On Visiting West Coast Churches Post 2 – My Time at RealityLA

When I was in LA a few weeks ago I had the privilege of worshiping at few churches: The previous post was on Saddleback Church and this is about my time at RealityLA.Obviously the first thing that gets your attention is the name of the church. Can’t say it made me a fan from the first impression but I’m a fan of the friend who told me about it which is another vote for word of mouth over branding. I’m guessing it means something towards the idea that Jesus gives us a better reality. I’m sure it works even better against for their demographic and of course the backdrop of LA Culture.  All I know is you can’t “win” with church names.

I didn’t know anything about the church, I didn’t know the size, I didn’t know if I should know much about them.  But their website looked good, they used “my lingo” and even though it was Hollywood, it seemed easy to get to.  But all church websites look good and everyone uses the same lingo, honestly, I didn’t really have my hopes set high.

I walked into the high school auditorium where they meet and I’m guessing there were 100 or so people gathered 5 minutes before the service started. I took a seat on the end in the 5th row, thinking I’d be halfway by the time everyone got in. Turns out that’s the very front as people roll in late. About 15 mins after the start, place was half-full and kept filling up.  Half hour later the place looked full.

It’s hard to guesstimate but there had to be more than 20 rows that fit 15 people and then 2 side sections that probably had 10 seats in each), 800 sounds a little high and not every seat was taken but there had to be at least 400-500 people. From the fifth row, the place felt at least 3/4 full. For an evening service, that’s pretty good.

It was about half-way through that I realized I might be the oldest person in the room. And if I’m exaggerating, then I’m fairly sure I was in the oldest 1 percent. I’m in my mid-thirties, I’m not self-conscious about it (at least not until then anyway ;) but as people were filling in around me, I couldn’t help but thank God for how He prepared me to handle these moments. Thank God I watched many seasons of 21 Jump Street, I knew I just had to stay low, be cool, and in this case, sing every word to every song and don’t let anyone hear any of my northeastern expressions – “Hawya’doin?” and “R’lly, I’m one of you’z guys.”

The band was amazing, like incredibly amazing. Loved their talent, loved the song-selection, loved how the intentional decision of not showcasing them by using bright lights on the platform. The front was lit but it was very muted, very blue, very understated and it helped keep my focus from fixating on any particular person. Not that I could if I wanted to, I’m telling you, the lights were so low that although you could see the facial expressions of the worship leaders, you couldn’t see much else, which in turn limited distraction. Preachers and worship leaders tend to feel a bit over-exposed up there, I was intrigued by their use of lighting.

The sermon was given by one of their pastors named Jeremy. It was strong as the dude has a PhD in theology which may have accounted for why it was a hair old school (not a critique, just observing). The message was at least 50 mins if not an hour, maybe longer (I could check but I this is more about observation). Again, it was good, I liked that he quoted people like Kuyper) and my favorite part was deconstructing the images of Jesus the culture has like “cosmic vending machine Jesus”, “cheerleader with pom-poms Jesus” or a “cosmic firefighter Jesus” but rather Jesus is the King of all creation. In those flawed perceptions, we become the god of our lives so we must dethrone ourselves to allow Jesus to be king of our lives. Having a PhD in theology giving a lengthy message is not going to allow anyone to accuse this place of offering a watered down message – good for them.

Which meant the service (according to my watch) was about 1:55 mins. Sometimes I think our services could be longer, but just shy of 2 hours felt a little too long but it seems to work for them. After the message, there was a time of communion and a time of continued worship. It’s funny now, but my plan was to leave after the sermon to catch the 8pm service at Mosaic but between Saddleback that morning and RealityLA, I was churched out. I found a coffee shop and did some caught up on some things and did some pre pre-Q reading.

A few days later, their senior pastor Tim Chaddick (who was at their San Francisco campus Sunday night) would present at Q. He was fantastic. He spoke on vanity and the need for identity in Christ.  Really admired how he’s speaking to his local context and looking forward to listening again and posting about his Q talk when it gets posted on qideas.org.

After the service, people lingered for quite a while. I think I was talking with someone until I got to my car. Everyone was personable and talkative. I was surprised given the number of people that I didn’t talk to another visitor. I asked about the band, was told they have released some music on their site – will have to download some of that. And apparently there is a Reality Boston that was planted this past fall. Poked around online and am hoping to connect with them. And in case you’re wondering, no one knows if the coffee was fair-trade. It tasted ok.  Come on Reality, don’t you believe in solid doctrine?

Anyway, in the weeks since, I have been thinking about my time there. I thought about the music, the long sermon, the really long service and the cool kids. I assume quite a number of attendees are from other parts of the country coming for one reason or another. I assume there were members of the entertainment industry and there must be some real fun rumors circulating (“She dated Leo before she came to Christ” and “He’s part of Blake Griffin’s entourage”). I’m guessing the evening service lends itself to some of things that make it easy for outsiders to hate on. It did feel like everyone looked pretty sharp (even if they tried not to try or really weren’t trying). Now I didn’t see wanna-be’s of Zach Morris or Kelly Kapowski from Saved By the Bell but I didn’t see Screech either (Oh no – I must have been Screech!).  I’m sure the good people of RealityLA get annoyed when they’re labeled as a “church of beautiful people” and all the pop-culture references, may they be free from those caricatures as time goes on.

I always think you should be part of a church you feel comfortable in so I’m happy for everyone that feels connected there or anywhere where Jesus is the center and the mission is fulfilled. But it does feel that evening service is designed that way by having no nursery or children’s ministry programs. Younger families can only come in the morning and older people will likely stay away once that younger demographic becomes established. If Susan and I never had kids, I don’t think we would attend (unless our  friends were rooted there). We are in our mid-thirties, we’d be way too old and the truth is most people don’t want to risk coming across as a creeper or as a cast member of 21 Jump Street. (Come on, how did the kids in that high school not know Peter DeLuise wasn’t 30!?)

While I want to see more X’ers and Millennials in church (we’re missing so many), I still want the room to be as diverse as possible which is why I’m a fan of inter-generational, multi-cultural ministry. They’ll likely move in that direction in the years to come – they’ll have to because even 20-somethings age, and some get married, some have kids, and not everyone will migrate to the morning.  I know this.

That said, RealityLA is clearly doing a lot of things well. They’re serving their congregation, they seem to be involved in their community, they’re planting and spreading.   It also felt to me that those gathered were spiritually hungry and looking for a countercultural Jesus-centered voice in what I assume is the craziness of living in LA. How else can you you explain a room full of Millennials sitting in an hour long sermon in a 2 hour service? I tip my hat to them and hope they fulfill the calling and mission God has entrusted them with. Grace and peace to the leadership and congregation of RealiyLA.

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