California Mystery Worship Five: Church Reservations Needed

Chocolates for visitors and the necessary parking pass for free parking
Chocolates for visitors and the necessary parking pass for free parking. Photo by Christy Thomas

My first hint that this might be a radically different place to go to church was the fact that I had to make a reservation to attend.

And radically different it was–full of life, music, great greetings, welcomed earplugs, and the challenge to live without fear fearlessly given.

On the recommendation of a Denton-area friend who follows their music, I drove to Los Angeles for one final Sunday to attend worship at Fearless LA, a one-year old church plant. It meets in a nightclub in deep downtown LA, near Spring and 6th Streets.

The church began September, 2013. Jeremy and Christy Johnson, a young couple from Modesto, CA who spring from the Calvary Chapel background, founded the church. Jeremy, a former youth pastor, and Christy, a gifted vocalist and worship leader, brought their two young children and a host of powerfully talented musicians with them on this experiment in faith. They followed the call of God to bring the Gospel freedom to Los Angeles.

The Worship Experience

Friendly greeters, not concerned that we were 30 to 40 years older than most other worshipers, explained the layout, and offered refreshment, including freshly made pancakes, and earplugs. Babies in worship wear noise-cancelling headphones.

Just before 11 am, I walked into the nightclub-dancefloor-turned-worship-space.  An extensive stage with six giant screens loomed in front of the 100 folding chairs.  And at 11:00 am, the music began. With the earplugs in place, I was able to enjoy an excellent 30 minute Christian rock concert led with 11 piece band of musicians and vocalists.

If you want to watch this video, you will get a good sense of what that morning was like:

Nearly everyone was dancing, a synthesizer linked the music to a light show on the massive screens, and words of praise to God, deep thankfulness for God’s love, and pleas for God to break barriers filled the screen. Seats quickly filled and extras were set up.

The name of Jesus was lifted up. Joy, expressed by dancing and singing people, transformed nightclub to center of worship.

At 11:30, Jeremy came on the platform and offered welcome and spoke briefly of the church history. He moved to prayer and asked God to touch and heal all those there on this day. He then asked everyone in need of physical healing or a miracle to lift their hands. Then he asked everyone else in the congregation to lay hands on those with lifted hands as he prayed for those things. I made no move to participate, nor felt any pressure to do so, and just observed with interest.

At 11:37, we sat down and first time visitors were all given a candy bar and invitation to stay afterward for further information.  People were asked to take out their smart phones and register their attendance and many did.

Co-pastor Christy offered an eight minute appeal for people to step out in faith and give generously. She shared testimonies received last week of answered prayers for miracles and healings

Jeremy then came back to the platform for a 40 minute long message centering on the Matthew 14 story about Jesus walking on the water in the storm.  He emphasized Peter’s willingness to get out of the boat and walk to Jesus.  He also demonstrated it by having an inflatable boat on the platform populated by others on the worship team.

He spoke passionately, using a call and response style, of a paradigm shift where people leave behind their fears (thus the name of the church, “Fearless LA”) and step out in faith to follow Jesus no matter where it might lead. He spoke of his own journey from fear to confidence, how he learned as a youth pastor to become totally dependent upon God for his leading and his ministry.

The Invitation

His invitation to come to Jesus took nearly 20 minutes of powerful, emotional stories of lives changed. He called everyone who needed this new movement in their lives to take one step away from their chairs and then walk forward.  Most of the congregation responded. After more hand-raising and prayer, we were finally dismissed at about 12:55 pm.  It is my understanding that this service ended earlier than many do–there are days when the Spirit falls and they stay in worship quite a bit longer.

We did not linger for the informational session, as I had learned much ahead of time. No one, not the pastors, the musicians, the superb tech people or anyone else has a paid position here. This is a labor of love, faith and passion for God. Although I certainly prefer liturgy and the celebration of the Sacraments, I also saw hope on the faces of the hurting, and healing for those who needed it. The music was superb, even if damaging to unprotected eardrums.

I loved it–and recommend it, especially for young adults in LA.

[Note: the above commentary ran first in the August 29, 2014 edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle]

Additional Comments

This was a great example of a culturally sensitive church plant where the language of the gospel is very much spoken in a way that this particular group of people could hear it best. I have also thought much about the finances of this church plant and the huge contrast with the finances of a United Methodist Church plant.

It costs somewhere between $500,000 and a million dollars to get a UMC plant off the ground. One of the big issues is, of course, clergy pay. Those who are Elders (or near their ordination dates) in full connection are carefully groomed to be planters. They walk into this with the expectation that their salaries and housing costs (and health insurance and pension contributions) will be covered for a fairly significant length of time. Funds are also needed to rent a meeting space and for the necessary equipment to transform rented facilities into worship and educational space for Sunday mornings. Even with all this support, a significant percentage of church plants fail to make it to self-sufficiency.

The people that planted Fearless LA are doing so without the denominational security that surrounds our planters but with the “fearless” passion of those who have had a life-changing encounter with the Risen Lord. Recently, they became part of the Planetshakers movement, which started in Melbourne, Australia, and has moved globally. This will help.

Even so, this plant also may not make it–they’ve had to change locations several times already and the current nightclub space is unquestionably problematic on many levels. The pastors are young and still theologically immature. I get the impression that they are working off a lot of inherited theology coupled with a powerful experiential message. In time, they are going to wear out. There is enthusiasm evident but not deep wisdom.

It’s not a perfect solution, as if there is such a thing.

Yet, I found it winsome and attractive in what it has set out to do although I did disagree with much of it. Personally, I felt the extended invitation to be overhyped. I knew they hoped that some would break out into speaking in tongues or some other ecstatic expression. Just didn’t happen–and I may have been one of the reasons, since neither I nor my companion joined in the otherwise nearly universal movement to the aisles and to the front at the invitation.  We may have indeed hindered the emotional flow of such a time.

Even so, I was touched by the reality of the Gospel in their lives, and their willingness to follow Jesus and let their fears be transformed into the courage needed for the moment.

I suspect this much more closely reflects that kind of personal transformation seen by the early followers of John Wesley and his band of roaming preachers, both in England and in the US. Too much of our passion now turns on tiny points of debatable doctrine and right belief and too little on the real trust in God to bring it about despite our human frailties and yet-to-be-transformed imperfections.

As a result, we have lost necessary flexibility.

We are not able to be nimble and quick and actually jump over the candlestick any more. Now, we must be measured and weighed and vetted and then equipped with the best possible sports gear before attempting the leap. And even then, others will say that those trying to make the leap don’t do so with adequately tidy “biblical” doctrine, since there is nothing said about jumping over those candlesticks, but a lot said about how those candlesticks may view their sexuality.

I am taking a deep sigh here. I so love the UMC, her past, her passions, even her processes. But I sense that we are walking through a field of sticky glue something like Dr. Seuss’ Bartholomew, not yet fully dried so some movement is possible, but no longer enough to make the necessary leaps to engage the culture now with the love of Jesus, a love that had no boundaries.

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