The event will play to one of Obama's strengths, talking about his Christian faith, but it will also underscore the gulf between his views and those of the most conservative Christian voters.
Many of McCain's positions are more in line with the evangelical worldview, but he is uncomfortable
- and some critics say unconvincing - while talking about his personal beliefs.
The candidates will appear separately, spending one hour each with Warren, before coming together on stage for a handshake. The pastor, who does not endorse candidates, will be the only one asking questions.
Warren is an anti-abortion Southern Baptist who is nonetheless part of a shift away from the religious right's strict focus on abortion and marriage. The environment, poverty and education have also become pressing concerns, especially for younger evangelicals.
Warren is best known for building Saddleback Church into a 23,000-member megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., and for writing the multimillion-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life."
But he and his wife, Kay, are also leading advocates for HIV/AIDS victims worldwide. They have invested enormous resources in their PEACE Plan, now under way in Rwanda, which aims to combat corruption, illiteracy and other social problems through church partnerships with government and business.
Older-guard evangelical leaders who oppose broadening the agenda have been leaning on Warren. In a stream of statements in the days leading up to the forum, they implored him to press the candidates about their positions on abortion.
Larry Ross, who represents Warren, said the pastor has been consulting with other clergy and with experts in different fields to develop questions for the candidates about leadership, the Constitution, human rights and "sin and righteousness issues."
"The more liberal camp just assumes that Pastor Warren is going to make this a Christian litmus test of the presidency. Others, who are more conservative, fear he is going to wimp out on some of the issues," Ross said. "He says,
'Neither group understands or knows me.' He's going to ask tough questions, fair questions, not gotcha questions."
Obama has proven adept at explaining how his Christian faith has shaped his policies. The church forum also gives him a perfect setting to counter the misperception that he is Muslim. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 12 percent of respondents believe the Illinois senator is Muslim.
"It's a great way for him to do what he can to make connections with not only moderate evangelicals, but also the many people out there who read
'The Purpose-Driven Life,'" said Mark Silk, who specializes in religion and public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
However, Obama will inevitably be asked to explain his support for abortion rights and other issues that clash with conservative Christian theology.
The Obama campaign has been diligently courting religious voters with a presence on Christian radio and blogs, and through "American Values Forums" and other events.