Last week, I attended services at a church that broke away from the United Church of Christ in 1994. This week, without meaning to, I attended services at a church that broke away from the United Church of Christ in 1909 (and is therefore celebrating its 100th anniversary): Central Congregational Church in La Mesa.
“The main reason was autonomy,” explained current pastor Ted Selgo. “We don’t have to answer to any hierarchy. When I came here, if they had wanted a liberal, far-out Ph.D. MENSA type, they would have chosen one. If they had wanted a fundamentalist, shouting Baptist-type preacher, they would have chosen him. There’s a Congregational church in North Park where the pastor is a social activist. This church decided, ‘We don’t want someone in L.A. dictating how we can worship, what belief system we have to have, how we allocate our money.’ I was in the Methodist Church for 16 years, and after those years of ecclesiastical control, I love that freedom. I was never a rebel, but John Wesley [founder of Methodism] would have turned over in his grave if he knew what my bishop was attempting to do.” Apparently, Selgo’s “rebellion” mostly involved defending tradition.
So, it was not a big surprise when a friendly congregant approached me before the service and said, “This is what you might call the traditional Christian service.” What that meant, among other things, was the (stately) choir standing and turning toward the (open) Bible planted below the (lit-from-within) cross and singing both the Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father, and to the Son...) and the Doxology (Praise God from whom all blessings flow...). It meant the Lord’s Prayer and Benediction and responsive readings: “He reminded me of how He cared for past saints, how He watched over them and kept them through periods of suffering and uncertainty.”
Suffering and uncertainty (with God as remedy) sounded again and again in the choir’s hymns: “This is my Father’s world/ O let me ne’er forget/ That though the wrong seems oft so strong/ God is the ruler yet.” “Change and decay in all around I see/ O thou who changest not, abide with me.” “When I fear my faith will fail/ Christ will hold me fast/ When the tempter would prevail/ He can hold me fast.”
Change and decay... “We’re a downtown church,” said Selgo, “mostly old folks. We had 180 members when I came in ’89; now we’re around 75. I just did my 327th funeral.” After the service, I spoke with a congregant who could recall the days when the congregation numbered over 800. “The demographics changed,” she lamented. The worship culture changed, too. Selgo recently lost a couple to The Rock Church. “That’s fine,” he commented. “They were younger. You won’t find this more sedate, prayerful thing at The Rock.”
The church building was handsome without being fancy — squarish and solid, with fine-patterned stained glass and brooding woodwork. Vases of irises, tulips, lilies, and daffodils sat on the sills below the windows. I had time to take them in during the long silence following Selgo’s invitation to prayer, a silence he broke to praise “men and women of faith who took on their Christian nature and showed a harsh, cruel world that spiritually changed people can be kind and loving and deeply touched by the broken and downtrodden.... O Lord, is it possible for many to quit playing Church and go to their brothers and sisters in need?”
Selgo’s sermon swirled around the story of Jesus healing a deaf man, a man He told not to speak of the healing. “Jesus’ mission on earth was not to go around healing people; he came to establish the Kingdom of God and to establish a church in His name.” He ordered silence because “He didn’t want to be known as a magical healer.” Because if he was, “it would be a sideshow.” Cases in point: celebrity faith healers like Aimee Semple McPherson, A.A. Allen, and Oral Roberts. “His was a healing ministry; it wasn’t like Billy Graham, who preached the Gospel of Salvation.” Selgo used words such as “psychosomatic suggestion” and “a big show” and contrasted the celebrities with less famous, more nitty-gritty healers: religiously affiliated hospitals, nursing homes, children’s homes, and relief agencies. He closed with the command from 1 Peter: “Be compassionate and humble.”
What happens when we die?
“Well,” replied Selgo, “if you’re a Christian, you go to heaven, and if you’re not, you go to another place.” But then he continued. “It’s not what we say, it’s what our Lord says. We’re a biblically based group of people. We’re all judged according to the enlightenment we have. There’s a verse in the Old Testament that I love very much: ‘Shall not the God of the earth be fair?’ I like to predicate my beliefs on that.”
8360 Lemon Avenue, La Mesa
Denomination: Congregational Christian Church
Founded locally: 1909
Senior pastor: Ted Selgo
Congregation size: around 75
Staff size: 5
Sunday school enrollment: few
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: mostly formal, some semi-formal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour