This Lenten season, congregations are buzzing about something more than Mel Gibson’s controversial film, "The Passion of the Christ."
Though the faithful are going en masse to see that film dramatizing Christ’s final hours on Earth, it’s estimated some 10,000 American churches have adopted the Rev. Rick Warren’s best-selling book, "The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?"
The book calls on Christians to spend 40 days — the same time as there is in the season of Lent — to carefully take a spiritual journey through their hearts and "discover God’s purpose for you in this world."
"God longs for you to discover the life he created you to live — here on Earth and forever in eternity," Warren asserts to start the book.
At La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church in Scottsdale, 1,000 copies of "The Purpose Driven Life" were ordered, while still other members purchased the book on their own. They have found a place in about 110 small groups at the church. Groups convene regularly during Lent to discuss elements of the book and its impact on their faith.
"The 40 days fit perfectly for Lent," said La Casa de Cristo’s senior pastor, the Rev. Andrew Garman. "I thought it was a good match. It is a book that, regardless of where you are in the theological spectrum, you can draw very powerful spiritual challenges and growth ideas from it, and it is biblically based."
"The Purpose Driven Life" (Zondervan, $19.99) has sold dramatically.
"We can’t keep it in the store," said Peter Lisagor, a spokesman at Borders in Mesa. The store has sold nearly 500 copies.
Since its release in October 2002, the book, divided into 40 short chapters, has sold more than 4 million copies and won the 2003 Book of the Year Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. It was once No. 1 on The New York Times’ best-seller list. Warren is founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., which has 60,000 members and an average Sunday attendance of 17,000. He told that story in the 1995 book "The Purpose Driven Church."
At La Casa de Cristo, "Purpose" participants were instructed not to sneak a peek at the book until the program began. "But they’d say, ‘Oh, did you read . . .?’ and I said, ‘Wait a minute, you are not supposed to open that yet,’ " Garman told participants.
He sees many benefits for his church. With 3,000 attending the Scottsdale church each Sunday, it allows members to get into smaller groups and better know others. "We think the benefits will be in the spiritual growth of the congregation," he said.
Participants are to read one chapter each day "so you will have time to think about the implications for your life," he said. Day 7, for example, focuses on how there is a "reason for everything." Day 12 is about developing a friendship with God, and Day 38 calls on the reader to become a "worldclass Christian" and think about others.
It’s said that Warren, a Southern Baptist, laid out 15 Bibles of various translations to produce the 336-page book. He asserts effective living comes from responding to five God-ordained purposes: Worship, community, discipleship, ministry and evangelism.
"In our consumer society, I think it takes the focus off of you and puts it on God, and that starts right in the first chapter," Garman said. "It’s not about you. If you want to know about you, you need to find your purpose that God has for our life, and that is pretty much it." The La Casa de Cristo book study culminates with a celebration on Palm Sunday.
At Mountain View Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills, 400 copies of "The Purpose Driven Life" were ordered for study groups that began Monday.
"We have asked people to make a commitment to a 40-day journey where they could read a couple pages in the book, take a few quiet moments to reflect on what they are reading each day and come together," said the Rev. Richard Nelson, a senior pastor who will preach each week of Lent on aspects of the book.
"We expect it to be rather revolutionary in the lives of some people who have not ever paused before to ask a question that is deep down inside of each of us," Nelson said. He credits the popularity of the book to a hunger and deep-seated need to find meaning.
"As I perceive it, there is a quest — a quest for meaning, purpose, holiness in life -- and this book has hit the nail on the head," he said.
Guiding a study session at Mountain View will be Greg and Shele Hauser, who found the book a perfect tool in their spiritual development after they completed the Alpha Course, a practical 10-week introduction to Christianity where participants may take a hard look at the validity and relevance of the Christian faith.
Greg Hauser, a chiropractor, said he had moved his wife and 2 1 /2-year-old son, from Kansas City to Ahwatukee Foothills, and it and other issues brought extreme stress. While Shele was raised Lutheran, "I was kind of sitting there with a blank stare on my face," Greg said.
Wanting to be able to respond to questions from his son — such as "Why are we going to church?" — Greg said he took Alpha, or what he calls "Christianity 101," and found he was "able to tap into what everybody else was tapping into."
It profoundly changed his relationship with his family and his patients. The Hausers subsequently volunteered to help teach an Alpha class, then they heard about "The Purpose Driven Life."
"I wanted to start developing a purpose in my life and have God introduced into my clinic," Greg Hauser said. "How would I do that and have a purpose? My purpose is not to be a chiropractor. My purpose was to serve God and serve man." He concluded that chiropractic is "the method I am using to serve God."
Shele said she had hit "rock bottom" and "wasn’t the positive enthusiastic person I usually am." But "The Purpose Driven Life" changed her attitude. "It makes sense," she said.
"The book is just wonderful, and we are hoping to reach a lot of others because it is just awesome, and we really can’t wait until we are able to talk with our group and get more feedback from each other," she said.
Their old Alpha group together was reconstituted as a "Purpose" study group.
Now Greg Hauser is saying, "There is no way I could have orchestrated the way things have been working in my life . . . this is what he (God) intended."
"There are two reasons that Alpha has tied beautifully into ‘The Purpose Driven Life,’ " said Beth Fitch, director of Alpha in Arizona. First, Alpha transforms lives and turns people into helpers and leaders. Secondly, the two combine to fulfill the fifth purpose of "Driven Life," evangelism. "They need a tool to reach out to others around them, and Alpha is a natural tool to do it," she said.
It’s summed up in Day 39: "Pass on what you know to others. If you want to keep growing, the best way to learn more is to pass on what you have already learned."