But Warren didn't turn out to be just any ambitious minister. Today he heads Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of the largest congregations in the country with weekend attendance of about 16,000. He counsels power brokers from Hollywood to Wall Street to Capitol Hill. Christianity Today dubbed him "America's most influential pastor" in a 2002 cover story.
Warren, 50, also happens to be one of the best-selling American authors of all time because of The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Zondervan, 2002). Described as a "groundbreaking manifesto on the meaning of life" in the book's marketing materials, Purpose-Driven Life has sold 20 million copies since it was published in October 2002. By January 2003, it was on the New York Times best-seller list, where it has spent 99 weeks - several as No. 1.
On March 14, a dramatic story was added to the book's lore. Ashley Smith picked the book off her nightstand and began reading chapter 33 to Brian Nichols, who earlier in the day had murdered four people in a shooting spree, sought shelter in Smith's apartment, and then took her hostage. On Day 33 of the book, Warren writes, "We serve God by serving others. The world defines greatness in terms of power, possessions, prestige, and position. If you can demand service from others, you've arrived. In our self-serving culture with its me-first mentality, acting like a servant is not a popular concept."
As the hours rolled on, she read him portions of the book--and convinced him that his life had a purpose, given to him by God. Smith suggested to him that God's vision for her life was to help Nichols see his own purpose--evangelizing in prison.
The book is only a part of the Purpose-Driven sales universe (www.purposedrivenlife.com). Fans can buy a devotional volume entitled Daily Inspiration for the Purpose-Driven Life, a set of Scripture cards, a wall calendar and a leather-bound blank book for writing their own Purpose-Driven meditations, among other products.
President Bush and his wife, Laura, and advisers such as Karl Rove and Karen Hughes reportedly read The Purpose-Driven Life. So have evangelist Billy Graham and Bruce Wilkinson, the author of that other huge seller, The Prayer of Jabez.
"I think everybody has brokenness," Warren told The Washington Post in a 2004 interview. "There's no doubt about that. We live in a fallen world. This is not heaven. Everybody has scars. Everybody is hurting somewhere, I guarantee you that. Everyone has a hidden hurt."
Warren experienced some of these challenges last year. The Purpose-Driven phenomenon has grown so large that it has become almost too much to handle, according to his advisers. And when his wife, Kay, battled breast cancer last year, Warren took time off to be with her. As a result, he has stopped granting interviews, at least for now.
But his 334-page book remains a juggernaut. In it, he outlines a six-week spiritual plan divided into short chapters to be read daily. During the first week, readers answer the question: "What on Earth am I here for?" Each of the next five weeks addresses one of the answers:
The book is a spin-off of Warren's 1995 manual for church leaders, The Purpose-Driven Church, which encouraged them to use pop culture to attract the unchurched. That book has sold more than a million copies in 20 languages. Soon after the second book was published, Warren combined ideas in both to create a program called "40 Days of Purpose," an evangelism campaign for local churches. Members read one of Purpose-Driven Life's 40 chapters each day and participate in worship, study, fellowship and service.
The program opens with a 90-minute video presentation by Warren. It then unfolds with the local pastor preaching on Warren's ideas while members meet in weekly discussion groups. In 2004, about 2 million people participated.
The Purpose-Driven phenomenon transcends denominations, appealing to Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Lutherans and others. Yet Warren is part of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination - and one of its most conservative. All his senior staff sign on to the denomination's doctrines, which include belief in a literal and infallible Bible, exclusion of women as senior pastors and the directive that wives "submit gracefully" to their husbands.
Perhaps as a result, Warren has his critics. He uses 15 Bible versions, and some Christians accuse him of choosing among these - verse by verse - to support his various points. Others say Warren's book is too simplistic, too pat. Still others are suspicious of the "seeker-sensitive" evangelism that Warren advocates.
"I'm not going to get into a debate over the nonessentials," he told USA Today in 2003. "I won't try to change other denominations. Why be divisive?"
Yet in November he told The New York Times Book Review: "We are at the beginning of a New Reformation in the Christian church. That will inevitably affect everyone else."
Warren remains steadfast on issues such as heaven and hell. "If you learn to love and trust God's Son, Jesus, you will be invited to spend the rest of eternity with him," he wrote in the book. "On the other hand, if you reject his love, forgiveness and salvation, you will spend eternity apart from God forever."
And ultimately, nothing of this life is about us anyway, he says. It's all about God. "You exist only because God wills that you exist," he wrote. "You were made by God and for God - and until you understand that, life will never make sense."