Church’s Success Built on Blend of Yuppies, Marketing

Times Staff Writer

When pastor Rick Warren asked his burgeoning Saddleback Valley congregation for money to build a permanent church, Don and Hootie Hill were willing to do what they could.

The couple sold their four-bedroom, three-fireplace lakeside home in Lake Forest, moved to a smaller home in Mission Viejo and contributed the profit to the church building fund.

Others in the congregation, which numbers 4,000 on Sundays, gave recreational vehicles, stocks and cash generated from retirement accounts, second mortgages or vacation funds.

“We all have a strong desire to build a house for the Lord,” Hootie Hill said. Warren “had the vision and he had us catch it. . . . He’s a motivator, no doubt about it.”

At a time when an estimated 95% of Orange County’s young congregations are stymied by prohibitive land and building costs, Warren’s Saddleback Valley Community Church, a 9-year-old congregation of many previously unchurched baby boomers, has been able to purchase a $3.5-million, 113-acre site in the semirural Foothill-Trabuco area. Even more unusual, the Southern Baptist church has proposed a controversial $55-million compound that would include the county’s largest sanctuary with 4,800 seats.


Hill believes it was “a total miracle of God.” Others credit Warren’s charisma, shrewd timing and marketing techniques--like sermons based on surveys and “Jacuzzis for Jesus” baptisms-- with the church’s success. Saddleback Community Church is among the fastest growing congregations in the country, according to a recent study done at Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Mo.

“Evidently we’ve got a message that is meeting a real need in people’s lives,” Warren said.

The church has spawned 13 “daughter” congregations in Southern California and Warren holds seminars on church growth for pastors of various denominations. One this year drew 500 pastors from as far away as Asia and South America.

“It’s a whole philosophy that basically says we’re trying to take a traditional message and communicate it in a contemporary way,” Warren said. “Our big emphasis is on people: What do you need? Where are you hurting?”

The son of a Baptist preacher and a high school librarian, Warren, 35, grew up in Redwood Valley, a rural town north of San Francisco, and graduated from California Baptist College in Riverside and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

After seminary in 1979, Warren said he made a demographic study of areas likely to need new churches and discovered Saddleback Valley was the fastest growing area at the time in the fastest growing county.

He and his wife moved in 1980 with “no members, no friends, no building, no income,” he said. “We pulled into a real estate office and met a guy named Don Dale. I said, ‘Hi, my name’s Rick Warren, I’m here to start a church. We have no money.’ Within two hours, he showed us a condo, got us the first month rent-free and became our first member.”

Warren designed his church based on his own door-to-door survey of 500 residents. He discovered his target was “Saddleback Sam,” a prototypical yuppie who believes in God but has not attended church since childhood. The “Sams” told him they weren’t going to church because sermons were boring, people were aloof, child care was a problem and--curiously in light of his later success--pastors were too interested in money.

Warren believes the days are gone when people go to church out of habit.

“A lot of baby boomers would attend church if it used their kind of music, the pastor talked in real-life terms of people’s problems of paying bills, stress and freeways and what the Bible says about raising kids.”

(What does the Bible say about freeways? “Be patient,” Warren said.)

The church, for example, has no creed or statement of faith and does not use the word Baptist. To attract the unchurched, Warren has:

* Placed full-page ads in the local Saddleback Valley News with grabber messages for Saddleback Sam: “Some Days Nothing Seems to go Right!” “Most of Us Live Our Lives the Way We Watch TV.” “Is Your Marriage Hurting?” “Are You Making More Money But Enjoying Life Less?”

* Sent brochures with photos and comments from converts to 35,000 homes.

* Based on a survey of the radio listening habits of his congregation, formed a band with electronic keyboard and synthesizers for Sunday worship and scheduled top Christian singers like Debbie Boone for Easter services.

* Developed dozens of activities for individuals and families such as bowling, fishing, a luau for singles and 26 small Bible study groups. The church also sponsors 15 softball teams.

From 146 members in 1980, the church has grown to 1,500 official members with voting rights on land purchases and budgets. Four thousand generally attend Sunday services at Trabuco Hills High School and 13,000 names of visitors are in a computer. The church has 12 ministers and a support staff of 35.

Like most young Orange County churches, the Saddleback Community congregation was a wandering tribe, holding Sunday services for five years at Laguna Hills High School before moving to Trabuco Hills, and using other church or school district facilities for its programs.

Without a permanent building, Warren uses the ocean, lakes, swimming pools and “What we call Jacuzzis for Jesus"--a member’s back yard hot tub in Nellie Gail Ranch--for baptisms.

Though arranging meetings in far-flung facilities is frustrating and costly--last year, the church paid $200,000 in rent to Saddleback Valley School District--Warren put off his building program “as long as possible” to let the congregation grow, said executive pastor Glen Kruen. “If 200 people are giving, or 4,000 people are giving, it’s a big difference,” he said.

Following the initial $1.5 million raised in the fall of 1987, an equal amount in pledges is coming in at $500,000 a year, he said.

Four years ago, Warren won county approval to build a 5,700-seat church on 72 acres in Rancho Santa Margarita, said church planning consultant Mel Malkoff. The plans fell through when a Newport Beach developer bought the property while the church sought financing, he said.

“This is the first time they were able to tie up enough land to build the church program at an affordable price,” Malkoff said.

To potential neighbors who cry that a seven-story, 4,800 seat church would ruin the countryside or that churches should not be allowed to build recreation fields, church leaders say the compound they propose provides multiple community services--such as day care and recreation--and should be treated as if it was a school or community center.

Churches, particularly those in Orange County, are developing in a manner similar to malls, which replaced neighborhood shopping centers, Malkoff said. Saddleback Community Church typifies the trend of a larger church offering specialized services such as counseling and recreation, he said.

“That’s what we’re trying to do--be a community service institution and provide a lot of amenities builders don’t want to provide, such as day care,” Warren said.

“A verse in the Bible says Jesus moves in four ways: physically, spiritually, intellectually and socially. We believe the purpose of the church is to be able to help people be better in all areas.”

In an Aug. 10 letter to County Planning Commissioner Steve Nordeck, Warren wrote: “It is not the duty of county staff to define what a church should or shouldn’t have as part of its ministry. Our attorneys have informed us that this is a clear violation of the separation of church and state issues.”

The church’s popularity dictated its size, he wrote. “If the residents didn’t want the church, they wouldn’t attend and the size could be scaled down!

“You can’t tell 12,000 residents to stop liking their church and to go form a smaller one!”

Warren concluded: “We believe this is God’s piece for a beautiful community amenity that will benefit the people who already live there. After meeting nearly ten years without our own permanent home, we are committed to this piece.”