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“The term ‘emergent worship’ doesn’t really provide a good definition,” said Pastor Michael Spitters when we spoke before Sunday’s service. “We don’t know what we’re emerging to become. We just know that we’re getting out of something.” Part of what he wanted to avoid was anything that struck outsiders as “playing at worshipping God”; i.e., worship that made no visible difference in the lives of the faithful. Part of what he wanted to become was “an authentic community.... A big part of it is the horizontal connection as well as the vertical. If you don’t see God in your brother or sister...if it’s just a ‘me and my Jesus’ thing, then there’s a big disconnect with the suffering and injustice in the world.”

Spitters stressed that he wasn’t saying that Emergents were after a wholesale rejection of traditional religious forms. Merely “the trappings of religion and ritual...that are empty to many of them...the big, program-oriented spectacle of religion, where you come and get entertained.” In fact, he said, “some are actually taking back some of the traditions — the incense and the candles and the meditation.”

There was plenty of tradition on display at the 11:15 service. The rose window above the altar — the one with IHS inscribed in the stone and “Holy, Holy, Holy” written across the cover cloth — bore a host of traditional symbols: the flaming wheel from Ezekiel, the Chi-Ro, the anchor and fish, and the crown of thorns among them. And in a stucco-happy world, brick walls practically proclaimed the church’s solidarity with history and stability. Fitting environs for both the music — stately choir and booming organ, ringing out “Be Thou My Vision” and the Doxology — and the relatively formal liturgy (Introit, Invocation, Gloria).

The call to worship, on the other hand, felt like standard modern-speak: “We have gathered as children of God’s promise, to keep alive our vision of hope. We have gathered on the mountaintop, that we may be strengthened to live as God’s children in the valleys of everyday life.” But the opening prayer was a little different in tone, a little grittier: “Sometimes where You take us is pretty scary, Lord.... We’re fearful that the cost of following You will be too high.... Heal us of our consternation...give us...bold, courageous determination to follow You.”

The Scripture reading related the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. In his sermon, Spitters took up the apostles’ frightened response to the voice from the cloud, the one that said, “This is my Son whom I love...listen to Him.” “When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified.”

“How many of you would really like God to show up in your life...to speak to you directly?” asked Spitters. “To give you an irrefutable message: ‘This is what I want you to do with the rest of your life.’ The sheer spectacle of it would be enough to scare me half to death, but I think there’s something more that’s frightening the disciples.... In the immediately preceding text, Jesus predicts his death. He says, ‘Guys, I’m going to suffer, and I’m going to die....’ And he says, ‘Look, if you want to follow me, you too must pick up your cross and follow.’ It’s the fear that comes when we come face-to-face with God...and what He’s asking.... Worshipping the one true God is about risking a life-threatening encounter with the risen Christ — seeking God’s will for our lives...so you can walk down the mountain into the valley where people are hurting and do some good.” But, he concluded, “that way leads to abundant and everlasting life.”

After the sermon, Spitters took a seat in the pew, and Rev. Dr. Clair Berry took over the liturgy. He praised tithing for helping to keep wants and needs distinct, and for proclaiming that “we’re a part of that enterprise called the Kingdom of God.” And he presided over the Institution of Communion. Finally, Spitters rose after Communion (which he called “the highlight of every service”), read the announcements, and closed with an exhortation: “Let us go down from the mountain, listening to Jesus all the way.”

What happens when we die?

“Even the Bible is conflicted on that,” said Spitters. “There is some Scripture to support the idea that when Christ comes again, then those dead in Christ shall rise first. Others believe that, as soon as you die, you meet your maker. I think it’s my job as pastor to say, ‘There are different ways of understanding this.’ It’s indicative of a church that’s non-creedal — we don’t have a statement that says, ‘When you die, this is what happens.’ Because I haven’t gone myself, I can only tell you what my hope is: that when we die, whatever existence we have, we will be united with God in a love we can’t even fathom right now."

Torrey Pines Christian Church
Denomination: Disciples of Christ
Address: 8320 La Jolla Scenic Drive North, La Jolla, 858-453-3550
Founded locally: 1960
Senior pastor: Dr. Michael J. Spitters
Congregation size: about 700
Staff size: two full-time, a few part-time
Sunday school enrollment: 25
Annual budget: $900,000
Weekly giving: around $17,000
Dress: semiformal to formal, plenty of jackets and ties
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: contemporary service, 8:45 a.m.; traditional service, 11:15 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Website: torreypineschurch.org

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