American Church Tour Stop 1: Saddleback Church

Church: Saddleback Church, Lake Forest CA

Senior Pastor: Rick Warren

Date: Sunday 19th April 2015, 11am Service

America’s Pastor

There is famous pastor in the U.S. who is so influential that he has become known as “America’s Pastor.” He has the phone numbers of more than one U.S. President and more than a few entertainers you may have heard of. He is one of the best-selling authors of all time (writer of the New York Times best seller “The Purpose Driven Life”), and is invited to speak at conferences all around the world. His name is Rick Warren, and he is the pastor of one of America’s biggest churches, Saddleback Church.

Just an hour’s drive from where I’ve been staying in LA, I couldn’t think of a better church to begin my tour of American churches with than the one pastored by America’s Pastor (a title previously held by Billy Graham). When I looked up Saddleback Church on trusty Google maps, and found that it was located on none other than “Saddleback Parkway”, I immediately knew I was in for something… uncommon.

And I was right. Saddleback Church’s campus had a lot more than its own street. It had a whole… grounds, estate, thing, that you could almost, maybe, compare to a theme park. The first perk I found was every church goer’s dream: abundant parking. The parking seemed inexhaustible. I’m probably exaggerating when I say that the outdoor parking lot extended beyond the horizon line, but it definitely felt like that.

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The Campus Dreams Are Made Of

But seriously, that long journey from the car park – with the accompanying stream of fellow attendees – to the “Worship Centre” at the centre of the grounds was an experience reminiscent of my childhood family trips to Wonderland. There were people of all ages, lots of families coming together, and facilities to suit the whole family. There was a playground for the kids, food stalls, as well as sign up stalls for small groups, volunteering, and whatnot. There was Christian music playing outdoors that you could hear as you approached the worship centre. There was an outdoor baptism pool out on a patio with a whole seating section overlooking it. There was a building – not a room, a building – for the kids ministry, as well as other buildings whose names and purposes elude me. The icing on the cake for all of this was that there was a train system, like those kid style trolley things that you see at Darling Harbour in Sydney, that was carting people around from A to B.

The worship centre was on top of a small hill, just big enough to necessitate a stairway, one which inspired a hint of awe (the American flag on its right hand side contributed to that), but again with enough of a family theme park vibe that it wasn’t intimidating. And at every turn there were friendly people wearing shirts indicating that they could help me with directions or presumably any other problem, which helped make things feel friendly and approachable.

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The interesting thing is, when I finally made it to the auditorium/worship centre, it wasn’t that big. It was by no means small – probably would have seated a thousand or two. But it was smaller than the Hills campus at Hillsong in Sydney. That makes sense, because I think Hillsong church is a bit bigger overall than Saddleback; it’s just interesting when you consider the size of the grounds surrounding that auditorium.

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The Service Format

The service started with the band coming out and playing a musical intro, about 30 seconds in, the five or so singers came out to lead worship. It was a song I’d never heard of (by the end of the service the only familiar song we’d sung was “This I Believe [The Apostle’s Creed]” by none other than Hillsong), but the singers and musicians were very good. Then at the end of that song, just as I was getting ready for the next one, everybody sat down, and suddenly Rick Warren was on stage talking about things. Turned out it was one of those churches where they didn’t have a “worship session”, but rather had four or five songs scattered at various points throughout the service. They even had a song between the “intro” of the sermon and the sermon itself, which definitely kept me guessing.

A Simple Sermon

Rick was up front for a lot of the service. He was essentially playing the MC role as well as the preacher role, which subconsciously felt a bit off for me; I’m used to having a “separation of powers” of sorts, whereby the person preaching is never the same person hosting the service. Whether one way is better than the other, I’m not sure. Anyway, the sermon was entitled, “Daring to Give God my Best.” And it was a very practical, very challenging exhortation to give God our best in life along with some instructions on how we can do that. It was based on a passage in 2 Timothy 2:3-7, which presents three analogies for the the Christian life – a soldier, an athlete, and a farmer. Rick straightforwardly took these three analogies and expanded on each of them, with subsequent Bible references and practical applications at every corner. It was an incredibly simple structure that was very effective.

It was not the kind of sermon in which you wondered where it was going. Rick had basically told you the beginning, middle and conclusion from the outset, and we each had a sermon outline in the handouts we were all given at the door. There was never any question about what he was trying to say. Rick Warren doesn’t preach with all the theatrics and oratorical ornamentation that you would expect from a megachurch pastor – which Rick certainly qualifies as, with his 20,000 strong congregation – but what Rick does have is uncanny clarity, the kind that makes sure you have heard and completely understood what God’s word teaches. But not in a cerebral or academic way either – he communicates in a very familial, even child-friendly way.

