Thinking Out Loud

April 24, 2009

Church for the Wealthy: Saddleback Laguna Woods


If your view of church is that it’s an equalizer; that there is neither “male nor female; this ethnic group nor that ethnic group; or rich nor poor;” get ready to have that ideal shattered.

And the sign said long haired freaky people need not apply
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said you look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do
So I took off my hat I said imagine that, huh, me working for you

jim-casparSaddleback Community Church has planted a church in the middle of a gated communityLaguna Woods in Laguna Hills, CA — and no, you can’t visit.   Neither can the Mystery Worshiper from Ship of Fools, nor can Jim and Caspar go to church for a visit, unless they or you are invited by a resident on the inside.

And the sign said anybody caught trespassing would be shot on sight
So I jumped on the fence and yelled at the house, Hey! what gives you the right
To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in
If God was here, he’d tell you to your face, man you’re some kinda sinner

To be fair, (a) this is a community of 18,000; an unreached people group you might say, and (b) southern California invented the whole gated community thing; they exist there on every block the way Waffle House or Cracker Barrel exists in the southeast.    Still, there’s something unsettling about this, if only because (a) if it’s been done before, it’s certainly been low key and (b) it’s hard for anything connected with Saddleback to be low key.

I became aware of this through the blog called (wait for it…) Church Marketing Sucks and its link to Monday Morning Insight.    Before you jump to conclusions, I’d encourage you to read ALL the comments attached to both posts, since they provide not only opinion but further background information, some of which question whether gated communities should exist in the first place.     Still…

And the sign said everybody’s welcome to come in, kneel down and pray
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a penny to pay,
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine

Having listened to the arguments for and the arguments against Saddleback’s initiative, I gotta say, I’m at a loss for words.   I just don’t know,  if I was sitting in the conference room at Saddleback a year ago or whenever this egg first hatched, which side of the opinion spectrum I’d be on.

veggie-gated-communityThe Gated Community
Is where we’ll always be
Our smiles are white
Cause we’re inside
In comfy custody
And when you come to visit
You can stand outside and see..
What a smiling bunch we are
In our gated unity!

On the one hand, I want to applaud Saddleback for their inventiveness, for recognizing a particular people group some of which are retirees who don’t get out in their cars as often as they’d like.   On the other hand, I’m reminded of something that served the United States Evangelical movement perfectly well for the better part of the last century:  (wait for it…) Bus Ministry.   (In capital letters, no less.)   Especially with the main Saddleback campus only ten minutes away.

Oh! The Gated Community

Is where we like to be

Our clothes are never dirty

And the lawns are always green

And when you come to visit

You can stand outside and see

What a tidy bunch we are

In our gated unity!

I guess my biggest concern is that everything we do should be without a hint of suspicion, so the blog comment that Saddleback is just ‘following the money’ has some justification, at least on the surface. And I often think about Proverbs 16:2, which says (he paraphrased) that everything we do can be rationalized one way or another, but God is busy checking out our motivation.   (And also reminded that no one is to judge the servant of another.)

The Gated Community
Is where we’ll always be
Our smiles are white
Cause we’re inside
In comfy custody
And when you come to visit
You can stand outside and see..
What a smiling bunch we are
In our gated unity!

So what are your thoughts?   If you have an issue with this, what’s the problem?   If you’re at peace with this, why do you think it’s got so many others steaming?

Lyrics from “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band (lyrics from the band’s home page) and from “The Gated Community”  from Veggie Tales’ Sherluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler (from Veggie Tales lyrics site.)   See sites for full lyrics with choruses not printed here.   Pictured gated community in Atlanta, GA    Persons priveleged to attend Saddleback Laguna Woods will be happy to know that free coffee and donuts are available both before and after each service.


  1. What implications might this issue have for house churches? Should people having house churches feel compelled to open their doors to anyone who happens by?

    Perhaps the answer to that question is yes.

    Comment by David Rudel — April 24, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

  2. Interesting point. We’ve had a few house churches in the area where I live. Because of my involvement in the Christian bookstore, I’ve needed to know if I can refer people to them. A couple are very open to this. One or two were somewhat closed.

    I think this implies there are two types of house churches. One type has grown out of already established relationships to which select individuals are invited to attend. It’s not entirely invitation only — you can bring a friend — but you need to know it’s out there.

    The other kind is a more publicized alternative to existing brick-and-mortar churches; meeting in a house as opposed to a community center or theater. This kind of house church technically could grow to the place where it simply outgrows the house. This kind is also better for me, because I can refer people who need something out-of-the-box.

    Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — April 24, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

  3. I have just this week offered my home as a mid-week house church meeting point. A part of me does worry about how open we can be about having strangers walk among the things we treasure. But another part knows that some people will not find God in a traditional space.

    As far as the gated community I think that it OK. Older wealthy Christians have valid needs. One would hope though that they would feel compelled to use the gift of wealth that God has given to them in order to help the body of CHrist elsewhere.

    Comment by Cynthia — April 25, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

  4. laguna woods is more than a gated community… it is a holistic retirement village. it’s sister community is in seal beach. prior to a few years ago it was called leisure world, but the residents decided to incorporate as a city.

    this is not an exclusive church in a wealthy gated community. it is a church that is meeting the needs of people… mostly in the 70’s and older who need church to come to them.

    why spend the energy judging?

