“Fourteen years ago, when my wife and I were engaged,” said pastor Ben Brinkman, “we had the exact same experience at the exact same moment in a college chapel: God showed us having a church in a downtown area.” That was 1995, in Seattle; the couple moved to San Diego in ’99 and helped start a church in Rancho Bernardo. “By 2004, we knew we wanted to start a church downtown, but the timing wasn’t right.” They spent a few years in the desert, helping to start a church in Las Vegas, and then returned in ’08, armed with a year’s worth of financing from the Vegas church.
They also applied for membership in the Association of Related Churches. “You go through a long assessment process, but once they accept you, they help with funding and advertising. They give you x amount of dollars up front and you give 10 percent of donations back every month until the amount is met. That money goes into planting other churches; we helped to plant 55 last year.” And in February, they started their own, setting up in Little Italy’s Washington Elementary School auditorium.
Brinkman took the stage dressed in white canvas sneakers, frayed jeans, a twill sportcoat, and an untucked white shirt under a blue tie. “Thank you for joining us,” he told the (youthful) congregation. “As a pastor just starting a church, anytime you come up on a holiday weekend, you wonder if anyone’s going to show up.” (Neither of the worship team’s drummers was in town, but the light and sound crew was in place, flooding the dim stage with the orange and yellow of an indoor sunrise.)
The music substituted guitar strums for drums and employed a number of anthemic, repeated phrases. “Be lifted higher.” “I’m gonna worship You forever.” “What have we done to deserve a love like Yours?”
Because of the holiday, Brinkman skipped the sermon as such, but there was still a fair bit of preaching in effect. Swirling, bursting words spelled out an opening Thanksgiving message on the TV screens flanking the stage. “Life: it’s a journey full of adventure, love, success...but life is also full of troubles, pain, failure.... It’s easy to allow life...to swallow up all thought of God.... But what would happen if we chose to give thanks for everything, at all times, in all circumstances? Colors would seem brighter, relationships would grow stronger, and perspectives would become healthier.... Decide today, no matter what, to live a more thankful life.” (I confess to thinking that the church had a good graphics person, and I thought it again during the video advertising the First Sunday “Free Store” to be held in the school’s courtyard this Sunday. “We advertise it on craigslist,” said Brinkman. “If you have items to donate, bring them. We’ll have clothes, canned goods, and furniture. Everything is free; we just want to bless the community. And Chick-Fil-A has agreed to sponsor us again, so everyone that comes after the 10:30 service will get a free hot lunch.”)
Later, Brinkman delivered a mini-homily on the reason for communion, taking time to note that in the midst of establishing the New Covenant at the Last Supper, Jesus took time to give thanks. And thanks was the theme of the service. “Paul says, ‘I’ve learned how to have a lot, and I’ve learned how to have a little. What matters is that I’ve learned to be thankful because He is my portion.”
That came through during the Thanksgiving testimonials. A young man testified that involvement with the church had inspired him. “My wife and I have felt this fulfillment; even though we don’t have a ton, we want to give more.”
And the young woman who followed him explained, “We got a call from God to give up everything. I remember telling God, ‘I want to serve You.’ And He said, ‘No, you don’t, because you don’t want to go where I want to send you. It’s a dark place.’ In the process of getting here, we lost everything, but everything we lost, we gained in joy. We are actually residents of a homeless shelter now. God said, ‘I challenge you to be who I am because you might be the only Christ that these people will ever see.’”
“Christ is not real to them,” she said. “That’s not their everyday.” So she helps where she can, stays happy, and knows “that I have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
What happens when we die?
“If we’re in a relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Brinkman, “we’re going to go to heaven to be with Him for eternity. If we’re not...there are a couple of different theories. One is eternal punishing, where it just goes on and on. The other is eternal punishment — there’s punishment, and then it’s over. I think I lean more toward that.”
1789 State Street, Little Italy
Founded: February 2009
Senior pastor: Ben Brinkman
Congregation size: 120
Staff size: 2
Sunday school enrollment: 15
Annual budget: $126,000
Weekly giving: $1900
Singles program: no
Dress: mostly casual
Diversity: diverse, skewing young
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m., 6 p.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes