“Our roots are downtown,” said Bob Buschman, pastor of First Assembly, now located on a nine-acre campus in Mission Valley. “In 1921, they brought an evangelist named Aimee Semple McPherson into downtown, and she preached in a boxing arena on First Avenue. She’d climb through the ropes and preach from inside the ring. Then they outgrew that and had to move to Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park.” That led to the building of a proper church on the corner of Second and Grape, and then another at Sixth and Fir. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that the church yielded to the congregation’s need for parking and headed out to Mission Valley.
Buschman took over as pastor two years ago. And it was in 2008, as he was leaving Seaport Village with his family, that he first took notice of downtown’s condo explosion. “I said to my wife, ‘Who is going to reach these people?’ Our agenda was to bring these people to Christ. We felt like God was calling us back to our roots. We came down here in October and November and rented a small room in the Horton Grand as a base of operations. On Thursday nights, we had teams of people praying in that room while other people were out on the street, passing out info cards and saying, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about starting a service here.’ We asked what people thought, and the response was very receptive. In January, we sent out a mailer to 5000 condos, and two weeks ago, we did a second mailing. We felt like we should go down here and make contact with people.”
“Welcome to the Downtown God Group,” said Buschman. “We appreciate you coming out on this Thursday night to worship the Lord with us.” The group met in one half of a Horton Grand ballroom — a black fabric backdrop spanned the gap between crimson carpet and brass chandeliers overhead. Banquet tables lined the sides of the room, and the cups for coffee and water reflected the space’s original intent. The crowd was interestingly motley — a fair number of fresh-faced Caucasian youngsters mixed with an older crowd that ranged over multiple categories of age, race, and dress. A blocky gentleman slipped in next to me sporting a T-shirt from Nothing Sacred Tattoo on Market Street. A devil’s tail curled along his tricep from below his sleeve; an elaborately adorned cross took up most of his calf. As the service began, he removed his ball cap.
Music was handled by First Assembly’s Master’s Commission Worship Team, headed up by a husband-wife pair on guitar, keyboard, and vocals. Their set was more inspirational performance than song-leading — her voice twining about his in harmony on “We Are Hungry,” then pleading for God’s overpowering action on “Consuming Fire.”
“As we worship You, God,” she prayed, “would You just have Your way with us in this place, Father. Stir up a passion for You that goes beyond our emotions, beyond our circumstances or feelings. Stir it up in us as we surrender to You.” Heavy reverb made the space feel bigger than it actually was as she intoned, “Stir it up, stir it up in our hearts, Lord” and promised, “I’m giving You my heart, and all that is within.”
Buschman’s sermon treated God’s goodness and the problem of suffering. He began with a memory of squashed snails on a wet sidewalk and concluded, “because God is good, God would never intentionally grind you into the sidewalk of life...and God will never accidentally step on you, because God doesn’t make mistakes.”
The rest of the sermon marched on systematically — claims made about God’s goodness (defined as “His moral attribute by which He chooses to bless people”) backed up by verses from Scripture. The secret to unleashing God’s goodness in your life, said Buschman, was threefold. “First, you simply have to ask for it.” Second, fear God. Third, seek him. Then, reject the devil’s attempts to assassinate His character and accept suffering for our own good. “God uses pain and suffering to create character and growth.” Buschman closed with an assurance that “God feels your pain” and prayed for a shower of His goodness upon the congregation.
“I think we need to give God a clap offering,” he concluded, and applause followed. Then the service ended — but the evening did not. Much of the congregation remained to sip, snack, and socialize. “We really just want to be an outreach,” said Buschman.
What happens when we die?
“Well, it depends on whether or not we know Christ,” said Buschman. “If we know Christ, we go to heaven. If we don’t, the alternative is not very good.” — Matthew Lickona
Denomination: Assemblies of God
Address: Horton Grand Hotel, corner of 4th and Island, downtown, 858-560-1870
Founded locally: January 2009
Senior pastor: Bob Buschman
Congregation size: about 50
Staff size: 1
Sunday school enrollment: n/a
Annual budget: financed by First Assembly Church
Weekly giving: no collection taken
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to formal, but more casual
Diversity: mostly Caucasian and African American
Sunday worship: services are Thursdays at 7 p.m.
Length of reviewed service: 50 minutes