    Comment by blair farley — April 25, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

  5. This conversation seems something like a tempest in a teapot. We were enjoined by Christ to take his message to all the world — to them, not make them come to us. Elders in a gated community sometimes have severely limited means of mobility due to health reasons and frailties of age.

    Going to the motivation of the establishment of this campus without speaking to the pastor or committee who made the decision, is folly of the most useless kind.

    Let us put our energies to sharing the hope of salvation to the multitudes.

    This kind of divisiveness in the body of Christ only serves to make us a laughingstock to the worldly.

    God will sift the results of this new endeavor. This is the time for us to resign from the committee on judgment and commit this situation to God, who alone can judge fairly.

    Next topic….

    Comment by Judith — April 26, 2009 @ 9:52 am

  6. Blair and Judith,

    Just to clarify, I’m just the messenger here, trying to sum up the ideas floating around online. I do think this story is somewhat significant, I’m just not sure I’ve yet captured all the significance that it brings. I think this church plant is an ice-breaker that will be discussed more in the future when other, similar projects surface elsewhere.

    Motivation was touched on by a few of the comments on the source blogs. Not really up to me. If by interlacing the lyrics to “Signs” and “Gated Community” I seemed judgemental, then I apologize. Those are simply some songs that I couldn’t resist including because of their connection to this story’s plot.

    We’re not trying to divide here, we’re trying to inform — this is still a somewhat late-breaking story that didn’t get much notice — and promote thought and discussion. Okay?

    Comment by Paul Wilkinson — April 26, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  7. As a lay minister and a new LWV resident let me say no one here has it quite right and, yes Paul, the lyrics and picture were entirely inappropriate.

    Whatever the original motivation, at present the gatedness gives a much-needed secure feeling to sometimes frail, many times alone and lonely folks. One hardly need be wealthy to live here. Some of the units are really inexpensive, whether one rents or owns, less than any other condos anywhere in the area. Some people couldn’t afford to stay in the area near family otherwise.

    Write me and I’ll give you a tour

    Comment by urbananchorite — May 23, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    • The song “Signs” was actually really big here in Canada, because the Five Man Electrical Band was a Canadian group. But the song was actually dealing with things like country clubs. In actual fact, true gated communities are somewhat non-existent in Canada; many of my domestic readers wouldn’t have a clue as to the dynamics of it. Once fully informed, they would still find a church plant in such a place somewhat perplexing.

      Closer to home, my wife is involved in a church plant that is very much limited to people in a specific housing community; but for the reverse economic reasons: they don’t own cars and they’re not exactly welcomed in local churches. Their “in house” meetings mean as much as to them, as this one does to the people at Laguna Woods. Trust me, I get community.

      BTW, just for the record, even though I’m in Canada, I’ve spent time in Seal Beach, CA on a number of occasions in the 1980’s and had no problem remembering Leisure World when Blair mentioned it. I know the Laguna/Newport Beach area quite well, and while this project may have some critics, I’m sure there are just as many people in ministry wishing they’d thought of it first.

      Still…it raises new questions and introduces new dynamics to the classic concept of “church planting” (i.e. open to the public) versus some “house church” plants (i.e. often limited or closed to outsiders); although personally, I don’t expect to be taken all that seriously when I’m using Veggie Tales as a discussion starter. And that’s all it was, news and information and some comment-bait!

      [While typing this, your second comment came in; which I just scanned, but don’t need to reply to; it’s 11:20 PM here and time to go offline. Yes, Cynthia made a good comment last month; feel free to check out her blog.]

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — May 23, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

  8. PS Our last church was a house church in our CT home and the dilemma mentioned by David and Cynthia is real.

    We wanted to grow and did reach out to those who wouldn’t set foot in a traditional church. We even advertised in the paper.

    We didn’t care about our “stuff” but did worry a bit about someone unstable and all our kids. Just trusted God and went for it.

    One of our Rules was — “not money only”.

    Yeah, we had a addict show up — not entirely unknown to our family but new to the other church members. The other members embraced him, gave him rides when he lost his license, paid for rehab, helped him move, stored his stuff and welcomed him back when he returned sober. Everyone agreed it was one of the best blessings we experienced together as a body.

    Boy, I do miss that group!

    Comment by urbananchorite — May 23, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

  9. I remember in seminary it caused quite a PC stir when our missions trainer suggested that taking the gospel to a new place usually must start with a non-diverse group. For example, you just don’t start a church in a small Indian city expecting newly converted Brahmins to mix it up with newly converted untouchables. Not at first.

    Anyway, we find many friendly people here in Laguna Woods but also many full of fear, especially of being taken advantage of. Yes, I can see the people group designation.

    Thanks for taking the time to reply. Think we’ll check out the new Saddleback in Laguna Woods today!

    Comment by urbananchorite — May 24, 2009 @ 11:05 am

  10. Laguna Woods (Was Leisure World, most call it Seizure World) is a huge retirement community (city) which is why it is gated. Actually has some of the Cheapest units in Orange county since most are small and is restricted to over 55(?). I attend Saddleback, lots of gated communities around here. I think they put a church in there because a lot of residents don’t (can’t) get out to go to Saddleback so it is going to them.

    Comment by Digby — August 6, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    • My original comment was more concerned that others can’t get in; it’s part of my general view that traditionally churches have been public spaces.

      But I’ve mellowed since I wrote this and lately I’m wondering how many other ministry opportunities exist that are behind walls that are “gated.”

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — August 6, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

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