Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Visiting Saddleback Church

I've heard about Saddleback Church for years, so finally, last Sunday, my wife and I went, just to see what it is like. If you are not familiar with Saddleback, it is the church pastored by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life.

The church is in Lake Forest, California, an Orange County town I'd never heard of except in connection with the church. The town is located somewhat inland, in a developing area that is still largely open. Huge tracts of land are still undeveloped. Also, while I'm sure the locals know how to avoid them, the main highways that take you to Lake Forest are toll roads, which are quite rare in California.

I'm certain Saddleback draws people who live far from Lake Forest, and I'd guess that many of those people have to pay the road toll to get there. That they're willing to do so is impressive.

The "driveway" to Saddleback, if you can call it that, is enormous. It is actually a road, Saddleback Parkway, which has its own traffic light at the main drag. It resembles the entrance to a mall, complete with a large but understated sign on a wall on the side of a berm.

As we drove in, the long driveway reminded us a bit of Legoland, with signs along the road welcoming us, and a very proficient staff that guided us to a parking spot. It was easy in and easy out, with the same roadside signs on the way out, this time thanking us for visiting.

The church campus reminded me of something between a park and an outdoor mall. In front of the main sanctuary (or whatever they call it) are some large, permanent plastic-walled tents. In each of them is an alternative service. The music is apparently different in each one, but the preaching - piped in by video from the sanctuary - is the same.

You approach the main building through a park-like mall area, with a stream, grassy hillock and various out-buildings, such as a coffee cafe. Then you climb some broad stairs, with a waterfall gurgling down the middle, and get to the sanctuary, which is modern and attractive but actually rather understated. I get the feeling they hired a mall architect and an amusement park architect and said, "Give it a mall-amusement park feeling and efficiency, but tone it down so it's not glitzy."

We were welcomed as we approached the sanctuary by greeters. Immediately inside, but outside the main meeting area, was an area apparently for parents with fussy kids. There was a video feed so they could participate in the service. We went in and were shown our seats by ushers who knew exactly where the few remaining empty seats were.

It appears the sanctuary is a multi-purpose room. Chairs on the floor appeared to be movable, and the seating in the back appeared to be on some sort of telescoping structure that would allow it all to be shoved back against the wall. Where we sat it was all stadium seating.

We got in a bit late and missed most of the music, but it seemed to be mostly praise songs. The front of the sanctuary was a low stage, with a simple metal podium for the speaker surrounded by colored bottles, which, it turned out, were to illustrate the biblical story of the widow who filled many bottles with a single small bottle of oil. Everything was expertly choreographed.

Behind and above the stage and running across the front of the sanctuary was - rather oddly - sort of a woodland scene, with trees and stuff. Curious.

The left and right walls of the sanctuary were made of clear glass, and on one side I could see people seated outside, some under patio umbrellas, but looking in. I imagine there were speakers so these sun-lovers could hear the service while watching it through the windows. The congregation was mostly white, with Asians and some Blacks and Hispanics.

The sermon was biblical, skillful and cheerful. The pastor (not Rick Warren today) was dressed casually, as was most of the congregation. The podium was flanked on either side by two giant video screens, showing the pastor close up, or switching to a slide to illustrate one of his points. Bible verses were chosen from various translations (I actually prefer sticking to one good translation). To illustrate one of his points, he brought out a woman from the congregation who described how God had used the death of her daughter to help her minister to other people.

In the bulletin (a four-color and very professional publication) was a note saying that visitors shouldn't feel obliged to give, that giving is for those who call Saddleback their church home. Cool! I was actually a bit surprised when they passed the plate. It was during the closing moments of the service and there wasn't a word said about it. The plate was just there all of a sudden. No announcement that it was coming; no pleading to give; nothing. I found this understated approach quite refreshing, and judging from the grounds, it apparently works.

After the service we wandered through an outdoor book store in front of the sanctuary, looked over some of the outlying buildings, and headed out.

A few thoughts:

While adopting modern marketing, it seems Saddleback has taken care not to become crass or commercial, though I think that with a moment's inattention it could go over the edge into glitz and self-indulgence. I think it should be very careful to avoid that.

Also, I think other churches shouldn't emulate Saddleback blindly, but should pick and choose what to implement. For example, it won't be possible for most churches in a city to have a walking mall and a huge parking lot. Land is too expensive, and besides, there also need to be neighborhood churches, which this definitely is not.

Finally, I think that a lot of what I have described is of secondary or tertiary importance. No matter how well organized or attractive or artistically choreographed, I don't think Saddleback would work without good, accessible and biblically focused teaching. Take that away and I think it would stagnate and die just like any other church that loses its way.

Overall, despite the long drive, it was well worth the visit. Blessings on you, Saddleback!

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Giving Back to the Community

Every once in a while I'll hear someone say that companies should "give back to their communities."

In a strict sense, I think this is nonsense.

When someone talks about giving back, he or she is essentially saying the company took something from the community that needs to be repaid.

But if I have a business that sells, say, shoes, how am I taking from the community? I'm providing shoes to my customers and my customers are providing money to me. When the shoes sell, the transaction is complete and nobody owes anybody anything else. Everybody is benefitted.

However, in many cases, companies go beyond that. They pay various local fees and taxes, they provide employment, and their employees go out and spend the money they earn throughout the community, benefiting even more people. So I'd argue that companies are already giving to the community.

None of this is to argue that giving to the community is wrong. I think giving - by companies or individuals - is a kind thing to do, that it can make the community a more closely knit and pleasant place to live, and it's great PR. But to suggest as any sort of general rule that businesses are somehow soaking something out of the community that needs to be repaid does not impress me in the slightest.

Friday, June 03, 2005

CompUSA's Inconvenient Warranty

A while ago I bought a Sony laptop at CompUSA. I was talked into the extended warranty because they said they would fix my computer if anything goes wrong with it and I knew they did repairs on the premises. It'll make everything convenient, I was told. No worries.

Well, something did go wrong. The power plug is loose in the socket so it doesn't charge reliably. Trivial, right? Should take an hour to fix.

Not even! Alhough they say they do computer repairs on the premises, they wanted to send the laptop off to Sony, and, they said, that'll take about two weeks.

Convenient? Not within a hundred miles of being convenient. I'm supposed to be without my computer for two weeks because of a silly plug? You're packing my computer off to who knows where with all my data on it? I don't think so! If all the big retailers offer as rotten a service as CompUSA, then there's a competitive opening as big as a locomotive for a computer sales company that offers good local service.