There are times when the music at the opening of a service feels a little like a warm-up — something to get the blood flowing, or something to clear the cobwebs on a Sunday morning after Saturday night, or something to engage the heart so that the mind will be more open to the message that follows — music disposing the matter, the Praise Team getting folks in the mood for worship.
I say this without for a moment questioning the sincerity or goodwill of anyone involved or even the practical wisdom of using music this way. But about 45 minutes into the music at New Life’s Sunday service, I got the feeling that, in some distinctive way, the music was the worship. “The Bible says that God inhabits the praise of His people,” said pastor Vicente Montano at the outset. “Praise Him and He will inhabit the midst of our praises.... Now is the time to worship.”
It wasn’t just the duration, impressive as it was. It wasn’t just the ebb and flow of musical styles that gave the service shape: cheerfully girding the collection, swelling under the souls dropping to their knees at the foot of the altar, swaying the congregation through their prolonged alleluias. And it wasn’t just the tambourines scattered throughout the aisles, chattering away in hands both expert and not. It was also the way Montano made mini-homilies out of certain lyrics, even in the midst of a song — preaching without pausing in his work at the keyboard. “Lord, please light the fire/ That once burned bright and clear/ Replace the lamp of my first love/ That burned with holy fear...”
“He wants us to get back to that first love, where we just longed to be in His presence. I was reading in Job where Elihu says about God, ‘My heart pounds and leaps from its place.’ Our worship is like that — it pounds, it pounds. We can’t wait to be before the Lord, to worship Him, because it pounds, it beats, it burns deep inside.”
Song after song, some even taking time to proclaim their worshipful desire: “These words are/ From my heart/ These words are/ Not made up...”
Eventually, the music did give way to speech, and when it did, Montano’s wife Teresa announced, “Pastor will not be speaking today. As most of you know, he’s celebrating his birthday.... His church family wanted to honor him.... I know he’s uncomfortable when we come up here and talk about him, but Jesus is the One at work in him, so ultimately, we are glorifying Christ.” She called upon three “community kids” — kids who had grown up in the church — to come forward and speak about Montano’s effect in their lives.
The first young man read from John’s Gospel, where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love Me?” and then commands, “Feed My lambs.”
“One of the things I like about Pastor is he doesn’t just know my face — he knows me by name. He makes me feel very important. He’s constantly asking, ‘How are you? How are things going?’ And he made sure that when we went astray, we came back. To me, he shows the perfect example of being a father. He gives a part of his own family time for us. He even sometimes takes us out to eat.”
“These are kids that come from what we would say are ‘at-risk’ homes,” explained Teresa. “Most of them, their parents didn’t come to church. They walked to church by themselves. They came by themselves, sometimes misbehaving, but the Lord worked in them.”
A young woman took the microphone and read from Matthew 20: “The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
“Pastor showed me how to serve others,” she said.
The third “community kid,” another young man, quoted Psalm 37: “Trust in the Lord and do good.”
“Trusting in God was really hard for me, since I can’t see Him, I can’t hang out with Him. But after my mom left, we had no home, no money, and no job, and I was responsible for my two younger siblings. Anytime I would talk to Pastor, he would say, ‘Trust the Lord.’ And I learned to trust the Lord, and He has done great things for me.”
At the end of the service, a second collection was taken — this one for Montano. Before heading next door for a birthday feast, congregants filed forward and placed their donations in a red velveteen chest outfitted with a golden tassle, then joined in singing “Happy Birthday.”
What happens when we die?
“If we’ve accepted Christ, we go to heaven,” said Montano. “Without Christ, we go to hell. That’s what Scripture tells us, and that’s what we believe.”
766 28th Street, San Diego
Denomination: Assemblies of God
Founded locally: 1993
Senior pastor: Vicente Montano
Congregation size: about 200
Staff size: 2
Sunday school enrollment: about 20
Annual budget: about $100,000
Weekly giving: varies
Singles program: not yet
Dress: casual to formal
Diversity: mostly Hispanic, some Caucasian
Sunday worship: 10:45 a.m. (bilingual English/Spanish)
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 30 minutes