"We're going to make some noise today!" proclaimed one of the choristers from the stage of the auditorium. "Oh, bless the Lord with the fruit of your lips! We serve an awesome God!" The drums kicked in, heavy on the syncopation. The synth started up, heavy on the funk and the twangy bassline. And the choir -- six women, one man -- fired up "He Reigns" -- loud and fast, swaying side to side, bringing half the congregants to their feet, and starting heads bobbing among the rest. "Our God/ Is an awesome God, He reigns/ From heaven above..." Second hymn: "Rain on Me," a plea to the Holy Spirit, belted out deep and slow, with a sing-song prayer at the end: "Oooooooopen the floodgates of heaaaaaaven...heal my mind of confusion, renew my spirit within me...whatever you need God to rain down on you this morning, to remove out of your spirit, all you gotta do is...ask God to rain on you."
Third hymn: the chorus slowly pouring out, "Draw me, draw me, draw me, Lord, and I'll come running after you." The soloist, lilting, "Lord, I thirst for you, and I long to be in your presence." And one chorister, nearly doubled over, almost yelping, over and over. Working her arms up and down as though kneading a great lump of dough, until one hand reached up behind her and began to flutter and she cried out, "Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, Lord..." The rest of the choir, staying together: "...in the beauty of Your holy name."
"God loves hearing the praises of His people," said the chorister, "and he also delights that we commune with Him in prayer.... Sometimes, you've got to make your way, you've got to amend your flesh to do what God says.... You've just got to go to Him. You've got to scream a little louder.... Not that He's deaf -- you're just letting the devil know, putting him on notice." Around 20 people gathered at the foot of the altar, and her words became a stream as she prayed. "I thank you, God, for, oh, God, so many of us, oh, God, oh, God, are pressing through, God, desiring more of you, God, going deeper in you, God, so, God, I thank you, God, for answering prayers, God. God, I thank you for those whose healings you have obtained...." She finished her praises "in Jesus' sweet holy name, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah," and the people applauded and headed back to their seats. The chorus sang: "Have your way, have your way, have your way..." (For all the fervor, a certain mannered formality showed forth: ushers in white gloves, the male chorister assisting each female as she descended the stairs from the stage.)
When Pastor Thomas announced, "We're going to take up our morning offering at this time," a cry of "Hallelujah!" slipped out of the crowd amid a smattering of applause. "For our guests," explained Thomas, "the reason we clap and get excited is because the Lord said it is more blessed to give than to receive and that our giving should be the kind where you're overjoyed at the opportunity."
Thomas had just returned from vacation, where he had developed a ringing in his ear. "But I still have praise in my heart. I'm learning, like Paul... I'm going to praise God when I'm well, and praise Him when I'm not well. I have enough sense to be thankful. Tell your neighbor, 'I'm so thankful!'"
Thomas's sermon anticipated the church's next Friend Day, when congregants were exhorted to bring an "unsaved" friend to the service. At the previous Friend Day, he said, "we were blessed with many decisions...people coming to Christ, people connecting, and joining the church." He read the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus' answer to the lawyer's question, "Who is my neighbor?" "If a believer does not know who their neighbor is," said Thomas, "they may not know who the Lord is." The priest and the Levite saw their fellow Jew wounded in the ditch and passed by. But the Samaritan helped him, even though the Jews hated the Samaritans for being "a mixture of Jewish and Syrian blood.... Who is my neighbor? The one who has the same skin tone?"
"The Samaritan placed compassion before prejudice.... He took off earthly mindedness and put on spiritual-mindedness. I'm going to tell you today that many are not going to see God in glory, because they think they're...loving God, but they can't do anything with their brother they see every day. Jesus came for the brokenhearted. He came for the lost" -- and here, as elsewhere, his pitch rose in tone and import while his phrasing grew short and pointed: "and I'm so glad -- I was lost -- and somebody came -- and found me!"
What happens when we die?
"If you're a believer," says Thomas, "you go to be with Christ."
Address: worship held at Scripps Ranch High School, 10410 Treena Street, Scripps Ranch, 858-695-9692
Founded locally: 1976
Senior pastor: L.J. Thomas
Congregation size: 200
Staff size: 10 ministers
Sunday school enrollment: 50
Annual budget: around $210,000
Weekly giving: around $4,000
Singles program: no
Dress: semi-formal, plenty of dresses and button-down shirts
Diversity: mostly African American, some Hispanic and Caucasian
Sunday worship: 9 a.m., 11 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 15 minutes