Kay Warren has a confession to make. For a long time she thought AIDS was somebody else's problem. "It didn't have anything to do with me because it was a 'gay disease,' and I didn't have to care," says Warren, who co-founded Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, with her husband, Rick, in the early 1980s. That attitude is "not something I'm proud of," she admits.
Then, in 2003, Warren met Joana, an HIV-positive woman in Mozambique who was near death. Suddenly AIDS had a face and name. And Warren knew she couldn't pretend it was none of her business anymore. After returning from Africa, she set up an AIDS office at Saddleback and began running informational forums for church members. She also started attending AIDS conferences to find out how her church could best help people with AIDS.
Warren spied a familiar face at one of those conferences—her friend Lynne Hybels, co-founder (with husband Bill) of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. As Warren and Hybels talked, they realized they were involved in the same fight. Both were convinced the evangelical church had to respond—in a public and powerful way—to the AIDS pandemic. And both were committed to making it happen.
Since then, Warren and Hybels have become two of the most influential evangelicals in America. With their husbands (and a rock star named Bono), they've put AIDS and poverty at the top of American evangelicals' public agenda.
When it comes to U.S. megachurches, Willow Creek and Saddleback belong to the jumbo variety. They are two of the three largest churches in the United States, according to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, with weekly attendances of 20,000 and 22,000, respectively. First is Joel Olsteen's Lakewood Church, which draws 30,000 people each week.