California Mystery Worship Four: Back in the Saddle Again

As always, I arrived early. A friend and I had driven 40 miles to the center of Hollywood to attend the 9:00 am service of Saddleback Church, Hollywood site, located at the Palladium Theater.

Clearly the set-up crew had already been working for several hours. Saddleback banners flanked the building, making it easy to find from its entrance on Sunset Blvd, just off Vine Street. A sign pointed us to the parking lot, already coned off and ready for visitors.

Multiple kiosks stood ready and waiting to give information about small groups, children’s ministries, and general information. My companion, not normally an early riser, happily visited a well-stocked coffee and light breakfast stand.

Greeters wearing big tags saying “I Can Help You,” swarmed the area, and freely gave out information. We learned that even with this new location for the multi-site church, there were at least 30 small groups formed and active.  A new youth ministry also about to launch.

saddleback baptismal font
Photo by Christy Thomas

I was handed a condensation of “The Purpose Driven Life,” the signature work of Rick Warren, the pastor who founded Saddleback Church. A free Bible was available to me if I needed one.

I found myself bemused by the portable baptismal tank on the parking lot, filled with water and accessible by a ladder, prepared for those who wished to be baptized.


We walked into the theater where other greeters helped us find the restrooms. We then entered the auditorium, set up with chairs for about 400, and with about eight small tables and chairs off to the side.  Announcements scrolled by on the screen, while music played in the background.

At 8:58, there were 38 people seated. By the time we left, we estimated around 200 were in attendance, racially mixed, primarily in their late-30’s to mid-50’s, and most definitely straight in sexual orientation. This is not a church for the GLBTQ crowd, despite the location in a gay-predominant area.

At 9:00 am, the musicians came onstage and began the high-decibel (almost to the point of pain), high-energy musical blast. Electronic drums, with the bass turned to the maximum volume, supported every song with an unrelenting, reverberating, heartbeat-timed rhythm. Seven male musicians, along with three vocalists, the main singer a male with two female backups, led the music.

The theology of all three initial ear-splitting songs revolved around the theological theme known as “substitutionary atonement.” In other words, humans are worthless sinners and cannot approach God unless Jesus’s blood covers them. After the music, people sat down and the campus pastor stepped out with a few announcements.

Then all eyes turned to the big screen where Rick Warren, currently in Rwanda where he is training 3000 male pastors how to create purpose-driven churches, greeted us and led the men with him in a song.

Our eyes stayed on the screen as it transitioned to the guest preacher for the day, Derwin Gray, pastor of the Transformation Church, former football player turned preacher. Wearing a tight t-shirt, his pectorals clearly defined and well-toned ab muscles evident, Gray acknowledged himself awed at the opportunity to preach at Saddleback.

He also soon let us know he founded and is pastoring one of the fastest growing churches in the US and that many would never have come to Jesus had he not had the courage to follow God’s call. This fit with the theme of the message, based on David’s encounter with Goliath, about facing our fears and going forward with God’s plan for us.

Grey did a superb job of keeping the sound as loud as possible, and shouted at the congregation for forty solid minutes. Actually, he only shouted at the men, stating quickly that the message was directed to the men. About thirty minutes into the sermon, he began to speak to the women. He spoke of our physicality and about the beauty of females who had stretch marks and sagging flesh because they had born babies. He mentioned how much he likes to stroke the stretch marks on his wife’s belly, the mother of his four children.

He invited us (I assume women were included here) to invite Jesus into our hearts. The campus pastor then came back on stage to lead the prayer for the offering and also ask those who had come to Jesus that day to make a note on the tear-off comment card attached to the bulletin and place it in the offering basket.

One final full-volume-female-vocalist-dancing (they looked too young to have acquired their own stretch marks yet, however) song ended the worship service about an hour and twenty minutes after it started.

My friend and I looked at each other, headed to the car, and then went to a bar and ordered a stiff drink.

[Note: this article is scheduled to run in the August 22nd edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.]

Additional Comments:

I feel sure I hit Saddleback on an off day. But I also assume this visit gave a decent overview of what they are about and their basic theology: men matter a lot more than women, but none of us are actually worth much in the sight of God unless we are covered in the blood of Jesus. And non-heterosexuals are not welcomed. Period. Furthermore, one of the teaching pastors at Saddleback, Tom Holladay, has made it clear that the church will not support divorce when physical spousal abuse is present in a marriage, although they will encourage separation for the sake of healing the relationship. These stances are part of their Bible-inerrant identity.

I had actually planned to attend another church in the same area after this service, but was so drained by my time at Saddleback that I did not feel that I could enter into another service with a clear mind. My friend and I both felt pounded by the incredibly loud music, and beat up by being shouted at for so long from the video screen. And while I normally like and appreciate percussion, that relentless, never changing, over-amplified bass drum beat almost sent both of us running out the door.

But, having said all this, this church does know what it is about and why they are doing what they do. There is a singleness of purpose and a surety of call–and the combination is powerful, particularly when combined with expertly designed organizational processes. This is not the kind of church where thoughtful questions and a theology where mystery takes a large role are particularly welcomed. It is a place to tap into a movement that has had a significant impact in the area and a growing impact around the world.

10 thoughts on “California Mystery Worship Four: Back in the Saddle Again

  1. Christy:

    I guess my comment would be this: what were you expecting to experience when you attended a Southern Baptist Church? For those who embrace a Calvinist bent and a belief that women cannot be ordained, didn’t you experience what those faithful to the Southern Baptist tradition do on any given Sunday? While I believe Methodism is the most faithful expression of Christianity, I wouldn’t go to a Southern Baptist or Roman Catholic church with unrealistic expectations.

    Methodist writer Donald Haynes recently quoted John Wesley, “Every wise man therefore will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ with him and ask him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’”

    You certainly don’t have to agree with Saddleback’s theological bent; I certainly don’t. But to go there and experience a typical Southern Baptist worship service and then to be critical of it because it followed their beliefs is a bit less than charitable, isn’t it?

    I might need a drink after going to a Southern Baptist service too – but then again, I wouldn’t probably wouldn’t have gone to begin with. I guess I have to ask: why did you?


    1. Good question, Sky. I have long been the religion writer for the Denton Record-Chronicle, a regional paper that serves the North Texas area. The column has long been commentary on any religious topic I could think of, and eventually became a very popular column in the paper. They recently got a new managing editor and since I am now retired and not in the pulpit each Sunday, he has asked me to write what I experience as I visit as many different churches and religious groups as possible over the next year. My background is anthropology, and the idea is that I walk in and write what I experience as one walking into a new and highly unfamiliar culture, seeking to make sense of it. I did a great deal of this when on a Sabbatical in 2012. It’s a way to open my eyes, and those of my readers, to different religious traditions. There is no way to fully separate myself from the experience–I bring my eyes as a clergy person, and also, especially in this case, as one who spent a number of years in the Evangelical/Southern Baptist world. Unquestionably, I found this service extremely difficult to swallow, but I actually walked in prepared to be generous and engaged in good worship, despite the doctrinal differences.


  2. Reading this reminded me of why I like Galatians, we all get to be inheritors, what used to be called “sons and heirs”. It’s what I think of as getting to be a whole valuable human being rather than a fraction of one. Galatians 3:28.


  3. Christy, I’ve long since learned that God raises up specific ministries to meet specific needs. Saddleback’s target audience definitely doesn’t fit the demographic you identify with. That of course, does not deny the validity of their message. As a long standing part of a similar, large mega-church, our target audience is the unchurched, the young “now” generation. They experience music at high energy/concert levels, speakers in relaxed garb, all geared towards drawing in this sight and sound generation. Topics will vary, some for all, some gender specific. But to believe that because the topic may not apply to you, that you are not valued, is a gross judgment of the foundational beliefs of their system. It’s as if you are invited to teach on a specific topic and a listener comes in and criticizes you because you weren’t addressing them specifically. You would recognize that as unfair.
    I’m of your generation. I can care less for the amped up speakers and the “style”, raised in traditional Methodism and it’s liturgy. But I’m already redeemed. What about those who are not? I am more than willing to refuse to be the stodgy old woman in the pew complaining about the noise, when it is reaching the lost and bringing in our young families and creating new life from heartbreak. It’s the fruit that matters! And you can’t argue with the fruit that Saddleback or similar churches are manifesting. It’s a privilege to watch this new generation taking the lead and grabbing hold with vitality the understanding of living a life in Christ. It may not look like what are used to or feel comfortable with, but it is real, and it is solid when based on the Word, worship, and a Christlike walk. Suzi


    1. Suzi, I appreciate the work of Saddleback. But I’ve been a pastor for a long time, and to intentionally exclude the vast majority of my congregation on a sermon that is being video-cast makes no sense to me. Music is what music does–this is not my style, but I do love contemporary worship in general. I also value my eardrums.


      1. Agreed! I’ve learned where to sit!
        I think the message issue can very well be the fact you’re not part of the regular assembly. You know how you’ll speak on a series, each message building on the other. For a guest to come in mid-stream it can appear to be selective. We live stream here as well. And unless you’re a regular, it may come across that way sometimes. The vision is built upon, line upon line.
        Glad to see you roaming the country enjoying a well deserved retirement! Wished I was there with you guys enjoying that California weather! It’s been typical Texas August down here in SA! S:)


        1. Suzi, this message was not part of a series. I understand series speaking and have done a lot of it. This was a stand alone message by a guest speaker who intentionally set out to speak only to the men in the congregation and spoke of women ONLY in terms of their value to men because of their physicality. There is simply no excuse for that kind of preaching and the fact that Saddleback puts such a one in its pulpit speaks volumes about how little they value women as those also created in the image of God.


    2. Why do churches need to “target” an audience? The church is what happens in coffee shops and building relationships with people. If you want to “target” the young unchurched, become friends with some young, unchurched kids and ask them if they want to hang out at church. The lights, cameras, action and marketing mentality of our business-culture church is exactly why many do not wish to attend..

      Liked by 1 person

What do you think? I'd love to hear from you! Abusive comments may be removed at the discretion of the blog moderator.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s