Tapestry Open Door Presbyterian Sovereign Grace West Angeles Cathedral Angeles Temple Mosaic Gospel Light Mission Ekko Hollywood United Methodist
Christ Central Living Way New Life Vision Pacific Crossroads Reality LA
While I’m still waiting for God to call me to a ministry, I have to find a church to attend.
I’ve been in ministry for many years and also was a seminary professor, so I know what to expect from established churches. Thus I only visited few of those. But I was more interested in the new emergent churches of the last 10 years. So I visited lots of churches – black, white, mostly English-speaking Korean, and some of them helped me make this new video.
But now all that matters to me. What?! I’m a Westminster grad! We don’t care about nursery or kids’ programs! just preach the gospel! Have I become worldly in that now I care about elevator access for my stroller and how the service time conflicts with Kobe’s nap?
so this isn’t meant to be an evaluation of churches or like a Yelp review. it would be unfair to judge a church based on one sermon or one off-day of the praise team or welcome team. This is just an observation from the other side of ministry that I never experiened as a pastor, but now looking for a church for my family. But I admit there’s still a bias: I’m not a regular joe off the street; I’m a pastor. So these may not be the observations of a typical Christian looking for a church.
A general trend that I’ve noticed is that sermons are becoming more like Biblically based Christian counseling, or “how to live a better Christian life.” What happened to expositing the Word? There’s too much quoting of Christian authors than quoting Scripture, and there’s more quoting Scripture (proof-texting) than exegeting the text. Yes, I’m aware our present culture doesn’t like biting rhetoric, especially rebuking. But we’re not called to be a Dr. Phil for Christians, giving helpful advice for spiritual growth. We’re called to be prophets preaching the gospel.
Most of the new churches that have zero or minimal association to a Korean-speaking congregation have one pastoral staff or two at most, with an administrative assistant and/or intern. So it’s not surprising that less than half of those churches have good preachers. Although some have 1 really good preacher, Living Way actually has 2 really good preachers, amazingly. Sovereign Grace is losing some members due to the absence of their key speaker and founder. The impending departure of the main EM pastor at NLVC will also affect their group. I couldn’t listen to Pastor Rankin of Pacific Crossroads, but Alex Watlington would actually be ok if he took his hands out of his pockets.
It's not just because I'm a pastor. Preaching of the Word is the primary thing I look for in a church.
I’ve been in youth ministry too long. I guess the standard now for every church is to use Arial font with blue/black background. no moving videos. I guess I missed that memo.
I didn’t believe this before, but now it does matter whether I know the songs. I know lots of songs, but there are still many I don’t know. If half the songs are unfamiliar to me, it’s hard to get into it. I didn’t know any of West Angeles Cathedral’s black gospel songs. But Hollywood United Methodist was the worst, since Stephen Folds writes his own songs. The praise teams are all so good, and all so similar. But I did feel weird when Pacific Crossroads played Aria by Bach on piano during the offering.
Sovereign Grace seemed to have the most professional band, like listening to an album. It helps when you have youtube star Arden Cho singing up there. But Ekko had the most fun band, and the leader did the best job leading the people into worship, which is what I look for in a praise leader. not the best voice, but the guy/girl who leads people who are "out of it" to get "into it."
The new churches are not entirely “modern.” There are links to creeds of the ancient faith. You would expect that from Presbyterian churches like CCSC, Open Door, and Sovereign Grace (yes, the celebrity church is actually PCA), but even nondenominational churches are having some form of responsive reading (e.g. Reality LA).
I heard that Tapestry was charismatic, so I expected a very, free-flowing charismatic worship, but it was pretty normal (and good), nothing crazy. Even the preaching was very Bible-study expository style, even though the pastor didn’t exegete the Greek text properly. There was no word of knowledge or prophetic stuff. West Angeles and Ekko are very charismatic, but there was nothing weird.
All the churches had the optional community group, but there was not enough incentive or explanation to join. I’m guessing less than 25% of the congregation are in the small groups. It really depends on the church culture (more below). I guess this is what it looks like from the outside. As a pastor, I just didn't feel like "pushing" it too much, like people would get uncomfortable. But that's not the case. Without community, there's no discipleship or accountability. Then what's the point?
The Welcoming Team at Tapestry was unsure about welcoming me. I’ve been there. They’re not being unfriendly. They just don’t want to mistake an old member for a newcomer. They can’t tell the difference because they don’t even know all their own members. This is not about church size; it’s about church community. You can tell from examining the welcome team, even without joining a small group.
