For the first time ever, today I attended a regular service at a mega-church. Not just any mega church, the mega church. That's right we visited the multi-million dollar shrine to Rick Warren, Saddleback Church.
We arrived through Saddleback Parkway and we're guided by an array of red shirted, hat and sunglass wearing attendants directing us into the lower lot. The wife actually asked me... "Do you think we'll have to pay to park?" It really did feel like he had parked in the Lion King lot, especially when the tram pulled up. We probably should have skipped the tram but when the tram volunteers were shouting "main worship center", I assumed that was the place to be. Once in the fire pit area, that's where the tram stops, we hiked up some stairs and started following signs to the children's center. A nice member of the greeters team told me we needed to go back down a different set of stairs. While we were talking I saw a building labeled "Nursery building". Since it was at the same level we were I skipped the greeter dude's instructions and headed in that direction. Sure enough! It was the nursery building!... but 18months -24months were downstairs. We hiked down stairs and waited in line, gave her name, my name, my phone number, "Yes, I said 951", and got our retrieval sticker. This was a tad bit exhausting. Now to find where 3's and 4's go. We hiked past the cool rock maze, went by the 1yr old and 2 yr old classes, marched through the main kids ministry foyer. FISH! FISH! Nemo! Dory! FISH!, my kids shouted as we walked past multiple salt water aquarium walls. And finally we arrived at the 4 year old class rooms. While we were once again waiting in line, the wife says I think we should put them (our other two kids) in the same class. A very nice jersey wearing lady (their kid's ministry is called "All Stars") asked us if we knew where we were going. I explained it was our first time and we were just visiting. She then asked how old the kids were. At this moment I did what I think anybody else in my situation would have done...okay maybe not. I LIED, I said "they are both four". This seemed really justified in a Rahab sort of way. I just wanted my kids to be together, I wanted my wife to feel at peace, I just wanted to actually go to church and not have to go on another hike to find the 3 year old classes. Feeling the glare of my wife and fearing God, or maybe Pastor Rick, would strike me with lightening, I made a correction "actually she's almost four and he's almost five, but we would really like them to be in the same class, just for today". The nice lady asked my wife "When's her birthday?" "August", the wife says "she's only three", looking at me like I was stupid not dishonest. "Oh no, we can't do that...", I'm not sure what the lady said after this but it had to do with developmental differences, maybe you could work on this during the week, we have a family friendly venue, all of our handlers are finger printed. (I'm almost sure she said handlers and I think this label should be re-thought through.) My kids were instantly in tears and neither wanted to go to their class by themselves.
We headed back to the "main worship center" ...over the river and through the woods... only to find out that children under five are not welcome in the main worship center. We were directed to the new "Family venue" over there, down the stairs, see that tent?, not that one but the one behind it, next to the beach burger stand. The wife says, "I'm ready to just go home!". One of the nice greeter dudes must have heard her cause he chased us down and asked, "Can I suggest the family venue?" He gave us similar directions, leaning and pointing, omitting the burger stand proximity.
My wife has real issues with folks not allowing kids in their service, and I'm with her. Somehow having a family venue creates a separate but not really equal second class citizenship. She was ready to go home. Despite the fact we had by now missed any chance at some hip cool mega church corporate worship, and despite the fact that I had a pretty good idea of the sermon content (they were kicking off forty days of purpose, and I've already read the book). We went to the family venue late. My wife was greeted, my kids were not. We walked into a tent with some tables where families were coloring together while "Everybody loves Raymond" played on the big screen. There were no seats at the tables so we sat on the school chairs (the family venue is housed in what is normally the junior high venue) and tried to take in the sermon. I was laughing at how Pastor Rick kept saying "tonight" until I realized we were not watching a live feed but simply a recording from the Saturday night service. I left to take the boy to the restroom, it's outside in a different temporary building. The wife was waiting for me when I came out, she really was ready to go home. We picked up the baby and went back to the tram pick-up and waited until we realized the tram was broke. We then hiked back the way we had came past all the tents over the bridge and down the elevator to the lower lot where we had originally parked.
I was a little dissapointed. I have some fairly random thoughts and one that I think is monumental.
How does one of the most influential preachers in America get away with repeating a series everybody knows he already did.
The Junior high venue was really cool! It pretty much sucked as a family venue, but it was the coolest middle school tent ever. I was having youth pastor envy.
I'm still a little bummed I didn't get my free copy of The Purpose Driven Life. I have the hardback but I'm a sucker for a great deal.
Somehow it made me feel better that big church, rich, baptists, from Orange County deal with the same stuff we do, seating, stuff breaking, what to do with kids, etc.
There was about a hundred people in the family venue, counting all the kids. No one looked too excited to be there, except one couple sitting in front of us and the sound guy who is for sure one of those people who just loves what ever they are doing.
I was once again reminded and impressed by the efforts of this church in addressing the AIDS crisis.
4 out of 20 cars in the parking lot were beamers. I didn't count Mercedes, Land Rovers, or Hummers, but 20% had a little BMW emblem. I'm not sure why I noticed this.
People have to be more important than programs. Relationships have to be more important than rules. No one ever told me their name. The nursery lady was the only person who ever asked me mine. I wonder how new people feel when they show up at my church? I don't want to knock Saddleback, that operation is a massive logisistical undertaking, and I was impressed with the shear volume of people that showed up, and the small army of staff and volunteers that it takes to make weekend services happen. I just wonder if many other families have had a similair experience, maybe it was their first ever church experience. I hope it wasn't their last. I'm reading this book... Everything Must Change. And that's what I'm thinking.