| || A mighty presence |
Rock Church has become one of the country's largest megachurches; critics see evils of traffic tie-ups, noise and exclusionary message
By Sandi Dolbee
RELIGION & ETHICS EDITOR
August 18, 2007
Shaded by his construction helmet, Pastor Miles Mc Pherson gestures to the massive building that the Rock Church and Academy will soon call home. He compares it to the size of Noah's Ark.
Inside, the former Chargers defensive back lopes up the stairs with athletic enthusiasm. Children's classrooms have their own restrooms and entrances to a patio. There will be a cafe, a bookstore and soundproofed rooms for a broadcast ministry. His corner office on the third floor includes a shower.
Then there's the sanctuary – 3,500 theater-style seats with Bible references, a 90-foot, high-definition screen and two dozen prayer niches.
OK, so maybe this new building in Point Loma isn't much like the ark in Genesis. But Mc Pherson's Rock is a success story of biblical proportions.
Consider this: 71/2 years after the first services were held in a rented hall at San Diego State University, the nondenominational church now draws upward of 8,000 people.
It is among the largest megachurches in the country, and the average age of attendees is under 30, defying statistics that show most young Protestant adults aren't going to church.
His secrets: Keep it fun and relevant.
LAURA EMBRY / Union-Tribune
"The Bible is real, dealing with real issues," Miles Mc Pherson said during a Sunday service at the Rock's Serra Mesa quarters. Soon, he'll preach in the church's first real home in Liberty Station.
“Here you are, 25 years old, 23 years old, and you're trying to figure out life,” he says. “Forget church, you're trying to figure out life. And you go to a place and you hear stuff that tells you about life – and it works. Why wouldn't you go there?”
Come Aug. 26, another chapter will unfold, when the Rock holds the grand opening of its permanent home – an earth-tone Goliath measuring longer than a football field and almost as wide as the runway at Lindbergh Field.
Never one to pass up a preaching moment, Mc Pherson flashes a dimpled grin and points out that the $54 million project – including the land and permits – is part new construction and part renovated remnant of a building left on the site of the former Naval Training Center. The Navy center was closed in the 1990s and the land redeveloped into Liberty Station, an urban village of homes, shops, restaurants, schools and, now, a church.
“This building was built to train man for human wars,” Mc Pherson says. “We're now going to use it to train man for spiritual wars.”
The move from rented quarters in an industrial park off Ruffin Road in Serra Mesa to this high-tech home on Rosecrans Street in Liberty Station is a dream come true for Mc Pherson. “I'm not doing this for Christians to come have a nice place,” he says. “This is for people to come and experience God.”
Still, one person's dream can be another person's nightmare.
Lisa Tumbiolo shudders at the thought of thousands of cars arriving and departing in her neighborhood for five services every Sunday.
“It's going to be a disaster,” says Tumbiolo, who lives about four blocks away in the Liberty Station residential area. “How can that possibly not affect our neighborhood?”
LAURA EMBRY / Union-Tribune
The congregation is a diverse mix of young adults and families. Many of them praise the Rock's evangelical mission: "to save, equip and send out soul-winners for Jesus."
Among other things, she's angry about plans to close a portion of Truxton Road, which runs along one side of the church, during services to accommodate pedestrian traffic. “It's a community nightmare.”
John Mc Nab, who leads a preservationist group called Save Our NTC, predicts the area will become “a mess.”
“There's nowhere near adequate parking,” Mc Nab says. “If someone wants to go to Trader Joe's on Sundays, they're not going to get there because the place is going to be overwhelmed with people going to church.”
Doug Childress, the Rock's chief operations officer who also lives in Liberty Station, says the fears are exaggerated.
“I understand their reaction, but I don't think it's going to be what they're anticipating. Most of our people arrive 15 minutes before and leave within 20 minutes after (a service). It's not like it's going to be a constant traffic flow.”
Worshippers are being encouraged to car pool and take multiple routes. Childress says they will have access to at least seven parking lots in the area (a parking diagram is posted at therocksandiego.org).
The church's parking and traffic plans are extensive. Parking will not be allowed in half of the lot directly in front of the stores and no-parking signs will be positioned at the entrances to residential areas.
In addition to volunteers who will monitor parking problems at each service, the church has tapped ACE Parking and the police department to help. Traffic lights on Rosecrans Street will be adjusted to move cars efficiently in and out of Liberty Station.
It's not easy being a megachurch. The Rock has had a bumpy relationship with some of its current neighbors over complaints of increased traffic and noise.
Last year, the city of San Diego levied $56,500 in penalties against the church for violating conditions of its use permit, including expanding into adjacent rented space. A city official said this week that the church actually paid $6,493.33 after correcting the problems.
