Mission Gathering, La Jolla

Denomination: Disciples of Christ

Founded locally: 1999

Senior pastor: Pastor Rich McCullen

Congregation size: 130

Staff size: 4

Sunday school enrollment: no

Annual budget: $157,000

Weekly giving: $1,250

Singles program: no

Dress: casual

Diversity: white

Sunday worship: 7 p.m.

Length of reviewed service: 11/2 hours

Website: http://www.missiongathering.com

The sound of rock music filled the night air as I approached the Mission Gathering service. Outside, two young adults standing under heat lamps greeted me at the entry. The evening was cool for those of us spoiled by warm San Diego weather. After exchanging pleasantries, the greeters handed me an informational brochure about the church, and I entered the dark chapel.

Mission Gathering's evening service meets in an Italian Renaissance-style chapel at Torrey Pines Christian Church. The exterior brick façade is decorated with a rose-stained glass window. A cross stands on the roof. Upon entering through solid wood doors, a long narrow nave is revealed, lined with dark wood pews. Romanesque arches run along either side of the chapel, leading up to gabled timber beams on the ceiling high above.

Inside the room, votive candles flickered red, yellow, and green. A projection screen showed a video of a candle floating in the air. The self-described "coffee-house band" played "God of Wonders."

A vocalist, two guitarists, and a drummer played the music loud for the crowd. Looking around the dark room, I made out 70 or so worshippers; most appeared to be teenagers or people in their 20s. During the last song, a young, tank-topped girl holding a candle lighter walked down the aisle and lit the advent candles.

After the worship music stopped, a young man walked forward to pray for the offering. As offering plates were passed around the room, signs were placed where there was empty pew space. The signs encouraged people to invite guests. The sign next to me read, "This seat was intended for your friends. Will you bring them?"

Ryan Petty walked forward to preach, filling the pulpit for Pastor Rich McCullen for the evening's sermon. Petty's sermon focused on rebuilding for the Christmas season. He said, "We should rebuild our faith, relationships, hope, and love." Petty used Extreme House Makeover as an illustration of the hope these families receive when their home is rebuilt. Petty reminded the congregants that hope and rebuilding are what the Christmas season prepares us for.

"One of Mission Gatherings values is to be a multisensory experience," remarked Petty as he put on a tool belt. To help illustrate his point, Petty began to nail together wooden 2-by-4s. Each board had something written on it that symbolized an area in which people could rebuild their faith. Petty's suggestions included: coming on Sunday, inviting a friend, forgiving ourselves, or apologizing to someone. At the end of the sermon, Petty constructed a wooden manger, which, unfortunately, fell apart. The sermon was allegedly based on an earlier reading of Acts chapter 15:15--18. However, during Petty's 45-minute sermon no time was spent examining the scripture.

Pastor McCullen came forward after the sermon to pray for communion. McCullen encouraged people to "light a candle and connect to God." The congregants formed lines as they broke off a piece of bread from a loaf and sipped their choice of wine or juice. People dispersed throughout the room to light a candle, find a quiet place to pray or sit quietly. After communion, the band walked forward to close the evening service with several songs.

After service people gathered to talk while enjoying coffee, tea, donuts, and cookies. As we huddled around the food table, I asked Oggy, who recently began attending, why he chose this church. Oggy said, "I like it here. Everyone speaks from their heart." Larry also began attending recently. When asked why he attended, he told me, "A girl invited me. I thought it would be cool to come check the place out. I like the feel here."

Ben Donaghy, the lead singer and worship leader, told me about their music style. "We have an unplugged, acoustic-based sound. Mission Gathering plays a lot of songs other churches wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole." I asked Donaghy what he meant. "Well, we've performed a lot of secular music. Artists like Sarah McLachlin and Dave Matthews Band. Our goal is to create a comfortable place for both believers and non-Christians."

Pastor McCullen spoke to me about the vision of their church. McCullen's desire is to build a church that is a doorway for people to find spirituality, to allow people to be spiritual seekers, without giving them the answers. All of this involves the senses. These senses, as McCullen puts it, are "the taste of communion, sight of the candles, touch of someone's hand, smell of incense, and the sixth sense of spirituality."

Each week, I ask the pastor what he or she believes happens after someone dies. Pastor McCullen shared his views, saying, "After death, people have an encounter with God. As to what happens, I don't know. I can't judge anyone. I believe in Heaven."

I asked Pastor McCullen what he believed about Hell. McCullen thought for a moment, "Do I believe in Hell? These are hard questions. I don't know. I used to think so. I just don't want to give you the evangelical answer." McCullen paused for a moment longer. You could sense his struggle in taking a stance on this position. He replied, "Yes. I believe in Hell. But only for Hitler."

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