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.