Where El Toro Road collides with Portola Parkway, a city on the hill appears. Perhaps the better term is "campus." All I know is that of the few churches I’ve visited during my lifetime, I’m in awe of the sheer size of Saddleback Church. The eighth largest church in America is run by the charismatic evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life has sold over 30 million copies. As part of research for a new book I’m writing, I wanted to wrap my head around this popular preacher’s message.
Megachurches are often criticized for being "Christianity Lite." They are only following popular trends: Market research has shown that Christians are not interested in all that "religious stuff." Hellfire pastors spouting anti-gay rhetoric make good memes online but do little for weekly attendance. I arrive at Saddleback a few minutes late, having dealt with 405 traffic from Los Angeles, settling into overflow seating just in time to catch what I think was supposed to be music.
Natalie Grant, featured on 2002's Songs For A Purpose Driven Life, is performing a new song. The music is forgettable, the lyrics unforgivable: “Washed in the blood of your sacrifice / Your blood flowed red and made me white / I am clean / I am clean / You washed me clean.” The term "white" has long been synonymous with purity, though I’m amazed people still don’t understand the broader implications. Gazing out into the audience of many thousands, though, it’s not surprising — Orange County is one of the most conservative places in America and I’m sitting next to the only African-Americans in attendance, who actually get up and leave during Grant’s performance.
The theme of the night is "8 Keys You Need to Succeed in Life." This is where criticism against Warren and pastors like Joel Osteen begin: These are not biblical lessons, but self-help prosperity theology sprinkled with handclaps for Jesus. One of the most surprising revelations is the sheer variety of biblical translations Warren uses throughout the evening. Whereas entire denominations are defined by what bible is used, Warren picks and chooses to find quotes that fit his theme, which this week is "shape."
We’ll return to that. Being the day after the Paris attacks, he opens with a prayer for the victims. Don’t get me wrong — I might be critical, but I can also respect Warren’s simply delivered messages and affable personality. I might not agree with him, but it’s easy to understand his popularity. Part of it is the avoidance of controversy: In 2008 he supported Prop 8, which made same sex marriage illegal in California. While the proposition was ruled unconstitutional and overturned, Warren eventually retracted his statement, which he said was only for his congregants.
Warren’s rapid-fire, humorous rhetorical style allows him to slip in messages without beating everyone over the head. Such was the case when he briefly stated that Paris happened because humans are at war with God, and only by coming to Jesus will this problem be rectified. One line in the middle of an otherwise humble prayer. No Islam bashing, no refugee denial, no Deuteronomy.
Yet one line is enough to get across an entire agenda. The evening was more "self-help seminar meets bible camp" than normal church service. Fire walk ritual aside, it would be hard to find much of a difference between Tony Robbins and Warren. And like Robbins, Warren kept to one point of focus: God shaped you. It is your duty to faithfully fill that shape.
Our human shape, he tells us, is decided before we’re born, which is why abortion “short circuits” God’s plans for us. Warren seems to take special interest in what we do in our bedrooms. Your shape being molded before you’re born, make sure you stick that shape in the right holes. He segues to ethnicity: Some people are light skinned and want to be darker; some are darker and want to be lighter. It’s like hairstyles. Wavy hair people want it straight, vice-versa. But God gave you that shape for a reason. Just like man who wants to be female. That’s not the shape God provided.
Just like with abortion and Paris, transgenderism is mentioned in passing. Perhaps this is the key to Warren’s own success: A wink and a nod is enough to sate the conservative soul. You already know that God hates these things; these people out there waging war on God, well, that’s what’s causing all the tragedy. Forget Christianity lite; it’s Pat Robertson lite. The presentation is radically different; the message, the same.
"Come to Jesus" mentality aside, it was probably one of the most enjoyable church experiences I’ve had. Megachurches might be criticized for being light on the Bible, but they provide a sense of community smaller congregations could never offer: child services, golf outings, meals, peace missions, acres upon acres to get to know others. Even a skeptic like myself can appreciate anything that creates community. In my article on Paris on Sunday, some readers were outraged at the suggestion that religion might not be the root of all evil. I think the notion preposterous. Whatever brings us together is helpful.
It’s just a shame that someone with Warren’s reach remains so shortsighted as to suggest that only his way will do. It’s the very reason so many are angered by religious intolerance and write off the positive benefits. People are suffering around the world at the hands of terrorists. Thinking that the cause is that people aren’t listening to your agenda is selfish and self-defeating. Whether or not religion fails or succeeds in the future depends on inclusiveness. The idea that my religion is the only way was heard a day before Warren’s sermon on Paris streets, and we all know how that ended.
Image: Alex Wong / Getty