Sabbatical Worship: Saddleback Church

On Saturday, Lori and I worshipped at Saddleback Church. Saddleback is a multi-site church. It is one of the largest churches in the country. The church was started by Pastor Rick Warren, who has written a number of books including the best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life.” Pastor Rick recently announced his retirement this fall.

We worshipped at their original and “main” site, in Lake Forest, California. It would have been interesting to hear Pastor Rick preach. However, he was sick with a stomach bug. So the teaching pastor, Buddy Owens, preached this weekend. 

The Worship Band

Our worship experience at Saddleback was pretty amazing, overwhelming really. Their facility was tucked into a beautiful, wooded hillside area. When you drive up, they have signage that directs you to the worship center.

This worship center is a mammoth building that will seat over 3,500 worshippers. The walls on both sides of the auditorium are glass, and open up like giant garage doors. This allowed the breeze to blow through the worship space, giving the feeling of worshipping “outside” while you were still in the sanctuary. The space has concert quality sound and lighting, and the worship band, with only 5 (really good) instrumentalists, had an additional 8 vocalists. It was obvious that the music group was an intentionally multi-cultural group. I appreciated that intention. 

The worship space, taken from outside, looking through the building

The service was not liturgical, in the way that we know liturgy. The worship began with the band leading a couple of songs, and then one of the pastors came out to do announcements. Being Father’s Day, they did a video and then a “game” (that felt a little unnecessary and cheesy) marking Father’s Day. Then they also did a really meaningful video and song marking the Juneteenth holiday.

Pastor Buddy then came out and preached for about 30 minutes, walking us through two different Gospel stories about how we walk through times of trial and storm. The sermon had much more of a “teaching” vibe than the sermon as proclamation that is the norm in the Lutheran tradition.

I really liked the music. Often music in the evangelical/conservative tradition doesn’t fit well with our theological worldview. Often it is about us and our relationship with God, rather than about what God is doing in the world. But this music worked. It felt like it was focused on the grace and love of God, and giving thanks for these gifts. You can see some of their original music on their YouTube channel

Following the sermon, they sang while taking offering, and did a closing song and the worship concluded.

My takeaways: 

First was hospitality. We warmly greeted by greeters who all wore shirts that simply said “hello” on the front. They approached us and smiled and welcomed. We heard them say “We’re glad you’re here” multiple times. This was a message they were obviously focused on. Welcoming participants was clearly an important part of their DNA.

Second, the printed materials they gave us were designed for the visitor. It was simple and clear, always pointing to where you can learn more. 

Third, the production quality of the worship experience was off the charts. But with one possible small exception (the goofy Father’s Day video) the worship experience was not “driven” or “overwhelmed” by the quality of the video, lighting, sound and music. Instead, these elements enhanced the worship experience. 

And finally, while Saddleback is an evangelical/conservative church, they clearly care about issues of race and justice. (Or at least, they aren’t afraid to talk about it.). Their commitment to having deeply multi-cultural leadership on their stage and the way they handled the Juneteenth moment was something I respected. 

I’m sure that Saddleback has its issues under the surface. All churches do. But I’m grateful for the experience of worshipping with the people of this church. I’ll be processing the experience for awhile, and as I spend time with other churches in upcoming weeks. 

One thought on “Sabbatical Worship: Saddleback Church

  1. Our early morning men’s Bible study used a Warren book some time ago. As I remember, I was dismayed at his philosophy that he had his inner circle of church members with several rings outside that and the very most outer ring he said wasn’t welcome and could just attend church elsewhere.

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