Casper and I drove north from San Diego on I-5. For our very first church visit, we were starting at (or near) the top, in Mission Viejo, California—the mecca of mega, the foremost outpost of contemporary Christianity. But most everyone calls it Saddleback.
Standing on the corner where Saddleback Drive meets Purpose Drive (yes, those are the actual street names), I kept Casper in my peripheral vision, checking for fi rst impressions.
“I heard they let first-time visitors park up front,” said Casper. “I also heard, though I doubt it’s true, that if you’re saved here you get a T-shirt. . . . Look at all these people. I feel like I’m at a football game or something.”
“So, how does it feel to be standing at the vortex of evangelical innovation?” I asked.
“Vortex is right; I feel like I’m spinning a bit.”
We parked our Saturn amid a sea of SUVs and joined the exodus of people moving from the parking lot to the pews. There were several giant white plastic tents on the edge of the parking lot. I told Casper that was where the kids, teens, and tweens enjoyed services.
“That’s where they enjoy circuses?” Casper asked. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not since the circus was the only other place anyone but a Saddleback insider would expect to see tents this large.
And the tents were just the beginning. We saw movement and activity and signage everywhere we looked: carts wheeling past with pastries, fresh fruit, and bagels, and people, people, and more people, most of them headed toward a set of stairs lined with roses and divided by a waterfall spectacular enough to be located in the Mall of America.
I wasn’t sure about Casper, but I have to admit I was already pretty much in awe of the whole experience, even though we were just barely past the parking lot. The size, the detail, and the campus were overwhelming.
Casper woke me out of my reverie. “Jim, look! It’s a replica of Calvary on top of a replica of Jesus’ tomb!”
We walked over and took a good look. I couldn’t believe it. There really was an artificial replica of Jesus’ tomb with a rock parked in the front door. It didn’t look like it was a sacred shrine or anything, so we decided to try and roll away the faux stone from the faux tomb, but it was locked with a large bike lock and chain.
“Well, I hope they unlock it in time for Easter,” Casper said. I guess even Jesus’ tomb isn’t safe from vandals in Mission Viejo, I thought, chuckling to myself.
Saddleback resembles something between a college campus and a theme park. It’s a perfect testament to Southern California as well, with an outdoor café, outdoor seating, palm trees, and landscaping so manicured and perfect that it would make even Martha Stewart jealous.
As we ascended the steps beside the waterfall, I told Casper that this place got started on a credit card. Rick Warren got a five-thousand-dollar cash advance, bought some advertising, and went for it. The church spent the first part of its history meeting in plastic tents and got the first buildings up only recently.
“Wow, and now he’s also like the best-selling author in the country, right?”
“Yeah, that’s him, founder of Saddleback and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, one of the biggest sellers in history.”
“Smiles everywhere. Good policy,” said Casper while we made our way through an unusually happy gauntlet of greeters.
I silently wondered why we Christians seem to believe that it’s our God-given duty to appear unusually happy—especially at church. I was beginning to suspect that taking an atheist to church could be an invaluable experience for all of us.
Casper and I shook hands with everyone who offered them, grabbed our programs (which Casper called brochures), and looked for a place to sit. We wanted a seat where we would be able to see everything but still work and talk quietly. We found a spot in the upper level and broke open our laptops, which attracted not just a few curious glances from our nearby fellow attendees.
We had a clear view of the stage and the two or three thousand people sitting down below. I asked Casper if he liked the view.
“It’s awesome. I can see Nick Lachey from here. Well, it’s not really Jessica Simpson’s ex, but the guy singing looks an awful lot like him. That band is something else: rock star up front, fifteenpiece string section, six horns, background singers, and the ultimate boomer icon—the lead guitar player has a Les Paul guitar with the sunburst finish.”
I told Casper we were going to play a little game called Rate a Church.
“I’ll ask you to rate a few aspects of their performance today, using five stars like they do on TripAdvisor.com. Let’s start with the music. On a scale of one to five, how do you rate the music?”
