Pastor Rick Warren's final Saddleback Church sermon is a lot like his first one in 1980

·4 min read
Pastor Rick Warren speaks during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2022
Pastor Rick Warren speaks during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Anaheim on June 14. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

In his first year, pastor Rick Warren stood behind a pulpit that was cut and carved by one of the handful of his early congregants of the then-fledgling Saddleback Church in 1980.

Forty-two years later, Warren on Sunday stood behind the same pulpit to offer his last sermon as senior pastor of the megachurch.

"It's been my privilege to love you, 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 rough patch, and to teach you," he said.

Recalling his first message as a young pastor searching for a flock in Orange County, Warren offered the same sermon he gave during the first service on March 30, 1980, in the theater of a Laguna Hills high school, called "The Beginning of a Miracle."

This time, Warren gave the sermon as tens of thousands of people watched and as one of the most influential and defining figures of American evangelicalism.

Warren announced his retirement in June 2021, a decision partly prompted by his declining health, and also by a promise he'd made to the dozens of early congregants he'd managed during the first year of the church in 1980, that he would give the new church 40 years of his life.

"I was defining the type of church we were going to be to total strangers, and nothing existed," he said before his sermon Sunday. "We were just speaking it into existence."

Now 68 years old, Warren said he and his wife, Kay, had originally planned to retire in 2020, but had an "uneasy feeling it still wasn't the right time to resign."

Instead, the couple shepherded the large church through the COVID-19 pandemic and a shutdown than would affect the church for about 14 months.

On Sunday, Warren harked back to the original message he offered.

"Begin with the end in mind," said Warren, who has delivered more than 6,500 sermons. "That means being purpose driven."

It was a familiar message to the thousands of congregants in the 120-acre Lake Forest facility and the many who watch livestreams of Saddleback services. During his time as senior pastor, Warren transformed a Southern California church with no permanent place of worship into an influential behemoth that would expand to Argentina, Hong Kong, Germany and the Philippines.

Saddleback Church and Disneyland, he would note, attract the most visitors to Orange County at any one time.

The author of "A Purpose Driven Life," Warren became a leading Christian figure in the United States. In 2008, he hosted the two leading presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain and then-Sen. Barack Obama, at Saddleback Church.

That year, Warren backed Proposition 8, the California constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage but was struck down by the state Supreme Court after voters approved it.

Warren was invited to give the invocation at President Obama's inauguration in 2009 and continued to be an influential voice on social issues that conservative and Christian voices latched on to as political hot-button topics.

Three years later, he had soured on Obama's presidency, saying the administration "intentionally infringed upon religious liberties."

But Warren also adopted positions in opposition to the most conservative evangelical voices in the country.

For years, he dedicated money to help people with AIDS. In 2006, he spoke out about the dangers of global warming. In 2021, the church also ordained female pastors, a move that put the church at odds with the most conservative voices of Southern Baptist churches.

During the annual Southern Baptist Convention this year, a faction considered kicking out Saddleback Church, which is considered to be in "friendly cooperation" with Southern Baptist churches. The decision was postponed after a surprise speech by Warren, who urged members to stop "bickering over secondary issues."

Warren said he would take on a less "visible position as founding pastor" and would continue to be involved with Saddleback Church.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.