A priest in a long black cassock and a four-inch pectoral cross is probably not a common sight at Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, judging by the quantities of head-turns I received last week in Lake Forest, Calif.

As chairman of the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Evangelization, I had the chance to visit Warren and to be introduced personally to his church, staff and vision.

I was welcomed with genuine warmth and noteworthy hospitality. Johnny Montgomery, one of Warren’s staff, met me at the airport, and we conversed as if we had known one another for our whole lives.

The Svenssons, church members who hosted me in their home, cared for me as if their own despite their full schedules (including an end-of-week departure for Buenos Aires where they were going to start a new church).

Len is an international patent attorney with a heart for missions; Ann works vigilantly in ministry to the families of deployed members of the Armed Forces.

On Monday, Montgomery gave me a tour of the Lake Forest campus, and introduced me to a dozen or more staff members (out of nearly 500).

I witnessed remarkable ministries in place at the 120-acre campus, including medical clinics, food pantries and an art studio “Ex Creatis,” or “Creation from Creation.”

I saw an intriguing portrait of a Skid Row homeless man, inspired by ancient Byzantine iconography and fashioned from trash recovered from the streets of Los Angeles.

Montgomery drove me to the Rancho Capistrano, a nearby campus that was donated to Saddleback by Hobby Lobby.

The Rancho is a 170-acre trip back in time to the Spanish Mission days: beautiful buildings with terra-cotta roofs, Spanish-tile fountains, a chapel and the capacity to host 200 or more guests for retreats lakeside, situated at the base of a mountain and surrounded by olive trees, eucalyptus and countless hibiscus plants.

On Monday afternoon, I enjoyed the company of David Chrzan and Ann Krumm, Warren’s chief of staff and personal assistant respectively. Conversations spanned the spectrum but included questions about the true presence of Jesus in Holy Communion and a brief narrative about the recent summit Warren attended in Jordan, at the invitation of that nations’ king, on violence against Christians in the Middle East.

Warren had asked me earlier in August to help find a way to introduce him to the Orthodox participants.

I brought his staff gifts for their hospitality, specifically “On the Incarnation,” the world’s greatest book about why God became man, written in the fourth century by St. Athanasius, and a 19th-century anonymous Russian spiritual classic “The Way of the Pilgrim,” which narrates a young man’s quest to follow St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing.”

Dinner on Monday was spent with speakers about evangelical church planters. There I met a number of folks (including Derwin Gray, NFL star-turned-South Carolina pastor) who knows the Mount Pleasant/Charleston area through friendships with the Surratt family, pastors of Seacoast Church.

My dinner conversation was essentially another catechism: explaining about Mary., the mother of Jesus.

I explained for a half hour or so the ancient church understandings of Mary’s perpetual virginity (and how even Luther, Calvin and Zwingli didn’t reject this view), her title “Theotokos” (which means “God-bearer” or “Mother of God”) and how since the earliest days of Christianity, Mary is understood to be the personal “incarnation” of the Old Testament implements of worship. (For example, her womb is the true Holy of Holies, since God in Christ literally dwelt there, and she is the Mercy Seat, since as the Mother of God, Jesus himself sat upon her lap, as a throne.) Folks from other tables came and joined us.

Tuesday morning, though, was the reason I had come: to spend an hour or so with Warren himself. He invited me to his off-campus, beautiful, 30,000-volume library. (He is a Guinness world record holder for most books signed by authors.)

After showing me highlights of his collection, we sat down to record a podcast for Ancient Faith Radio.

We discussed a variety of aspects of Christian life, including missions, evangelism, baptism and the church. I was eager to hear his views personally and was glad to hear him articulate, “The No. 1 thing evangelicals need to learn from Orthodox is spiritual formation.”

Warren talked passionately about the need for evangelicals, Protestants and others to return to the “roots” of Christianity.

And he recommends a reading plan: “25 percent in first 500 years of the church, another 25 in the first 1,500 years ... then 25 percent in the last 500 years, and usually 25 percent in the last 100 years. ... If all you read is contemporary, you’re no smarter than anybody else. Because all of the wisdom is in the ages. If it is true, it is not new. Truth is eternal. ... We need the deeper roots.”

After the podcast, Warren introduced me to his lovely wife, Kay. I enjoyed a brief conversation with her and her assistant, and Kay presented me a signed copy of her latest book for my wife, Jeanette.

My visit to Saddleback will take me months to unpack. Though in a sentence, I was greeting with warmth, welcome, intrigue, interest and invitation.

I learned a great deal first hand about what makes Rick Warren and Saddleback Church tick, and I look forward to the opportunity to teach at Saddleback about the “mystery” of church life, which Warren sees as a missing cornerstone of the evangelical world, and which Orthodox Christianity possesses in spades.

Father John Parker is pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On Community in Mount Pleasant. Contact him at 881-5010.

Podcast

Listen to his podcast with Rick Warren at: www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/lordsendme/a_conversation_with_rick_warren.