“Two stars,” said Casper. “That’s all I can do for you here.”
I had been pretty impressed with the performance, so I asked him why he went so low. “They’re world-class players, they’re not missing a note, the singers are in tune, the music is upbeat, and they move seamlessly from one song to the next. What’s missing?” I wondered.
“Well, yeah, for presentation and professionalism, they get a four or a five, but the music is too contrived, too slick, too professional, really.”
“But that’s a good thing, no? That should attract people, right?”
“Maybe people who like American Idol,” Casper said with a smile. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I see the entertainment value, but when it comes to music, I like it pure. Too much polish and you lose the heartfelt power, you lose the soul of the music, and you’re not gonna move anyone.”
As I mentioned, Casper is not just a music fan; he is also a musician. His band frequently plays venues in and around San Diego. So when it comes to music, it’s hard for him not to have a well-formed opinion.
Casper continued, “And the lyrics? ‘Hope Changes Everything’? What does that mean? Hope changes nothing except your own feelings. Action changes everything.”
Casper was taking his job seriously and really enjoying the imaginary microphone I was continually pushing in his direction.
Wow, I thought. We’ve only been in the building ten minutes, and the worship band and the music—what we Christians usually think of as one of the best ways to attract others to church—have been labeled contrived and soulless by Casper the Friendly Atheist.
“Let’s get into something more pertinent,” I said. “What about the congregation, the people—what do you give them on a scale of one to five?”
“Well, it’s pretty unfair to judge a roomful of people, but since you asked, they get a 2 as well, maybe a 2.5. I mean, they’re paying attention and all, but based on some conversations we’ve overheard, I get the impression that this is something simply on most folks’ schedules—Saturday: cookout. Sunday: church. . . .
“I mean, we’re talking about God, heaven, the afterlife, the nature of existence, and the universe, right? And to me it feels like most of them are just watching TV, taking notes, paying attention to a lecture just as they would in school, but not really engaged in the spirit of it all.
“Case in point: The preacher asked everyone to ‘greet the people around you.’ Well, I don’t mean to throw cold water on your church thing, but frankly, I thought that was lame. Why do you have to tell people to talk with each other anyway? Why didn’t someone voluntarily approach me? ‘Hi. Welcome to Saddleback.’
“Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”
“Don’t know,” I muttered.
Tom Holladay—a teaching pastor at Saddleback who sounds and looks like the actor Tom Skerrit (albeit a bald, shorter version)— took the stage. This guy was good: conversational, great timing, props, and lots of stories that were touching as well as personal.
I’ve heard a lot of preachers, and Tom was easy on the ears compared to many of them. He also did a great job of keeping people engaged without getting too loud or going overboard: a funny anecdote here, a verse there, a life story to tie it all together. I was pretty sure that Casper would break out of the twos and get close to a four with him.
“So, let’s play Rate a Preacher,” I said. “I give Tom at least a 3.5, how about you?”
“I give him a two,” Casper said, looking a little sheepish but knowing he needed to be honest if he hoped to keep his job.
“But what about the stories? Didn’t his anecdotes and the way he kept the crowd engaged do anything for you?”
“Well, I guess maybe we should make a distinction between presentation and content, Jim. He’s a real good presenter, but when it comes to relevant content—the meat of the matter, the words that give meaning to the obvious passion on display—I think he comes up a bit short. Tell you what: Since he included a real-life story or two—the one about his father coming to Christ being the most personal and moving—he gets a 2.5.”
Casper was proving to be a tougher critic than I had originally thought. Here we were at Saddleback—the Super Bowl of churches—and we were only giving a 2.5. Looking for another angle to help bump Saddleback’s average closer to a three, I asked a follow-up question. “You said you were moved, yet you still don’t seem to be all that enthused. What’s missing for you?”
