A couple of weeks ago, I learned about the way that Plymouth Congregational Church in North Park has reinvented itself to fit with the changing character of the neighborhood. One way is by hosting other churches. On Saturdays, the local branch of the Church of God (Seventh Day) takes over. Service from 11 to 1, followed by lunch — potluck this week: ceviche and KFC and lasagna and lentil soup and salad and cake and... On October 10, there will be bowling.
“We aim for a break in the routine,” says Pastor Vega about the Sabbath. “The morning we dedicate to church activities, and the afternoon, we emphasize rest or doing good works that you don’t do the rest of the week. It’s because of Hebrews — Paul saying that this is to remind you of the rest you find in Christ, the rest you will find in the kingdom of God. There, finally, we don’t have to worry about anything. In our society, a lot of people are so restless.”
The Saturday Sabbath — the way the Jews celebrate it. “We don’t see a change anywhere in the New Testament,” explains a friendly congregant. “The Sabbath was established at Creation, before God even established the Ten Commandments, where He told people to remember the Sabbath. We try to maintain everything because the Old Testament was a foreshadowing of the New. It’s all a package. Though we don’t do the feast days because we don’t do the animal sacrifices — we believe that would nullify Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.”
That sacrifice — the shedding of Jesus’ blood for the forgiveness of sins — gets loving treatment in a medley that refers to blood again and again. “I heard about His groaning/ of His precious blood’s atoning...” “There’s wonderful power in the blood...” “What can wash away my sin?/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus...” “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?” Pastor Vega plays keyboard, and someone in back works a tambourine, but most of the horn-heavy music comes over the sound system the church has brought in for the occasion. A soundboard holds court on one pulpit, sending its song over the wires leading to the hefty speakers set up on the piano benches. Most of the singing, however, is live.
Another medley promotes testifying, but not before someone actually testifies. “We were visiting family,” says one man, “and it’s great to see how God actually takes care of all of our family. And my son scratched his leg really badly, and it’s healing nicely, so he wants to thank God for that.” Later, praise and petition from the congregation will get formalized, as intentions are called for. “The Martinez family,” offers a young woman. “The mother-in-law was sick; she passed on Thursday. They had the service today. So, for the family, we pray that God will comfort them in this time of mourning.”
“I’ll need a volunteer to pray for them,” says the prayer leader. Vega speaks up for that one. After all the requests — for work, for health, for a brother-in-law “who is having trouble” — have been taken and volunteered for, Vega begins the prayer proper. “Father, we pray for the Martinez family at this time. We pray for peace — peace of mind. We pray that You will come to them in this time. We praise You for Mrs. Martinez’s hope of glory, and we thank You for the privilege of baptizing her. May God comfort the family members, and may this time of mourning be a time when they are drawn to You.”
Each intention receives the same treatment — one soul interceding on behalf of another. Some are short and to the point. Others branch into theology: “Thank You, Lord, for seeing us through another week. For the victories, for the trials. Thank You for showing Yourself in every tiny detail, Lord. We call upon Your name to strengthen her faith and just help her....”
The sermon, interestingly, is almost entirely given over to a recorded reading of the Epistle of James. “When you rent a movie, you don’t just play little bits of it and then ask, ‘What do you think about it?’” offers Vega. “Yet we do that with the Bible a lot.” The day I attended Church of God services, we listened to the whole letter, so that we would know, “What did it mean when he wrote it?” Vega also distributes a handout that names, among other things, the main theme (“Real faith produces authentic deeds”) and key verse (“Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”)
What happens when we die?
“We understand,” says Vega, “that in Jesus’ second coming, our breath of life will be given a new body, and we’ll spend eternity with Him.”
2717 University Avenue, North Park
Denomination: Church of God (Seventh Day)
Founded locally: 1960s
Senior pastor: Heber Vega
Congregation size: 90
Staff size: 1
Sunday school enrollment: 18
Annual budget: $82,000
Weekly giving: goal of $6000/month
Singles program: no
Dress: some casual, mostly semiformal
Diversity: mixed, but majority Hispanic
Sunday worship: 11 a.m., Saturdays
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 50 minutes