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Church Finally Finds a Place to Call Home : Religion: After 13 years of temporary quarters, a Saddleback Valley congregation holds services on its new 74-acre building site.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From the makeshift altar on the windy Foothill Ranch plateau, the Rev. Rick Warren looked upon a festive scene he never doubted would occur.

After more than a decade of wandering from high school gymnasium to high school gymnasium, and from hall to hall, members of his Saddleback Valley Community Church were “home at last,” he told an estimated 6,000 parishioners who gathered Sunday morning for an open-air service on the site of their future church.

It was the first service at the 74-acre Foothill Ranch site, the largest church campus in California and one of the 10 largest in the nation. The congregation, which walked the mile from their previous quarters as part of the celebration, has for the past 13 years met in 57 different rented facilities throughout South Orange County.

“This is not a church service; this is Woodstock,” Warren said, laughing, as thousands sang and swayed to the sounds of the church’s regular gospel-styled rock band and choir.

Earlier, much of the crowd, many carrying banners and balloons, had marched from their most recent meeting site--Trabuco Hills High School in Mission Viejo--to their new home in Foothill Ranch.

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“I just felt like the children of Israel walking into the promised land,” said Bob Mayfield of Mission Viejo, one of the founding members.

The road to the new church, however, has not been an easy one.

In April, after two years of negotiations, church officials closed escrow on the Foothill Ranch land. But earlier, the church had lost a bid to build their $50-million home on land in Santiago Canyon.

“A lot of people said it couldn’t be done,” Warren said. “We have prayed and waited, we have searched and waited, we have negotiated and waited and we have waited and waited. But the wait was worth it.”

Construction will start this spring on the first facilities, including an 86,000-square-foot Fellowship Hall, a 36,000-square-foot day-care center and 11 acres of parks and lighted fields for baseball, softball and soccer, Warren said. Until then, services will be held in a huge, white, 2,500-seat tent. About 42 portable classrooms, some seating up to 300, will be available for youth programs and Sunday school.

Most important, the church campus--which will include 289,000 square feet of meeting space and won’t be complete for a decade--will be big enough that no one will ever be turned away, Warren said.

“The church is people, not buildings,” he said. “We’ve been building the church for 13 years. Now we’ll be building the home to put the church.”

In 1980, after finishing seminary in Ft. Worth, Tex., Warren, then 26, moved to the Saddleback Valley with his wife, Kay, and their 4-month-old baby to start a church that would appeal to those who had never attended church. With no money, no members and no buildings, Warren started going door to door, surveying the needs and interests of the unchurched.

At the same time, he wrote an open letter to about 15,000 Saddleback Valley residents, telling them how the church would be different from others. While it would remain evangelical and biblical in theory--the church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention--it would be contemporary and innovative in programming and style. About 200 people responded to the letter, coming to the first service on Easter Sunday, 1980.

A large part of the so-called “Saddleback Strategy” has been to tailor its worship services to unchurched, well-educated, professional Baby Boomers in their mid-30s and 40s.

Mission Viejo residents Lee and Cynthia Henseler were among the original members of the church, the second family to call Warren for information after receiving the community letter. At the time, the Henselers said they were not attending church but, with the birth of their first child Courtnay, were searching for a congregation. Since then, the church has become a major part of their lives, Cynthia Henseler said.

“It’s the people, a sense of family and friends,” she said. “It’s also knowing you’re part of a bigger scheme.”


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