In 2002, God dropped a pebble into the pond of Kay Warren's life in the form of a magazine article about HIV/AIDS in Africa. Three years later, the ripple effect has reached all the way from her home in Orange County, California, to Africa.

It's still gaining strength through the PEACE plan, a bold ministry vision from Kay's influential husband, Saddleback Church's Rick Warren. I traveled to Kigali, Rwanda, with the Warrens and 42 other American evangelicals in July, where they joined 9,000 Rwandan Christians in launching the first "Purpose-Driven Nation" initiative to harness businesspeople, politicians, and pastors against the nation's biggest social problems.

Kay told Christianity Today seeing that article was "an appointment with God … he intended to grab my attention." The news photos were so graphic that she covered her eyes and peeked through just enough to read the words. There was a quote box in the middle of the article that read: "12 million children orphaned in Africa due to AIDS."

"It was as if I fell off the donkey on the Damascus road because I had no clue. I didn't know one single orphan." For days afterward, she was haunted by that fact: 12 million orphans.

Unable to block it from her mind, Kay began to get mad at God, praying, "Leave me alone. Even if it is true, what can I do about it? I'm a white, suburban soccer mom. There is nothing I can do." But that did no good.

After weeks, then months of anguish, she realized she faced a fateful choice. She could either pretend she did not know about the HIV/AIDS pandemic or she could become personally involved.

"I made a conscious choice to say, 'Yes.' I had a pretty good suspicion that I was saying yes to a bucket load of pain. In that moment, God shattered my heart. He just took my heart and put it through a woodchip machine. My heart came out on the other side in more pieces than I could gather back up in my arms.

"It changed the direction of my life. I will never be the same. Never. I can never go back. I became a seriously disturbed woman."

Through this period, Kay said nothing to her husband. Warren's 2002 book, The Purpose-Driven Life, had in a matter of months skyrocketed into national bestseller status. Selling at up to 1 million copies per month, it has been the best-selling new book in the world since 2003. With that title and his earlier one, The Purpose-Driven Church, Warren has sold 26 million books.

Warren says when his wife finally told him God was calling her to the front lines of ministry against HIV/AIDS in Africa, he responded, saying, "That's great, honey. I'm going to support you. It's not my vision."

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"But nothing is as strong as pillow talk," he added. "God used my wife to grab my heart."

Because of the millions in book sales, the Warrens all of a sudden had become wealthy. Warren's celebrity also sprang forward, and he is ranked as the second most influential evangelical after evangelist Billy Graham among surveyed pastors.

With this newfound affluence and influence, the couple says they made five decisions: They did not upgrade their lifestyle. Warren stopped taking a paycheck from Saddleback. He repaid 25 years of his salary to the church he founded in 1980. They created three charitable foundations. They started "reverse tithing," meaning they live on 10 percent of their income and give away 90 percent.

In 2003, Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez author now ministering in Johannesburg, South Africa, invited the Warrens to help lead an HIV/AIDS conference with his own wife, Darlene. The Warrens agreed to go. He led a Purpose Driven conference for 90,000 African pastors, using digital satellite downlinks.

After it was over, Warren said to his hosts, "Take me out to a village. I want to meet some pastors." They took him to Tembisa, a huge and desperately poor township outside Johannesburg. Local evangelists there often plant new congregations, using large blue-and-white striped tents. In many instances, homeless widows and orphans live in the tent during the week and also worship there on Sundays.

When Warren arrived, the tent church pastor boldly walked up to him, saying, "I know who you are. You're Pastor Rick."

"How in the world do you know who I am!" Warren exclaimed.

"I get your sermons every week."

The pastor told Warren that once a week he walks 90 minutes to a post office with an internet connection. He downloads Warren's sermons from and preaches them on Sundays.

"You are the only training I have ever had."

Cut to the heart, Warren says, "I burst into tears. I thought, I will give the rest of my life for guys like that—the real heroes out in the bush." That night, Warren sat under the African sky and prayed, "God, what are the other problems that you want to tackle?" Warren told CT, "God gets the most glory when you tackle the biggest giants. When David takes on Goliath, God gets glory. What are the problems so big that no one can solve them?"

Around this time, Warren says he was driven to reexamine Scripture with "new eyes." What he found humbled him. "I found those 2,000 verses on the poor. How did I miss that? I went to Bible college, two seminaries, and I got a doctorate. How did I miss God's compassion for the poor? I was not seeing all the purposes of God.

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"The church is the body of Christ. The hands and feet have been amputated and we're just a big mouth, known more for what we're against." Warren found himself praying, "God, would you use me to reattach the hands and the feet to the body of Christ, so that the whole church cares about the whole gospel in a whole new way—through the local church?"

