Monday, March 01, 2010

This Old Church

Recently, several good friends asked me to write down my thoughts about our church.

They asked me this because, over the past 10 years, I have spent a good amount of time, reading, studying, and thinking about this topic, and how our old church fits into the fabric of Hollywood and Los Angeles. After 25 years (!) of membership I feel mixed emotions about this effort. Sadness and expectation. Thanksgiving and disappointment. And yet, in the midst of it all, hope. Great hope. I must confess that writing this post has been difficult; it's like trying to describe a complex relationship with a family member. There are parts you love so much, and other parts that make you crazy.

An Amazing Place
The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood is a remarkable place, having been founded in 1906. The founders record in the minutes of one of the first church meetings that, "having viewed several locations in the area for possible church development, of these, Hollywood seemed the least promising". And so, in many ironic ways, this sentiment has reappeared many times over the past century. Hollywood - least promising. Has a certain sarcastic ring to it, no?

The "Golden Years" of Hollywood Pres occurred in the 1950's, as Sunday attendance often exceeded 4,000. Sunday services were broadcast on local radio. Henrietta Mears began a college-age ministry that became known around the country. Actually, church attendance peaked across the country in this time period, never to be eclipsed again. Since those years, church attendance has been on a slow decline, in keeping with many mainline denominations across the country.

But, in the midst of the changes over the years, genuine Christian community still existed. In spite of a decline in overall attendance, many facets of the church's life flourished. The core of the church was vital and active; still seeking after the call and ministry of Jesus. A national media ministry began and flourished for more than 10 years, featuring former pastor Lloyd Ogilvie. A new incarnational ministry, involving young people living in, and caring for the inner city of Hollywood was begun in the 1980s. An extensive feeding and care program for the homeless began, and has continued, feeding hundreds every week. In the 1990s two Actor's Equity theater companies began, in two separate theaters on the church campus; they continue to this day. The legacy of our church has been to proclaim the Gospel, and serve the city, for Christ's sake.

Not Like It Used To Be
The dawn of a new century reveals a church working to find its way in a city that is changing around it. Commercial infill development in Hollywood has increased significantly over the past several years. New residential towers now occupy the neighborhood surrounding the church, and the demographic of the area is gentrifying.

Once thought of as a secondary commercial center of Los Angeles, Hollywood is now becoming the location of choice for both businesses and upscale residents. At the same time, the city around the church continues to struggle with issues of crime and a significant immigrant population. Hollywood Presbyterian spent much of the period of 1970 to 2000 serving as a home base "commuter church" to the larger Los Angeles, area, drawing members from as far away as Orange County. Today, that trend is reversing, and those who call the church home come from closer in, both in Hollywood and the urban core of Los Angeles.

The conclusion that we must face together as our church looks to the future is this: The old ways of thinking about how to “do church better” simply will not work. A new paradigm is needed.

Building a Team
During the past 25 years, the pastoral leadership model at Hollywood Pres has changed and evolved. During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the model was one of a strong pastoral leader - with a subservient staff surrounding him, a Benevolent King, if you will. During the 1990's, the model of this kind of central, autocratic leadership proved painfully distressing for the church, and a painful split in the congregation took place. Something new is needed.

In the current post-modern context, the former models of leadership style also will no longer work. A new leadership model is needed for a new era. A completely new model of "doing church" must be shaped. What do we do when a church’s organization becomes cumbersome or is no longer effective? In the past the church has “reorganized” and formed more committees. Subtly, the church becomes good at church committee work, and slowly loses its ability to care for individual people; to love people for Christ. While we might find strength in our re-empowered governing and overseeing bodies, we must remember how to cultivate and nurture real and genuine personal relationships which love one another as Jesus demonstrated.

The church seeks a leader, and moreover, a leadership team that consists of "player/coaches" who participate in ministry at the grass roots levels, sharing responsibility with the congregation. This is our church together, we can no longer rely on the old model that assigned all ministry to paid staff. Each member of the church must seek out and participate in the areas of their own personal passion for service.

We believe the transforming love of Christ does, indeed, change lives, and can in turn, transform the city around us. Together, we seek to live out the abundant life of following Jesus on a daily basis. In offices and schools, living rooms and coffee shops, work and home, bringing joy, laughter, real love, and hope into the heart of this enigmatic city that surrounds us. We are here, in this city, for Christ's sake.

Could Have Left - But Stayed and Embraced the City
Our church is still here; we have not left the city, and we will not be going away anytime soon. We are tenacious, hopeful, faithful, persistent. We do not give up easily. We will stay involved in this remarkable city around us. We have not given up hope for the city.

We will stay here, in the midst of a noisy, confusing, sometimes stark and uncaring city. We will not leave, we will continue to dream, create and live out ways to care for this city, our home. We believe we are on this street corner for a purpose that is beyond and above us all. We will continue to be here for years to come.

We seek to serve this city for Christ's sake.

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