In the 1960s, 1500 people attended La Mesa First United Methodist Church each week. Today, Reverend John Fanestil remarked, "a typical Sunday would be just over 200. There is a long-term demographic challenge that all mainline Protestants face. The baby-boom generation did not stick with the church of the parents. The reason for this exodus is hotly debated.
"Young adults are absent from this church. It's hard to get [attendance] up when the majority of your congregation is older. A younger adult will arrive and quickly identify that there isn't a social network for him or her. This is one of the reasons people go to church, to find people they can get to know and find friendship and support."
Reverend Fanestil joined the church in July of 2004. Fanestil believes he can help grow the church. "Part of the plan is to reach younger people. I don't want to suggest it is exclusive that way. But even in my four months, the number of families with young children has already grown significantly. And people are remarking on that. I think the fact that I am a parent of young children has something to do with that. I spend my time hanging out with my kids and I know what kids need. I am building bridges to people who share similar interests and are at a similar life stage."
At the 8:30 a.m. service, the majority of the congregation of 100 people looked over 50 years old. In the back, two rows of teenagers represented the church's youth movement. Many of the teenagers were remnants of the youth-group- sponsored sleepover the night before. Later, Fanestil told me the 11 a.m. service was older and sang even more traditional hymns.
Much like the people, the sanctuary has a traditional feel. Arched walkways surround either side of the sanctuary. In the nave, a 12-foot gold cross is suspended from the ceiling. Behind the cross, the wall houses two-story organ pipes. Wooden beams support the arched ceiling. Stained-glass windows on the upper wall produce a glow on the ceiling. Green cushions offer comfort on the wooden pews.
Seven hand-bell players ringing out a hymn began the 8:30 a.m. service. The congregation listened silently. Reverend Fanestil invited the children up for a story. The story's basis was a rose he pulled from a mystery box. Following this was a prayer, a testimony, and a reading from scripture. Reverend Fanestil then stepped up into the pulpit to preach.
The crux of his sermon was a tribute to stories: "All human beings live by stories. It's a matter of which stories you live by. Christians have to rely on the stories and images; these are the stuff of which this faith is made."
After service, Reverend Fanestil spoke with me about the Christian faith and the Bible's stories. "The Bible is much more like a bookshelf than a single book. Reading the Bible as a bookshelf instead of a single book, I end up feeling like the Bible speaks with many voices. These voices challenge me and I am forced to struggle with them. It isn't always, 'if the Bible says it, I believe it.' I believe that is an unhelpful way to read the Bible.
"[The Bible] is inspired by God, but I don't believe it is inerrant," Fanestil explained. "The gospel of John was written at the end of the first century, when the church was in great conflict with the Jews. There is an anti-Jewish polemic to the New Testament that needs to be put in its historical context."
I asked Reverend Fanestil how his view of scripture affects his stance on the controversy regarding homosexuality within the United Methodist Denomination. "There is a split over the issue of homosexuality. A majority of (United Methodists) nationwide adhere to a traditional stance that homosexuality is a sin. They believe we should love the sinner but hate the sin. A majority of people at our church, myself included, believe homosexuality is an orientation for a vast majority of people that is given by nature. And I've preached that. The Bible doesn't always speak with a single voice. We need to treat the words of scripture in ways that demand some tension and complexity."
I asked Reverend Fanestil how someone determines what is true in the Bible. "That's what we all do. We have to choose [what we want to believe]. I am very comfortable with saying I don't know about a lot of things.
"I believe Jesus is the way. I've experienced that in my life. I don't feel called to pass judgment on the world's other religions. I don't feel qualified to pretend to know God's mind on the world's other great religious traditions. I certainly am reluctant to conclude that all folks who belong to other religious traditions are all destined for some state of eternal damnation. It doesn't ring true with the spirit of the Jesus I know."
I asked Reverend Fanestil what happens after we die. "If we have accepted the grace of God, God receives us with open arms. I know from my own experience that accepting God's grace through Jesus is one way to be well with God. I don't know if it is the only way. Hell is a state of being separated from God."
La Mesa United Methodist
Denomination: United Methodist
Founded locally: 1902
Senior pastor: Reverend John Fanestil
Congregation size: 350
Staff size: 2 full-time, 5 part-time
Sunday school enrollment: 30
Annual budget: $400,000
Weekly giving: $5500
Singles program: no
Dress: dressy casual to dressy
Sunday worship: 8:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour