On Visiting West Coast Churches Post 1 – My Time at Saddleback

When I was visiting LA a few weeks ago I had the privilege of worshiping and visiting a few churches: Saddleback Church, RealityLA and Mariners Church (I intended on attending Mosaic as well but ran out of time). In the weeks since, I’ve been thinking the nature of large church environments, West Coast culture and the Northeast, what I liked and what’s thrown me off.

Now, sometimes I think it’s a good idea for a pastor to not be in church on a Sunday. This was tempting, not when I woke up that Sunday morning but back in March when I was planning out the trip. I was also tempted by the thought, “Everyone knows the West Coast is completely different from the East Coast, and the Northeast is different from the Southeast, so why go?” You can hear the professional consumer in the question can’t you?

I knew I wasn’t visiting various churches to steal ideas that would lead to revival in New England but simply observe from a Sunday morning/evening worshipper and go from there. I admit, processing my own tension was almost as interesting as attending. What is it about visiting other churches brings this out? I prayed my heart would be right, prayed I’d worship first, observe second. Not sure exactly how I did but the thought was convicting and provided a helpful posture.

First church I visited was Saddleback and it was great to attend with my cousin who is Coptic Orthodox. Sadly it was the second Sunday since Rick Warren’s son Matthew had taken his life (I did consider not attending because of that but the truth was I wasn’t going to gawk – more on that soon).

I guess the first thing I noticed about Saddleback was all the ample parking. Parking is an issue for us at Grace Chapel and I couldn’t help but smile as I suppressed the envy. The next decision you have is where to worship. You can worship inside the main worship center or outside in a number of places – not exactly separate venues but there were giant screens and speakers around.

One of the outdoor spots had a portion of the seating covered and the other half uncovered for those who prefer a little sun. The cynical side of me was to ask at the visitor’s booth if there was a tanning section and if I could get some Purpose Driven lotion in the bookstore. Later I would feel guilty for this thought.

On the back side of the worship center there was the type of covered bungalow that you would see at a resort. It was reserved for parents of toddlers who did not want to go to the nursery building (or whose parents did not want them to go). The bungalow had a small play area and as a father of a 5, 3, and 1 year old, I saw the appeal of sitting there, especially if my wife and I were visiting for the first time.

It’s in this area that you see all the buildings, I think I saw about 7 others, nursery, children’s min, adult discipleship, something huge that looked like airplane hanger, an igloo, and the “Refinery” which is their incredible-looking student ministry center – much of it built from recycled industrial materials. Most important to me were all the coffee kiosks located throughout the campus. I did think it was odd that no one knew what kind of coffee was being brewed but someone convinced me it was fair-trade and all proceeds go to one of their global poverty inniatives – “OK, here’s my $2.”

My cousin and I sat down about 7 rows back about a minute before the service started. I’m guessing the room was, “Well it must be an off-Sunday.” About 10 mins in, I’m guessing 50% full, 30 mins later 90% I’m guessing. I thought people rolled in late in the Northeast. And wow, people come in very comfortably. I’m not talking about the shorts and flip-flops, I mean a very relaxed attitude. Not suggesting it was irrelevant because but it’s a different relaxed attitude than in the Northeast. I know, I know, California culture is laid back – it’s true.

I could go on an about the worship band and various other elements (the band was amazing as you would expect), but it was probably around 10mins in that my guard came down and started to join the community of worship. It really was a nice service and my cousin indicated he enjoyed it as well.

Also happening was the movie Home Run was about to be released that upcoming weekend and there was quite a bit of promo time given to it. Home Run is a story about a professional baseball player struggling with alcohol abuse and spends time in a recovery program called Celebrate Recovery – which was founded by Johnny Baker, a a pastor of Saddleback who was the host pastor for the morning. If you watch the replay of the service, he’s the one that reads the letter from Rick and Kay addressed to their congregation.

The sermon was given by John Townsend who has written a number of books including Boundaries. I’m guessing he was involved with this movie project as one of the characters was named after him. Not sure I can use the word “cute” here but it was in the funny inside CR joke sense, I guess. More importantly however was the content and point of the message. I’ve been serving in ministry now for 13 years and I’ll never get over the hurt I see in the Church and outside it.

This is what John Townsend focused on his message – everyone needs recovery even if you do not struggle with alcohol or drug abuse or the countless other addictions and hangups – everyone hurts and everyone needs recovery. Dr. Townsend talked about the hope that comes from Jesus and how we can come alongside and help others. And while he may have used a few too many movie clips, he not only gave excellent words but needed ones.

He referenced the Warrens a few times and talked about the “grief intensity.” He advised the congregation that upon seeing them, give them some room but when appropriate, it’s good to say hello, to offer condolences and to simply ask, “How are you doing?”

I know I’ve heard people say that it’s a stupid question, “How do you think I’m doing?” which speaks to their hurt. I’ve often found it helpful when framed in the right way. Townsend said the question is a “room giving” phrase. It allows the answerer multiple options – they can answer briefly or they can express to their hurt, anger, confusion, or simply answer they’re ok. It also communicates care but if allows room for all of that.

I’m saddened for the Warrens and the countless Matthews across our world. And further, it’s in these moments you don’t really care about venue seating, coffee kiosks, buildings, parking or whatever – I’m just grateful that people are able to hear a message that affirms the truth that everybody does hurt, everybody does need recovery and it can be found in the hope of Christ.

The sermon ended in prayer, music started up again and people got up to leave. But the service wasn’t over yet so I’m guessing that was the beat the traffic crowd. We were in no rush so we walked around, saw Johnny Baker, told him our CR Ministry just celebrated its 5th anniversary and thanked him for his work.

Afterwards, I saw the kids playing in the bungalow. I chuckled to myself I’m not sure I’ll ever hear myself saying, “Honey, let’s take the kids and worship in the bungalow” but I’m glad that people were doing that. I remember a friend’s comment when he was telling me about his visit to Saddleback a few years ago. He told me that the sidewalks were so huge that he felt like he was at an amusement park. It has that feel to it. I knew what he meant.

But as I was walking around these huge sidewalks, I was grateful for all the space. It’s not like the designers of the church went to Disney Land and said, “Let’s steal Mickey’s moves” but rather, big sidewalks are what you need when there’s 20,000 people coming to your campus in a 24 hour period. It’s nice to have tram cars taking people to their vehicles, especially for those whom are elderly or have trouble walking.

I work in a large church setting so obviously I’m sympathetic to some of these things but if you really knew me you’d know that I don’t really concern myself between large church, mid-church, small church conversations – I’m more interested in the healthy, unity and the mission of a local church.

You won’t see a building at Saddleback dedicated to their PEACE Plan but it’s impossible for me to be cynical about a large beautiful campus when millions of dollars, countless hours, and many relationships are given to help the poor and suffering. It will never be enough but may the be faithful with God has called them too, (may that be true for you and me as well). God bless the people and mission of Saddleback Church and all who they reach. Grateful I was able to see this side of them.

People are hurting near and far – may the Church proclaim the peace found in Jesus and may we ever be grateful for it.

You can read more about Saddleback on their site or Wikipedia page.
You can watch the sermon John Townsend gave at Saddleback that morning here.
And if you’re local to Grace Chapel, here is more information about our Celebrate Recovery Ministry.

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  1. laszlo szujo says:

    So……..Did you hear even one word about the Father or Jesus,maybe a reference to the Holy Spirit?Perhaps my questioning is old fashion even LEGALISTIC…….

  2. Actually there was quite a bit of that.
    I’d be willing to hear your thoughts if you can unpack them in a way that is honoring to the Father …


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