From the freeway, I begin to see the massive red clay roofs of high-end housing developments in every direction. Once I exit, signs clearly mark the direction of Saddleback. At a final stop light, I have an option: turn left to take the road that leads to the church grounds, or make a right to go in the opposite direction; a sign declares this “Rocky Road.” It’s a joke, as Rocky Road doesn’t actually go anywhere, but dead-ends into a patch of land that appears yet to be developed.

Volunteers direct the stream of cars. I make my way past various parking lots, different sections, with someone at every turn to point me in the direction of the appropriate slice of asphalt. I arrive 20 minutes early, with enough time to explore. I buy a cup of coffee at an outdoor café and stroll past the book and keepsake kiosk.

The Saddleback campus is strewn with large tents. In addition to several permanent structures—including the main chapel where most congregants will attend services—supplemental worship areas are housed beneath canvas canopies. Each tent seats a hefty crowd, and will receive a broadcast of the sermon from the main chapel accompanied with its own unique music and other touches. I stroll past a tent for gospel lovers, another for Spanish speakers, and one called “Overdrive,” where fans of hard rock can crank it up a notch.

Along meandering paths, uplifting music emanates from speakers hidden in rocks. I’ve never seen so much creative use of cement—stamped into boulders, walkways, waterfalls, gentle streams. Smoothed, it forms the glassy floor of an industrial-looking building called “the Refinery,” which houses big open spaces for teens to gather; inside is like a big loft in some urban dreamscape. Around the building the concrete swoops and dips to form the necessary surfaces for skateboarding tricks.

On a big lawn behind the gospel tent, I spy the tabernacle. A high fabric barrier surrounds it, just as historians say it long ago in the desert, a measure taken to protect the sacred site and ensure that everyone entered through the same designated opening. In this re-creation, the fabric is a fine mesh so it’s sheer enough to see through. If this tabernacle had been built according to God’s exact specifications, all of the items would be made of precious metals and rare woods too costly and difficult to secure today. The materials here are more ordinary, but the way it looks—the precise dimensions of each item and how they are arranged—is true to God’s instructions. The tabernacle itself is not that big, less than half the size of the modern worship tents and much simpler in format—just a basic rectangle with fabric panels draped over posts. Inside, the space is divided into a few simple rooms, each dark and bare save for key objects: a large candleholder, a stand for food offerings, and a tray for burning incense. At the far back, in “the holy of holies” where only high priests were allowed, is the Ark of the Covenant, a fancy trunk used to house the stones on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.

29 thoughts on “Saddleback

  1. I apologize for sounding judgmental but your description of it makes it garish and uncomfortable for me. I’m not judging your words just the picture that they paint. Suddenly I think it would have been better to take the “Rocky Road”. Once there one could paint their open space picture of how they want their relationship to a higher power to be or to simply contemplate the emptiness. I actually like Rick Warren whenever I’ve seen him interviewed on television and was saddened at the loss of his son. For me, the picture of himself that is presented on a talk show is far removed from the scene you describe.

    • Hi Frank, It wasn’t glitzy. No gold-plated chandeliers or anything like that. It was much more like a college campus–just very landscaped and tidy and big, which I’m sure costs many millions to create and maintain. It’s definitely a different approach to religion from what I’ve had thus far.

  2. Some people have to see something to believe in God and thus their faith is helped by the things at a campus like Saddleback’s. To have the funds and space to do that is extraordinary. As for Israel, the pieces of the temple all had meaning which pointed then to God and in the desert, the shekinah glory filled the tabernacle. But twice they lost their temple and then the people wondered, ‘Is God with us?’ This was one of the big lessons of the exile. Yes, indeed, God is with us at those really rough times when everything goes wrong and we can’t see or sense His presence. Jesus talked about the temple being you, the believer — in you.

    Overall the picture in the OT moves to reveal to us little by little how to know God and what the future holds. The first gospel, Matthew, looks back and shows the fulfillment of what was revealed in the OT.

    • While Matthew is placed as the first gospel in our present New Testament, some scholars have identified Mark as the first gospel written around AD70 or seventy years after the death of Jesus. Mark had no concern about Jesus earthly origins. His focus is on Jesus ministry. He writes nothing about Jesus birth or resurrection.

