“My wife and I have been here for four years now,” said Captain John Van Cleef, senior pastor at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Center’s Kroc Church. “When we came, there were something like 20 people worshipping here — we’ve had nice growth since then. Most of the people come because they come to the Center and hear about us — ‘Oh, you have church here, too?’”
Six band members, six pairs of shoes on the blank stage of the Kroc Center Theater on Sunday morning. Muted black dress shoes on acoustic guitar. Brown hipster bowling shoes on rhythm. Slip-ons (slipped off) on vocals. Bright, chunky sneakers on lead guitar. Shiny black formal shoes on bass. I couldn’t see the drummer’s feet as they worked the set, but driving moccasins or combat boots wouldn’t have surprised me. It was a diverse bunch on stage, playing and singing in diverse styles that somehow managed to jell into a lively ensemble. “Oh, no, you never let go, through the calm and through the storm!”
The diversity carried through to the congregation. Young men in suits, middle-aged men in long-sleeve Ts; black women, Hispanic men; young mothers and old-timers crooning along with the praise rock. “Amazing Love, how can it be/ that You, my King, would die for me?”
The muted black dress shoes belonged to Van Cleef. They poked out from beneath his creased blue pants, which disappeared under the squared-off bottom of his crisp, white button-down shirt, the kind with little red epaulets to indicate his status as an officer of the Salvation Army. “For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at spiritual disciplines,” he explained between songs. “There is kind of an ebb and flow — tending to the inner life that no one can see, and then letting the inner life shine out and affect everyday life around us. For the next three weeks, we’re going to be talking about what happens outside because of what’s gone on on the inside.”
Before that, we heard announcements and prayers from Van Cleef’s wife Lisa (herself an officer and the church’s executive pastor). “Next week is third week — what do we bring on third week? Money for world services — all your dimes, nickels, quarters, and pennies.... We have a lot of people out with flus and colds...give them a call, let them know you care.... Clarissa’s mom died this week.... Father, we thank You for answers to prayer. To know that Clara is in Your arms right now, enjoying a healthy body...is an answer to prayer.”
More songs, and then Van Cleef spoke up over a repeated riff from the rhythm guitar: “Sunday was part one of Ready, Set, Go — ‘Ready’ here meaning that we need to prepare people for an encounter with God through our interactions.”
The guitarist, Joshua Sneed, took a turn of his own, speaking over the throb and thump of bass and drum. “If you can buy it, it can’t be worth much in the long run,” he pronounced. “If you can pay for it, don’t even bother wanting it. If they sell it, you don’t want it.” And bang, back into the music.
The band stepped off, and Van Cleef put down his guitar and picked up a Bible. “Isaiah 1: 18–20. I like this — no one can argue with one of the old prophets. ‘Come on, man,’ he says. ‘Let’s sit down. Let’s argue this out. This is God’s message: if your sins are blood red, they’ll be snow white. If you willingly obey God, you will feast like kings. If you’re willful and stubborn, you’ll die like dogs.’ Christian people have...a personal story that is worth sharing. Something that is transforming our lives. The news is about Jesus Christ’s redemptive presence in our life. We can say, like Isaiah did, ‘Come on, man, let’s argue this out, let’s reason together.’”
The inner life Van Cleef mentioned earlier was what underwent the transformation. The “Ready” interaction that “prepared people for an encounter with God” was this same “arguing it out.” In this passage from Isaiah, he said, God was promising freedom from the bondage of sin (“there’s a whole new way it can be”), blessings (“a ‘God’s kingdom economy’ blessing”), and the kind of love that would keep you from dying alone and isolated (the way a dog dies).
His eyes welled up and his voice cracked as he spoke over the closing music, inviting souls to kneel before the stage. “I believe there are people in this room today who want to inherit the friendship of God the Father, and to be standing...oh, to be standing...with all the saints. I can’t wait.”
What happens when we die?
“I do believe that heaven is our home,” said Van Cleef.
6845 University Avenue, San Diego
Denomination: The Salvation Army
Founded locally: 2002
Senior pastor: John Van Cleef
Congregation size: 150
Staff size: 5
Sunday school enrollment: 50
Annual budget: $300,000
Weekly giving: around $775
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to formal
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 15 minutes