A young, enthusiastic Rick Warren decides to build his megachurch in O.C.
Moving boxes littered the green shag carpeting of the Laguna Hills condo as Rick Warren started to preach.
It was Jan. 16, 1980, and the sermon’s theme was “Faith” – something the 25-year-old Warren possessed in abundance.
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Ten days earlier, he had arrived in Orange County with a U-Haul truck, a wife and child, and little else. Now he was starting a church with no money, no job and no congregation.
What he had was an ebullient personality and a vision so big that even doubters were swept along by it.
“He was just coming out of college … and [he had]this goal of building this megachurch,” Don Dale, a Laguna Niguel real estate agent, recalls. “I was like, wow, is this guy for real?”
Yet Dale found Warren’s enthusiasm and his vision of an enormous church on a parcel of Orange County land intriguing enough to help Warren find a two-bedroom condo for rent in Laguna Hills with no money down.
“He was just a nice guy,” recalls Dale, who – with wife, baby and one other person – made up the six people of the congregation at Warren’s first “service.” “I said, ‘Well, let’s see what could happen.’ “
What happened was a phenomenon called Saddleback Church.
Today, the church Warren started in the apartment he couldn’t afford has 22,000 members and occupies a 120-acre plot of multimillion-dollar real estate at the corner of El Toro Road and Portola Parkway. On it, a 35,000-square-foot concrete worship center walled by glass welcomes up to 4,000 people at six different services per weekend.
Nearby, in prefabricated structures and tents, hundreds more worshippers watch the service on a video screen, while live bands praise the Lord in a variety of musical styles: hula, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, Latin. Outside, bulldozers are scraping the foundation of a new chapel, youth center and a 500-space parking lot (to add to the existing 2,250 spaces).
And in hundreds of homes in the surrounding cities, thousands of Saddleback Church members are preparing for Warren’s next big expansion: the PEACE Plan, a global program of church-to-church aid.
Riding the wave
By any standard, Saddleback Church’s growth is an amazing bootstraps success story. In Warren’s words, it is a divinely inspired one.
“We were riding the wave of God’s spirit,” Warren wrote.
He was also riding a wave of good will, financial assistance and logistical support.
Warren spent 10 days canvassing Orange County – not alone, as the oft-told Saddleback mythos implies – but in the company of more than a dozen volunteers and with the financial support of five different Southern Baptist churches.
His research revealed a spiritually fertile county of potential churchgoers – but relatively few churches.
“I added up all of the seats … in the existing churches. If we filled every church in south county, it would only be reaching 5 percent of the population,” Warren says.
Warren attributes this to south county’s distinctive planned communities, which “totally left churches out of the equation. (Diane Gaynor, a spokeswoman for the Rancho Mission Viejo Corp., said that developers allotted specific streetsfor houses of worship in the 1970s and ’80s.)
What Orange County did have was growth.
“The Saddleback Valley … was the fastest-growing area in the fastest-growing county in the United States during the decade of the 1970s,” he wrote in his 1995 church-growth primer, “The Purpose-Driven Church.” “The fact grabbed me by the throat and made my heart start racing.”
The county was also home to a unique hybrid of potential churchgoer, steeped in the county’s conservatism yet mellowed by a laid-back, beach-community style.
For Warren, a child of the ’60s and a self-described yuppie, it was the ideal laboratory to practice his ideas about contemporary Christianity.
He was inspired by the writing of missionary Donald McGavran, who contended that faith and worship style were not the same thing.
Warren sent 15,000 fliers out in hopes of netting a congregation, promising a sunnier, less formal style (Warren’s signature Hawaiian shirts are both a preference and a strategy to attract converts).
“At last! A new church for those who have given up on traditional church services,” he wrote.
To appeal to those turned off by the Baptist faith’s fire-and-brimstone image, Warren took the word “Baptist” out of his church’s name, although the church remains Southern Baptist. He eliminated “altar calls” – a time-honored but potentially inhibiting evangelical tradition in which congregates are encouraged to come forward and be saved. New members were instead offered a sign-up card.
Even the music (carefully calibrated at a “loud, but not too loud” 98 to 108 decibels, according to the church’s worship pastor, Rick Muchow) is designed to penetrate, not alienate, the viewer’s emotions.
The changes made some traditionalists uncomfortable. They accused Warren of veering from doctrine and manipulating emotions through “church light.”
“It was really hard,” Warren’s sister, Chaundel Holladay, recalls. “(I had) to take a step back and say, ‘Wait, do I believe that because I believe it doctrinally? Or do I believe … because that’s all I’ve ever known?’ “
Critics couldn’t argue with the results: 205 people responded to Warren’s first flier. Converts flocked as news spread – aided, in part, by a push from California Southern Baptist magazine, which put the Warrens on its cover by their third service. (The national version featured Saddleback in a five-page feature article a year later.)
If the church’s success was divinely guided, as Warren contends, the path wasn’t necessarily smooth. Growth forced the church to move 79 times to larger buildings, including a 2,300-seat tent. It bid on three different parcels of land before securing its current Lake Forest location.
Growth also forced discipline upon the church’s trademark informality. Warren developed classes to move members through levels of spiritual commitment. He adopted the small group “cell” model, a system in which hundreds of individual worship groups supply members with the intimacy lacking in the larger church.
Such “shepherding/discipleship” techniques were common at churches (and some religious interest groups) across the country in the 1980s. The result was the megachurch: a collection of constantly changing “cells” grouped around a fixed nucleus of church hierarchy.
Today, there are more than 3,000 Saddleback small groups, often organized around mutual interests, such as mountain biking or singing. Church guidance is passed down through worship guidebooks, CD-ROM and DVD trainings, and e-learning modules distributed each week. Members dissatisfied with their small groups can choose a new one rather than abandon the church altogether.
Such flexibility keeps sheep in the fold, as does the regular polling performed by church staff after weekend services.
At a recent staff meeting, Gerald Sharon, the church’s production supervisor, remarked how a time change for a certain venue has “definitively” proven that “people choose their service time first and their style second.”
This year, Sharon spearheaded Saddleback’s first satellite campus in the gymnasium of San Clemente High School. The venue, like the eight others on campus, receives a satellite feed of the sermon but maintains a separate staff.
In the ongoing quest for spiritual market share, such franchises are viewed by some as the next step in church growth. In the future, churchgoers might “attend” Saddleback from anywhere in the United States, and possibly the world.
Until recently, however, overseas outreach was not on Warren’s radar.
What changed him? A magazine article about a modern plague, and a woman named Kay.
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