"If you don't trust the police, they need to hear why you feel as you do." When the senior pastor said this as part of an announcement, I realized I would never have heard that in most of the churches I've attended. Thinking back, most churches I've been a part of have had members who were employed in law enforcement in one way or another.
New City Church of Los Angeles is reaching a different part of the population. Looking around the congregation, I saw several people with their bundles of earthly goods that accompany them everywhere. The church advertises itself as a "multi-ethnic come as you are church", but perhaps even more interesting is their striving to be a "multi-economic" church. Skid Row (the actual, original neighborhood with this name) is in the same community as the church. But the neighborhood is also made up of trendy, pricey lofts that some might describe as the abode of hipsters. The aim of the church is to bring the diverse elements of the community together, and it seems to be succeeding.
The congregation meets in the Los Angeles Theater Center. The announcement the pastor was making was for "Trust Talks" sponsored by the Downtown Clergy Council, which would be held at The Last Bookstore with the goal of addressing tensions between the local police and members of the community. That wasn't the only announcement featuring the church's attempts to deal with community needs. There was a prolonged announcement for the new season of the church's small groups (called "GrowServe Groups" because of the dual goals of fostering individual spiritual growth and group outreach. One group works with the local food pantry, another reaches out to the homebound, another is working to get shoes for the poor in Uganda.) A young woman gave a testimony how her small group had ministered to her, providing the family she had never known. She encouraged people to "pick a group and go for it." It was apparent that the small groups fostered the same diversity sought by the church as a whole (though this may be one of the rare churches where, in this service at least, the men clearly outnumbered the women).
Mindy and I enjoyed the worship service. The choruses sung were quite loud, but well done. Communion is served on a weekly basis in the middle of the service since, appropriately, it's considered "the heart of worship." Small tables with grape juice and matzo are placed throughout the meeting space (convenient separate tables for gluten free bread and juice are in the hallway just outside).
The sermon was part of an ongoing series working through the Gospel of John, this week John 20:24-31 (the story of Thomas and the resurrected Jesus) titled "The Benefit of the Doubt."
On the drive to southern California, Mindy and I had listened to a CD compilation of the "This I Believe" radio series. We were both annoyed by the essay by Penn Jillette that characterized all with religious faith as people who deny reality and choose a life of fantasy. Believers are people who have turned their minds off and won't face the evidence. This sermon was a refreshing antidote to such foolish notions.
The associate pastor told the story of his own decision to become a Christian. At sixteen, he had been involved in drugs and was a gang leader, but he attended a church service when he was invited to a friend's baptism. Life was not ideal for him at the time. He had just totaled a car in a drunk driving accident, and the violence of gang life was accelerating. At that service he was challenged to trust his life to Jesus, and he took that challenge.
He said that his doubts about God didn't end that day, but that doubt continues to be a part of his life. He argued God doesn't demand blind faith against the evidence, but that God does call us to press on beyond the evidence. Though this is the passage that Jesus said, "Blessed are those who did not see and yet believed," the pastor pointed out that a few verses later John wrote, "(this) has been written so you may believe." God does not want us to throw out reason; in fact, He offers the chance to "reason together."
After the service, visitors are offered the opportunity to meet with members of the pastoral staff, have a cupcake, and receive a gift (a Lee Strobel book). At the end of the sermon, there had also been an invitation to come to the front of the church to pray with the preaching pastor or to go for prayer to "The Healing Room," in the church's office space across the street. I'm sure many appreciate the opportunity just to be heard in the Healing Room.
Penn Jillette doesn't think there is any evidence for God. Perhaps he's never looked in the right places. He might start out with some folks reaching out in love on Skid Row.
Service Length: 1 hour 33 minutes
Sermon Length: 28 minutes
Visitor Treatment: greeting time in worship, ten minute opportunity to meet with pastors after each service (where guests are asked to fill out an information form and given gift and opportunity to ask questions of visitors' team members)
Our Rough Count: 135
Probable Ushers' Count: 150
Snacks: coffee, tea, juice, water and pastries available at the coffee bar in the lobby; juice and cupcakes just for visitors on the balcony
Songs: Search my Heart
This I Believe (the Creed)
Miles to place: 436 miles
Total California Miles: 7,251