San Diego Denomination: Church of Christ
Address: 5150 Jackson Drive, La Mesa,
Founded locally: 1941; in current location since 1962
Senior pastor: Jim Hinton
Congregation size: 150--175
Staff size: 3
Sunday school enrollment: about 80
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: around $5000
Singles program: no
Dress: plenty of dresses and button-down shirts
Diversity: majority Caucasian, some African Americans, some Africans. A Hispanic congregation conducts a simultaneous service onsite in Spanish
Sunday worship: 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 20 minutes
"I hope you aren't too full of leftover turkey," said the song leader at the Lucite lectern -- though it was clear from the outset that Thanksgiving and its attendant sentiments were still very much with us. "Come into His presence with thanksgiving in your heart," sang the choir and congregation. The singing that rose into the dim heights of the arched ceiling -- singing led by the song leader but backed by a six-member choir that pulled off some proper old-time gospel-quartet harmony -- was unaccompanied, such that the virtues (and occasional stumbles) of the choir were showcased. No organ sat in the choir loft. The congregation, which stood at various points throughout the service to sing along, waxed and waned in its enthusiasm over the course of nine hymns. They showed special zeal for "Ten Thousand Angels" ("He could have called ten thousand angels/ To destroy the world and set Him free...") but needed a bucking-up midway through "Lord, Reign in Me."
Thanksgiving also filled the opening liturgy. From Pastor Hinton's welcome: "Throughout the year, we have great things to thank God for...." From the opening prayer, one of many elements offered by a man stepping up from the congregation: "Thank you for this season.... Help us to take this spirit forth into our daily lives." And the Communion meditation, together with the prayers within the Communion rite and the prayers before the offering, called on souls to remember the good works of God.
Communion itself was taken in silence, broken only by the pings of matzoh on metal as congregants broke off pieces from the crackery bread in the silver bowls. Afterward, the choir sang, "Give thanks with a grateful heart/ Give thanks to the holy one...." Thanks and praise were also extended to the women who had run the previous week's sack-food drive, and a felt patch was placed on the burgundy banner noting significant events from the church's year: baptisms, weddings, retreats, physical improvements, church picnics...
Only the Scripture reading, taken from Paul's letter to the Romans, skipped the thanks in favor of exhortation: "'Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.... Practice hospitality.... Do not repay any with evil for evil.... If it is possible...live at peace with everyone.' Isn't God great?" concluded the reader, grinning.
Pastor Hinton's sermon sought to lay out "How your holidays can be truly happy" amid heightened expectations, insane busyness, the weight of unhappy history, and even personal tragedy: divorce, the death of a loved one. He opened with Jesus' promise that "with God, all things are possible," then moved on to the definition of happiness: "Happiness, to us, depends on what happens to us.... This makes happiness something very tenuous. The Bible defines happiness -- or joy -- as something much more sturdy. The happiness that Jesus promises is based in His spirit, His truth, and His hope living inside of us, not going on around us."
He took as his text Jesus' invitation to "come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest...take my yoke upon you...for my yoke is easy and my burden light." Weariness, he said, might come from seeking "spiritual realities" such as "meaning, purpose, happiness, and contentment" in things -- even good things -- other than God. The yoke, said Hinton, joined us to Christ. "This is a help. I believe Jesus is also saying, 'You know all of those painful, confusing, stupid sins and mistakes you've made? All that stuff that has...destroyed your happiness? When you slip your head [into my yoke], they become my problem.' It's not always about taking the crushing burdens away. It's giving us the resources to bear up under them. Jesus says, 'I didn't take it away, but I have overcome your divorce. I have overcome your abortion. I have overcome your adultery. I have defeated your addiction, your depression... I have triumphed over your lies and your greed and your selfishness and have even conquered your greatest fear and enemy: death.' What could possibly happen that can destroy the happiness we have in Christ?" At sermon's end, everyone read the Serenity Prayer aloud.
After the sermon, Hinton called for the lights to be dimmed and then showed a trailer for the upcoming film The Nativity Story . The bulletin offered "some things we can do to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to reach people with the 'Good News' of Christ," including buying tickets in advance and inviting friends via the enclosed postcard to attend the film on opening night. Finally, in keeping with church tradition, everyone poured toward the center aisle and held hands for the final prayer.
What happens when we die?
"I would say that we fulfill our destiny," said Hinton, "find the ultimate purpose we were created for, and are held accountable before God and by God."