By doing it all “wrong,” this California church found the right path – Baptist News Global

First Baptist Church of Pasadena, California, succeed by doing everything wrong.

False, at least by conventional standards of what leads to church growth and health today.

The church intentionally has no social media presence. Video of Sunday morning worship is not being broadcast live and has not been during the pandemic. Personal connections take precedence over remote connections, even in a city where people travel long distances to work and social events. The Sunday morning service includes a traditional choir and pipe organ, as well as sound samples of scripture reading manipulated to be heard in new ways, along with drums and a band.

What’s happening at First Baptist Church shouldn’t work, but it does.

Underpinning this unconventional success story, according to Pastor John Jay Alvaro, is generosity. “The deeper story is really the generosity of those present. A spirit of gratitude is our core identity as a church.”

The community doesn’t try be a megachurch; Above all, she values ​​authentic community. And that’s exactly what people seem to yearn for in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.

Exterior view of the First Baptist Church in Pasadena, California.

Appropriately, in the early 20th century, Pasadena developed as a resort town, a place to escape the city and stay in bungalows. But as the Los Angeles metropolitan area grew rapidly, city life encroached on the resort community and its population boomed. Then the Tournament of Roses parade made it famous and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ushered in a high-tech influence.

It was in this context that the First Baptist Church was born, which grew rapidly and in 1925 erected a classic Californian-style Romanesque building. This historic sanctuary and later educational building is still a prominent presence in Pasadena’s Old Town district.

mid 20th century The church gathered more than a thousand believers every Sunday. But as Americans began to move away from traditional religious worship — a trend very notable in pre-Southern California — the beautiful wooden pews at First Baptist Church became less and less populated.

Southern California became an early symbol of America’s fragmenting religious and cultural identities – with an increasingly secular culture producing increasingly conservative evangelical churches fighting against the tide and more mainstream Protestant churches doing their best to persevere. For churches there was little middle ground; those that were successful were either very conservative or very liberal, very contemporary or very liturgical.

Today, First Baptist is attempting to demonstrate an entirely different approach that defies those labels. It’s a job well suited to Alvaro, who grew up in a Southern Baptist home and then attended Duke Divinity School after discovering his artistic side as an illustrator and musician.

All of these influences come together in his leadership at the historic church in Pasadena, where he now often edits a modular synthesizer as part of his sermon, repeating and rearranging the sounds spoken or sung in the room.

The digital facility in Pastor John Jay Alvaro’s church office.

His office, located right next to the stained glass sanctuary, has a grand piano, computer equipment, analog synthesizers, and a cassette deck for sampling. There he combs through 50 years of recordings of church services and selects sound samples for a new day. He also works with a colleague across the country – Pastor Scott Dickison of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia – to set Dickison’s poetry to music.

The two friends met during Wilshire Baptist Church’s pastoral residency program in Dallas, where they overlapped for a year. Both now serve historic churches with tall towers, but in different contexts and in different ways.

California is a natural seedbed for Alvaro’s innate creativity and desire to explore new things. Amidst this innovation, however, there are some strict limits. Alvaro got the church to focus on the vital rather than the viral. Not only does he avoid social media, he despises it. He wants to shepherd a church of people who primarily know each other in real life.

Stained glass and stucco work in the chapel.

One of the ways that this relational approach has paid off is that the church fully includes all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity—without ever holding a congregational vote. It just happened by mutual consent.

Although the community naturally tended to be welcoming, “they didn’t know what full inclusion might look like or why it was important to make that value explicit,” Alvaro said. And then a same-sex couple with young children joined the church — and each knew how to hug and welcome them.

That got particularly poignant Shortly thereafter, one of the men became terminally ill.

“Our people knew how to express love concretely: preparing food, taking care of the children, sharing grief and loss,” Alvaro said. And in that ministry both the family and the congregation were transformed.

Pastor John Jay Alvaro preaches from the pew normally occupied by a loved one who has just died.