  3. Corinna, your description of Saddleback reminded me of another mega-attraction not far up the freeway; Disneyland. The manicured landscape, the division of congregants into different tents, just like the tidy areas of an amusement park. And like and amusement park, I was left wondering how much was substance and how much is just theatrics.
    I was also struck by the difference in your descriptions of the different “lands” on the church’s campus compared to the simplicity of the re-created tent for the Ten Commandments. A simple, tent-walled area surrounding the Holy of Holies. Maybe most people need a sense of place to worship, but your post describes a stark difference between the portable tent used by the ancient Hebrews, and the church-cum-skate-park called Saddleback. It makes me wonder what the people who go there, go there for—to worship or to entertained by the biggest name in modern Evangelicalism…

    • Hey Tim, It was funny and a little disorienting to see the re-creation of the ancient tabernacle on the grounds of this very modern version of a tabernacle and to think the purposes they serve/d to their respective societies are similar. I think it says a lot about us…back then, the most precious commodities were used to create the tabernacle and I think it still is only what’s precious to us has changed–it’s real estate!

  4. This posting makes me want to cry out OMG and to pull my head back into my shell! Don’t make me go there, please!!

      • You made me laugh, Tim…..but I don’t think there is a row far enough back for us introverts. I will be interested in what Corinna has to say about the service. I went back and re-read Susan Cain’s (Author of Quiet….) “rendition” of the traditional Saddleback service she attended….so far, Corinna’s description pretty well matches up with what Cain had to offer. MET

  5. Hi Corinna—

    I think places like Saddleback are very much creatures of their environments. Like you said, the housing there is high-end suburban, but it’s also much more homogenous than other, older affluent areas like Beverly Hills or old Pasadena. The houses are very similar, and most south OC cities have homeowners’ associations that strictly control the kind of “acceptable” architecture in their neighborhoods. A sleek, modern, inoffensive church like Saddleback fits right in; its architecture is indicative of its congregation. The residents in the area expect high-end, but not challenging in their homes and in the way their neighborhoods look, and they expect the same from their church. Maybe that’s what makes the recreated tabernacle such a curiosity in the midst of all that cookie-cutter modernity. And more’s the pity. My wife and I go to San Francisco about once a year. Occasionally, we visit a couple of historic Buddhist temples in Chinatown. The temples are actually on the third floors of nondescript walk-up buildings in the neighborhood’s side streets; they’re really just rooms in multiuse buildings. I think that makes them so much more integral to their neighborhoods, and I also find them some of the most transcendental and evocative spaces in the whole City—they belong right where they are. You could probably drop Saddleback into any number of post-modern upscale areas and it would fit in. I’m wondering how the congregation would react to a building like the low-key synagogue you described in your previous post.

  6. i’d be interested to know what our Jewish friends Aaron and acorporatewife have to say about “their” tabernacle being recreated in a setting like this. Of course christians claim the Old Testament as part of their story too, but it seems sort of…I don’t know…usurping? Probably not a big deal, because the Jews are generous but I wonder anyway.

    Saddleback does sound like a creature of its environment, as Tim says. Maybe we create worship spaces that suit us, that capture our current trend for what’s beautiful, or our idea of what God is like. The older ornate high-celiinged echoey churches seem to reflect one concept of God — that he’s big and beautiful and far away. Today the trend is seeing God more as a “chum”. I might be overstating it a bit there. But it’s obvious that these megachurches appeal to something in today’s christians, because they are very popular. I can’t put my finger on what it is. What do the rest of you think? Materialism? Self-focus? ??

    • Shelley, I think it’s a matter of marketing. In our society, almost everything has to be “sold” to us. I, too, bought Susan Can’s book, and one of the major points she makes is that we have to “sell” ourselves all the time–at work, in social situations, etc. Saddleback and the other mega-churches are simply the logical extension of a society based on marketing. The tents on the campus are there to appeal to the various demographics the church wants to reach, be they ‘tweens, teens, or middle-aged. Based on Corinna’s description, it sounds like the campus is set up to draw the moneymaking crowd into the main sanctuary where they and their wallets can get up close and personal with Pastor Warren, while the kids and their lack of money can amuse themselves outside. In this kind of environment, a “recreation” of the Tent of Tabernacle, I think, whether intentionally or not, is reduced to a side-show curiosity.

