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City Church San Francisco,San Francisco, California

On the West Coast, two companies have become iconically known for their hospitality.

When Swedish immigrant John W. Nordstrom opened his first shoe store in Seattle in 1901, his business philosophy was based on exceptional service, selection, quality, and value. After adding apparel in the 60’s, the company became the largest-volume west coast specialty store and eventually recognized as America’s number one customer service company. Their customer service is based on an attitude: place the customer’s needs ahead of the salesperson’s or even Nordstrom’s. When customers enter a department, salespeople always make sure they are acknowledged. They are relaxed and unhurried, to help the customer feel the same way. They let the customer know that they will take care of them.

When Bill Kimpton opened his San Francisco hotel in 1981 it began the boutique hotel movement in America. Kimpton began with a simple philosophy: all travelers are insecure. “It’s just a matter of degree,” he said. While one may walk into a hotel and think, “Wow, great design,” the person may not feel like she or he belongs. Kimpton understood the strong sense of belonging that people need to feel. He wanted to make them feel welcomed while away from home.

This sensibility of empathy and care for the person who walks in the door is shared by the people at City Church San Francisco.

When I attend a church for the first time, worries nag at me. In such a big city, where will I park? How will I find my way to the sanctuary? Will anyone notice me? The first time I attended City Church San Francisco, all three fears were allayed. As I drove up to the front steps, I asked a staff person, “Where do I park?” “Across the street; we’ll pay for the parking.” As I walked up the steps, two persons handing out bulletins asked me, “Is this your first time here?” They then took the time to get to know me a bit, orient me, and get me settled. Insecurities left, and I felt welcomed. The bulletin further enables an unchurched person to feel like a full participant. Instead of hymnbooks and pew bibles, all the songs and scriptures are printed completely in the bulletin. Even more helpful for someone unfamiliar with Christianity were the brief descriptions of Christian rites: the doxology, the Lord’s prayer, the offering, communion, the season of Advent. Many Sundays, there is a lunch for newcomers after worship.

This combination of deep tradition with attention to the newcomer is very intentional. Rooted in the historic Christian faith, it is as if they try to remember what it is like not to believe. While not focused on those who are seeking, they strive to make worship “comprehensible to anyone, regardless of their background.”  
There was virtually not a gray hair in sight. The majority are professionals, such as the tech industry, with an even split between Asian and Caucasian Americans.
Begun in 1997 and situated in an urban neighborhood of apartments and restaurants off Divisadero near the University of California, San Francisco teaching hospital, City Church now has 1,000 worshippers per Sunday at its three morning services (and 1,700 who attend regularly). Like Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in Manhattan, it is multisite, opening a second location in the Mission District this spring that will share the same preachers and leadership but have its own worship and youth leaders. Unlike Redeemer Church, City Church switched from Presbyterian Church in America to the Reformed Church in America since the leaders believe strongly in the ordination of women.

I attended City Church once in the fall of 2008, and then came again for two Sundays in December 2009. As I walked up the steps, I noticed I wasn’t entering a church. The congregation doesn’t own a building (ownership quickly narrows options for change, they say). Inside the Russian Cultural Center, I walked into an auditorium that was something between a music hall and an old-fashioned theatre. Rows of movable chairs faced a riser and then a stage, complete with curtains and a simple cross. The ceiling was two stories high, with a surrounding balcony. In December, nine large candles between poinsettias fronted the stage, and a string quartet practiced, competing with a low buzz of chatting. When I looked at the people around me and in the balcony, what struck me immediately was this: there was virtually not a gray hair in sight (quite a contrast to many mainline Sunday services). The average age was 24 to 34, the majority professionals (such as the tech industry), with an even split between Asian and Caucasian Americans. The dress was casual, with most wearing jeans and sweaters. People came as couples or with groups of friends, drifting in during the first ten minutes, many with coffee cups. I also noticed there were no children or youth in worship. A large contingent of children attends Sunday School at 9:00, or their own worship service at 10:45.

