Part of what helped the church to draw in so many people, Wilford argues, has been a strategy that has upended another commonly held assumption about centers and peripheries. While it’s common to speak of contemporary religious life in terms of “seekers,” such a usage typically refers to the individual, not the institution, as the one who is doing the seeking. Wilford suggests that Saddleback has reversed this scenario; by catering to individuals’ tastes, needs and preferences, the church, in effect, becomes the seeker. “It is not a matter of churches presenting their organization to the ‘seeking’ masses,” he writes, “but rather of actively seeking the masses out.”
This insight may press the point about “inversions” a little too hard; after all, if churches are trying to cater to “consumer” tastes, and consumers find the church based on those tastes, aren’t both parties doing at least some seeking, much in the same way consumers and producers in any marketplace seek one another out? Nevertheless, postsuburban megachurches, according to Wilford’s argument, have been more flexible and more receptive to their constituents’ needs and tastes than have their mainline or Catholic brethren, and this flexibility is largely responsible for their enormous growth. At Saddleback, this institutional seeking of the “religious customer” has taken a number of forms, including the development of a vast array of tastes: several alternative rock services, a “Spanish-language adult contemporary service,” an African American gospel service, a service featuring traditional hymns. If this menu seems to echo various spaces of consumption—a mall, perhaps, or a tourist resort that has lots of various dining and activities options—that’s quite literally by design. Wilford notes that Saddleback’s campus is intended to “mirror the architectural design of its surrounding environment,” a landscape well known for the prominence of its shopping spaces and opportunities for consumption. The line between consumption and religion—and, moreover, between what has been “sacralized” and what hasn’t—frankly seems so porous as to be nonexistent.