“Well, where is the call to action? The challenge to make this world a better place? Even when Tom told the story of his father coming to Christ, it was not about what his father did or how he emulated Jesus’ example. The message was that you don’t have to do anything. Just say a prayer, use the magic words, and you’re in.”
I imagined Jesus saying something like this, but not an atheist! I quickly ran through the Jesus movie I keep in my head—all the things he did and said in the Gospels blended together into one image—and I anxiously tried to recall one time when Jesus said, “Pray this prayer and you’re in.” I couldn’t recall one clip where he did that.
“Are you saying that you would prefer that the pastor tell you directly what followers of Jesus are doing rather than what they believe? Would that be more interesting and compelling for you?”
“Exactly,” he shot back. “That’s what’s missing for me.”
“But you don’t see the whole picture of this church. They’re helping eradicate AIDS and helping people in the third world. I believe Rick Warren is in Africa right now, working on that exact thing,” I said.
“I respect that; who wouldn’t? But that’s so far removed that probably the only way it touches most people’s lives here is through some long-distance connection and maybe a percentage of their tithe. Where was the call to action for these people here? Why didn’t Tom say something about that today?
“If I did believe in God, and that I was going to be granted eternal life in heaven, I would want to do something significant here on Earth, to live as much of my life as I could following the example set by Jesus when he was here on Earth—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—I don’t know, maybe I don’t know the real story of Jesus. . . .” Casper’s voice trailed off, but his question was stuck in my head. This conversation was quickly turning personal, and I knew Casper actually did have a relatively clear understanding of Jesus’ message. As a veteran Christian, I was quite familiar with the checkered history of our movement and had spent the last thirty years thinking about why it sometimes feels broken to me as well.
I tried to explain. “A while back (1,700 years to be exact) the church drifted into the religion business. I call it beliefism—the worship of the right beliefs—and what you’re hearing today is a version of beliefi sm. Rather than Christians giving priority to what we do, we’ve been taught a view that tells us what’s really important to be known for is what we believe. Does that make sense?”
“I think I see what you mean, Jim. Based on what we’ve seen today anyway, the emphasis seems to be on simply believing. But does believing fix or change anything? I mean, the theme of today’s sermon was ‘don’t give up.’ Don’t give up? Don’t give up what? Don’t give up coming to church? Don’t give up believing in God?”
“Right,” I agreed. “That’s the basic offer the church makes to the marketplace. We tell people that they will find hope and life if they choose to believe in Jesus. Basically we say that our beliefs are better than the beliefs other religions are offering.”
“I get it, but here’s where it starts to feel unreal to me,” said Casper. “The pastor kept talking about the problems the people in this church are probably facing in their lives . . . and yeah, we’ve all got problems. But we’re sitting here in Mission Viejo, California. Half these people are probably worth a few million apiece, based on the cars and clothes I’ve seen today. I mean, how bad off can you really be here?
“Why the unrelenting focus on ‘don’t give up’ for an audience that, when compared to the rest of the world, practically has it all already? The sermon stuck with telling people that their main objective is dealing with their own struggles, which are what? Crises of faith? Cash flow? Relationships? I know it’s not about having enough to eat or a place to sleep tonight.
“I don’t mean to be overly critical, but what if instead of asking people to pray a prayer in order to get into heaven, the pastor challenged everyone to go out and serve someone else here on Earth? Could you imagine if he told everyone here today to go out and make a difference today—donate two hours of their time at the local shelter, buy a new set of clothes for a homeless person; can you imagine what a difference that would make in one day alone? Maybe he’ll cover it in another message.”
The service was ending, and someone asked us, “Are you guys spies?”
We turned around and met Randi, a young guy from India who was intrigued by all of our typing and wanted to know what we were up to. Randi would turn out to be the only person who spontaneously approached us the whole time we were on the campus at Saddleback.
“We’re writing a book,” Casper said, shaking hands with him.
“He’s an atheist and I’m a Christian,” I explained.
