“I wish I’d known you were coming,” said Pastor Dan Slagle when I spoke with him after the service. If he had known, he could have warned me that part of the regular band was away at camp with the congregation’s youth group. (Part of the church’s promise on its website is, “The music will be rockin’.”) But the summertime substitutes did a fine job of filling the clubby space (black barrel-roof, black exposed ductwork, art-deco light towers along the sides) with sound. It’s been a while since I’ve heard a church band produce chest-rattling bass, and the guitarist worked a razor’s edge. The two ladies on vocals added sweet harmonics — rarely has the phrase “Your grace is enough” possessed so much sentimental force just by the simple sound of it.
The songs segued one into another, broken up by the occasional prayer or announcement or call to communal greeting. The congregation sang along, but to little sonic effect — the sound belonged to the band, and the cheers and applause from the congregation gave the service’s opening a concert feel. I wasn’t surprised to hear the announcement: “I just found out this morning that there’s a concert this weekend at SDSU. It’s Mercy Me, David Crowder Band, Tenth Avenue North — it’s going to be awesome. Those bands are fantastic.” But the congregation’s murmurs of adoration during one song’s fade-out served as a reminder that this was still worship.
Apart from a power ballad of pure praise — “Clothed in rainbows of living color/ Flashes of lightning, rolls of thunder/ Blessing and honor and strength and glory and power be to You the only wise king” — most of the songs focused on forgiveness and grace. That fit the theme of the service, the third in the church’s series on living in Graceland. “In the Old Covenant, God saw people through the lens of sin, or what they had done,” said Pastor Slagle. “Thank God that in the New Covenant, God sees us through rose-colored lenses, shaded by the blood of Christ.... I’m not dependent on a merit system, but on what God has done for me.”
The first Graceland sermon had shown that grace is God’s gift. “None of us has earned the gift of grace.... The economy of grace goes against everything that we’ve been taught, and that kind of messes us up. It’s not a merit system.” The second had argued that “in Graceland, everyone is equal.... There’s not one sinner that’s better than another...but the equality that we receive is always a ‘being brought up.’ I’m made equal to Jesus Christ, and I take on His goodness.... He made Jesus become sin so that you and I might become the righteousness of God in Christ.”
But: “So what? How should we respond to the grace of God?” The answer? “Do not waste the grace.” Slagle proposed three ways to avoid this. First: “Give your life to Christ...grace only comes when you give your life to Christ.... You can’t earn salvation, but it’s not free — it costs you everything. You start a relationship with Jesus Christ and it will mess you up.” He warned against adding Jesus to your life without making this wholehearted commitment and counseled us to become “slaves to righteousness” instead of slaves to sin. Second: make your life count. “Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that you and I could go on living any way we wanted to.... Whose life did you affect?”
Third: “Share the good news of God’s grace.... Why wouldn’t you want to? If you’ve found the grace of God — the best thing — wouldn’t you tell people about that? In Scripture, whenever somebody meets Jesus, what do they do? They run back to town and tell everybody about this man who has healed them. The same thing is true here. Who invites people to church? New believers.”
Slagle concluded, “I pray that You would help us to be a people who not just receive your grace but, God, a people who would learn to live responsibly with the grace that You have given us.” Then he led the congregation in a sort of grateful creed: “I can’t pray a prayer for you that’s going to work, but the Bible says that if you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth, you will be saved. So let’s pray this prayer together all across the building. Say, ‘Dear Jesus, I believe You’re the Son of God. I believe You lived a sinless life, and You died on the cross for my sins. I believe You rose from the dead, and today I receive your grace. Thank You for the gift. Amen.’” Shouts and applause followed.
What happens when we die?
“If you receive Christ, you go to heaven,” said Slagle. “Without Christ, you go to hell.”
New Life Church
Denomination: Pentecostal Church of God
Address: 402 East Washington Avenue, El Cajon, 619-444-3797
Founded locally: around 1950
Senior pastor: Dan Slagle
Congregation size: 200
Staff size: 3
Sunday school enrollment: 35
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to semiformal
Diversity: mostly a mix of Caucasian and Hispanic
Sunday worship: 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. (summer schedule)
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour