San Diego Denomination: Wesleyan
Address: 11330 Campo Road, Highway 94 at Jamacha Road, La Mesa
Founded locally: 1954
Senior pastor: Dr. Jim Garlow
Congregation size: about 2800
Staff size: 14 pastors
Sunday school enrollment: about 1800, including small groups
Annual budget: $5 million
Weekly giving: $90,000
Singles program: yes, one for under 35, one for 35+
Diversity: mostly Caucasian, a fair number of African-Americans and some Hispanics and others -- "pretty much the diversity of East County."
Sunday worship: 8:15 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 15 minutes
"One of the primary concerns of every human being on the planet is, 'Does my life really count?'" says Pastor Jim Garlow. This was the impetus for Garlow's three-week series, "Be More Than an Obituary: How to Invest Your Life for a Return." The series opened Sunday, January 8 -- the 50-year anniversary of the death of five Christian missionaries at the hands of the Auca Indians in South America.
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"Are you ready to worship the Lord?" cried the youngish man in the rumpled dark sport coat from the stage as he led the congregation to join the choir in song. "Get up on your feet now!" Over the thrum of a bass guitar, piano, and drum set, everyone boomed, "Every day with you, Lord/Is sweeter than the day before." The production was tight -- the congregation knew when to go silent and let the choir strut its stuff, and several soloists belted out smooth riffs above the din. Still, the service featured less music than usual, so as to make room for the guest speaker: David Howard, a veteran missionary and the brother-in-law of Jim Elliot, one of the five men killed in 1956. Pastor Garlow glided onto the stage in a short-sleeve linen shirt and dark, loose trousers. "Worship Him with the clap offering!" he exhorted the applauding crowd. He asked everyone to introduce themselves to two people they didn't know, and ran through a series of church announcements.
Then he began to preach. "John 12:24: 'I tell you the truth: unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.'...You can live out a dream that's much more profound, much stronger, much more impactful than what you would ever have come up with" by "laying down your life so that God can raise it up."
David Howard joined Garlow on stage, and the two sat on high chairs and conducted a prepared interview about Eliott and his companions. Howard, a chipper 78, presented Eliott as an intense Christian: a college student who went out for wrestling to prepare his body for missionary work, who regarded parties as a waste of time and celibacy as the Christian ideal (at least, until he fell in love). Only after reading 1 Timothy 6:17, "God has given us richly all things to enjoy," did Elliot embrace -- with characteristic intensity -- the life of fun.
Throughout, Garlow and Howard got help in telling the story from a DVD documentary on the subject, which played on the TV MONITORS that dotted the auditorium. Elliot and his companions (along with their wives and children) traveled to Ecuador and set out to evangelize the violent Aucas. The men made contact by lowering a bucket from a circling plane and so exchanging gifts with the Auca; eventually, they had a friendly meeting with a couple and their chaperone. But the couple later blamed the men for separating them from the chaperone, and when next they journeyed to the Auca, all five were killed. "They had guns," said a man on the DVD, "but they said they would never kill the Aucas, because 'They're not ready for heaven, and we are.'"
Two of the widows later returned to the Aucas and succeeded where their husbands had failed. And Elliot's widow Elizabeth has recruited hundreds of men into missionary work by telling his story. Howard estimated that "possibly 40 percent of the Aucas now know Christ, and the one who killed Nate Saint" -- one of the five -- "ended up coming to Christ and traveling across America with his widow to tell his story. He now travels with Steve Saint, Nate's son."
Steve Saint wrote an account of these events entitled, "End of the Spear," and a film based on the book is due in theaters later this month. Garlow encouraged people to bring others, especially the unchurched, to see the film. And he asked them to consider whether they were being called to join either a "short term trip missions project," or even "full-time professional missionary service." His own call, he said, had come after hearing a similar account about Paul Carlson, a medical missionary in the Congo. "When God called me to the ministry, He directed me to Philippians 1:29: '...that you not only believe on my name, but you suffer for my name's sake.'"
A young man sat at a synthesizer and began to bring music up out of the silence as Garlow asked Howard to lead a closing prayer. Heads bowed as Howard said, "Loving Father, we thank your for the commitment of those five young men who gave themselves so totally to you.... Your Holy Spirit is speaking to someone in this room, I believe that firmly. I pray that the spirit of God will give no peace to those people until they commit themselves totally to you.... I pray that you will send from this church right here many of them out to parts of the world where the Gospel has yet to be heard. In Jesus' name, Amen."
What happens when you die?
"Well," says Garlow, "depending on whether people have embraced Christ as their savior and lord, it will indicate whether they go to a Christ-less eternity or to an eternity with Christ. The Bible doesn't tell us much about either heaven or hell, but it gives us the impression that hell is not a good place, and heaven is pretty wonderful. That's the best I can tell you."