“We're happy to see them go,” says Doug Wescott, chairman of the Serra Mesa Planning Group.
Wescott acknowledges that some neighbors may have never been appeased, and these kinds of tensions are expected with rapidly growing churches. Still, he says, “They could have done a better job of being members of the community.”
Other criticisms have more to do with the church's message than its size.
Its leadership roster is dominated with males, and Mc Pherson isn't shy about preaching against such issues as homosexuality. “Homosexuality is not natural or normal,” he said in one sermon archived on the church's Web site. God, he added, “gives us unconditional love; he does not give unconditional approval.”
The Rev. Houston Burnside, a pastor at San Diego's predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church, doesn't agree with Mc Pherson's theology. “I think he is picking and choosing what he wants.”
Burnside adds: “I guarantee you that there are people in his congregation who are gay and lesbian who are sitting there and just sort of stuffing it for the sake of the music and everything else.”
The Rock's congregation shows up in shorts, tank tops and flip-flops. They also bring their Bibles and pens because their pastor expects them to take notes.
They are tattooed and pierced. Scattered around on chairs in the cavernous room are patches of white hair. But most are young adults, singles and families.
Services open with music – lots of it. A band leads the congregation in praise songs. A hip-hop duo performs a piece specially written to promote the church's volunteerism theme, “Do Something.”
Videos, set to the themes of “Mission Impossible” and “24,” give updates about the grand opening and a call to join the security patrol ministry.
When Mc Pherson arrives on stage, his announcements and preaching take nearly an hour. The message is part Bible study (from the Old Testament book of Judges) and part how-to tips. (“If you want to upgrade your friends, you have to upgrade yourself first.”)
The Judges excerpt is about Jephthah, a leader who killed his daughter because he promised God that if he won a military victory, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house when he returned.
It's a troubling story for many theologians and clergy. Some question if Jephthah was really carrying out God's will or if this passage is meant to be cautionary tale about making deals. Mc Pherson interprets it this way: “Success in the Bible is doing what God said.”
Afterward, as the throng heads for shuttle buses that will carry them to outlying parking lots, churchgoers praise the service for its energy and Mc Pherson for his preaching.
“I've attended many congregations out of my 21 years, and Miles Mc Pherson is the best pastor,” says Alex Gandara.
They like how he applies the Bible to today. “It really makes the word come alive,” says Constance White, 35.
They also like the feeling of community. “When I came here I didn't have a sense of belonging with God,” says Erica Burrell, 25.
And the come-as-you-are atmosphere. “They're not really hung up about how you dress, but how you have a heart for God,” says Rudy Rodriguez, 34.
As with other successful – and large – evangelical churches, the crowds break into small groups during the week for Bible studies and other programs. There also are 50 ministries – ranging from volleyball to teaching children's Sunday school to teams who go out and pray for exotic dancers.
Megachurch expert Dave Travis sees other familiar patterns. Among them: practical sermons that embrace popular culture and are “very direct.”
“They tend to come right at people more boldly than, say, the previous generation of boomer pastors,” notes Travis, co-author of the new book “Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America's Largest Churches.”
“Clearly,” he adds, “Miles and the Rock Church have built a message and a format that has really connected with the people in San Diego.”
McPherson's own conversion experience came in 1984, when he was still playing football and battling a drug problem. After that, he began attending Horizon Christian Fellowship, a large evangelical church in Clairemont. He later joined the pastoral staff and was ordained through that church.
Still trim and fit looking, Mc Pherson is a casual guy who prefers open-faced shirts. As for his ministry, he says he's just doing what God tells him to do.
“If people come and get what they're craving, they'll come back,” he says, flashing that smile. “It's why people go to Starbucks – they like the coffee.”
|ROCK CHURCH AND ACADEMY
Location: 2277 Rosecrans St., in the new Liberty Station development
Public open houses: 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday (first hour set aside especially for Point Loma community)
Grand opening: Sunday, Aug. 26
Service times: 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, 5 p.m., 7 p.m.
School: Preschool began this month. Classes for K-9 begin after Labor Day
Numbers: 120 employees, serving the church, school and the Miles Ahead youth evangelism ministry. Annual operating budget of about $13 million
MILES Mc PHERSON
Personal: Grew up in Long Island, N.Y. Married with three children.
Education: University of New Haven, Azusa Pacific University's School of Theology.
Career: Played for the San Diego Chargers 1982-85. Became a youth minister at Horizon Christian Fellowship in Clairemont in 1986 and founded the Rock Church on Feb. 27, 2000. Services were held at San Diego State University until 2004, then were moved to an industrial park in Serra Mesa.
Quote: “People want to be challenged with the truth. They don't want to go through formalities and the motions of church and be no different than anybody else.”
Sandi Dolbee: (619) 293-2082; firstname.lastname@example.org