What are we to make of the "Christian buzz" which once swept throughout Orange County? As religion writer Jim Hinch points out in his Orange County Register article of June 24, 2013, "the future of religious America is all over Orange County. And that future, like the county itself, is diverse, entrepreneurial, stratified by economic extremes, innovative and endlessly fascinating" (Hinch on OC Religion in 2013). Hinch is certainly right about the endlessly fascinating part of the OC's religious future. What comes next? Only the Lord knows the answer to that question. But to anyone who grew up in the OC, it is self-evident that the OC is not the same place in 2013 that it was in the 1960's-70's-80's-90's. The Christian buzz which dominated the religious life of the OC during those bygone years has, for the most part, gone quiet. This is not a bad thing in my estimation.
The very fact that Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral is now Christ Cathedral--home to Rome's OC diocese--points to a degree of change which is absolutely unfathomable to those of us who lived through this tumultuous and exciting time. Robert Schuller--the great "possibility thinker"--didn't consider the possibility of bankruptcy and losing his beloved Cathedral. For a time it looked like a smooth transition from father to son, and then suddenly, everything blew up. Now the Crystal Cathedral is "Christ Cathedral" and a Roman altar now stands obtrusively in the center of the Cathedral.
Paul and Jan Crouch and their TBN empire still does its thing, but TBN seems to me to reek of "same ole, same ole," which is the death rattle of Christian ministries built on flamboyant personalities, Christian celebrities (some real but mostly self-imagined), and the seemingly endless waves of the supposed "latest" move of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, Chuck Smith is ill with stage IV lung cancer, and as we have seen, Calvary Chapel is now home to the Jesus People "all-growed up"--as they say in Texas. Only the Lord knows what will happen to Calvary Chapel when Chuck Smith enters glory. But it will never be the "buzz" maker it once was.
Admittedly, I didn't and couldn't cover all that went on in the OC during the days of the "buzz"--in this brief series I devoted my time and attention to things with which I was familiar and can still remember. The Vineyard, and the "signs and wonders" movement it spawned, certainly merits an entire post. But the Vineyard won't get such mention here, because I know virtually nothing about it--other than where it is located, and that it was once very influential. John Wimber was big news in the OC, but after his 1997 death, the Vineyard is just another OC megachurch, about which you hear very little.
"Set Free" too could merit its own post, but it was around for such a short time in the early 1990's and its founding pastor (Phil Aguilar) became so notorious that all that remains of "Set Free" are a few biker half-way houses in an otherwise quiet Anaheim neighborhood. But Set Free and the Vineyard did share one thing in common which characterizes much of OC religion--the ubiquitous concrete tilt-ups which dominate the OC's countless industrial and commercial areas. Churches simply cannot afford to buy land and build here--which is a huge factor in the transient nature of the OC buzz. Very few of the "buzz" makers could actually build permanent landmarks to themselves. Those who didn't are gone and soon to be forgotten.
Although Rick Warren is the latest OC mover and shaker to generate significant "buzz," the signs seem to indicate that he may be the last. It will be very difficult for an evangelical megachurch entrepreneur like Warren to succeed in the OC in the future. Coming at the tail-end of the buzz, Warren's "deeds over creeds" emphasis played well in an area where many people who participated in the "buzz" eventually wearied of the personality-driven hype and religious "hucksterism." Such folk weary too of Warren's pandering to them with gimmicks like a "Hula" themed worship service, and sermons built around a quote from "Bartlett's" and not a biblical text. And when these people leave the church, they leave angry, and they don't come back.
Warren arrived in the OC with a new message and energy, and through his stress upon "purpose-driven" churches which intentionally gut the content of Christian worship, preaching, and doctrine, with the stated goal to reach ever-larger audiences (so called "seeker sensitive worship"), Warren's Saddleback grew to a massive size, perhaps with even more people going through its doors each week than Calvary Chapel. No doubt, Warren succeeded by building in the OC's wealthy suburbs (in "South County"--down the freeway a fair bit from north-central OC, where the buzz was first generated). Yet, after hosting the Obama-John McCain presidential debate on faith, and after everyone grew weary from his Forty-Days of Purpose (a sort of Protestant knock-off of Ignatius Loyola's "spiritual exercises"), Warren still is in the national news a bit, but about all Saddleback can offer folk these days is a large menu of outreach programs--some of which are very successful and beneficial, but often lack any distinctly Christian content or emphases.
