dream of sending out hundreds of workers and career missionaries all around the world and empowering every member for their personal life mission in the world. It's a dream of sending out our members by the thousands on mission projects to every continent and it is the dream of starting at least one daughter church a year.
It is a dream of at least 50 acres of land on which will be a regional church with beautiful and yet efficient facilities including a worship center seating thousands, a counseling center, a place for prayer, classrooms for Bible study, training centers for ministers, and a space for recreation
All of this will be designed to minister to the total person, spiritually, emotionally, physically and socially and all of it will be built in a peacefully inspiring garden landscape with bright flowers and pools of water sparkling fountains, flowing streams where people naturally feel close to God.
I can stand before you today and I state in confidence and bold assurance that these dreams will become a reality. Why? Because they are inspired by God.
Choking at times with emotion, Warren said 35 years later, "I can stand before you and say with bold, confident assurance – they did become reality.
"They did, they did, they did!" he said.
"That is the power of trusting a big God," Warren said. "That is the power of faith. That is the power of doing something you know you cannot do in your own effort. That is the power of putting yourself out on the line so far that you are absolutely bound to fail unless God bails you out. That is living on the edge. That is living by faith. That is daring faith and that is what I want so much for each of you to experience."
The pastor who once delivered the invocation for President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, but then in 2012 said the president had "infringed" upon religious liberties, told those gathered, "Whatever God asks you to do, do it -- even if it doesn't make sense; even if it's a great risk."
"I feel the favor of God on my life," Warren said. "God smiles on my life and it's not because I deserve it, because I don't – you know me – and those of you who know me for a long time really know, I don't deserve it.
"It has nothing to do with deserving, it has everything to do with grace and faith. I put my faith in God's grace and you can put your faith in God's grace and God will do great things in your life," Warren said.
"I dare you to dream great dreams for God."