Translation Buffet

This was taken to another level with his – to me – extremely noticeable choices of Bible translation. I don’t think he used the NIV, ESV, or NKJV even once in the whole sermon. Some of the translations he used included: New Living Translation, The Message, Living Bible, New Century Version, Today’s English Version, and several others. Most of the translations I had never heard of, but some were quite similar to The Message, in that they take the ideas the passage communicates and present them in very simple, contemporary English. Personally I’m often bothered when preachers use The Message, but something about the way Rick used it worked for me. Maybe it’s because I don’t doubt for a second that he could exposit complex word-for-word translations like the ESV if he wanted to, and so I know he hasn’t chosen these translations out of literary incompetence, but out of a pastor-teacher’s impulse to feed his sheep. It also might have something to do with the fact that he never made any conclusions out of the wording of passages from The Message or the Living Bible, but rather simply used them to communicate the passages’ ideas (which is the only thing with any authority that The Message and translations like it conserve). He wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with his preaching, or say anything theologically groundbreaking or controversial (the kind of activity that really requires detailed study of the original words of scripture). He was just exhorting his congregation with a friendly reminder to give God their absolute best in every sphere of their life.

Saddleback and the Gospel

There was no alter call, or any kind of challenge or invitation for people to become Christians in the service I attended. I’m not gonna go right out and say that’s a fault in the church (they may do evangelism in other ways), but I thought this was worthy of note. As I write this, I’m reminded of something I’m hesitant to say, but couldn’t help but feel as I sat through the service. And that is that in this church service (and you can’t conclude too much from one service), there was little emphasis on what I might call the Gospel, by which I mean the fact that we the body of Christ have been saved from death in our sins, forgiven of all our trespasses according to Jesus’ death on the cross. It was there, but it was mentioned somewhat in passing. Even the songs (and I noticed this with surprise) didn’t mention Jesus much at all, but mentioned “God” a lot. The main emphasis seemed not to be “This is what God has done for you, me and the world,” but rather, “This is how God wants us to live.” So yes the sermon was very practical, and yet not overwhelmingly relational (in the vertical sense). It didn’t seem to address the question of, “Who am I in Christ?” as much as, “How can I please God?” I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this the kind of place where a nominal “Be nice and you’ll go to Heaven,” kind of Christian might continue in his ways without being challenged to be radically born again into right relationship with Jesus? But wonder – not conclude – is all I will do on that at this point.

What Is This Church Made Of?

What was the congregations involvement like in the service? When I entered the auditorium 5 minutes before the service, about one sixth of the seats were filled, and it had increased to about a quarter or a third by the time the service began at 11am. I noticed that a good 15 minutes into the service, the auditorium had probably only hit three quarters full. It wasn’t until the beginning of the sermon that the auditorium was actually full. Interesting. I may also have done a little sneaky looking around while we sang worship songs. There were a healthy number of people with their hands raised, singing their hearts out. Unfortunately, the majority of the congregation looked rather inanimate during songs, to the point of not singing for some. All that aside, however, by fluke I had come in on a service in which they were starting a giving campaign to raise money for their campus facilities, and Rick spent a good deal of time early in the service recounting the history of giving at Saddleback. Whatever the church looks like while they worship, they certainly have some amazingly – sacrificially – generous people among them, going by some of the stories Rick told.

Meeting Rick

The service finished at 12:36pm, with the band playing a rocking musical outro. As I walked out the back exit from the auditorium, I began to notice the line out my exit was moving particularly slowly. Turned out I had chosen the doorway at which Rick was standing, greeting people as they left the service. Some people were saying hi and hugging him as if they hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks, others asked to take a photo with him as if they were pretty excited to finally see him in the flesh. You might say that Rick is feeding his celebrity image by putting himself in sight’s way and allowing the fame-hungry crowds to satisfy their cravings. You could also argue that he’s doing the opposite of that by making himself approachable, just like the pastors in those small old churches who traditionally stand at the exit after every service, shaking every person’s hand before they leave. I suppose it could go either way. I thought I might as well try to get a photo with him, but on my first try, he was too flooded with people to see me, and the awkwardness threshold forced me to keep walking out the door.

I decided to just walk around, looking for someone to talk to, but I wasn’t really able to find anyone. So when I was passing the auditorium for the third time and saw that Rick was still in there, and noticed that this guy standing near him looked very much like he must have been his PA, I decided to go in and introduce myself. At this point in the article I haven’t mentioned that Brian, whom I’m staying with in Azusa, CA, is best friends with Rick’s PA, Wesley. I hadn’t yet met Wesley, and didn’t know what he looked like. But he knew I might be coming, and this guy I was looking at appeared about the right age and calibre of person (Brian spoke very highly of Wesley) to be the right guy. So I went up and introduced myself, and it turned out my senses had availed me: Wesley he was. But he and Rick were literally just about to leave the church. So Wesley and I had a nice quick, chat and he introduced me to Rick and took a photo of us before Rick said, “Oh that guy out there has the coolest shirt; I wanna go meet him,” at which point I thought that Rick must be one of those extrovert pastors. He clearly loves people, and is great with them.

The verdict: Perfect in Christ

At the end of the day, we will never experience a perfect church. At the same time, in God’s eyes there is no such thing as an imperfect church. If it’s a community of people who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, then it is just in his eyes. And so ultimately there are only two possible assessment outcomes I’m interested in: of the Body, or of the World.

Any problems and misguidances aside, is this church doing the work of Christ, or something else? Is it a community of genuine, born-again believers, who are trying to bring new people into the Kingdom of God? While I would enjoy some conversations with Pastor Rick, and maybe other church members, about who in particular their ministry aims to reach, what their thoughts are on American nominalism vs Biblical Christianity, and where they see Saddleback fitting into that context, I am presently convinced that Saddleback Church is playing along with what Jesus is doing in the world.

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