The reality is that good deeds don't often generate buzz. Warren is now old news here in the OC, suffering the fate of every "new" ministry when the "new" wears off. "Now what do we do?" "How do we keep it all going?" I'd bet the farm that figuring out what strategic step to take next occupies the time and energy of the staffs and governing boards of the remaining evangelical megachurches. Pity the poor staff person or board member who suggests going back to the basics of preaching the gospel! These churches truly miss the "buzz" which built them, and would probably do just about anything to get it back. But the buzz is long gone and chasing it is a fool's errand.
By its very nature such religious buzz cannot be sustained. If everything is "new" and "radical," then nothing is really "new" and "radical." The huge personalities which generated the buzz are passing from the scene, and old age doesn't play well on TV. The buzz the celebrity preachers generated can only but die out when they do. Ironically, the same Charles Finney who started it all, was largely right about the outcome--what worked in 1969 won't work in 2013. You must always find something new and exciting to keep it all going, and at some point, people burn-out and then drop-out, never to darken the door of a church again.
And this is why the OC is now a "burned over" distinct. People have seen too many staged miracles and fake healings. They have been told too many times that Jesus is coming back any moment because some crisis in the Middle East pointed in that direction. Too many times they've heard that God was doing a "radical" world-changing work through some preacher who then spent more time begging for more money to keep it all going than he did explaining how this radical new work might come about. Because the buzz was generated by personalities and entertainment, should we really be surprised it has fallen silent? No. All that remains when the buzz ends are ugly concrete shells with smaller and smaller crowds on Sundays, and ministers seeking to be more "radical" and hipper than their predecessors. It can only turn out badly in the end. This is why it is good the buzz is falling silent.
I suggest one very important lesson we can learn from this era comes from the example set by those faithful Reformed and Lutheran congregations who were here before the Christian buzz got going, and who remain now that it is gone. I know of three Orthodox Presbyterian Churches (OPC) in the OC (or adjacent to it) which were established before the buzz began. These churches are about the same size now as they were thirty years ago. They have worship services and sermons which are little different than the day these churches were founded. They think it far more important to be "biblical" and faithful to God's word and the Westminster Standards, than they do to be part of the "buzz."
Some will chuckle at my stress upon the ordinary things which I think are the true indication of a church's faithfulness, but these churches went about their callings quietly, preaching Christ crucified, teaching the Christian (and Reformed) faith to several generations, comforting the grieving in their midst, counseling those with troubles, marrying and burying, and providing diaconal care for those among them in need. Some will opine that this is small-mindedness, or nothing but risk-averse traditionalism. OK, so be it. Some of that is at work, granted. But these churches did not need the "buzz," and could have cared less about it. If they are truly concerned about being faithful to Scripture and their Confession of Faith, why concern themselves with the buzz? God's blueprint for his church does not include the generation of "buzz"--but it does include the preached word and the sacraments. I'm sure there are Lutheran Churches which did the same thing (I don't know the local Lutheran world as well), and we can throw in a CRC or two in the OC mix.
Given the numerous additions to the Reformed and Presbyterian witness in the OC during this period of time (OPC, URCNA, PCA), I, for one, am pretty optimistic that Christ's churches in the OC have (for the most part) weathered the "Christian buzz" just like they made it through countless Santa Ana winds and brushfires, an earthquake or two, as well as the OC bankruptcy! There were some faithful folk here before it started, and there are many more here after the buzz ended. Yes, these churches could probably use some Round-Up on their weedy sidewalks, and perhaps a fresh coat of paint might be in order. But these churches know that stuff (important as it is) is only cosmetic.
The critical question remains: "Was the rise of the buzz, a genuine work of God?" Based upon the fruit of so many people coming to faith in Jesus Christ, that answer can only be an unqualified "yes" (especially early-on). But did the buzz go off the rails and end up doing great damage to the cause of Christ? The answer to that question is another unqualified "yes." If your church jettisoned its biblically-based liturgy for a praise band, and if your pastor stopped preaching expositionally, ditched his suit and tried to be "radical," then you've got the OC Christian "buzz" to thank!
This was an amazing time, and I am thankful to have witnessed much of it. But, I for one, am glad it is over, and perhaps now that it is, Christ's people will regain their love for God's word, seek to worship God in a way he commands, and seek to build Christ's church as he instructs us. We can only pray that the age of entrepreneurial religious family businesses, or garish monuments to celebrity preachers is over. The buzz which they generated certainly is.
Thanks much for reading!
Here's the introduction to this series: Introduction
Here's part one, "the buzz": The "Buzz"
Here's part two, "TBN": TBN
Here's part three, "Calvary Chapel": Calvary Chapel
Here's part four, "Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral": Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral
Here's part five, "The Bible Teachers": The Bible Teachers