LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–The Saddleback Community Church bleachers were still filling up when the jazzy Latino pre-service music faded and, with a “One, two, three!” countdown, the 13-piece band rocked into their opening hymn.
“I wanna be like You. Live everyday, the way that You want me to,” sang the throng, watching the JumbroTrons. “It’s getting better. I read Your letter. These are the words You said to me. Love the Lord with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. These are the things that you must do, and my grace will see you through. … It’s all about love. Hey!”
Saddleback looks like a textbook mega-church, the kind that keeps inspiring sociologists to rush to their computers. Rick Warren and friends mailed 15,000 invitations to their first service in 1980 and the church had 10,000 members before it built a sanctuary. Today, 16,000 or more attend five “seeker friendly” weekend services. The sunny baptismal pool welcomes a river of newcomers, with 1,638 baptized in 1999.
Outside the 3,000-seat worship center, booths offered programs for families, blended families, single parents, separated men, separated women and people struggling with almost every difficulty life can offer. Inside, the choir bounced through a reggae chorus, an oldie from 1979 and a gospel-rock anthem. Then Warren took center stage, dressed down in khakis and a black knit shirt.
“We’ve been looking at thinking clearly about your problems, about your relationships, about change, about sex, about stress,” he said, starting one of many strolls away from the traditional pulpit. “But there’s one area where people are more confused than probably any other area. It causes more divorces than sex. And it is finances, it’s ‘Til debt do us part.'”
The crowd laughed, because Warren is a witty storyteller and commentator on Orange County life. On this day, he told many in his flock: “You’re spending money you don’t have on things that you don’t need to impress people you don’t even like.” This creates Saddleback Valley syndrome, with dreams and debts creating workaholism, then exhaustion, then depression, then shopping sprees, then more debt.
But this wasn’t a mega-church sermonette for folks used to clutching a TV remote. Warren regularly preaches between 50 minutes and an hour, working his way through a dozen Scripture passages and waves of illustrations from the news and daily life.
Seeker-friendly sermons do not have to be short and shallow, Warren said. “The idea that postmodern people will not listen to a ‘talking head’ for 45 minutes is pure myth,” he said. “Of course, most people, including many preachers, couldn’t hold an audience for 10 minutes. But that’s due to their communication style, not the supposed short attention span of unbelievers. Any communicator who is personal, passionate, authentic and applies the Scriptures to real life will have no trouble holding the attention of our generation.”
Critics may scoff, but this Southern Baptist congregation is committed to developing techniques to help churches with 150 members, as well as 15,000. Saddleback services rarely include comedy and drama, because small churches struggle to find talented writers and actors. Saddleback rarely uses high-tech media in its services, because small churches don’t have the resources to do so.
That’s OK. Warren said that “if all seekers were looking for was a quality production, they’d stay home and watch TV, where millions are spent to produce half-hour programs.”
But most of Warren’s sermons do include breaks in which church members offer testimonies — sometimes chatty, sometimes wrenching — about how their lives have been changed by prayer, Bible study, giving and service. Why do this? Because all churches can ask members to offer testimonies.
Churches don’t have to be shallow to appeal to the heads and hearts of unbelievers, Warren stressed. In fact, just the opposite is true.
“Unbelievers wrestle with the same deep questions believers have,” he said. “Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Does life make sense? Why is there suffering and evil in the world? What is my purpose in life? How can I learn to get along with people? These are certainly not shallow issues.”
Mattingly teaches at the Alexandria, Va., campus of Regent University and writes a weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Used by permission.