Pastor John Ettore crouched down by my seat to welcome me, his hand heavy upon my shoulder, granite intensity in his face as he told me about Alan Vincent, an Englishman-turned-American and the guest preacher for the day. “In 1958, the Lord revealed Himself to him — he was a convinced evolutionist, an atheistic scientist working for the Kodak corporation. He became a missionary to India and has had incredible miracles happen through him — incurable diseases healed, that kind of stuff. You look in the Bible, and you see the Apostle Paul — real apostles, they are people who operate in the miraculous, but who have also suffered a lot. A lot of his disciples have been murdered or imprisoned or tortured, but hundreds of thousands of Hindus have come to Christ because of his ministry. He’s like an icon to them.”
Before Vincent spoke, there was music — anthemic and laden with repetition (“Have Your glory, Lord/ Have Your glory, Lord), sometimes resembling a military march, sometimes a love ballad (“Romancing, pursuing, reclaiming to restore...”). Hands were lifted, eyes were closed, and there was a sense of deep emotion burbling up in the murmured praises from the (generally youthful) congregation. (“Oh, God, You’re so good. You’re so awesome.”) A father wrapped his arm around his shaggy son’s shoulders.
“What is a gathering of God’s people without the presence of the Lord?” asked Ettore. “Nothing. One time, God said to Moses, ‘You go up and take that city, but I’m not going up there.’ And Moses said, ‘I don’t think so. I don’t care about the victory. If You’re not going, I’m not going. It’s me being with You and You being with me.’” He encouraged the congregation to enter into God’s presence, “to climb on His lap and call Him ‘Daddy.’ That’s the word Jesus used — ‘Abba.’ It was an intimate, wonderful love affair, and that’s what we want to have here at the Gathering Place Church.... God just wants to be loved.... Just lift your hands; He’s not mad at you.... Us loving God back; that is the love affair that some call Christianity. It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship.”
A pair of crutches leaned against the cross mounted high on the stage. “One of the ways God shows His love is through His healing power,” continued Ettore. He called a man forward to tell the story of Tina. “Tina has come up many times, asking prayer for her sciatica — it’s just constantly inflamed, and she’s been in so much pain. Last night, Alan was talking about putting yourself in a posture of receiving. She said, ‘I’m going to go up one more time and give God the chance to touch me.’ God miraculously healed her, and the pain left.” Huge applause and cheering. “And what I think is so great — she was out in the parking lot sharing it with someone else who was hurting with her sciatica, and Tina prayed for her, and God healed her.”
That image — receiving some divine action and then passing it on in love — served nicely to introduce Vincent’s sermon. He preached on making the Kingdom come, on the Christian call to possess Christ’s inheritance. The enemies of the Kingdom were the demons who had once held dominion, and it was amazing to hear this erudite man speak plainly of witnessing angels come against the Dalai Lama’s influence in Austria, of a woman possessed by Kali but unable to do him harm. Pants hoisted, shirtsleeves too short, the aged face on the leonine head barely changing expression as he roamed and expounded and exhorted, Vincent slipped smoothly from historical context to etymology to exegesis.
He closed with a meditation on the bread of heaven. First, he noted that the disciples had been made to participate in the miracle of the loaves, passing on the miraculous bread to the hungry multitudes. Then he asked whether those in attendance wanted to be “manna Christians” — surviving on the comparatively meager graces of met personal needs, hiding from the world in a “Kingdom bubble” — or warrior Christians, who eat Christ’s body and drink His blood so as to “have abundance to give away to each and every person we meet.”
Came the reply: “We are ready to be the sacrifice You need!”
“Come back tonight, and bring friends,” concluded Ettore. “What you just heard will open up, and there’s going to be an impartation. Jesus taught His disciples about the Kingdom, and then one day He laid hands on them and gave them power and authority over demons and all manner of sickness and disease...and He commissioned them. That’s going to be what happens tonight.”
What happens when we die?
“Oh, we go to heaven or we go to hell,” said Ettore.
9550 Carmel Mountain Road, San Diego
Founded locally: 1998
Senior pastor: John Ettore
Congregation size: 200
Staff size: 7
Sunday school enrollment: 50
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: about $10,000
Singles program: yes
Dress: mostly casual, some semiformal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 45 minutes