"This is what I like worship to be like," said one teenaged boy to another before the service began. "A guitar solo in every song." He was right. The opening 25 minutes might have been a Christian rock concert: dimmed house lights, colored spotlights, upraised arms and closed eyes, praise music that filled the air before settling down into a couple of power ballads ("Who am I/That you came to earth for me/To die on a tree?"), and big, almost soaring guitar solos. The melodies had a sing-song quality that made it easy for people to sing along near the tops of their voices. And they sang.
The lights came up when Pastor Dave Hoffman took the stage and placed his tea in the cupholder attached to the lectern. "I don't drink any of that frou-frou herbal stuff," said Hoffman. "I want real, black tea -- with kick in it!"
Sunday was Mother's Day. Following the welcome and announcements, Hoffman asked the mothers in the congregation to stand, and the ushers handed them copies of A Mother's Garden of Prayer as "an appreciation gift, so you know how much we do value you as a church." The congregation applauded, the collection was taken, and Hoffman read off a comic bit on "The Evolution of Mothers," to wit:
"First baby, you spend a good bit of every day just gazing at the new baby. Second baby, you spend a bit of every day watching to be sure your older child isn't squeezing, poking, or hitting the baby. Third baby, you spend a little bit of every day hiding from your children." He got huge laughs.
The sermon recounted Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus, concluding with her response, "Behold the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word." Hoffman said that "what separated Mary from the ordinary, and I would have to believe it is the reason she became the mother of Jesus, is that Mary was willing to submit to God's will for her life...even if it meant overturning all her plans.... There was no argument, no complaining. When was the last time you obeyed God...and said, 'Yes, it doesn't matter what others say, what the consequences are, I just want to follow God.' She trusted God with reckless abandon.... She understood that obeying God and fearing God would ultimately bring blessings to her life." He suggested that "perhaps, if God isn't real in your life... you're not trusting him with reckless abandon. James says, 'Draw near to God and He will draw near to you'...Romans 10:11, 'Whoever believes in Jesus will never be disappointed'.... You want to feel close to God? Submit your life to him."
Bringing it back to the day, he said, "A mother's success in raising her children will be in direct proportion to her submission and trust and faith in God." He held up his own mother, who continued to pray for him when, as a teenager, he left both his home and his faith. He quoted presidents on their own mothers, including this from Abraham Lincoln: "'All that I am or hope to be I owe to my angel mother. I remember my mother's prayers, and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all my life.' That is the testimony of my life," said Hoffman. "My mother's prayers have followed me. To be blunt, I couldn't get away from them!"
He reminded us that Mary was a wife and mother. "First, there was her relationship with God, then her husband, then her children." He reminded husbands to teach their kids to love their mothers, that on Mother's Day, mothers wanted "some token that means they are really loved.... I know that my mother's influence continues in my life.... Dave Hoffman, before he knew Jesus -- and quite frankly, long after -- was a jerk. I was very, very selfish. But Mom, your constant prayers for me, and believing the best, had a great impact on my life. I want to thank you for your love, your discipline, your Godly example."
The lights dimmed, the guitars started in strumming, and Hoffman sounded the altar call. "We ask the Holy Spirit to come and minister." To the struggling, to the wounded, to those who were strangers to faith, he said, "God will meet you here. The God of the universe. God will break out from eternity and meet you up here. This isn't just some fairy tale. This isn't a myth. This is the way it is."
What happens when we die?
"If you haven't accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior," says Hoffman, "you're in trouble on judgment day. It is what it is. Paul says not to be ashamed of it, and I'm not."
365 West Bradley Avenue, El Cajon
Founded locally: 1987
Senior pastor: David and Mark Hoffman
Congregation size: about 2,200
Staff size: 67, owing to the church's large number of outreaches and ministries
Sunday school enrollment: no Sunday school as such, lots of small groups
Annual budget: $3.6 million in operating expenses in 2005
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: yes
Dress: semi-formal to casual, plenty of jeans and T-shirts
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 30 minutes