Has Orange County Christianity Jumped the Shark?

The country is abuzz with President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Saddleback Church's Rick "Purpose-Driven Life" Warren to offer the invocation at next month's presidential inauguration. Let others debate the merits of the choice--I personally think Warren's beginning to wade into the political waters he long swore to forsake--but what interests me is that Warren is assuming this spotlight treatment at a time when his home base is increasingly losing its influence over American Christianity.

I devote a chapter in my book (I'm reading from it tonight!) to the idea of Orange County being a nexus point for American Christianity. The condensed version: Charles E. Fuller, Rick Warren, Chuck Smith, Robert Schuller, Lonnie Frisbee, TBN. Those names and their legacies continue to influence American Christianity. But in terms of saving souls, they and their heirs now find increased competition across the country is diminishing their reach. One only needs to consult Outreach Magazine's list of the 100 largest churches in the United States as proof.

The publication issues its survey every year, and it's become the most respected finding of any institution. You can click on last year's list here, and note all the Orange County entries and their rankings: Saddleback Church (#4), the mothership Calvary Chapel (#39, and hilariously identified as Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa even though their facilities sit snugly in SanTana), and Irvine's Mariners Church and Sarang Community Church (the largest non-English congregation in the United States) in Anaheim occupying the 48th and 49th slots. Only Dallas and Houston have a higher concentration of megachurches within their suburbs, and the rankings also include six other Calvary Chapels and two other churches affiliated with the movement: Greg Laurie's Harvest Fellowship, and Maranatha in San Diego.

This year's rankings, however, tell a different story.

Saddleback Church is now at número eight, and the number of faithful reported has shrunk from 22,000 to about 19,000. Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa went down 11 slots to #50, although its attendance numbers remain the same at 9,500. Mariners (subject of my cover story this week, which I'll link to once it's on our website) actually increased its numbers by 500 to 9,000 but fell in the rankings to #58, a fate similarly suffered by Sarang, which is now 63rd in attendance even though it boosted its 2007 figures by 250 to 8,750.

More telling is Outreach's list of the 100 fastest-growing churches. Only one Orange County congregation made the list: Friends Church in Yorba Linda, Dick Nixon's childhood church and one that long ago strayed from its Quaker roots to become as prosperity-gospel driven as its cohorts.

And missing entirely from both years? The Crystal Cathedral, which is going through its own problems right now.

If Obama keeps Warren on, remember it, folks: this might be Orange County Christianity's swan song.

*Pictured: Nixon with one religious charlatan who, amazingly, isn't from Orange County: Sun Myung Moon.


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