"We were meant to live for so much more/ Have we lost ourselves?" Switchfoot played through the speakers as congregants found their seats for Missiongathering's first service in their new venue, there amid the Moroccan-tinged splendor of the restored North Park Theater. On stage, bathed in blue light, stood four pale gray obelisks. Later, when lit from within, the gray would give way to panels of orange, pink, red, green, blue, and purple, separated by tendrils of a stylized vine. A cross hung overhead, while the Table of Grace held center stage, weighted by candles as well as a pitcher of wine and a round loaf of bread -- the elements for communion. The lights went down, and the service opened with video profiling the church. "If you are curious and have come to see," read the words onscreen, "...If you are weary and have come to rest.... If you are hurting and have come for comfort..."
During the video, the church band's lead singer spoke of his admiration for Radiohead's OK Computer album, though the church band's sound -- now intense, now jubilant, now vulnerable -- seemed closer to that of Live. "Church isn't sterile," he said. "Jesus isn't sterile.... We're not holding back in the way we worship God."
Other congregants testified: "Missiongathering allowed me to think for myself.... I can go and not be told how to act, but be reminded of how I want to act."
"I grew up in a conservative Baptist church. We had a narrow view of faith, and I found it very limiting when you're actually trying to have a relationship with Jesus."
"The people are real and have real issues and concerns. No one seems to hide that."
"There's room for disagreement."
"Welcome to your church," concluded the video. Applause followed, and songs from the band: "Your grace is enough, God/ I'm covered in your love."
A spotlit man and woman read the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery, the woman rescued by Jesus when He said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Then, lights up, and Pastor McCullen preached, inviting the congregation "to experience a Jesus who...no matter what you've done, no matter where you were last night -- that Jesus is a Jesus who loves you in spite of you."
McCullen embellished -- "She's bleeding from her mouth.... Jesus draws her to him." He extrapolated -- "When you are faced with the light of God, as these religious people were -- supposedly men of faith -- all your judgmental Christianity, all your pretenses of religion melt in the presence of God." But mostly, he sought to bring the story to the lives of the congregants. The Gospel passage spoke of Jesus writing in the dirt. "I love the image -- God with dirty hands, in the mess of it all.... God wants to get dirty in your life, to help you through whatever you're facing." Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life. Not only was she given her life back, but she was given the life in the light.... To live in the light is to live in honesty and a willingness to change what's unhealthy within ourselves.... Jesus' approach was not to judge, but to give light in a very dark region of our lives.... Imagine if a church lived that way."
Near the entrance to the theater proper, five fabric-lined boxes of sand were laid out, surrounded by fat candles of various heights. Cards in front of the boxes read, "Although we have no record of what Jesus wrote in the sand...we have the opportunity to partake in an experience to help deepen our understanding of our faith.... Please feel free to write or draw any prayers or thoughts or names that confront you today. Bring these things before God. In writing them, we invite you to surrender your burdens and cares, leaving them to the gracious power of our Lord. Then erase the words." After communion, a muscular man in a white T-shirt and jeans knelt at one of the boxes, wrote, erased, and departed.
What happens when we die?
"I believe that the Christian church is too fixated on the afterlife," says McCullen. "What about the here and now? The Gospels indicate that Jesus only spoke a few times concerning the afterlife. I believe He was more about individuals experiencing the kingdom of God within their hearts at that very moment. One of the only times Jesus spoke of the afterlife, he challenged his followers concerning the least of them. In other words, what we do today during our journeys of faith, how we respond to the least of them -- the hurting, the downtrodden, and the social outcasts, including God's creatures and the environment -- will directly affect how we spend eternity."
Denomination: Disciples of Christ
Address: Stephen & Mary Birch North Park Theatre, 2895 University Avenue, North Park, 619-624-9335
Founded locally: 1999
Senior pastor: Rich McCullen
Congregation size: about 120
Staff size: 7, mostly part-time
Sunday school enrollment: nascent children's ministry during Sunday service
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 20 minutes