I’ve visited dozens of churches this year as part of the research for my book. I’ve enjoyed the experience, but I always enjoy coming back to my local church. I think it’s so important to be involved in a local church.
I wanted to take a minute to write about the church I attend, because I think it’s a fascinating example of what a church can look like in a 21st century landscape of Christianity that is going through something of an identity crisis.
The church I attend is called “The Bridge,” and it just started as a partnership between Bel Air Presbyterian (the church I’ve attended for the past four years) and Union Church of Los Angeles, a struggling Japanese congregation in the Little Toyko section of downtown Los Angeles. Essentially, Bel Air Pres—a thriving congregation up in the Hollywood Hills above the posh mansions of Bel Air—struck a deal with the Union Church leadership that would allow a new church to be born and housed on Sunday nights in the Little Tokyo location, where Union and Bel Air folks could worship together and hopefully nurture a self-sufficient congregation that would eventually attract a local crowd from those who live downtown—whether loft yuppies or box-dwelling homeless in nearby Skid Row.
This is the first thing I really like about The Bridge. It’s a partnership. If Christianity is going to thrive in coming decades, we have to be partnership-minded. We have to be willing to get out of our comfort zones and learn from different Christian traditions. It’s so refreshing to be singing and praying and fellowshipping together with people from such different backgrounds who are nevertheless bound by a common cause. But I also like The Bridge because it’s adaptive, flexible, and experimental. It’s people from two churches trying to figure out how to do church together, in a new way (that is really an ancient way that we’ve just forgotten). Who knows if it will work? We’re open-minded, which is exciting, and I’m looking forward to being involved in it as we go forward.
The Los Angeles Times recently ran an interesting story about the history of Union Church and its new partnership with Bel Air Pres:
For 91 years, Union Church has served as a religious and cultural home to its Japanese American patrons -- in good times and bad. In 1942, for example, community members had to gather at its original site a couple of blocks away to embark on their journeys to World War II internment camps.
At its height, in the late 1970s and '80s, Union was packed each Sunday with about 350 people, including many children and young adults.
But the forces of assimilation and gentrification have taken their toll, with only about 120 total attending separate English and Japanese services on a recent Sunday…
It was this steady decline that drove Union's interim pastor, the Rev. Masaya Hibino, to seek the Bel Air partnership.
Hibino was attending a meeting of leaders at the Bel Air church in 2007 when he heard its senior pastor, the Rev. Mark Brewer, describe his vision of turning Los Angeles into "the greatest city for Christ" by, among other steps, connecting churches with one another.
Soon after, Hibino approached one of Bel Air's other pastors, the Rev. Enock De Assis, and broached the idea of an association.
"I could not see a bright future . . . if I didn't do something," said Hibino, 78. "I said, 'We need to change our church to reach out to the people who move into this area. We need to do something to come [up] with [a] new kind of worship.'"
Last October, the two congregations inaugurated joint monthly Sunday night services at Union that are known as "The Bridge."…
Bel Air is picking up most of the $150,000 cost to upgrade the Union Church sanctuary with new lighting plus audio and video equipment; Union Church has agreed to kick in $15,000.
Hoping to quell fears of a takeover, Brewer and his fellow pastors emphasize that they envision Union Church as its own unique entity and not as a downtown satellite for their church.
"We respect who they are," Brewer said. "We're not trying to change them. We're trying to add. We're very careful to make sure it's a partnership."
I really hope that this is the case. I hope that The Bridge becomes more than just a “plant” or “satellite campus” but its own congregation. I think it could be a great example of how this sort of church planting can be done by other churches—where it’s not about imperialistic conquering of more territory for A church but rather a strategic, partnership-driven effort to bring the Gospel and THE church to as many places as possible.
FOR THOSE IN L.A. OR VICINITY: I invite you to visit The Bridge. I think you’ll find it interesting, welcoming, and worshipful. We meet Sunday nights at 6pm at 401 E 3rd Street, on the campus of Union Church in the heart of L.A.’s Little Tokyo. Before or after the service, you should eat at one of the many great Japanese restaurants around the block. And if you need a new pair of skinny jeans or a fresh v-neck t-shirt, there's an American Apparel just down the street.