“Really!” Randi said, looking at Casper as if he had just sprouted another head. “I used to be an atheist as well, but mostly I was a Hindu.”
“Hindu? So were you really an atheist, or just non-Christian? I mean, as a Hindu you had a spiritual framework; you believed in an afterlife of some kind, a higher power, right?” asked Casper.
“Well, yes,” said Randi. “I was a Hindu, but I was looking for a way out of the endless trap of the caste system. My father told me that only one out of a billion make it to heaven and that most of us have to live multiple lives [be reincarnated] and over time become Brahmans before we can escape our caste. It takes thousands of life cycles.
“When I moved here and got a job as a computer engineer, I came to this church and heard that anyone can get into heaven if he or she believes in Jesus. If that is the case, I said, then I am a Christian, and you know what? I really have found happiness here in this place with these people.” “Wow.” Casper seemed genuinely moved by his story. “I was about to say it sounds kind of like you were switching health plans—Hinduism offers complete coverage after thousands of years, but Christianity offers salvation the first time around. It sounds like a step up for you.”
Randi said it was more than that. When he came to Saddleback, he found a place where he truly felt he belonged, and that had as much to do with his coming to Christ as it did with simply coming here and being around all these people who feel the same way.
We said good-bye to Randi and began to wind our way through the Saddleback Mall. A whole new group fi lled the church as we walked down the steps and past the waterfall, the artificial tomb, the artificial Calvary, and the sea of SUVs, toward our car. We stopped at a nearby café to review what we had just experienced and go a little deeper. I got out my laptop and asked Casper if there was anything that he admired about Saddleback.
“This may sound strange, but I admire their ability to target. I’m a marketer, so I know a thing or two about this. Rock music for the kids, more casual services for the young adults. I even saw this targeting in the wide range of options they offer their congregation: help for those in recovery, help for relationships, and so on. I think the next step would be to proactively offer that same level of support to the public, the less fortunate.”
“How about Pastor Tom’s story about his dad coming to faith—did that move you?”
“Not so much. What moved me more was Randi’s story.”
“Why his story and not so much Tom’s story?”
“Pretty simple. Randi told his story, while Pastor Tom put on more of what I saw as a performance. It’s really no contest. Randi was able to communicate more about what it means—to him, anyway— to be a Christian. And to my ears, that content creates a much more engaging story. Tom was, pardon the pun, preaching to the choir, which meant little to me.”
I understood what Casper meant about truly engaging people with personal stories. I told him about how long I’d been in the church, and about my own struggles to make sense of it at times. I explained that in many ways, those struggles prompted me to write this book.
“Exactly,” said Casper. “Faith is a choice, and no one feels that great about choices made under pressure.”
He paused a bit. “What about you?” he asked. “How did you find faith? Is faith something in your family? Did your parents have faith? Do your kids?”
Over a cup of coffee or two, I shared my story about how God encountered me, what I’ve done about it, and how my experiences with Jesus motivate me to keep trying to follow him and live a life that is real.
As we left the coffee shop, Casper turned to me. “You want to know what moved me the most today?”
“Let me guess: the faux tomb/Calvary combination? The waterfall with flowers?”
“Close, but no cigar. What really moved me was talking over coffee with you.”
I was caught off guard by his transparency, but I understood what he meant. Casper and I were not just business colleagues; in a short time, we were beginning to enjoy and actually trust each other. Telling me that he or she trusts me is the highest compliment a non-Christian can pay me, and I felt humbled.
“Jim, if a complete stranger comes up to me and starts professing his faith, it’s easy—too easy—to say that dude’s nuts. But when people take the time to tell me about themselves, give me some context for their story, give me names, places, and times, it makes more sense.
“A lot of times, people claim they’ve heard God talk to them, and I usually think, This guy hears voices. But don’t worry; I don’t feel that way about you!”
I was glad Casper and I were getting to know each other. And I was glad he didn’t think I was nuts. I didn’t think he was either.
And I told him so.