In his final sermon as lead pastor of the California-based Saddleback Church on Sunday, Rick Warren returned to the very first message he delivered to a small group of strangers in 1980 to start the church. It was the message of a purpose-driven life that made him a global household name after he immortalized the essence of that message in his bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life in 2002.
The book, which promotes living life to satisfy God through worship and ministry, is now one of the bestselling nonfiction books in publishing history, according to publisher Simon & Schuster. It has been translated into 137 languages and sold over 50 million copies in multiple formats.
Before delivering his swansong as lead pastor, Warren walked onto the stage to warm applause and cheers. He bowed his head for a few seconds to soak up the moment at the wooden pulpit where he preached for the first 15 years of his 43-year ministry.
"You're going to make me cry," he told the church. "Have I told you lately that I love you?"
He then made the purpose of his final sermon clear.
"As you know by now, today is my last message to you as your senior pastor. For 43 years, it has been my privilege to love you, to pray for you, to serve you, to encourage you, to be at the bedsides, to be at the gravesides, to be at the counseling when you're going through a tough patch in your life; and to teach you," he said.
"And during these 43 years, I have preached 6,500 plus messages, sermons and studies. But in this ... our final, our last farewell message, I have decided that of all those 6,500 messages plus that I want to share with you, to repeat and re-preach, the very first message I preached to start this church, word for word, 43 years ago.
"One of the values — purpose-driven values — that we hold on to here at our church is, 'begin with the end in mind.' Whatever project you're starting, begin with the end in mind. That's called being purpose driven. You know your purpose in advance. And we knew from the very beginning what kind of church this was going to be."
Warren announced in June that starting in September, Andy Wood, who formerly led Echo.Church in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Stacie, would take over the leadership of the global church operation. At that time, Warren and his wife, Kay, will transition away from leading the global church they started with approximately 50 strangers.
Saddleback Church will celebrate the Warrens' 43 years of service at the church on the weekend of Sept. 3-4. On the weekend of Sept. 10-11, Wood and his wife will be commissioned into their new roles. Wood's first official day as the new senior pastor of Saddleback will be Sept. 12.
The global ministry the Woods will take over from the Warrens now spans 197 countries, where 56,000 new believers were birthed. The church has also donated more than $1 billion to Christian causes, as well as the development of support ministries and groups focusing on HIV/AIDS, grief care and mental health.
It all started, however, from knowing "what God wanted us to be," Warren said.
"We had no money, no members, no building, no nothing, but we knew what God wanted us to be. We announced it at that very first service. Now, the message you are about to hear today illustrates this value of, 'begin with the end in mind,' because I wrote this message and I preached this message only one time in 43 years," he continued. "The very first service. It was on March 30th, 1980, [a] week before Easter in a little theater at Laguna Hills High School to about 50, 60 people."
Warren said he knew none of the people who showed up for the very first service. He simply sent out a letter to the community announcing that he would start a new church, and it grew into one of the largest churches in the world today.
"There was no church when I preached this sermon," he said. "It was the start, the very start."