Celebrate Recovery founder John Baker dies: 'The world lost a giant of a man'

Celebrate Recovery founder John Baker
Celebrate Recovery founder John Baker | YouTube/Screengrab

Pastor John Baker, founder of Celebrate Recovery — a global ministry born out of the heart of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church aimed at helping people recover from addiction and other “hurts, habits, and hang-ups” — has died.

The Celebrate Recovery National team shared the news of Baker’s death in a social media statement Tuesday. The cause of death has not yet been announced. 

“There are times in life when words are totally inadequate in sharing how you feel, this morning is one of those days,” the statement attributed to Celebrate Recovery National Director Mac Owen and his wife, Mary, states.

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“My dearest friend and brother has gone Home. John Baker co-founder of Celebrate Recovery made his way Home early this morning. To say this took us by surprise would be an understatement. John touched more people with the healing power and grace of Jesus Christ than anyone else that I have ever known personally and one of those lives was mine.”

The team plans to share more details “in the days to come,” but asked supporters to keep Baker’s wife and Celebrate Recovery co-founder, Cheryl Baker, in their prayers. 

“We will miss John more than words can express but it will only be for a short while and then we will see him again. See you soon my brother," the statement added. 

Celebrate Recovery is a Christ-centered, 12-step recovery ministry started in 1991 at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. The ministry was founded after Baker wrote Warren the “now-famous, concise, 13-page, single-spaced” letter outlining the vision God had given him for the program. 

Today, 35,000 Celebrate Recovery groups meet around the world. The program has been implemented in churches, recovery houses, rescue missions, universities and prisons. 

More than 3,600 people attended the Celebrate Recovery Summit hosted at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Aug. 9, 2012.
More than 3,600 people attended the Celebrate Recovery Summit hosted at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Aug. 9, 2012. | (Photo: Lisa Merry)

Baker, who authored several books on addiction and recovery, previously shared how his heart for others was birthed out of his own recovery story. 

A “functioning alcoholic” with a failing marriage, he found freedom and recovery through Christ and Warren’s ministry.  

Although Baker initially found help with his addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous, he desired a Christian-based healing program. He presented a plan to Warren about starting a Christ-centered 12-step program through Saddleback Church, according to a frequently-asked-questions page

“All of us have several things in common. We love Christ, we’re willing to turn our lives over to Him, and we’re praying that we can begin to break the cycle of dysfunction for our families,” Baker shared in an online testimony. 

On Facebook, Saddleback Church leader Kay Warren said that the “world lost a giant of a man today" and that her family “lost a dear friend and brother in the Lord.”

“Thirty years ago John Baker turned the ruins of his life over to Jesus Christ and God transformed him from a driven businessman with an addiction to alcohol, a failing marriage and alienated children to a Christ-follower with a passion to help others with their ‘hurts, habits and hang ups’ through the principles of recovery,” she wrote. 

“More than 7 million men and women around the world have found hope, a new start, and the God who made them [through] the program he co-founded with his precious wife Cheryl and Rick - Celebrate Recovery. There is simply no way to put into words how I love John and will miss this kind, creative, brilliant and faithful man.”

Our world lost a giant of a man today, and our family lost a dear friend and brother in the Lord. Thirty years ago John...

Posted by Kay Warren on Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Celebrate Recovery International Director Richard Cobb said that Baker is a “hero of the faith” who “gave many of us a fresh picture of how God can help with our brokenness.” 

“He will continue to be an example to this forever family in so many ways,” Cobb tweeted

James Ackerman, president of the national evangelical prison ministry organization Prison Fellowship, said in a statement that the impact of Baker's "faithful obedience will go on for generations." 

"Several years ago, I met John in his office in California. We had a great discussion and began a fruitful collaboration that continues to this day," Ackerman explained. "God simply put us together at the right time. Celebrate Recovery Inside is now a key component of the Prison Fellowship Academy, and Celebrate Recovery chapters in the community are key partners in the ministry of Angel Tree Christmas."

On social media, hundreds shared how Baker’s program changed their lives. 

“Thank you, John Baker, for the difference you made in my life. You made a remarkable difference in countless lives across the face of the globe, for the glory of HIS kingdom. Prayers for your family, friends, and a great multitude of forever family,” commented one supporter. 

Wrote another: “This man has done so much for the hurting people in this world, including me. I have to say I am in shock, but I know he is receiving his reward today in the presence of his King. I appreciate his heart and his obedience to Christ in founding Celebrate Recovery.”

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