The Pragmatic Roots Of The Megachurch

Like all evangelical entrepreneurs, Warren didn’t simply leave everything up to God—he had a business plan. When Warren was a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, he studied the writings of church-growth advocates such as Donald A. McGavran and C. Peter Wagner. Warren and his wife, Kay, also attended a conference in Southern California hosted by televangelist Robert H. Schuller. Warren was struck by their practical advice for reaching the unchurched.

Warren absorbed himself in demographic research to decide where to plant his own church. He eliminated Southern Baptist strongholds, reasoning that those markets were saturated. Warren discovered that the three most unchurched states were on the West Coast: Washington, Oregon, and California. He drilled down further and focused on four metro areas: Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, and Orange County. Warren spent much of the summer of 1979 examining demographic trends of those regions. He determined that Orange County’s Saddleback Valley was “the fastest-growing area in the fastest-growing county in the United States during the decade of the 1970s,” as he wrote in his 1995 book for evangelical pastors, The Purpose Driven Church.

Warren had to figure out his church’s niche in a county that already boasted high-profile ministers such as Schuller and Calvary Chapel’s Chuck Smith. Warren spent 12 weeks knocking on doors in his new community. If the person said he or she already belonged to a church, Warren moved on to the next house. His survey revealed four common complaints: Church is boring, church members are unfriendly to visitors, churches care more about money than people, and churches don’t offer quality child care. He pledged to build a church that would minister to those needs.

Warren synthesized all that he had learned into a letter mailed to 15,000 households promoting Saddleback Valley Community Church’s first service on Easter. (He pointedly omitted “Baptist” from the name to avoid alienating unchurched people.) The letter began: “At last! A new church for those who’ve given up on traditional church services!” Then it recited the four complaints from his survey and explained how his church would be different. “We’re a group of friendly, happy people who have discovered the joy of the Christian lifestyle,” it read.

Sixty people showed up for Warren’s dress rehearsal on Palm Sunday on March 30, 1980. That was the day he outlined his remarkable vision for Saddleback. A week later, about 200 people gathered for Warren’s Easter service at Laguna Hills High School’s theater. Few of them were believers, but week after week, more people committed to Christ.

Warren sharpened his outreach methods through doctoral study at Pasadena’s Fuller Theological Seminary, a center of church-growth teaching. Warren invented an affluent baby boomer archetype he called “Saddleback Sam,” who would be his target audience. Sam was a college-educated, white-collar worker with a young family. Health and fitness were high priorities, but not “organized religion.” Sam preferred casual dress and informal meetings. He enjoyed the laid-back Southern California lifestyle, but shouldered the burdens of a mortgage and credit card debt.

Saddleback’s “seeker-sensitive” services were designed to be nonthreatening to someone like Sam, so no arcane Christian terminology or dogma. Uptempo contemporary music created a celebratory atmosphere. There was no dress code, and Warren himself disarmingly wore Hawaiian shirts. He crafted his messages to be relevant to people’s felt needs.

Once Warren enticed Sam to attend a service, he developed a blueprint to deepen his involvement. “Like a research and development center, we’ve experimented with all kinds of approaches to reaching, teaching, training, and sending out God’s people,” he wrote in The Purpose Driven Church. To become a Saddleback member, he required people to take a class and sign on to Saddleback’s covenant. Three classes steered members into progressively more demanding levels of commitment. Saddleback’s core consisted of lay ministers equipped to win others to Christ. Read More»

David Clary | “Rick Warren: The Purpose-Driven Pastorpreneur” | December 19, 2022


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