… And then, there are those rare occasions when you get your hopes up – and said hopes are at least partially fulfilled.
My Congregational Journey was originally supposed to wrap up March 29 with my visit to Calvary First Assembly of God (details here), but for a while I had felt God prompting me to check out one other congregation, a new one (as far as I knew) going under the unusual rubric of “Reality Stockton.” So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been quietly preparing for this visit – checking out Reality Stockton’s website, listening to a couple podcasts of sermons, that sort of thing. Research, basically. I haven’t done much research on the other congregations I’ve visited; with those, I felt it was better to come in “cold,” as an average visitor most likely would. But maybe subconsciously, I knew that what God had planned for me at Reality Stockton was … different somehow.
What was waiting for me was certainly different in many ways. Almost all of them good.
Reality Stockton has actually been around since late 2007. It was planted by a congregation founded in 2003 in Carpinteria, California (near Santa Barbara), and is still partially supported financially by Carpinteria. (There is also a Reality Hollywood, and plans are underway for the creation of new congregations in San Francisco and London, England later this year.) Reality Stockton was until recently meeting at the Stockton Empire Theater on Pacific Avenue, but a prior commitment by the owners of that venue forced them to move semi-temporarily to a former furniture store on West Lane. The plan is that when the Empire Theater space re-opens, they will hold Sunday services at both locations; this is part of their vision to plant “neighborhood” congregations throughout the city. They also have home group meetings, which are strongly emphasized; in one of the messages I listened to, Joshua Kehler, the pastor, said that if one visits the Sunday service but not a home group, one is only experiencing “half the church.”
I arrived Sunday at 9:15 a.m. for the 9:30 service, to find the small parking lot mostly empty but the curbs of the side streets already filling up with cars. (Had the congregation been instructed to leave the close spaces for visitors? And actually done it? That would be a good sign …) I went from my car to the front door, went in, checked out a table full of books and CDs (no prices listed – are they for sale or gratis?), then went in to the main sanctuary and took a seat in the second row of chairs on the right side. Several dozen people were around, but only one spoke to me in the first ten minutes I was there – a fellow talking with a few friends outside the front door said “hello” before returning to his conversation. (Now that is not a good sign.) Thankfully, my isolation didn’t last – around 9:25, a fellow named Mark (about my age, maybe a little older), who was apparently a leader in the congregation, came over and we talked for about five minutes. He even offered to introduce me around, and while I was tempted, I demurred for the moment, wanting to see how many people would come and speak to me on their own.
Before Mark came by, I did have a chance to look around the sanctuary. It was a simple setup, with about 230 stackable chairs facing a small club-type stage. A raised sound booth was in the back of the room on the right side, and there were large screens to either side of the stage. Between the stage and seats were some floor mats and two small round tables, each holding a bowl of grape juice, some tortilla chips and three candles; I gathered the latter items meant that, like many congregations, they hold communion on the first Sunday of the month. (Or maybe they have the tables out every week. Maybe at the end of this entry, I should append a list of the questions I forgot to ask, ha ha.) The congregation, about 150 strong, was mostly young – well, younger than me, and I turn 40 this year – and mostly Caucasian, but not exclusively either. Dress was decidedly casual – I saw a lot of T-shirts and shorts, and if anyone was wearing a tie I missed it. (Pastor Kehler himself sported a windbreaker, jeans and a fauxhawk.)
A little after 9:30, the worship band – three guitarists (one acoustic), a bass player, a drummer and an extra singer – came on stage and did a quick sound check. I realized quickly that my earplugs would be needed, and deployed them accordingly. Then the lights went down, and the band began playing. And when I say “the lights went down,” I do mean down – the only lights left on in the room were those focused on the band, some faint ones down the side aisles for people still coming in, and the lyrics and some graphics projected onto the right-side screen. (It was later stated that the darkness was to eliminate distractions, which made sense … except that in that context, I found that much darkness to be distracting. Oh well.) On the other hand, the band reminded me more of Jars of Clay (a favorite group of mine) than the average worship team, and the lyrics of the songs focused on praising and worshiping God rather than talking about praising or worshiping Him (as many modern choruses do). They played only three songs and did so without undue repetition, going against the trend of many congregations I’ve visited.
After the band finished, there was a greeting time of a minute or two – during which I received two “church-friendly” greetings but was otherwise completely ignored – before Mark came to the front to make some announcements that he said weren’t in the bulletin. (I hadn’t seen a bulletin when I came in; trying to track one down after the service, I found that they had run out of them.) He mentioned that free fingerprinting was being done for people who wanted to help in the children’s ministry (they’re doing background checks, good!) and that next Sunday’s Easter services would be at 8:30 and 11:00. He also asked for the congregation to be willing to do some door-to-door inviting of people to the Easter services, as well as provide food for the teachers and band members who would have to be at the building extra-early because of the 8:30 start time.
