A cluster of the homeless was encamped across the street from the church, sitting on the narrow strip of lawn between the Sixth Avenue sidewalk and the hillslope leading up into Balboa Park. Inside, the high overhead lights set deep shadows over the eyes of men who likewise looked to have seen hard times, men with creased skin, wild beards, iron-gray ponytails flowing from aging heads. Care had worn many faces, but by no means all — the congregation was remarkably diverse in terms of age, race, and even apparent socioeconomic background. Urban cool and emo downbeat mixed with Chargers jerseys, plaid flannel, and pantsuits. And the auditorium/ sanctuary was immaculate — unmarred paint, springy carpet, cushy chairs. Still, if the opening hymn provided any indication, this was a church acquainted with suffering. Accompanied only by electric guitar and a sort of speakerbox hand-drum, the congregation and songleader joined in singing, "Some glad morning, when this life is over/ I'll fly away... Just a few more weary days and then/ I'll fly away." The second song kept up the theme of better things to come: "I've got a hope in glory, Lord, that outshines the sun...way beyond the blue." And even the more-contemporary tunes were full of longing as yet unfulfilled: "When will I feel the breath of my Father?/ When will I touch the face of my savior?" "Let me come rest in your arms/ Rescue me from myself."
A man gave the announcements, taking special note of the upcoming "Blessing of the City, a service for families that need food and clothes and toys for children." And he talked about the gift of life in light of a death he had witnessed earlier in the week. "Each day...every moment...is precious.... Tomorrow is not promised." He prayed: "Father...open up the gates of life for your people here this morning."
The pastor's sermon concerned the parable of the sower. In it, the sower — God — scatters the seed — His word — with various results, depending on where it lands. "The parable of the sower teaches us that without fruit in our lives, we do not have a real faith. 'Fruit' means a natural outgrowth of knowing Jesus Christ.... There is going to be this dramatic, obvious change in a person's life."
The great obstacle was hardness of heart — something that kept God's word from penetrating. Sometimes, the soil has become trampled down such that "You're going through the motions of being a believer. You haven't walked away from God or abandoned the faith, but there's hardness now. When you open the word of God, it's not producing an effect anymore." Sometimes, the soil is shallow, underlaid by stone: "Apparently, from what we're reading, a person can receive the word of God and not be saved. They can receive it emotionally, and with their hearts...but it never penetrates. They never really receive it for themselves, to the point where it begins to take root in their lives. How many times have we seen this? People come forward at the altar call, and we pray for them, and we never see them again.... The vast majority of people who hear the word of God will never grow, will never have a real faith, a saving faith."
He exhorted the congregation to "break up the fallow ground," to release their cares to God, and to "not forsake the gathering of the brethren.... This is where you're going to be built up. This is where you're going to be connected. It's not going to be a bunch of individuals" who will be "caught up in the great Rapture." Rather, it will be "the church. The body of Christ... Are you living in it, or is it something you visit from time to time?"
As the congregation filed out after the service, a sizable contingent gathered at the front and set about filling out Horizon Urban Ministries forms. A man opened a set of doors at the front of the church and spoke to the group. "Everyone that is here for food only, come on up." Later, we spoke, and I said that it felt like few people were here out of the Sunday habit. "Oh," he replied, "there's a lot of us who are here a lot more than just Sunday."
What happens when we die?
"Well, the Bible says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. After this life, we as believers go to be in the presence of the Lord. The Bible teaches about heaven as a real place, and Jesus taught about hell more than any person in the Bible." Which place we end up "is not based on any person's works or goodness or merit, but just upon the grace of God, and or receiving His grace by faith."
590 Fir Street, Bankers Hill
- Founded locally: 1994
- Congregation size: 300
- Staff size: 8
- Sunday school enrollment: 100
- Annual budget: n/a
- Weekly giving: n/a
- Singles program: no
- Dress: diverse — casual to semiformal
- Diversity: diverse — mostly Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic
- Sunday worship: 10 a.m.
- Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 35 minutes
- Website: www.horizonparkchapel.org