Although most Christians hearing of megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s plan to cancel regularly scheduled worship services this weekend in order to help facilitate community service projects have given the thumbs up, others say the event sends a mixed message.
“Good Neighbor Weekend” has been enthusiastically received by the majority of the 20,000 members at Saddleback Church in Orange County. Many have already signed-up online for acts of kindness, according to church officials.
Volunteer opportunities suggested and organized by church members include visiting severely disabled children in hospitals, serving breakfast to homeless and families living in motels, and helping families having members in the military stationed away from home with house chores.
Additionally, many more churchgoers will be reaching out to their neighbors in ways they’ve conceived themselves.
However, some inside and outside the Southern California church said they are uncomfortable with the plan.
“Why would we have to cancel any kind of service if we can easily reach out to our neighbors before or after church on any given Sunday? Going to church is something we do as a family every week and I was looking forward to another great message on Sunday,” said a Saddleback Church member who wanted to remain anonymous.
The husband and father of two children said that he was “scratching his head,” puzzled by the announcement to cancel services for the neighborhood outreach. He wondered why the message to church members could not have been to simply serve neighbors before or after church. The member said he remains loyal to Warren’s vision in general and gives him credit for knowing “what his flock needs.”
“If he feels that everyone is just sitting and soaking, like he loves to say, he’s probably right,” he said.
Evangelist Ray Comfort, who often takes to the streets on any given weekend to preach, told The Christian Post that Saddleback’s Good Neighbor Weekend is an admirable and a worthy event.
“It reminds me of something I did many years ago,” Comfort said. “I had our church drop a large bag of vegetables at the doorsteps of neighbors with a note that said we were a local church and we wanted to let people know that we cared for them.
“The note said that we would freely mow lawns, trim hedges, etc. It didn’t invite them to church or even say ‘God bless you.’ It was just a token of love. One lady called the church, burst into tears, and said that she had been in the area for 30 years and this was the first time the church had ever done anything for her."
Comfort said there were many other similar letters and calls to the church, including a note from an atheist who wished the church well in the community.
“We saw the reality of 1 Peter 2:14-16: ‘For so is the will of God, that with well doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men,’” he explained.
Many Christians voiced their opinion through Facebook comments to the CP article about the event. Although the majority were supportive of the unorthodox move, others were not as impressed.
“I appreciate much of Rick Warren and Saddleback's ministry, but I have to disagree here. Cancelling the worship of God to go and serve man subordinates God to man and makes the creation more important than the creator,” commented Brian. “Instead of taking any of the other 160 hours during the week, they are taking the few hours they have devoted to the worship of God and using that to serve … Let's rethink it.”
Comfort, who believes churches should embrace nontraditional approaches to sharing the Gospel like Saddleback has done, nevertheless gives a warning about doing so. Comfort is known for a type of street evangelism that does not shy away from the subjects of sin and hell.
“The only concern we should have when it comes to any church doing ‘good works’ is that they might replace the Gospel,” he said. “This is because it is easier to buy someone lunch than it is to tell them that hell exists, that God is holy, and that they desperately need a Savior.”
“We will get the smile of the world for our good works and their frown for the Gospel. But we must never prefer one above another,” Comfort warned.
Erik Rees, Saddleback’s pastor of Ministries and Life Worship at Saddleback, previously told CP that this type of event is typical at the church, which has “a wonderful 30-year history of maximizing the Christmas season to fulfill God's call to love our neighbors.”
“With the current climate of the economy, the leadership team felt the greatest way to ‘love’ this year was to make our weekend ‘service’ about ‘serving’ our neighbors. Over the course of two days, thousands of our members and small groups will use their time and talents to show God's love.”
“It's going to be a great weekend,” he added.
Church officials hope to log 50,000 combined individual hours of service within the surrounding neighborhoods of Orange and Riverside counties. Many of the volunteer projects will be done by the church's small groups, or Bible studies, of which there are a total of 5,000.