Warren's outreach to Muslims stems directly from his church's location in multiethnic Orange County, home to 170,000 Muslims.
For 12 years Warren has lived next door to Yasser Barakat, a Muslim from Syria who worships at a Mission Viejo mosque four miles down the road from Saddleback. The Trabuco Canyon neighbors were friends for years before Barakat realized he lived next door to a world-famous Christian pastor.
When Barakat discovered who Warren was, he invited his neighbor to learn more about Islam. "I was talking to him over the fence," Barakat said. "I said, 'Rick, why don't you go to Syria with me? He said, 'Sure, let's talk about it. Let's do it.' "
Warren traveled with Barakat to Syria in 2006, and Warren and his wife, Kay, began attending Iftar meals at the Mission Viejo mosque. Iftar is the evening meal Muslims eat after fasting all day during the holy month of Ramadan. Invitations followed to address Muslim conferences in Long Beach, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
"We understand that to some people in the religious community these events may be difficult to swallow," said Yassir Fazaga, imam at the Mission Viejo mosque.
"But I believe that we have to begin somewhere and just begin to reach out and be accessible to people when they ask about who we are."
Gwynne Guibord, an ordained Episcopal priest and co-founder of a Los Angeles outreach group that fosters relationships between churches and mosques nationwide, said Saddleback's effort is unprecedented.
"I'm not aware of any other evangelical church reaching out to the Muslim community," she said.
Guibord said that when she and Jihad Turk co-founded the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group in 2006, they sent invitations to mosques, the Catholic archdiocese and a variety of mainline Protestant denominations throughout Southern California, but not to evangelical churches.
"I think that many evangelicals feel a mandate to convert people to Christianity," Guibord said. Because the Consultative Group was founded to respond to increasing antagonism between the two faiths, "we would not have made headway" if one side was trying to convert the other, she said. Now, she said, it might be possible to include evangelicals in her group's work.
Turk said the relationship between Saddleback and Muslims, though still in its infancy, has already produced results. "People (at the December dinner) were talking about the bonds they've formed and they were crying," he said. Both sides realized they shared misconceptions about each other's faith.
"We did a quiz at the Christmas dinner," Turk said, "asking basic questions about Islam or Christianity with the scriptures, the Koran or the Bible. And both sides were missing it.... It's an education for everyone."
Barakat said he continues to know Warren as a man who literally loves his neighbor. Barakat said his children could always count on Warren to buy the candy or magazine subscriptions they sold door-to-door for school fundraisers. The Warrens have hosted Barakat's family at a Christmas dinner, he said.
"He calls me his Muslim brother," Barakat said. "It all started with a friendship."