"Faith Presbyterian Church is one of the more liberal churches in the county. We believe there are a lot of folks who want to find a place where the message is one of inclusiveness. Our congregation is really open-minded and are concerned that marginalized people are cared for and loved," Reverend Dr. Chris Lenocker told me.
Faith Presbyterian is in a difficult position as the PCUSA denomination holds debates about the role of homosexuals and homosexuality in their churches. "We have chosen to remain a part of PCUSA and abide by the Book of Order," said Lenocker. "It says that practicing, nonrepentant homosexual people cannot be ordained in leadership positions. We follow that. At the same time we want homosexual people to feel welcome here. It is a difficult place of tension for us. We are getting shot at from both sides." This place of tension will continue because Reverend Lenocker sees the denomination as likely to become more conservative.
I asked Reverend Lenocker, "When it comes to difficult issues, such as homosexuality, how do you determine what is true according to the Bible?"
"You hold on one side scripture that says, 'the goats over here and the sheep over here.' And you hold scripture that says, 'Christ came to save all of creation.' We need to hold these two in tension. My way of doing things is to try and educate people on the Bible and let them come to their own decision. I don't pretend to think what I say is the truth. We all get there together on a journey."
Faith Presbyterian Church was created from a merger between two PCUSA churches, College Park and East San Diego. In 1995 the two churches opted to join. They were "failing demographically," said Reverend Lenocker. "When the new church began, the average age was 75. There were two families in the church. Things were not looking good." Lenocker actively sought new members. Attendance has increased.
Faith Presbyterian sits across the street from San Diego State University. The '60s-style building has a steep pitched roof that covers the red brick exterior walls. The light woods and contemporary interior is a happy contrast to the traditional exterior. A cross of modern design rises from floor to ceiling on the front wall. The cross is built into the wall and includes a metal sculpted center and backlit purple stained glass. A wooden podium and a communion table draped with blue cloth command the sanctuary foreground.
Sunday's service began with the pianist playing "Noel" while the congregation meditated. Next, as the Advent candles were lit, four people rang hand bells. Jill Beadles led the congregation in several responsive readings. Traditional hymns, accompanied by a 40-person choir and piano, were sung. Among the hymns were "The King of Glory," "Christ, We Do All Adore Thee," and "Joy to the World."
Reverend Lenocker's message for the morning was taken from the life of John the Baptist. "John cried out in the wilderness to proclaim the coming of the One who will come and change the world," Lenocker exclaimed. "Often we forget what happened to John. He ended his life in a prison, with his head being removed." Lenocker spoke about the doubt John the Baptist had when Jesus began his ministry. Lenocker concluded that it was for John's doubts as well as ours that Jesus came to provide hope.
After service, people walked to the fellowship hall. The congregation chatted as they ate ice-cream sundaes and listened to music. Tables had been set up to write letters to Congress to encourage U.S. involvement in peace talks in Sudan, Syria, China, and Kosovo. "Congress, up until about three years ago, could have cared less about these issues," said Lenocker. Lenocker told me that many in the congregation are involved in social justice programs.
With Christmas near, I asked Reverend Lenocker what message he had for this season. "We have lost the ability to be awestruck of the wonder of what happened 2000 years ago," Lenocker said. "I don't think people stop and think about the fact the world was transformed by the birth of an infant in a backwater part of the world. We have become so techno-modern, we have lost the ability to have a sense of awe and wonder. We need to have this child grasp our heart and love us to the point where we can't help but love the whole world."
I ended my conversation with Lenocker with the question I ask each week: what happens to a person after he or she dies. Lenocker replied, "We believe a Christian will go to be with God. God knows each person's heart. God's grace is what saves a person. You can't earn your way up the ladder. While we believe in God and Jesus Christ, we are not willing to denigrate someone else's faith and say that this is the only way. We don't know what happens to everyone else."
5075 Campanile Drive, San Diego
Denomination: Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA)
Founded locally: 1995
Senior pastor: Reverend Dr. Chris Lenocker
Congregation size: 255
Staff size: 8
Sunday school enrollment: 50
Annual budget: $500,000
Weekly giving: didn't know
Singles program: no
Dress: dressy casual to dressy
Sunday worship: 9:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour