From the outset, Kensington Community Church made the case for the “Community” part of its name. A congregant introduced herself to me, a visiting stranger, and asked if I would like company, or if I preferred to sit alone. One preservice announcement asked for volunteers at Project Facelift, a community clean-up in City Heights. Another invited the congregation to witness one family’s son receive his Eagle Scout honors, with a reception to follow in the church hall. Applause followed a hymn that featured a solo performance. The Passing of the Peace of Christ was a social affair — people leaving their pews, embracing and chatting, bright smiles creasing their faces.
The Prayer of Confession echoed this emphasis on the social: “Our successes leave us empty; our progress does not satisfy. Our prosperous land is not the promised land of our longing — too many people go without, and the land still suffers. Forgive our willful neglect of your word, our insensitivity to the needs of others, and our failure to feed your spirit within us.”
Later, during the Sharing of Joys and Concerns, prayer requests for physical and spiritual healing were mingled with an expression of thanksgiving: a congregant stood and reported on “the negotiations for the development of the corner at Kensington Terrace. With prayer — and lawsuit — we have reached a settlement, and an end to a divisive time in our community.” Near the end of the service, the congregation recited this Prayer of Thanksgiving and Dedication: “For food in a world where many walk in hunger/ For friends in a world where many walk alone/ For faith in a world where many walk in fear/ We give you thanks, O God. May our walk bring wholeness to others.” And the closing hymn asked God to “help us show that love embraces those whom fear and greed downtrod.”
But God was not to be found only in others. The opening hymn extolled “Perfect submission,” wherein “all is at rest/ I in my Savior am happy and blest.” The Call to Worship exhorted the faithful to “come and hear, all who revere God, and I will tell what the Holy One has done for us.” And throughout the service, Reverend Larson kept stressing both the social and personal aspects of the Christian life.
During the Children’s Moment, he asked the youth gathered on the sanctuary steps, “Does anybody know what a retreat is?”
“To back away.”
“Yes, that’s literally what it means. To step back, away from normal life, so I can get in better touch with myself and with God and with others.” Larson had just come back from the desert: “When I sat there, I could hear the silence of God. God’s first language isn’t words; it’s silence.... Have you ever done that?” He urged the kids to attend Pilgrim Pines camp. “You can get out into nature, and there are times to be in touch with the earth, and listen to the silence, and hear God’s voice a little more clearly...and thereby get closer to God and to each other.”
The reading from Peter “to the Christians under persecution” reminded them to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” Larson himself gave a kind of roundabout account, noting that modernity, with its great emphasis on reason and empiricism, had failed to meet humanity’s enduring needs for transcendence and intimacy, needs that could be met simultaneously in the interior spiritual life.
But not just any interior spiritual life. The second reading recounted Paul’s speech to the Athenians, who had erected, among their various temples, an altar “to an unknown God.” Said Paul, “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything.... ‘In him we live and move and have our being....’ He has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness.”
“What was the bee in Paul’s bonnet?” asked Larson. “The idols...they sold the living God short. Whenever we give great power to anything less than the living God, we settle for a cheap facsimile of the real thing.” And among those cheap facsimiles: ourselves. “The cult of the self...puts everything in service to the self. Self-realization becomes the whole point of the spiritual life. But this inverts our relationship with the living God.... It is not the God of Jesus Christ who must fit into our world...it is we who must be transformed.”
What happens when we die?
“We go back to God?” asked Larson in reply. “Let God decide that. A better question would be, ‘Why are so many still hungry?’”
Denomination: United Church of Christ
Address: 4773 Marlborough Drive, Kensington, 619-284-1129
Founded locally: 1923
Senior pastor: Bruce Larson
Congregation size: about 230
Staff size: 10, including school employees
Sunday school enrollment: about 20
Weekly giving: n/a
Annual budget: around $400,000
Singles program: no
Dress: semiformal to formal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 5 minutes