On October 31, 1869, the First Baptist Church of San Diego dedicated its church bell, a prize awarded by city father Alonzo Horton for being the first Protestant Church to complete an edifice in the “new” San Diego. The clapboard church, situated on Seventh near the corner of F Street, would not have looked out of place in New England. By 1888, First Baptist had moved to swankier, more palatial stucco quarters at the corner of Tenth and E. By its 100th anniversary in 1969, the church was set up in a jet-age auditorium full of curving balconies; and since 2000, the congregation has worshipped in a quarter-circle sanctuary decked out in wood panels, rough stone, and earth-toned upholstery. But the bell remains, tucked into the triangular promontory that juts out above the entrance.
The church interior felt mellow and loose and so did the rock trio (piano and two guitars) that led the opening worship — so much so that when leader J.R. Nall shook a raised fist to the muted cry of “How strong the power of Jesus’ name/ It is stronger than any other name!” it played as sincere enthusiasm instead of pump-you-up showboating.
The interstitial prayers went hard to the grace: “We continue singing about Your grace,” “It’s about grace,” etc. Everything led to his gentle altar call: “It needs to be more than a story; it needs to be an experience you have with God.... If that’s not you, if you have not accepted or understood that, spend this time with God and talk to Him about it. No direction; it’s just between you and God.”
The church is planning a mission trip to El Salvador, but one young congregant has just returned from his own tour of the mission fields. “I was in the Maldives for three months,” he reported, “and it was exhausting. I was helping out the missionaries that were already there. They have a surfing company, and I would take guests out surfing so the missionaries could concentrate on being missionaries. The entire nation is Islamic, so every day, five times a day, I’d hear the prayer bell. The women wore the burka. You couldn’t be as open about your religion. We didn’t say that we were Christians; we said we were following Jesus. Because there are a whole bunch of things associated with Christianity that we didn’t want to have attached to us. But if someone asked, we were honest about what we believed.”
Pastor Furrow used the Christian/Jesus-follower distinction to lead into his discussion of the Beatitudes, the “Blessed are” statements given by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount. “Sometimes, Christianity becomes religion, and there are certain religious practices that people attach to it that aren’t necessarily what Jesus taught or commanded. Religion, for most people, is figuring out what good thing I can do so I can deserve God’s blessing. Christianity says we are saved by grace through faith. Missionaries say ‘Christ-follower’ because they want to put the emphasis on the things Jesus taught; they want to make sure we remember it’s about grace.”
The Beatitudes, he continued, helped make his point. Up first: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Why do people follow people like Jesus? Because they want to be happy. Jesus says, ‘Here’s what happiness is.’ But the term ‘blessed’ is very difficult; it’s not really enough to say ‘happy.’ This happiness has been bestowed on you by God; it’s something that’s a gift. It’s basically a divine ‘I am with you. My grace has been given to you, and therefore you are permanently happy.’” He warned against turning the Beatitudes into commands, things to do instead of gifts from God. “The blessing isn’t earned; it’s given.”
From there, Furrow moved on to the notion of being “poor in spirit.” “It conveys the idea of living by alms — all you can do is be a beggar,” just like someone completely dependent on the grace of God. Others, he noted, opined that the poor in spirit are the “spiritual zeroes who have no idea about God. Certainly, you’re going to be blessed if you follow Christ and His teachings because it’s going to give you the best possible life. And you’ll be blessed less if you’re disobedient. But Jesus is announcing that the blessing of God is for those who have nothing, no reason they should be blessed. People who don’t believe in God, people who are morally undeserving. They come to God the same way as everybody else. They have an opportunity for grace through faith, and theirs is the kingdom of God. You can reject a blessing, but they have been blessed — it’s theirs.”
What happens when we die?
“We meet the Lord,” said Furrow.
5055 Governor Drive, University City
Senior pastor: Scott Furrow
Congregation size: 200
Staff size: 7
Sunday school enrollment: 40
Annual budget: $500,000
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to formal, mostly semi-formal
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 15 minutes