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La Jolla Presbyterian Church

7715 Draper Avenue, La Jolla




Membership: 1500

Pastor: Paul Cunningham

Age: 43

Born: Fresno

Formation: Santa Clara University, Santa Clara; Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ; Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL

Years Ordained: 16 years

San Diego Reader: Can you think of a time when you gave a sermon that completely flopped?

Pastor Cunningham: I can think of my most embarrassing moment in a sermon. I was preaching in my previous church in Texas on a Good Friday service in a somber, quiet, dark sanctuary. I was talking about the scapegoat and the relation of the scapegoat to the sacrifice of Christ….While I’m preaching, though, I couldn’t think of the word “horn” to explain that the horns of the scapegoat were tied to a rock with a crimson rope. Instead, I said the word ‘antlers.’ I had several friends in church that day who were deer hunters who gave me a hard time afterwards. “We didn’t know goats had antlers.”

SDR: What is your biggest failure as a pastor?

PC: When I did youth ministry, I planned an overnight at the church, and I had 50 kids show up. I wound up being the only adult present at the event because I had not planned for other adult volunteers to spend the night with me. It was a lesson well learned. I took a group of 50 kids and dropped it to about 20 in 24 hours. They destroyed the church and I got mad and lectured them. It definitely taught me the value of volunteer ministry.

SDR: Where do you go when you die?

PC: I just preached a two-part sermon series on what happens after you die. I’ve been influenced by [theologian and New Testament scholar] N.T. Wright on this concept. He says we should believe in life after life after death. There’s a resting place we often call heaven or paradise where we go when we die, but that’s not the end. The end will come when there’s a new heaven and new earth and we experience the bodily resurrection….

I believe there’s a heaven and we go to heaven when we die but there’s more than that. We truncate the idea of heaven as this very old place up there. So, when Jesus says to the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise” that’s paradise, but then there’s the idea that Christ will come again and make all things new.

SDR: Is that the only option — does everyone automatically go to heaven?

PC: No, there’s hell and what that looks like I don’t know. There’s obviously some sense of those separated from God. That’s why I’m glad God is God and I’m not.

SDR: What separates people from God?

PC: The answer is Jesus who said He was the way, the truth and the life. And for me that’s important for folks to come to know Christ. What it means to be separated from Christ — that’s a great question. I think my task is to help people to come to Christ and to know who Jesus is and what He’s done for them. On the other hand, judgment is God’s decision.

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