One Sunday that summer, after the church member died, Alvaro sat in this man’s regular pew and preached part of his sermon from there. He wanted to embody the message he spoke.

While this type of practice may be unusual for most churches, it is natural for the First Baptist Church, where not only has the pulpit been removed, but the preacher is likely to be found anywhere in the room while speaking. Worship at First Baptist Church is designed to challenge both the senses and the spirit.

That kind of experience-based worship does not translate well to video or live streaming, which is one of the reasons the church is using simpler technology for those unable to attend in person. Each week audio elements are uploaded to the website for use at home in a “Liturgy for Everywhere”. People at home can also listen to a live audio stream later in the week.

Entrance to First Baptist Church parking garage in Pasadena, California.

This simple technology served the church well in the early days of the pandemic when, unlike almost every other church in America, First Baptist did not begin live streaming video. Instead, audio recordings of various worship elements have been posted on the website, along with a guide to worship at home. As soon as it was possible, the community began gathering in the adjacent parking garage, where some people brought camp chairs to sit away from others while others sat in their cars listening to an FM radio broadcast. This allowed the church to congregate without being too close indoors.

This multi-story parking garage is central to the history of the Church in a different way. A few decades ago, church leaders reached an agreement with the city to lease the site for a city parking garage. For years, the church has received a steady flow of income from this business.

Next year the 50-year contract goes with the city. This gives First Baptist an opportunity to explore how the parking garage will serve the church and community over the next 50 years, Alvaro said. “They don’t teach pastors how to negotiate with church authorities in seminary, but First Baptist has the same gift that all churches possess: a fellowship with unique abilities, ready to serve and lead a complex institution like the church. “

Another important source of income comes from renting out church property for filming television shows and movies. Even if you’ve never been to church, you’ve probably seen them on shows staged as an Air Force office or a haunted school or a place for a spelling bee.

The gym at First Baptist Church where the community leagues train and play each week,

Together, film rentals, parking garage income, and space rentals to other nonprofit organizations account for about one-third of the Church’s annual income.

The Church takes a creative approach also room rentals for other non-profit organizations. The massive building includes far more space and far more classrooms than the Church needs today, so some have become studios for artists or workspaces for other non-profit organizations. These tenants pay rent, but some of that rent can be in creative forms, such as B. A painter currently working on a large painting for the church as part payment for the space it occupies.

Don’t be fooled by the Church’s low-tech approach to streaming that everything is analog. The Church maintains a robust website intended to serve as the one-stop shop for all information distribution, supported by regular e-mail distributions. The creativity is evident on the site, particularly on the staff team’s side, where images of each staff member appear as animated GIFs, with people walking in and out of frames as if they were characters in paintings at Hogwarts.

Shrine of the First Baptist Church in Pasadena, California

Religious life in California doesn’t work like it does in the Deep South, even for a Baptist church. For this reason, Sunday mornings at First Baptist focus primarily on the 90-minute collective worship experience. But HR leaders are now experimenting with some post-pandemic adult courses, each lasting a few weeks. Some members also participate in home groups during the week.

But the basis of everything is the Sunday morning service in a beautiful sanctuary full of stained glass and dark wood pews, with a pipe organ and percussion sharing space on an ornate choir – a service so communal that the pastor preaches from the pew that previously was occupied by a loved member who died early, everyone knows the meaning.

A few years ago, the Church adopted a motto featured on letterpress posters throughout the building: “In Pasadena, as in Heaven.”

This church’s vision of heaven is real people gathered in a real room and having real conversations with each other. The modern church shouldn’t work like that, but it works quite well here.

Related articles:

An Urgent Appeal to My Colleagues and Other Religious Leaders: Suspend All Public Gatherings NOW | Opinion by John Jay Alvaro

In the California church: Praise the Lord and honk your horn

Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever | Opinion by John Jay Alvaro

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