January 4, 2008
As part of his bold attempt to bring the far-flung elements of this country together, as in the End Times when the "wolf shall dwell with the lamb,"* Barack Obama has invited a preacher named Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life) to give the invocation at his inauguration. The gesture of national unity may have backfired, however, as a number of people on both the Christian Right and the Secular Left (e.g., Rep. Barney Frank -- see Washington Post) have loudly objected. Rev. Warren caused a small stir early in the fall campaign when he invited both John McCain and Barack Obama to answer questions. His brief statement accepting the invitation from Obama is at rickwarrennews.com.
Until the fall campaign, I knew little if anything about Rick Warren or his church. He is the pastor of Saddleback Church in the Los Angeles area, which boasts the third biggest congregation in the United States. Rev. Warren founded the congregation from scratch in 1979, reaching out to people who did not attend church very often. Over the years it has "gone forth and multiplied" into eight worship venues on four separate "campuses": Corona, Irvine, Lake Forest, and San Clemente. They are all within or very close to Orange County, one of the wealthiest places in the United States. (Remember the briefly-faddish TV show "The O.C."?) On the 25th anniversary of his church's founding in 2004, they held a huge service at Anaheim Stadium -- home of the Angels, of course.
Warren has preached in conjunction with the Urbana collegiate evangelical association, but it is very hard to pin down his denominational affiliation. It is clearly Protestant with some fundamentalist overtones, but seems to be more modern or worldly than the Southern Baptists, from what I can tell in their statement of belief. Warren's sermons stress the need for Christians to let go of their fixations on possessions and ego, and to take responsibility for their own shortcomings. He urges people to inquire introspectively about their own true identi, then to purify their hearts of hatred and bitterness, and then to dedicate their lives to serving God. His church is also more dedicated to "social issues" than other evangelical churches, and its members take seriously poverty, AIDS, and the environment.
Saddleback Church is a prime example of a "megachurch," defined as a Protestant church with at least 2,000 members. Last July, the Washington Post had a brief article on this phenomenon, with a map showing the geographical distribution of megachurches across the country. All but two of the Lower 48 states are within 50 miles of a megachurch: only Maine and South Dakota are not. The number of megachurches (currently about 1,300) has roughly doubled every ten years since the 1970s. Contrary to widespread impression, megachurches are not uniformally aligned with the Christian Right.
Megachurches may seem like a more comfortable religious venue for many people, compared to a traditional small or medium-size congregation, because it is easier to walk into a huge arena where you can remain relatively anonymous than in a smaller social group where someone might notice you. Entering a new church can be a daunting challenge for anyone, especially someone who is trying to "mend their ways" and feels guilty about their past. Likewise, it would be easier to leave such a large group, because you wouldn't be missed all that much. I'm not convinced that that is the best way to build the Christian faith.
* Not, as is often said, "the lion shall lay down with the lamb." See blueletterbible.org.