"As we sing 'Empty Me' together, just make it a prayer in your heart," said the music leader before the penultimate song. "Say, 'God, empty me of everything I am.'" It was his second such request for prayer, and it lent the opening music a meditative quality. Pastor Barry Minkow's opening prayer picked up the theme: "Our prayer today is specific: that we would release our grip and cling to You."
The rest of the service was mostly a commentary on the eighth chapter of John's Gospel, verses 37--59. Minkow's compact form bobbed with restless energy -- back and forth across the stage he roamed, down the stairs and out into various parts of the congregation, now tugging at his shirt, now pointing at the screen, returning now and then to the podium before striding forth again.
His sermon followed suit, launching out in all directions, but always coming back to the text, and occasionally to a central notion: "Jesus is confronting a religious system, and it's a heated debate. The religious elite of the day were controlling the common people through guilt.... Jesus came to say that access to God is not by force or by guilt; it's by a free love relationship. They made the common people feel like they weren't good enough.... Jesus Christ comes and says, 'You are so good enough. In my eyes, you're good enough for eternity forever with me.'" But the religious elite "didn't want to relinquish their grip on the power that they had."
Minkow said that, "In like manner, a lot of us are clutchers. Then we get confronted with a Gospel that says, 'I've got to go into the foot-washing business to be great in the body of Christ'.... Would you be willing to relax your grip on your privileges and prerogatives for the Lord Jesus Christ? The answer for the Jews was no, but it's still a valid question."
Jesus, noted Minkow, "was not a clutcher," but someone who "although he was, by very nature, God...made himself of no reputation...to come and save you and me." That humility, that desire to do His Father's will and honor His Father, persisted throughout the reading. At the end, Jesus obliquely revealed his divinity by saying, "Before Abraham was, I AM," and when his opponents took up rocks to stone him, "He hid himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them."
"This is the confirmation of the Bible's authenticity," said Minkow. "He wanted to live and preach the truth and love people another day, and he just quietly -- without drawing any supernatural, phony, Hollywood attention to himself -- concealed himself so he could walk away."
That was the principal theme; on to the digressions: When the Pharisees said, "We are the children of Abraham," Minkow warned against trusting in "what you did in the past for Jesus at some formal religious ceremony.... Your upbringing is not the issue, your obedience is, and your love and passion for the Lord Jesus Christ." He expounded on "the works of Abraham" that Jesus mentioned -- "it's when you believe God when it doesn't make sense.... That's when Abraham got saved."
The Pharisees: "We have one Father, God." Jesus: "If God were your Father, you would love me." Minkow: "Do you love the Lord Jesus Christ with all your heart? I know what it looks like when I love something. If the answer is yes, how do you reconcile that with your lukewarm approach? The truth is, we love ourselves."
When Jesus told the Pharisees that their father was the devil, Minkow said it put the lie to the supposedly soft God of the New Testament, and he took the occasion to celebrate objective truth over the rule of feelings. When Jesus asked, rhetorically, who could convict him of sin, Minkow said, "He lived a sinless, perfect life -- that's who you follow." He then read an account of Mohammed's leaving nine widows, one of whom was nine when she married him.
And when Jesus promised, "If anyone keeps my word, he shall never see death," Minkow took the opportunity to explain. "When your brainwave goes flat and they pronounce you dead, less than one millisecond later, when you open your eyes, you're in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. But in the Bible...death is also separation: 'You he hath quickened who were dead in your trespasses.' If you don't know Jesus, here's what you have in store for you: when your brainwave goes flat, and you open your eyes less than a millisecond later, you will be eternally separated from God in a place called Hell. Eternal separation is the second death -- you'll see death. When Stephen was being stoned, he said, "Look! I see the heavens opening up and Jesus at the right hand.' He didn't see death."
9770 Carroll Center Road, San Diego
Founded locally: 1984
Senior pastor: Barry Minkow
Congregation size: 1400
Staff size: 14
Sunday school enrollment: 250 (elementary school level)
Annual budget: over $2 million
Weekly giving: $50,000
Singles program: yes
Dress: semi-casual, lots of short-sleeve button-down shirts
Diversity: majority Caucasian, but a mix of
Sunday worship: 8:15 a.m., 9:45 a.m., and 11:15 a.m. at the main campus, 9:30 a.m. at Soledad Road location, 9:45 a.m. at Heritage Chapel (traditional music) and Oasis Café locations. Weekly message at the latter three locations presented live via big screen.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes