I've been thinking about tackling this subject for some time. But it was an article in Monday's Orange County Register (Click Here) which prompted me to begin this brief series. In an article in the new "faith & values" section of the Register religion writer Jim Hinch observes . . .
The future of religious America lives in a two-story beige office building in downtown Fullerton, where homeless people and college graduates attend church together. The future also lives at a mosque in Mission Viejo. At an organic farm started by a megachurch. In downtown Santa Ana, where kids of many faiths feed the homeless. And in an Orange County church for hipsters where women, once excluded from ministry, now are pastors.
Hinch goes on to describe the biggest change of all to the Orange County religious landscape--Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral is soon to become "Christ Cathedral," home to Rome's OC diocese. Anyone who has been to the OC, knows that the Crystal Cathedral stands tall and is directly across the 5 freeway from the Honda Center (where the Ducks play hockey) and Anaheim Stadium (where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim play baseball). Christ Reformed is also nearby, but almost invisible until you are on top of it.
Hinch is right. The change in ownership of the Cathedral is simply the latest and surely the most visible sign that much has changed. The loud buzz long associated with the various Protestant, evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic megachurches of the OC, has, by and large, given way to the kind of low-key religious pluralism described above by Hinch.
With all of the changes afoot in OC's religious climate, my question is simply this, "what happened to the OC of the 70s, 80s and 90s?" An era in which a distinctly Christian "buzz" was everywhere, and a time when many of the religious trends and fads which drove American evangelicalism began in my own backyard. Locals joked that based upon church attendance and Harvest Crusade responses, the population of the OC had been saved twice over. You don't hear that quip anymore.
I saw much of it, and participated in some of it. I am now the pastor of a church in the OC where many of us (including me) came to faith in Christ (or to a new or deeper understanding of our faith in Christ) because of that "buzz." My guess is that about 75% of the members of Christ Reformed were, at one time, actively involved in some aspect of OC's Christian buzz. So, if all of that is true, why is it that the OC is now so different? Why is the buzz gone? Why is this a good thing?
I'm not intending this series to be a scientific study of current religious trends (I'm not equipped to evaluate these trends in that manner, nor am I interested in such things). Nor will this series be a nostalgic look back at a better time--granted, it had its moments. I am doing nothing more than offering my observations on a time now gone, and looking for any lessons which might be learned.
My take is that this era was more of like a super nova of a dying star, than it was the establishment of any sustained evangelical movement. We know that to be true, based upon the observations of Hinch and others about the decline of the megachurches and the rise of a generic religious pluralism which has taken their place. Granted, the megachurches are still here, but the buzz they generated is gone (or greatly diminished), as is the influence they exerted upon the religious life and the culture of the OC.
There are several reasons why OC Christianity has changed so drastically. The most obvious is that the OC itself has changed--drastically. Thirty years ago, the OC was mostly white middle-class and Republican. OC had the highest percentage of Republican voter registration in the country. Most of those folks moved here after World War Two, attracted by good jobs and the great weather. There were some Asians, and more Hispanics, but the county was predominantly WASP. The economy was robust and virtually recession-proof, driven largely by aerospace (Hughes, Rockwell, Boeing, and others were here), hi-tech industries (i.e., Bechman Instruments, Fluor), and entertainment (Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland).
Little of this is true anymore. The local economy is not near as robust. Aerospace and the hi-tech industry are leaving the state because of California's oppressive business climate--high paying jobs are going away and not coming back. Immigrants now dominate many of the county's neighborhoods--including my own. "Little Arabia" is two miles away from me, and Garden Grove has a substantial Vietnamese neighborhood ("Little Saigon"). The barrio of Santa Ana now extends into North Orange County (and is within a block of my home). Right-winger Bob Dornan's old congressional seat is now held by the very progressive Linda Sanchez.
As the county has changed, OC religion has become as diverse as the people who now live here. Hardly a surprise. But one thing which has come with the change is the virtual silencing of the Christian buzz which was quite loud and lasted some three decades.
The Christian buzz was a cacophony arising from the churches and ministries which were located here. During this time, the OC was home to TBN and the nightly follies of Paul and Jan Crouch. The Hour of Power was based here (the TV ministry of Robert Schuller), as well as Insight for Living (Chuck Swindoll's radio broadcast). Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel and John Wimber's Vineyard reached out to the Jesus people in the late 60's and seemed to get the whole "youth culture" thing rolling. Maranatha music and "praise songs," anyone? There were always concerts, and bible studies in these churches were usually packed to the rafters. Meanwhile, Walter Martin fought back the "cults"--Walter's Saturday night live call-in radio broadcast of the "Bible Answer Man" always generated buzz at church on Sunday. Walter gave many of us our first exposure to Christian theology (weak as it was). There were a host of Word-Faith "ministries" here (like Gary Greenwald and the "Eagles Nest"). Meanwhile, good ole Rich Buhler comforted the neurotic, and KYMS (the local Christian radio station which now broadcasts in Vietnamese) had huge ratings. Then Rick Warren showed up, along with Benny Hinn (for a time) . . . I am sure I am missing many others. There was a lot going on here in the OC. And it generated a distinct Christian "buzz."
We'll talk about all of this and more in this series. Bear with me as we go, I'm doing this from memory, and I didn't think to take notes at the time! A lot of water has gone under the bridge. Thankfully, I have now so successfully isolated myself in the theological sanity and comfort of Reformed theology and church life, if there were still such a Christian buzz, I probably wouldn't hear it.
We'll start next time with an attempt at a definition of a "burned over" district, and develop in a bit more detail what I mean by a Christian "buzz." I'll also recount my own very small role in the OC religion. Part One -- "The Buzz"
To whet your whistle a bit, did you know that both R.C. Sproul and Mike Horton were on TBN? Stay tuned.