“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!
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 during this time, it is self-evident that the OC is not the same place in 2013 [note: now 2021] 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, for the most part, has gone quiet. This is not a bad thing in my estimation.
The very fact that Robert H. 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 (Robert A. Schuller), 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 reeks 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 too has died, 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 over the long haul now that Chuck Smith has entered glory. But it will never be the “buzz” maker it once was. In fact, Calvary Chapel has steadily faded into the background.
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 a 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 declining 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 remained of “Set Free” were 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 in the business parks 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,” all signs 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 initially 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 Church (an SBC congregation) 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 stayed in the national news for 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 old news now 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 created 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.