The Warrens returned to Southern California, still not fully understanding what lay in store for them. Kay says God handed her a Polaroid and new things kept appearing in the picture.

Warren had 18 pages of notes from his trip and began further developing a conceptual framework for his emerging vision. He described the problems that harm billions of people around the world as the "global giants."

Warren labeled the five giants:

  • Spiritual emptiness. "[People] don't know God made them for a purpose."
  • Egocentric leadership. "The world is full of little Saddams. Most people cannot handle power. It goes to their heads."
  • Poverty. "Half the world lives on less than $2 per day."
  • Disease. "We have billions of people dying from preventable disease. That's unconscionable."
  • Illiteracy. "Half the world is functionally illiterate."

Next, Warren, an incurable lover of slogans and acrostics, wrote out an acrostic, peace, to match up against each of the five global giants:

  • Plant new churches, or partner with existing ones.
  • Equip leaders.
  • Assist the poor.
  • Care for the sick.
  • Educate the next generation.

Finally, Warren, whose Purpose Driven curriculum has trained 400,000 pastors from 162 nations, decided to put at the heart of the PEACE plan the local church and its members. "Every revival and spiritual awakening in history starts with the peasants, not with the kings. It starts with average, ordinary people," Warren says. "There are not enough superstars to win the world. It has to be done by average people."

"There are millions and millions of local churches around the world and now we have the technology to network them." This mobilization strategy, Warren says, also incorporates two ideas from Luke 10. Individuals would be sent out in teams, and on entering a village, they would seek "a man of peace."

"Find the man of peace. Bless him. He blesses you back. Who is the man of peace? He's influential and he's open. He doesn't have to be a Christian. Find a non-Christian who's influential and open—a Muslim or an atheist."

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As Warren was developing the PEACE plan, Kay was getting the brush-off from secular HIV/AIDS activists and judgmental church members. But she was undeterred. "I pretty much thought that anybody who had HIV was gay. If they were gay and had HIV, they probably deserved it, because they had lived a lifestyle of risk. Therefore, I didn't really have to care very much about them. Not a pretty attitude. I'm not proud of it, but it is where I was."

The Warrens began to educate themselves and their congregation intensively. At first, even HIV-positive members of Saddleback were fearful of disclosing their status. That has changed. This fall, Saddleback will host "Disturbing Voices," its first international conference on HIV/AIDS. Kay said, "Three years later, people walk up and go, 'Hey, how's the HIV ministry going?' It's the topic of conversation. I love it. I love what God is doing."

The PEACE Plan is Tested

In late 2003, Mike Constantz, a Campus Crusade for Christ leader, was looking to join a new church. He and his wife had returned from an overseas assignment to work with Campus Crusade in Southern California.

One Sunday in October, author Bruce Wilkinson was Saddleback's visiting preacher, and he spoke about his book, The Dream Giver. It's a Pilgrim's Progress—like story in which the main character discovers not only his dream, but also God's higher purpose within it. That message had such an impact that Constantz and his wife decided to join Saddleback. Then in November, the Warrens spoke during Sunday worship about the PEACE plan for the first time. Constantz was invited to a private briefing.

He was sitting in Saddleback's executive conference room. "The very, very first impression was: There's nothing new there! Planting churches, equipping leaders, assisting the poor, caring for the sick, educating the next generation have all been done before. In fact, I had been involved in doing some aspects of almost all of that in 27 years of mission work."

Constantz was sitting and listening and Warren kept talking. But it triggered in Constantz a flashback to 1976.

"The further he went, it was like going back to when I was at the University of Colorado as a student. I had a chance to be in Dr. Bill Bright's living room the summer of 1976."

Bright, the late founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, laid out his vision, telling Constantz and others: "Here's what God wants to do in the whole world." Then and there, Constantz committed himself to a career in Christian mission.

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"As I sat and listened to Rick, it was like listening to Bill Bright, but on a much grander scale. It was not only the breadth of the Great Commission, but the depth of the Great Commandment."

Constantz was shocked, saying to Warren, "If you're serious about this, this is the biggest thing I've ever heard in mission." And almost immediately, Constantz was thrown into a professional crisis, because Warren asked him to quit his job with Crusade and join the PEACE plan staff.

For the next six weeks, Constantz struggled over whether to accept Warren's offer, especially since his wife sensed no such call to leave. (Crusade policy requires couples to serve together.) His wife told him, "If God calls you to Saddleback, then I'll go with what you feel like God's leading is." But top leaders granted them a waiver, allowing her to remain on the Crusade staff.