Mark then began introducing the people from the congregation who were being sent out to pioneer the new congregations in San Francisco and London. Jeff and Camille Wall, the couple going to S.F., talked about how God had called them to live and minister there, showed a six-minute QuickTime montage of the “prayer tour” of the city that they had done with about a dozen others, and talked about another prayer tour planned for June. Chris and Michelle, the couple moving to England, shared that a prayer group was already in place in London, and talked about the process of getting a visa to work there (which apparently has gotten more difficult for religious workers in the last few years) and how they hoped to be approved before their baby arrived around the start of June (which would make overseas travel impossible). The first service for the London congregation is scheduled for the beginning of September. Finally, Jennifer King spoke about how she was leaving Wednesday for Youth with a Mission’s training school in Hawaii, to prepare for a short-term mission trip; after she shared, Pastor Kehler invited the entire congregation to come to the front and pray for her, and about two-thirds of them did.
I expected the offering next, but instead Pastor Kehler went directly into his sermon. (As a matter of fact, they didn’t do a public offering at all – hmmm …) He talked about continuing his series in Nehemiah by going to Ephesians 6, but it wasn’t a joke – just a slight detour from the defense of Jerusalem to talking about the full armor of God. After an insightful prayer (where he asked not for more knowledge but for transformed hearts), he recapped previous messages on the passage; clearly he was doing an in-depth (dare I say “expository”?) series. But the focus was on practical applications leading to changed lives, not theological trivia. Some of the highlights:
- Several minutes dealing with the temptation to either walk away from the battle of faith or ask when we can get some rest from it.
- An exploration of the meaning of salvation, from the original Greek of Scripture to its practical working-out in the past (conversion), present (sanctification) and future (glorification)
- An open condemnation of the “prosperity gospel,” coupled with an emphasis on counting the cost of following Jesus.
- A call to put our focus on the meeting we will someday have with Jesus (referencing Romans 13:11-14), and how that will affect our living here and now.
Throughout, Pastor Kehler used Scripture, and lots of it, in context, without soft-soaping anything. And his audience – full of twenty-somethings that many congregations have softened the requirements of Scripture to try and reach – obviously appreciated that straightforward approach. With few exceptions, I could tell people were locked in on the message. As was I – I don’t mind saying it was one of the best, deepest sermons I’ve heard in years (and that includes podcasted ones by the likes of Steve Brown and Jack Hayford). When he began to wrap up, I glanced at my watch and was surprised to see it reading 11:15 – the message had run an hour, but it sure didn’t seem that way.
Pastor Kehler wrapped up with a … well, it wasn’t an altar call in any traditional sense. He simply pointed out the need to give one’s life to Jesus – and presumably left it to the Holy Spirit to work things out in people’s hearts. No bowed heads, raised hands, invitations to come forward, peer pressure or emotional appeals. No gimmicks. The band returned to the stage, the lights went down again, and someone lit the candles on the tables at the front. A few folks left, a few others came forward to take Communion and then headed out, but slowly a couple dozen people gather on the mats in front, took Communion and stayed to pray or worship.
And I headed out to see if I could find out about the home groups, and maybe talk with a few people. The first part was easier – Mark and another older member (who didn’t give his name) filled me in on a Thursday night home meeting that took place just a couple of miles from my house; given how much Stockton is spread out, that’s almost walking distance. I did get to talk to a few other people, but for the most part people were talking to those they already knew, even avoiding eye contact with me. A little disconcerting. It didn’t help that while the music was going on, I had to go outside the building to hear other people clearly – loud music and a furniture warehouse aren’t a great combination. (One other note: all of the people I was able to engage in conversation were my age or older. Problematic when you consider that folks my age and older are a minority in this congregation …)
So I headed home cautiously optimistic. Reality Stockton is a congregation that’s obviously willing to go beyond the same tired/failed formulas used by much of American evangelicalism. Worship music with a different feel from the norm, with lyrics “vertically directed” toward God rather than man; a focus on church planting in needy areas; more emphasis on ministry by people other than the pastor; no public offering time (did someone read Matthew 6:3-4 and decide to apply it? Can I hope for that much?); a no-pressure invitation to know Christ; a sermon that doesn’t just rehash the basics of faith but offers both depth of teaching and logical application – these are all unusual in the American church, and are all improvements on the same ol’ same ol’ that I’ve seen so many times in so many places over the last few years.
Not that things are perfect there. The lack of friendliness shown to a stranger can be partially explained by it being a new, fast-growing congregation (where it’s hard to keep track of who’s new) and by demographic differences (a “generation gap” between me and the twenty-something majority). But only partially – I’m not exactly Mr. Social Skills, but I know that it’s a problem if you want to reach a city for Christ, yet aren’t interested in talking to new people. And between the volume level and the harsh lighting (well, it is a converted furniture warehouse), I was left with a low-grade headache that took the whole afternoon to shake. But the building is admittedly a work in progress, there’s apparently an ongoing discussion about the sound level (per Mark), and the congregation is fairly new and perhaps still in the beginning stages of developing relationships. I suspect these things will get straightened out.
Maybe they won’t, but I suspect they will. Overall, Reality Stockton strikes me as a congregation dedicated to seeking God’s will even if it means ignoring the industry standard in the American church. And that in itself is progress.
* * *
No letter-grade summary this time, as I feel like I’ve entered a new stage in this Congregational Journey. Plus I haven’t experienced the “other half” of Reality Stockton, the home groups, so the grades would be incomplete. I am planning to visit a home group this Thursday, and sometime this week or next, I’ll do a wrap-up of the first twelve visits, some trends I’ve seen and some future plans for follow-up. Watch this blog, folks – a lot of stuff coming up …