Where in this world would you like to visit?
Great cities like London and Paris?
Great countries like Italy and Switzerland?
Great cultures like China and Kenya?
Any great churches you’d like to visit?
For decades, I’ve had one prominent church on my Bucket List: Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California … where John MacArthur has been senior pastor for 44 years.
Yesterday, I finally visited the church with my wife.
MacArthur has positively impacted my life and ministry. When I was 14, I attended Hume Lake Christian Camp, and MacArthur was the featured speaker. His personal testimony and practical teaching motivated me to dedicate my life to Christ and read Scripture on a daily basis. For that reason, I will always be grateful to Pastor John for the way God has used him in my life.
When I became a pastor, I read his books on spiritual gifts, God’s will, giving, the Beatitudes, worship, and the armor of God, among others. And I’ve heard him speak many times.
But for many believers, MacArthur has gained a reputation as being hypercritical about the charismatic movement, the seeker movement, and the emerging church movement, among others.
In fact, sometimes I’ve received the impression that MacArthur is against more than he’s for.
So I wanted to see for myself: how does Grace Community do church? HDJDM? (How does John do ministry?)
Here are my impressions:
*Community. The church is located in what looks like an older lower-middle class area.
*Parking. The main lot at Grace is good-sized but cannot contain all the cars. People parked beyond the canal adjacent to the property, across the street, and on neighborhood streets (which is where we parked).
*Demographics. The congregation was a cross-section of young and old as well as African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Caucasian individuals and families. The line into the women’s restroom was out the door.
*Dress. Many men wore suits – including Pastor MacArthur – but the majority dressed semi-casually.
*Music. During the first service, only hymns like “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place” and “My Faith Looks up to Thee” were sung. They were played by a small orchestra. A 100-voice choir with robes sang a hymn, as did a soloist during the offering. The congregation didn’t sing any contemporary worship songs. Everyone used hymnals.
*Sermon. Pastor John spoke on John 6:1-15, the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. He looked at his notes far more than at the congregation, which surprised me. He used the phrase “the truth” repeatedly. His message contained few – if any – stories, and was heavy on exegesis. The outline was simple, not special. The message lasted about 55 minutes. Some around me were nodding off.
*Worship center. I was surprised that:
- Most of the walls in the worship center – which are made out of brick – were bare. No banners. No verses. No mission statements.
- The back of the church was bustling during Pastor John’s message. Because the worship center lacks a lobby, people walk from outside directly into the worship center or vice versa. Whenever someone opens a door, light streams in, creating a distraction – especially if you’re sitting in the back, where we were.
- There were no video screens, so we couldn’t see the pastor’s face or gestures from our vantage point.
- Everyone sat in pews. No chairs or theater seating.
*Worship times. There were two services: one at 8:30 am, another at 10:30 am. The first service lasted 1 hour, 36 minutes.
Ministry booths: There’s a section called Grace Walk that is lined with attractive ministry booths.
Seminary: The Master’s Seminary is located toward the parking lot as you enter/leave the campus.
If you closed your eyes, you’d think you were in 1969 … the same year that Pastor John came to Grace … and yet the place felt 99% full. Some were even standing against the back walls. And yet when people in my area were asked to raise their hands if this was their first time at Grace, the ushers handed out zero promotional packets. The church does have a Visitor and Information Center, though.
Fundamentalists are known for being both theologically and methodologically conservative. I’m with MacArthur on theological essentials (we graduated from the same seminary), but differ from him on ministry methods.
Jerry Falwell used to say, “If it’s old, it’s good. If it’s new, it’s bad.” That’s what I sensed about Grace’s worship service. My guess is that little has changed since MacArthur came more than 4 decades ago, which is truly amazing. No worship wars at Grace.
My overall impressions:
Grace Community Church knows who they are, what they stand for, and who they’re trying to reach.
People come far more to hear Pastor John speak than for the music or overall worship experience.
The church seems oblivious to trends in both the church and secular worlds.
Why change anything? The church practices excellence and functions like a well-oiled machine, attracting thousands every Sunday.
When Pastor John retires or joins Jesus, succeeding Pastor John may be an issue … but right now, he’s still going strong.
And I appreciate Pastor John because – even if you don’t agree with him – the church of Jesus Christ needs more prophetic voices. Most pastors today are afraid to speak boldly on controversial issues because they don’t want to offend anybody. If more pastors spoke prophetically – teaching God’s Word without regard for consequences – Pastor John wouldn’t stand out so much.
I was excited to visit Grace, but probably wouldn’t make this my church home. Because I grew up in fundamentalist churches, I’ve been trying to escape their rigid outlook and judgmental tone for much of my life. While I resonate with Grace’s emphasis on truth, I need a church that presents that truth in more contemporary and relevant packaging.
I wish Pastor John and Grace Community Church well as they reach people for Christ in a way that makes sense for them.
And I pray that they extend that same Grace to those pastors who do church differently than they do.