(Photo: Saddleback Church)
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.
"For the last couple of days, I've been spending a lot of time following up on this incident, this unfortunate incident," said Lee, adding that some locals following Saddleback Hong Kong's Facebook page have reached out to him to express their offense to the Red Guard image.
Noting that Pastor Warren apologized for posting the image after learning of its history, Lee agreed that the image was "culturally highly insensitive." He reiterated, however, that the purpose of Saddleback Hong Kong was to serve the local community and be sensitive to its needs.
"For those people who know us, they fully understand that we are helping them," said Lee. He invited those concerned about Saddleback Hong Kong's presence to attend the first service "to see for themselves."
"Saddleback Hong Kong is not focusing (on) the international citizen, but really looking to build up the local church in Hong Kong," he repeated. "I believe that we need a lot of prayer and support from around the world."
Empowering Local Churches
"We really believe the local church is the hero, so we empower the local church…," said Davidson, Saddleback's PEACE pastor tasked with overseeing the global elements of international church planting and engaging unengaged people groups.
"It's really doing what Jesus did when he came," he said of the PEACE Plan, adding that Jesus met people wherever their needs were. "He encountered people who were hungry. He fed them. He encountered people who were sick. He healed everybody who came to him. He encountered people who were spiritually lost, and he preached the Good News to them."
He added, "The PEACE Plan is about ordinary people like me and you being empowered by God making a difference together wherever we are … whether it's locally, in your hometown, your neighbor across the street, or globally. It's about giving people a hand-up because God made people with dignity. … The PEACE Plan is about giving people tools to help themselves."
The PEACE Plan, publicly promoted by Warren since 2003 and brought to Rwanda in 2005 at the invitation of President Paul Kagame, rests on the engagement of local churches in ministry and social justice. The plan involves planting churches, equipping servant leaders, assisting the poor, caring for the sick and educating the next generation — to counter what Warren calls the "global Goliaths" — spiritual emptiness, egocentric leadership, extreme poverty, pandemic diseases, and illiteracy and lack of education.
Davidson, founder and former pastor of Highlands Fellowship in Abingdon, Va., said the "12 Cities" vision came out of Pastor Warren's desire for to "finish the Great Commission."
"These campuses are spread all over the world, and they're accessible," he added. "The pastors who live in China [could get to the Hong Kong Campus] or the ones who live in the Philippines could get to the Manila campus, or the ones in Japan [the Tokyo campus] or the ones in India could get to the Bangalore campus, the ones in the Middle East could probably get to the Amman campus. So we want to train pastors how to plant a church among unbelievers in their areas, and eventually an unengaged people group."
"We know," said Davidson, "the only way the Great Commission is going to be finished is for God's body all over the world to engage and do this."
Warren, as expressed in the earlier statement, is committed to using his influence to encourage and call on other churches to press into Jesus' command to his followers in Matthew 28:16-20 to "go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."
"The goal would be by the summer 2020 that there would no more unengaged people groups," added Davidson, who pointed to the Revelation 7:9 description of a multiethnic and multinational body of worshippers in heaven. "We don't know when the last person is going to hear about Jesus, but when they do, Jesus says he's coming back for the church. So we're going to do our part to make sure every tribe has a witness."
As for why Hong Kong, Buenos Aires and Berlin were the first of the 12 "gateway" cities set for launch, Davidson said it was a matter of how God provided leaders for each campus. In addition to the churches launching this month, pastors have already emerged for Saddleback Moscow and Saddleback Manilla, the later of which Davidson said would launch in July 2014. The Moscow campus launch date has yet to be determined.
"My role is basically to train," he added, noting that various Saddleback ministry teams are also involved, with aspects such as worshipping "the Saddleback way, the Jesus model of ministry," working with the youth, and effective communication and first impressions.
Pastor Warren, who visited Rwanda in relation to the PEACE Plan last month, plans to visit each Saddleback global campus "to teach, encourage and do training," Davidson explained. "He's very much involved," he added.
Asked to name a sign of success for these first Saddleback global church campuses, Davidson said the primary one would be "bringing people into the fellowship of God's family" and seeing lives changed.
As for possible failure?
"Rick says failure is [not] not having succeeded," said Davidson,"It's basically not even willing to try, giving up."
The Saddleback PEACE pastor echoed his own remark when considering Pastor Warren's lofty vision of completing the Great Commission.
"I love the fact that this guy would be bold enough to stand up and say, 'let's go after it, let's do what he (Jesus) said, let's try.'"
"You know what, if we don't get that done in our lifetime, put on our tombstones 'at least we tried,'" he added. "We're going to give it our best to do what Jesus said and we believe the Lord is going to help us."
"We love people. That's why we do what we do," he added.
Of the nearly 7,000 unreached groups in the world (the U.S. and Canada have 541), the Global Research Department (GRD) of the International Mission Board estimates that 2,987 of these people groups living within populations that are less than 2 percent Evangelical Christian are "unengaged." These groups are considered "engaged" when a "church planting methodology consistent with Evangelical faith and practice" is implemented.