Warren had recruited others, too. Curtis Sergeant, a prominent missions strategist at the Southern Baptist International Missions Board, also joined the PEACE plan. Along with senior staff from Warren's Purpose Driven organization, they all put new energy into further developing the plan.

During much of 2004, the PEACE plan moved forward. Describing their progress, Constantz draws on President Kennedy's famous 1962 speech that set in motion America's quest to put a man on the moon. Constantz says the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions were all worked on simultaneously, and the PEACE plan is following that strategy of phased development toward the same big goal.

So for the last 18 months, Saddleback has dispatched local church members on pilot projects in 42 nations. One of the most controversial aspects of the PEACE plan is to place local church members at the front lines of ministry alongside other local church members in the developing world.

Warren hopes to enlist 1 billion individuals through their congregations and small groups for mission projects. This mobilization of church and small-group members will walk them through three steps: personal PEACE, local PEACE, and global PEACE.

He says parachurch organizations have for decades been on the leading edge, and the local church was left behind. "In denominations, you pay, you pray, and you get out of the way. Let the professionals do it. The revolution I believe in and want to bring about reverses the role—the local church on the front edge."

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Warren also expects more and more congregations to adopt his Purpose Driven model that organizes churches around five key factors: fellowship, discipleship, worship, ministry, and evangelism. So far, 30,000 American churches have participated in the first program, "40 Days of Purpose."

"Personal computers have brand names. But inside every pc is an Intel chip and an operating system, Windows," Warren says. "The Purpose Driven paradigm is the Intel chip for the 21st-century church and the Windows system of the 21st-century church."

Once an individual church adopts the Purpose Driven model, there are many more moves to make. They describe those steps as moving around a baseball diamond. The goal is mission-minded disciples. Warren says, "You can't get the church to jump from total selfishness, where they want all the sermons about 'How do I avoid stress,' to caring about Angola."

"How do you get them to become a world-class Christian?"

That question led Warren to another developmental idea that calls for each individual Christian to have experience in four ministry venues:

  • Jerusalem: Ministry in your town or neighborhood.
  • Judea: Ministry in your county.
  • Samaria: Cross-cultural ministry in your area.
  • Uttermost parts of the world: International ministry.

Locally, Saddleback tested the compassion of their members by asking 2,600 small groups ("40 Days of Community") to provide three meals a day for 40 days to the 40,000 homeless of Orange County in 2004.

"It took 2 million pounds of food and 9,200 volunteers," Warren says. "For most of those members, it was their first experience with a poor person. Touching, helping, smelling. Their lives are changed. So you did it in Santa Ana, don't you think you could do it in Uganda? It's a baby step for the PEACE plan."

Warren said all five elements of the PEACE plan are being done by great organizations. But he says, "Nobody has been able to do them through the local church together, combined. That's what makes the PEACE plan unique."

Local Church in World Context

In many ways, Warren's local-church emphasis is not new—it's been at the core of Christian ministry from the earliest days. What may be new is the globalized context.

Some see Warren's focus on working through local churches as strategic and inspired because church planting is a growth business. Right now, there are about 3.7 million congregations worldwide. By 2025, 1.2 million new churches may open, pushing the global total to 5 million, if estimates from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (IBMR) prove accurate.

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A handful of elite leaders believe Christian missions are undergoing a tsunami-like paradigm change. IBMR missions scholar and numbers guru David Barrett and his colleagues colorfully describe the first half of the 21st century as the "age of total information instantly accessible to all." They estimate that 350 million Christians and 8,000 denominations are online. They communicate in 4,000 languages and have produced 2.7 billion Web pages.

It is these technological innovations that allow local churches all over the world to be connected to any other church or ministry directly: New technology allows them to bypass bureaucracies and denominational hierarchy at will. Web-based computer systems, global cell-phone networks, and greater international air travel all enhance the ability of local church leaders to work horizontally. The Jesus Film Project, the Alpha Course, and Warren's own Purpose Driven movement are all global examples of a new kind of collaboration. This technological flattening of the globe, described in journalist Thomas Friedman's recent book The World Is Flat, is leveling the playing field for bishops and pastors as much as for corporate executives and small businessmen.

Warren also believes government-driven programs have proven to be ineffective against HIV/AIDS, malaria, corruption, and other global social ills. These multiple crises outstrip the capacity of traditional Christian missions, individual governments, and even the United Nations. For instance, fatalities from HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa create about 100,000 new orphaned children each month. The size and complexity of such problems overwhelm almost any program. And it's a common observation that billions of dollars in aid and development has created a dependency that has only made large sections of Africa worse.

