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.
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.]
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.