It’s a cloudless summer Sunday and the vast parking lots are filling early at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, 50 miles south of Los Angeles. New SUVs, guided by marshals, queue for the best spots before their occupants spill out happily into the sunshine, heading for a huge auditorium.
They make their way up imposing steps, past palm trees and crystal-clear waterfalls tumbling down artificial rocks. The children’s play area has a stream that parts like the Red Sea, courtesy of two invisible plastic sheets. On a nearby hillock, a replica of Jesus’s tomb has a hydraulic stone that can be rolled away.
The Saddleback campus, opened in 1992, has the eighth-largest congregation of any church in the United States – expanding from its first gathering of 200 in a high school gym in Easter 1980 to a current average weekly attendance of 17,500.
Inside, the only religious symbol is a wooden cross and, during the service, there is no communion and none of the familiar liturgy. Instead, there’s slickly executed Christian rock from a live band.
Saddleback’s founder is Rick Warren, 57, the US’s most famous pastor. He bounds across the stage wearing his trademark goatee, a black T-shirt, Converse trainers and jeans. He is preaching about self-examination: “If you’re doing something that’s messing up your marriage or destroying your finances, it’s because there is some kind of emotional pay-off. I don’t know what it is – maybe it’s to mask your pain, maybe it’s to cover up a fear, maybe it’s an excuse to fail, maybe it’s to compensate for guilt.”