"The compassion industry isn't working," says Dwight Gibson, formerly a top leader with World Evangelical Alliance. Seeing these emerging changes, Gibson joined Geneva Global, a new-paradigm missions organization in Pennsylvania. Its vision is to help donors "give wisely" to projects with verifiable life-changing results. Gibson is bullish on Warren's PEACE plan, saying it's like a "disruptive technology" that will prove its value once understood and implemented.

But other parachurch leaders remain cautious and concerned. They suspect the PEACE plan will prove to be difficult to implement nationwide at the grassroots. Religion scholar Alan Wolfe, in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary, expressed the skepticism of many when he said, "A country like Rwanda faces political and social problems beyond the reach of even the most earnest and popular humanitarian efforts."

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Traveling around Rwanda, I met pastors, missionaries, and parachurch leaders who were frank and honest about the enormous challenges they face and the unintended consequences of well-meaning programs, spawned from the outside, not the grassroots. Right now, HIV/AIDS grant money is flooding into African nations like Rwanda. It's drawing some of the nation's most talented local individuals into HIV/AIDS programs. But other programs focused on killers like malaria are getting very little new money.

Reaching the Unengaged

As Saddleback leaders began testing their PEACE plan model, they began to better understand the challenge of ministering to 6,000 unreached people groups in a new way.

Of those 6,000 groups, 3,000 have very few new churches being started. "The hope to get to the remaining 3,000 for church planting is now going to fall on the local church around the world," Constantz says. PEACE plan leaders want to change the thinking of everyday churchgoers and professionals who volunteer their expertise overseas. Ordinary church members would be given "just-in-time" training in order to get to the field quickly. Professionals would be guided to develop simple kits ("church in a box," "clinic in a box," "business in a box") that volunteers could use.

While Saddleback staff have joked that the "church in a box" would include one of their pastor's signature Hawaiian shirts, Warren proves himself a master of capturing the imagination of leaders with innovation and simple ideas. The "business in a box," for example, is based on moving villagers beyond subsistence living. Warren references the popular saying: If you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. If you teach someone how to fish, you feed that person's family for a lifetime. "I want to teach someone to sell fish." By teaching sales and marketing skills, villagers may grow their economy through trade.

Such training may go beyond microeconomics. One leader told me Rwandans have the potential to produce more fruits and vegetables than they consume. Leaders want to help Rwandans find more export markets.

In developing ideas for the "clinic in a box," Constantz one day sat down with medical professionals who attend Saddleback. He asked them how many villages they could reach in a year, and they said about 20.

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"I said, 'Okay. That would be good. Love that idea.' But I said, 'In South Asia alone there are a million villages, and they all could use your help.' " When these professionals recognized the size of the need, they began developing simple things like a dental hygiene kit that trained volunteers could use overseas. Constantz says professionals have a critical role, but there will never be enough of them to overcome poverty globally.

As teams went overseas, Warren found himself ever more in the spotlight. Political and business leaders worldwide were reading The Purpose-Driven Life and demanding one-on-one spiritual counsel. At one point, Warren was conducting a weekly, invitation-only telephone conference call Bible study for more than 100 leaders from international corporations.

But when Peb Jackson, a Saddleback staff member, personally had a chance to give Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, a autographed copy of The Purpose-Driven Life in 2004, not even Warren could have imagined what would show up next on that still-developing Polaroid picture that God had given to his wife.

A Purpose-Driven Nation?

This past summer, Foreign Policy magazine put together a failed-states index, focusing on 60 nations. In the top 20, there were 11 African countries at the highest risk, including Rwanda. Eleven years after the genocide, Rwandans are still burying victims and putting suspects on trial. Deaths from HIV/AIDS and the genocide have created within Rwanda one of the world's greatest concentrations of orphaned children. Rebels cluster on Rwanda's western edge, maiming and killing civilians. Democracy is limited and economic growth is spread unevenly.

But something unexpectedly spiritual is happening in Rwanda. William Beasley, a Chicago-area Anglican pastor, has been working with Rwandan Anglicans since 1998 and sees leaders converging their resources in new ways. "A country that was abandoned by the world has been adopted by the church," he says.

Mark Amstutz, an international relations professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, visited Rwanda this summer to study the gacaca village tribunals. He says something spiritual is happening globally as well as in Rwanda. "Social scientists have it wrong. The world is not becoming more secular. It is becoming more religious.

"If there is going to be peace, it is going to be because religious people are contributing to moderation, tolerance, and conflict resolution."

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After Rwanda's President Kagame read The Purpose-Driven Life, he wrote Warren saying, "I am a purpose-driven man." He invited Warren and others to the capital, Kigali. In March, Warren, his wife, key Saddleback leaders, business leaders, Beasley, and several Rwandan Anglican bishops all gathered in Kigali with the political leaders. "It was one of these wild, divine moments that all these circles interconnected," Beasley says.

