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"My brother doesn't go to church," said Pastor Josh Hotsenpiller before the service. "We came from this 'perfect Christian family'" -- Dad was a Baptist pastor -- "and my brother rejected the church. I wanted to start a church that my brother would come to." Something a little more inviting. A gleaming, inverted silver trashcan served as the pulpit for Sunday's service at Existence. The gleam matched the one coming off the scarred steel cross hanging behind it. "Character under Construction" read the titles on the projector screens, the words artfully incorporated into a blueprint. The Killers played over the sound system before the service, but that gave way to the house band, which included a cello and a guitarist who could approximate Rick Springfield or the Replacements as the song required.

After the opening set, Teaching Pastor Shawn Kennedy gave the announcements, praising the recent couples' hike and service trips to Mexico and elsewhere. He also invited inquiries about baptism. "We see baptism as an outward symbol of an inward commitment that you made to Christ. As we said last week, we'll dunk you in 20-degree water; it's going to be awesome." Then, in an offhanded bit of self-consciousness: "Okay, so that was a joke that bombed."

As he began his sermon, Hotsenpiller prayed "that anything the enemy may be doing to distract us...we pray that you would bind him, so that we can hear you and be ministered to today." Then he recounted a recent prayer of his own: "'Lord, I don't know what you want me to speak about. I'm tired, I'm frustrated -- can you just tell me?' And God was, like, 'Your character stinks.' And I'm, like, 'Yeah, I know, but what do you want me to speak about?' [Laughter.] 'I want you to speak on character.' 'Nah, let's not do that right now, because mine stinks.'" A few days of prayer later, Hotsenpiller had a nine-week series ready, based on the acronym CHARACTER -- a device he found a trifle embarrassing, "but it just came out so good."

First up: C -- caring for other people. But first, a general word about character and its shaping: "My prayer is that God will do some things in our life that are bigger and greater than we can do alone.... Sometimes...for us to be able to have character that looks like God, we've got to go in and...pull out all these things that make up who we are but didn't look like the Lord." He cited Ephesians: "Put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desire.... Be made new in the attitude of your minds," and "put on a new self created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness."

Hotsenpiller took as his text Mark 9. Following the Transfiguration, Jesus didn't answer Peter's suggestion to "forget the whole world" and build shelters on the mountain. He rebuked the disciples (who failed to drive out the spirit possessing the boy) for their faithlessness. He tried to teach the man struggling to believe. And he taught the disciples who argued about which of them were the greatest. "This was an entire day based on self. Everybody said, 'Let everything be about me.'" The parallels to God's actions in contemporary lives were easily noted.

"Most of us in this room are in our 20s. I get this call all the time: 'Oh, gosh, if my life doesn't work out just perfectly right now, my whole future is going to be messed up!' If you want your so-important life to be a big deal and so wonderful and so important, if you want to leave a legacy, then you've got to be last. Everything that's important to you has to not be number one. You have to be broken for the Kingdom things.... You have to think when you drive home from work, 'Do I really care at all?' The first step of character is all about rejecting you and picking up someone else."

Communion followed. "Today, Communion for us is all about a day that our Creator said, 'The world is not all about me.' If the Creator can die for sinners, then I can, too."

What happens when we die?

"We stand before the Lord," said Hotsenpiller, "and depending on our response to the Gospel, He either welcomes us into heaven and says, 'Right on,' or He says, 'Man, you know, we didn't connect. I made it clear to you, and the Gospel was clear to you, and you rejected it. So, you're going to spend eternity apart from me.' The Bible speaks of it as hell, which we kind of depict as this dark, dungeon-y, burning-fire place; but, really, what I think the Bible is alluding to is that it's separation from God forever, which is worse than that, probably."

Existence Church

7686 Miramar Road, Mira Mesa

Denomination: nondenominational

Founded locally: 2003

Senior pastor: Josh Hotsenpiller

Congregation size: over 300

Staff size: 3 full-time, 6 part-time

Sunday school enrollment: none; 15 in children's ministry

Annual budget: about $275,000

Weekly giving: about $6500

Singles program: no

Dress: varies widely -- jeans, shorts, skirts, button-downs

Diversity: mostly Caucasian

Sunday worship: 10 a.m.

Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Website: existencechurch.com

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