    • There’s also an “energy” that goes on in these large groups that is very appealing if it’s what you’re looking for. It’s easy to get caught in the moments of singing and emotion, not too unlike the feelings engendered when a large group of people sings patriotic songs together. It can even reach out from the t.v. set. Later, of course, the feelings can succumb to the hollowness of it all but it can be pretty hypnotic in the moment. But, who knows…..maybe someone is comforted by it all and finds a few moments of respite there.

  7. Maybe the most lasting identification in Cain’s book for me has been realizing my deep dislike for small talk. My spouse’s local UCC Sunday service begins with half a dozen presenters, each with a list of announcements, but each person starting with, “Good Morning,.” followed by the inflection cue to which the congregation bleats, “Good Morning.” . I find it akin to the comedy club emcee’s “Are you having a good time? I CAN’T HEAR YOU, ARE YOU HAVING A GOOD TIME?” Marketing of the feeling of participation.

    • Hi Phil, You crack me up. I’ve always hated small talk too, but I’ve recently taken a new approach in my thinking of it (I think visiting all these places of worship has forced me to make some sort of peace with small talk). I used to focus on how lame the conversation was that I was having with my small talk partner, but now I focus on the fact that we are just people who are using words as an excuse to be in each other’s presence for a few moments (this is more the one-on-one kind of small talk). When I think of it like this–how clumsy or ridiculous the words are seems not to matter so much because those are just the tool to recognize and celebrate connection with another human for a second or two. I sort of approach it as “small talk as spiritual practice.” The irony is that the more I think of it like this, the more natural my small talk seems to get.

      • But DO YOU HAVE A GOOD TIME when you’re doing it?

        If nothing else, this blog is going to make the sales of Cain’s book skyrocket!

        • I’m also enjoying a book titled, “Seven Thousand Ways to Listen” by Mark Nepo. I am very much of an introvert and have difficulty with small talk however few people really want to respond to my statement (usually said in jest), “Tell me of your life.” Usually it just cracks people up but from time to time someone starts with their birth and then I have to say to myself, “Well, you asked for it now listen.”

        • Surprisingly, I think I’m even learning to enjoy it. I’ll find myself thinking, “Hey that felt kind of good” after having an exchange that I once would have considered excruciating. Progress!

          • I think it might be helpful to separate the “chit-chat” conversations from those which have some meaning. I personally dislike being in a group of people who are all talking about something which may or may not interest me……the conversation moves too fast,,,,,like most introverts, I can’t just throw out pieces of conversation without processing first. I get lost in a group like that.

            But give me a good old one- on- one situation and I can cope….and might even enjoy myself! I can help raise the level of conversation to something that is a bit more meaningful to me and the other person…..usually by asking questions. It slows the conversation down and is a bit more intimate. More to my liking. Perhaps Frank’s “Tell me of your life” is a bit too much for people….but I will remember that one!!! But I can usually come up with something where the other person and I might find commonalities. The conversation connects us rather than feeling like some verbal contest!

            Introverts aren’t anti-social……So it does feel good to make contact with other people.

      • Thanks, Corinna. Of course, you’re right. The, “How is your summer going?” and the “Traveling anyplace interesting?” probably fall into the category of greeting by showing a hand empty of weapons. I guess it’s a commonly accepted ritual accompanied or not with a hug. I have come to realize it is not a “straight line.” My one time response to “What are you doing with all your free time?”, delivered dead pan, “Just copulating as much as possible,” has made it unnecessary to talk with that person again. I accept that was a bad thing to do. Mea culpa. Maybe hinting at “None of your business.” Now my response falls more into, “Enjoying life. How about you?” Painless. Not overly warm, but not “in your face” cold.

  8. I’ve been to Saddleback a couple times. Their ministry philosophy is interesting. Before the church started, Warren did extensive canvassing of the area to find out what people there were looking for in a church….so came up with a “spiritual seeker sensitive” approach in their main services, meanwhile leaving the teaching of believers to other Sunday-school like settings.
    I was struck by the parking lot first time we went there….I think the whole world has learned lots of lessons about crowd logistics from Disney…I was also struck by the tents….temporary buildings. They said they didn’t want to get into a big, plush building program. They had the foresight to plan big in an unpopulated area (i’m sure it was much cheaper too). Parking at growing churches, like colleges, is usually the thing that gets squeezed out….

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