So! I went to my first megachurch worship service today: the 4:30 p.m. Saturday evening service at Saddleback Community Church. My snap judgment: very impressive. The music was fair and the liturgy was somewhat impoverished, but the message was excellent. More on this as I have time for additional reflection.

Updated: Lots of inside-baseball thoughts about Saddleback below the fold.

I couldn’t count how many people are involved in greeting visitors. There must have been 30 people doing parking lot work, and another 30 or 40 either standing around to greet you as you walked up, or staffing an information booth (of which there were several).

The campus is amazing. It’s huge, with tons of parking and some ridiculous number of buildings. The parts that aren’t parking lots or under construction are nicely landscaped.

The courtyard in front of the building is a California thing. I don’t know how much I’d invest in one for a church in Maine or Alabama. But the weather here is nice enough they could put up a dozen booths to welcome people or to sign them up for one thing or another. Their bookstore was very impressive, especially considering it was a bunch of book racks and a cash register under an awning outside the church.

The worship space itself had a temporary air. It was in the shape of an inverted Superman logo. (I’d say it was an amphitheater but it was flat, except for a smallish elevated portion at the very back.) The stage (“chancel”) looked pretty permanent, as did the sound-mixing station in the middle of the arena (“nave”). The jumbo-trons (three big, two huge) didn’t look like they were going anywhere either. But the seats all folded up, and the elevated portion in the back of the arena was folding chairs on a collapsible floor. Think: bleachers.

The lighting was excellent. Tons of it. No dark corners. The stage area had some colored lights, but for decoration. The lights pointed at people were white. There weren’t any plants in the building to speak of, but there were windows on the sides so you could see the landscaping outside.

The printed materials were very good. There’s no way to leave that place wondering about anything they’re up to. (Except what is their denomination.) For example, there was a response card for (a) committing your life to Christ, (b) joining the church, (c) joining a small group, etc. There were also pages reminding people to “schedule” their baptism, and to register for the upcoming Global AIDS Summit. (Which appears most impressive in itself, and would need a separate entry, so instead I’ll move along.)

The music and liturgy were simple, possibly even too much so. There were, I think, seven songs: two at the beginning, and five more, one at the end of each chunk of sermon. There was an offering toward the end, but it was very low-key (i.e., you had to pay attention to be sure it happened). And that was it. No tall-steeple stuff like call to worship, prayer of adoration, confession of sin and assurance of pardon. I have no idea where they would put the sacraments or what they’d be like. (Like ordinances, instead of sacraments, for example.)

Our preacher was Rick himself, and he spoke for about an hour, although his message was broken into five parts, separated by songs. He began with grace. “God loves you. Already.” He moved into felt needs, and only at the end did he nudge people toward a response to God’s grace (“clean out the gutters”). The middle portion, dealing with felt needs, was interesting, because they are going through their “40 Days of Purpose” time again, and this week was all about loving God. (God loves you and wants you to love him.) But this week the big news here has been the fires (from the freeway, you could see one burning up in the hills behind Saddleback). So the message, which could have gone in any of five or six directions, talked about how it can be difficult to love God when your life has come crashing down (or, more specifically, your home has gone up in smoke). Most, but not all, of the 27 different texts he cited were from Job.

I was very impressed both by the timeliness and sensitivity of the message, and the easy way it was presented. Far more than the music, it was the message that was seeker-sensitive. But it wasn’t dumbed down, either. He talked about lament, and a decision in the face of trouble to trust God, which are individual responses to trouble, but there was also great emphasis on life in community. Rick told them to join a small group, he said, five or ten times (and, evidently, 17,000 times in previous sermons). They should do so because that’s a means whereby God will respond graciously to their hurt. (Among the 800K people who have been evacuated from fire areas, some great number of the Saddleback members in small groups are not in evacuation centers, but are staying with people they know from their small groups.) But the groups are also a place where people can be part of the work God is doing in the world. (People in small groups are hosting evacuees, and the small groups are finding other ways to minister to people as well.) There was a challenge, toward the end, to respond to God’s grace not just by accepting it and by sharing it with others, but by making God sovereign. This is where he talked about cleaning out the gutters. (A neat illustration, because it’s relevant to the fires here. People in California almost all have roofs built from flame-resistant materials, but the leaves and other crud stuck in their rain gutters are where the fires start that burn down their homes.)

Summary: I was impressed. There is a great deal of things any church could learn from Saddleback, and much for a preacher to learn from Rick Warren.

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