I didn’t know so many churches include the children in the worship, and then they go off to their own program before/after announcements. I only learned about this “covenantal worship” in seminary, but I saw it for the first time at Living Way. I was most impressed with Ekko because they started with a few songs specifically designed to get the kids into it, with 2 girls on stage leading body worship. But what impressed me was that many of the 20-somethings in the room sang along. After a few songs, the children were excused to their own program while the band shifted gears for the more adult-oriented worship songs.
White churches really make the extra effort with nursery and kids, e.g. Pacific Crossroads has an electronic sign-in system with bar code stickers for the kids.
As I look around the room, I see the age groups, people with kids, can some of these people be my bros?
From small groups to sports to welcoming to ushers, it’s really about the lay leadership. They really form the core and carry the church.
It makes a difference whether you own your facility or if you’re renting. At Sovereign Grace and Reality LA, I felt like we had to vacate the premises shortly after worship – keep the meetings short, don’t socialize too long. There’s something comfortable about being able to “put your feet up on the table,” but you don’t do that when you’re renting.
I don’t know why, but I’ve noticed that when you don’t own the building, more people are late, especially churches that meet in schools (Pacific Crossroads, Reality LA), to the point that I was getting annoyed. At West Angeles Cathedral, I learned the hard way not to be late, because I was placed in line for the next service, which was an hour and a half later, and my line was getting quite full, like people waiting for a concert, or a movie premiere. However, I did notice that NLVC feels a sense of “owning” the high school campus space they rent. Maybe that’s why less people were late.
And yeah, distance matters. The main reason I won’t be going back to CCSC is because it takes me an hour to get through the heart of LA, which is usually congested (not just spiritually). Yeah, I feel so unspiritual saying that, when I know people in the Philippines who hike hours to get to a church. But how long can you last with a crying baby in the car? That’s a picture of hell. And yeah, afternoon worship times are difficult for couples with young children.
Based on Peter Wagner’s seminar on church growth, the church starts to shrink if the room is crowded, but that may be a good thing since it weeds out the uncommitted. But it also thins out the harvest. At GLMC, Reality LA, Tapestry, and Sovereign Grace, as a newcomer, I felt like I was taking up someone else’s valuable space. The ushers were really good and attentive, but there’s too many people for the room. and that 5 minutes of meet-and-greet at Sovereign Grace is way too uncomfortably long for a newcomer.
I’m starting to wonder if the more hipster the church, is the worship room darker? Sovereign Grace had the room dark even for the message the last time I was there. But the most hipster church in LA goes to Ekko. They’re so hipster they call their group a “tribe.”
Just because you have that token white guy in your church doesn’t make your church multi-ethnic, and multi-ethnic isn’t just white+asian. Where are all the Hispanics and blacks? yes, I know they have their own ethnic churches, just like all minorities, but you’re only multi-ethnic when you have the white, black, asian, and latino. But even this is over-rated. Why are Asian churches trying so hard to be multi-ethnic? Just reach your community.
But it’s not just a church thing. Korean TV and concerts zoom into the white or black people to show that the event has international appeal.
Black churches like the West Angeles Cathedral don’t see it as some badge of progress, and many feel perfectly fine if the congregation is all black. But this isn’t a blog about multi-ethnicity, so I’ll stop here.
Culture is experienced via the people, not the church bulletin. If everybody stands during worship, you stand too, not because you’re led by the Spirit. Even if you came from an ultra charismatic church you won’t say Amen during the sermon if no one else does. It’s just church culture. My Presbyterian background dictates that there’s no food allowed. You can’t walk in and out of service. There are no signs or instructions for such things; it’s just understood from the culture and the people. Mosaic and Reality LA actually hands you a cup of coffee, so I guess it’s ok for me to drink it during worship, though it still feels weird to me. If the majority of the people are in small groups, I attribute that to the church culture. Whether people hang out and socialize or just dip after service, also church culture. That’s why I was shocked to see dozens of people leave during the last worship set, before the service ended at Reality LA. I guess that’s just normal there. At Living Way, when I saw other parents with kids at the service, I felt comfortable holding my own, with no pressure to drop off my kid at the nursury.
As a pastor, I know how hard it is and how long it takes to foster a certain kind of church culture. It rarely just happens. The brotherhood among the guys, passionate worship, pranks among teens, fellowship after worship – all that stems from the leadership and lay staff. Involved and dedicated lay staff are essential.
It amazes me now that I can attend a church and reap all the benefits from someone else's work. So many people can just take it for granted, criticize, and point fingers. The regular member has no idea how much work goes into every week. Mad props to all the setup crews in all those schools. It's hard enough running a Sunday even without that extra prep. It's still amazing that I could just park my car, sit back, and just "enjoy church" without any involvement. That's not right, and shouldn't be the case for any Christian. I sense I might go on some rant, so I'll end it here.