"One of the things that really irks me is the recent fad of poor end-times beliefs," Pastor Cook replied when asked if his church teaches that the end-times are near. "One of the more popular teachings prevalent in San Diego mega-churches is dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a doctrine that at its root separates the Church and Israel. Dispensationalism was nonexistent in church history up until 1830," said Pastor Cook. "These dispensationalist teachings are also the basis for the left-behind phenomena." Pastor Cook referred to the Left Behind series of books, written by Tim LaHaye, that has sold more than 60 million copies. These novels depict LaHaye's reading of biblical prophecy.
"What bothers me the most is that local mega-churches bring in Israelites who deny Jesus Christ as the Messiah and give them a platform to speak on Sunday mornings. They also line Israel's pockets with cash as they send them on their way. I saw a video that features one local pastor that wrote out a check for $100,000 to a politician from Israel. They do this all in the name of blessing Israel and speak about worshipping the same God. Yet they are making major interpretive mistakes with the Bible. When you reject Christ as the Messiah you are rejecting God, the only God. Jesus reconciled both the Jew and Gentile into one body, the church. The message of the New Testament is that the Jerusalem on earth is in bondage and the church now looks not to an earthly Jerusalem but to the New Jerusalem that is in heaven."
I spoke with Mark Ortiz, who previously attended Horizon Christian Fellowship, a local mega-church, prior to joining Covenant Baptist. I asked him about his experience with end-times teachings. "My old pastor, Mike MacIntosh, was convinced [the rapture] was going to happen in our generation. He believed all the right prophecies were lining up as we speak." I asked Ortiz how people reacted to this teaching. "I saw some people decide not to send their kids to college. Other people didn't save for their retirement; they did not see a need to prepare for a future because Jesus was coming back." Ortiz said he was not too wrapped up in these end-times teachings. "I just want to preach the gospel to as many people as possible before I am taken [to heaven]."
"I would love to see my brothers in Christ stop teaching this form of Zionism in the church," Pastor Cook continued. "In fact, I had a public debate a couple of years ago with a pastor from Horizon Christian Fellowship. I still would like to extend an invitation to any pastors from San Diego that would like to discuss the content of this interview publicly on my weekly radio broadcast, The Narrow Mind," said Cook.
Covenant Baptist Church meets in a converted office building up the street from Qualcomm Stadium. Inside the sanctuary, the blue utility carpet, fluorescent lights, and acoustic-tile ceilings remind you that it is an office building. The feel of church comes from faux-stained-glass windows, cushioned pews, and a wooden pulpit.
Several hymns and songs begin the service. A guitarist, bassist, and three vocalists contemporize hymns, such as "Bless the Lord," "Majesty," and "Jesus, Name Above All Names," by speeding up the tempo and playing them on guitar rather than traditional piano or organ. Ed Lacorte preached the message, God's Forgiveness Reaches Deeper than Your Depths, based on Psalms 130 verses one through four. Pastor Cook introduced Lacorte as one of a group of ten men, who, to develop as preachers, meet once a month. Cook trains these men and allows them to preach once a month.
After service, I asked Lacorte about the preaching group. "We study biographies of preachers, homiletics, and refine the preaching gifts and practice." I asked Lacorte if he had the gift of preaching. "Preaching is something I hold with fear and trembling. It is a heavy responsibility, humanly speaking, to have people's souls in your hand, knowing what you say can affect their view of God. I don't know if I am ready to say I have the gift of preaching," replied Lacorte.
I asked Pastor Cook what other concerns he has regarding what churches teach. "There are many things that grieve me concerning the state of the church. From the garbage that I see on TBN [Trinity Broadcasting Network], the fact that some churches have turned the pulpit into Comedy Central, the overall shallow understanding of the Bible, lack of church discipline due to the mega-church structure, the failure of pastors to preach from the Bible," remarked Cook. Pastor Cook said he addresses many of these things on his radio program, broadcast at www.unchainedradio.com, as well as in live debates.
I asked Pastor Cook what happens after we die. "When we die, we will stand before Christ and be accepted or be sent to hell. Those who have put their faith in Christ will go to heaven. Those who have not will go to hell. Hell is a place of eternal torment, of darkness, of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place of misery, a place where the fire is not quenched. You don't want to go there, it's a barbecue."
3241 Mission Village Drive, Serra Mesa
Denomination: Independent Reformed Baptist Church
Founded locally: July 1996
Senior pastor: Gene Cook
Congregation size: 80
Staff size: 1
Sunday school enrollment: 30
Annual budget: $120,000
Weekly giving: $2300
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to dressy
Diversity: variety of ethnicities
Sunday worship: 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 11/2 hours