Saddleback Church, which has 10 campuses across Southern California, is undertaking for the very first time in its 33-year history the launch of campuses outside of the United States in an effort to "finish the Great Commission," according to founding Pastor Rick Warren. Warren and his megachurch will see fruits of their years-long work with the "12 Cities PEACE Plan" come to bear this month with the launch of three global campuses, one each in Hong Kong, Berlin and Buenos Aires.
Saddleback Hong Kong is the first global congregation prepared for launch, and will officially open its doors this Sunday, Oct. 6. The following two Sundays will see Saddleback Berlin (Oct. 13) and Buenos Aires (Oct 20) follow suit. Eventually, over the next few years, these Saddleback church plants will be followed by sister congregations in Accra, Amman, Bangalore, Johannesburg, London, Manila, Mexico City, Moscow, and Tokyo.
"The ultimate goal is to finish the Great Commission by planting a body of Jesus (church), a Bible (portion of God's word) and a believer in the last unengaged people groups on Earth," Warren explained in a press release shared with The Christian Post. "Jesus said one day in heaven there will be people from every tribe and nation worshipping around God's throne. I intend to use all my influence in rallying the Global Church to do what Jesus commanded us 2000 years ago!"
Warren's PEACE Plan agenda is to expose the world's remaining estimated 3,000 unengaged people groups to the Gospel, strengthen local churches by providing pastors with Purpose Driven training, and meet the practical needs of the poor and marginalized in those cities.
The targeted "unengaged" groups, according to the California megachurch, include those "who have had little or no exposure to the Bible, Christian churches or missionaries."
"We want to model and establish healthy, loving church plants in these cities to deliver the hope-filled Gospel message of Jesus Christ to people who have never even heard His name," said Saddleback's PEACE Pastor Jimmie Davidson. "We will be ministering to orphans, loving those affected with HIV and AIDS, serving the poor and marginalized, and collaborating with other local churches and organizations to provide wholistic community transformation."
According to Davidson, Saddleback's global campuses, while headed by pastors already linked to the local culture, will feature live worship and video or satellite-feed messages from Warren, the senior pastor of each congregation.
Saddleback Hong Kong
PEACE Plan leaders will be looking especially to Saddleback Hong Kong, Buenos Aires and Berlin to set the learning curve for future church plants around the world.
The local pastor heading up Saddleback Hong is Stephen Lee, who was born and raised in the bustling city that is home to nearly 7.2 million people. Lee, the former chairman and president of management and leadership development institute Peter F. Drucker Academy in China and Hong Kong, also has worked for years with Prison Fellowship as an international director. When he got the call early last year to lead Saddleback Hong Kong, Lee said he hesitated for months, unsure if he was qualified to lead in that capacity. "I never thought about 'pastor' and 'Stephen,' the two words coming together," Lee told CP via Skype last Friday (Sept. 27).
"After praying (over a period of) 48 hours, I replied to them 'nope,'" he said, noting that he actually replied a bit more politely. Lee said he just felt unqualified and unprepared when he was first invited to consider the pastoral position.
However, Lee, whose relationship with Saddleback Church and Pastor Warren goes back several years, said "the inner voice from God calling" got louder and louder as encouragement from California continued for him to step up to a new kind of leadership role.
As the call intensified and he felt he could not "escape" it, Lee said he prayed "diligently" for seven months and sought advice from friends and mentors before finally committing to lead Saddleback Hong Kong. For the last several months, he and Saddleback missionary teams have been engaged in developing the nascent campus to become a "gateway" location, or a PEACE Plan base for equipping other Christian ministers in Hong Kong and China.
"We really want to position Saddleback Hong Kong as a local church that can cater to and help the local people," said Lee, emphasizing that Saddleback Hong Kong's focus will be on Chinese-speaking residents and doing outreach, although English-language services are included. Describing Saddleback Hong Kong as a "base camp," he added that the church would "support a lot of the small churches in Hong Kong to run on the Purpose Driven way." The popular Purpose Driven Church model, based on Warren's 1995 bestseller of the same name, emphasizes evangelism, community outreach or service, and Christian discipleship.
Lee, joined by his wife and their three children, have been working with Saddleback missionary teams to reach out to the Hong Kong community, primarily focusing on the region surrounding Munsang College located in Hong Kong's Kowloon City District. Saddleback Hong Kong's worship facility is located on the school's campus. Lee said he and his team have already reached out to 6,000 people, and that he expects 500-800 visitors to attend the inaugural service on Oct. 6.
"Hong Kong has 4 percent population that is Christian [and who attend church]," the pastor explained. "Not too many people go to church. It's only about 300,000 people attending church every week." So he hopes to reach the remaining 96 percent, which includes the estimated 80 percent who have dropped out of church entirely.
"We are not competing with local churches, no matter (if it is) English church or Chinese church," he added. "We really want to bring back the 16 percent to help (them) reconnect to God, and also the 80 percent who have never been in the church."
According to the government's annual Hong Kong Yearbook, "the Christian community — comprising mainly Protestants and Roman Catholics — numbers about 843,000 followers. In addition to Protestants and Roman Catholics, the Greek, Russian and Coptic Orthodox Church all have their presence in Hong Kong." Traditional faiths like Buddhism and Taoism have the most adherents, an estimated one million each, and other religions, such as Islam, Judaism and Hinduism, are also represented.
Saddleback's efforts in Hong Kong so far have been embraced. Not counting the Hong Kong campus' partnership with Munsang College, Lee shared that three local evangelical churches have pledged to send volunteers to help with the inaugural service on Oct. 6 and for another three months, which the pastor called "a miracle" and "kingdom-minded."
One potential setback, however, occurred last week when Pastor Warren posted on Monday, Sept. 23 an image on his Facebook page of a cheerful and dutiful Red Guard youth member with the caption: "The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day," unaware of the propaganda image's tie to communist China's brutally violent Cultural Revolution of the '60s and '70s.
The image, since taken down after initially being defended as "a joke," sparked conversations and concerns about cultural sensitivity and suggestions that Saddleback Hong Kong simply would be a Western church clone desensitized to its actual local context, which is about 94 percent ethnic Chinese.