Saddleback Church
   1 Saddleback Pkwy
   Lake Forest, CA 92630
   (949) 609-8000


 Saddleback Church

It was a sunny Sunday in Orange County and the traffic was light as A Spirit Abroad cruised Interstate 5 to Lake Forest, just north of Mission Viejo, not long ago one of the fastest growing urban bedroom communities in the United States. But as we headed east from the Lake Forest exit, the traffic began to pick up, and as we rounded the corner on Portola Parkway there was a decided increase in the number of cars on the road, which was odd for an industrial park on a Sunday.

The experience of driving into the grounds of the Saddleback Church was like nothing so much as arriving at Disneyland. Red golf-shirted Traffic Ministers in baseball caps stood at strategic intervals beside orange pylons directing cars to the next available parking spaces on the tiered multilevel parking area.

What is striking about the setting is the stark barrenness of the surrounding hillsides, for the moment sparsely populated. There are a few corporate buildings on lots half a mile away. Tall cross-country power lines cut across the line of sight between the viewer and the distant mountains. Red tiled housing tracts are popping up on mesa tops a few miles off.

Temporary Buildings
Saddleback Church temporary buildings housing Christian education programs.

As we walked the campus, we saw teenagers, parents pushing strollers, an occasional tented kiosk selling evangelical literature, videotapes of the previous week's sermon, audiotapes, and CDs of Christian popular music, including Songs of Saddleback Church. We didn't see any Bibles for sale, which was a surprise. There are temporary buildings everywhere...big rigid dome-like white tents gleaming in the sun, row upon row of bungallows, all to accommodate the education ministries of the church. We were told by a Traffic Minister that they are planning to build permanent facilities on the level below and behind the sanctuary, or as they call it, the Worship Center.

Plaza and Steps

There is a covered pavilion along the back side of the Worship Center patio where booths are set up for the various smaller units within the church which are so necessary for creating community in a church of this enormous size. As we walked, the sound of the sermon was being piped outside and could be heard from at least fifty to seventy-five yards away from the building.

People of various races and ages were coming and going, though the great majority seemed to be white and the adults early 30's to middle 40's. Special first-time visitor parking is provided at a spot convenient to the entrance and comfortably graded walkways provide ramp access for those preferring not to use stairs. Visitors are welcome, but not accosted. A time is provided during worship when everyone is encouraged to shake hands with those around them, but visitors are not singled out for attention. Everyone is also encouraged to say good morning to people on the way out of the Worship Center, but some did and some didn't.

Worship Center
Saddleback Church
Worship Center

The Worship Center is not like any other sanctuary we have ever visited. It is about the size of a football field, perhaps larger, with chairs on the flat part of the floor and a tier of bleachers (with chairs) at the back of the room. It seats several thousand people, and even though we visited on a morning when the pastor, Rick Warren, was out of the country, the hall was full, even though this was the thrid service of the morning.

It looks quite industrial, with pipes, spotlights, and ventilation fixtures exposed in the very high ceiling and all painted white. There is an island in the center of the room for videotaping of the service as well as live feed to five giant screens. There are two screens which seem to be about 20 feet across on either side of the stage, and three smaller screens directly above it. These are all in use during the service, providing easy viewing of anyone on stage as well as the words to songs for singing along and scripture or other quotations to punctuate the readings or sermon. The effect is much like attending a rock concert, and it is easy to end up watching the screens, like watching television, even when the people on stage are clearly visible.

Parents with children worship on the patio.

The Worship Center patio is where parents with young children worship while listening to the sermon over loud speakers. Big screens are visible to worshipers through the picture windows. The music was almost entirely original, composed by members of the congregation or its clergy. It had the flavor of popular Christian music that you would hear on the radio, without the gravity of traditional hymns. The congregation seemed to know the words to one of the songs, but not be very familiar with two others that were sung. It was a strange feeling to be singing in a room filled with thousands of people and hear relatively little sound coming from the group and little energy in what was sung. A live multi-piece band and a group of singers started off the service, and then the congregation was invited to sing.

The sermon lasted at least 45 minutes. It was an upbeat evangelical fundamentalist message. (This congregation participates in the
Southern Baptist Convention.) The preacher's message was somewhat demanding and was structured around a number of scripture citations. It is traditional in this church to provide a note-taking handout to participants to reinforce the message and notebooks to keep them in are for sale outside. Overall, the service lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes.

An offering is collected by passing baskets from one end of a row to the other, but are picked up at the end of the row and not passed on. Someone is standing at the entrance with a basket for those who want to contribute but were missed during the service. There is no pressure to contribute.

After church, visitors will find there are a number of places to stop for brunch or lunch between the church and the I5 freeway. This was Spirit Abroad's first visit to a megachurch, and we were amazed by the enormity of the facility, the production and staging of the service, and the size of the crowd calling Saddleback their church home. Well forth a visit. Fascinating!