"I fell in love with the country," Warren says. "I say, 'Lord, help me find out what you are blessing and help me get in on it.' I think God is blessing Rwanda."

Warren and Rwanda's leaders jointly came up with the idea of Rwanda becoming the "world's first purpose-driven nation." A month after the March visit, Kagame and his wife traveled to Orange County, California, for Saddleback's 25th anniversary. Then this summer the Warrens returned to Rwanda with Saddleback's senior staff and evangelicals from around North America.

For six days in mid-July, American evangelicals were dispatched nationwide via military helicopters and suvs. Warren christened this effort as launch: Listen and learn. Assess the biggest needs. Uncover and utilize the "man of peace." Nurture a coalition. Conduct leadership training. Hold a national rally.

During the day, Americans visited genocide sites, child-headed households, classrooms, medical clinics, schools, and churches. Each evening, Rwandans, including Anglican Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini, sponsored lavish dinners, and American evangelicals got their first exposure to roasted goat and traditional Rwandan dance with Christian lyrics.

"Rwanda touches something very deep inside of me," Kay Warren says. "There's just something about this bruised and battered country that's gotten under my skin."

On the weekend, what happened at Kigali's Amahoro Stadium did more than touch the visiting Americans. On national television, Warren, outfitted in a black and white Hawaiian shirt, told 9,000 cheering Rwandans about their president, "I have looked inside this man's heart and I have seen compassion. I have seen courage, and I have seen humility." Warren placed his hand on Kagame's shoulder and prayed for a blessing on him.

Local journalists were bug-eyed. One reporter told me, "We have to reconcile ourselves. We need purpose and a future. Rick is coming at the right time, and it is genuine."

The next day, Rick Warren left Rwanda on the presidential jet to attend a meeting of African leaders in Senegal, then he went on to other meetings in Europe.

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Back in Rwanda, Christians were sorting out their feelings and discovered their enthusiasm was mixed with worry. One well-educated Rwandan leader told me, "One reality that we have to face here is when a leader speaks, we follow even if we are not convinced." Public support for the PEACE plan may not translate well long term to the grassroots, he said.

Others are more skeptical still. As Wolfe put it, "It has taken centuries for Rwandans to descend into the hell in which they exist. Not even becoming a purpose-driven nation is likely to bring them to heaven anytime soon."

But Warren, in a reference to the genocide, told Rwandan pastors, "If the Devil gives you problems about your past, you remind him of his future." Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana, who has probably worked more closely with Americans than any other Rwandan Christian, says, "I praised the Lord having the PEACE plan come from Saddleback. You know God is doing something when people in different places get the same idea before they are connected. It's not just our idea. It's our vision."

Kay Warren, during a follow-up phone interview from her home in Orange County, said she had first come to Rwanda looking for the "monster" killers responsible for the genocide. But everyone looked average to her.

"Average people became monsters and let evil reign in their lives for a while. That means that I, too, could become a monster given the right circumstances." She says it's a lesson she could only have learned in Rwanda.

She also told me she's searched diligently for that life-changing 2002 magazine article, but has failed to find it. The pebble disappeared, but the ripples live on. Later this year and in 2006, Saddleback expects to send out other PEACE plan teams to Rwanda and elsewhere worldwide, as their prototype is further tested in the field.

Timothy C. Morgan is deputy managing editor of CT. Additional reporting by Tony Carnes, CT senior writer, in New York City.

Related Elsewhere:

Hunting the Big Gazelle | Why Rick Warren may succeed where others failed.

Earlier CT coverage of Rwanda includes:

Healing Genocide | Ten years after the slaughter, Rwandans begin to mend their torn nation with a justice that is both biblical and African. (March 31, 2004)
A Justice that Restores | A method for bringing victims and offenders together. (March 31, 2004)
Inside CT: Forgiveness 101 | Rwanda is becoming a lab for testing new models of Christian forgiveness. (March 31, 2004)
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Influence of Roman Catholic Church in Acquittal of Rwandan Bishop Debated | Augustin Misago cleared of 1994 genocide charges. (July 20, 2000)

Earlier coverage of Rick Warren includes:

Cover story
A Regular Purpose-Driven Guy | Rick Warren's genius is in helping pastors see the obvious. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Forget Your Bliss | The success of The Purpose-Driven Life reveals a cultural opportunity. A Christianity Today editorial (March 9, 2004)
Saddleback's Social Capital | The author of Bowling Alone discovers Evangelicals can be trusted at the civic table. (March 2, 2004)

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