Sitting in a cushioned chair surrounded by 380 young adults, I expected forty minutes of contemporary praise songs followed by forty minutes of teaching. What I got was an utterly Reformed service of worship, albeit one in which the hallmark seemed to be “excellence without hubris.” Associate Pastor Anni Mingin called out, “The Lord be with you,” and we responded, “And also with you.” From there, we moved through a responsive Call to Worship, a Prayer of Adoration, two songs of praise, a Prayer of Confession followed by a proclamation or song assuring God’s mercy and a chance to greet those around you. The worship tone–passionate but never loud, at many times reflective, and always Christ-centered–was set by the music. The director of worship arts, Karl Digerness, seeks music that is “attractive to artists,” but beyond those guidelines, the genres blossomed forth. While one Sunday had the string quartet, another had a horn quintet and solo by an African-American opera singer, and a third featured a folk spiritual arranged by a bluegrass trio. Every week Karl leads vocals with guitar and is accompanied by three men on piano, bass, and drums. For the congregation’s contributions, the words of ancient or classic hymns are often set to updated scores (such as when we sang John Newton’s “Let Us Love, and Sing, and Wonder” to music written in 2001 by Laura Taylor). The quality of the music no doubt encourages people to invite their friends.

After the chance to greet those nearby, the service moved to the hearing of the Word: the Doxology, scripture (including standing for the Gospel reading), sermon, and offering. Founding pastor Fred Harrell–in suit, white shirt, and tie, more “dressed-up” than most–walked up the riser steps with words of welcome. He stood behind a music stand, giving his half-hour sermon from notes.  
Surrounded by the symbols of the faith–a simple water basin, the candles of the Advent wreath, the communion table with elements behind.
Surrounded by the symbols of the faith–a simple water basin to his right, the candles of the Advent wreath to his left, the communion table with elements behind–his tone was conversational. At times a fast talker, more often perfectly paced, he was both earnest and casual. (One Sunday he stopped mid-sentence: “I cut myself here. I’m bleeding.” After sucking the wounded finger, he went on.) Harrell opened his sermon “Why Christmas?” with a prayer in which he painted a portrait of the community: some come searching; some with the failure of compromises and inconsistencies; some broken. “In Christ, God comes to meet us. He sees us all, yet loves us and sympathizes with us.” He then began with a story of a famous football player who could not remember a championship-ending pass he dropped fifty years prior without weeping. “Everyone here can connect to that. We see our failures in color.” Then Harrell surprised me. Instead of explaining the meaning of Christmas by rehearsing the birth stories, he used Paul and Colossians 1:19-23. “This preacher is creative,” I thought. My image of him also shifted. The Nordstrom or Kimpton-like empathy was demonstrated in his frequent use of the words “broken,” “healing,” and “Christ’s love.” But when he asked, “Do you want to be changed by Christmas,” he seemed more like a physician standing before a patient, asking if she was truly willing to make the changes in lifestyle necessary to live. “Don’t just admire Jesus. For we are more broken than we can ever know; we are more welcomed than we can ever imagine.” He gave a Christmas sermon that included the cross, the resurrection, and a call to make reconciliation real in our lives. I was captivated.

Yet the sermon did not encapsulate the service, for the weekly communion seemed as central. Harrell recited about half of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. “Jesus is present in this meal, mysteriously, nourishing us,” then spoke of the meal as pointing ahead to the future reign of God in which justice prevails. Instead of excluding those not yet ready to partake, he invited them to use the sacred time to meditate and converse with God. After walking to stations to get cups of wine/juice and a wafer, we all ate and drank together.

Following the Benediction, most people spoke to friends in a narrow coffee room outside the auditorium, ending the hour and twenty-minute service.

In all three services I attended, the quality of the music, the sermon, and communion shone. In a conversation after one service, a congregant echoed these strengths. He also mentioned two things that likewise gave me pause. He valued the diversity, “though there are no older people.” Perhaps because there were no inter-generational families sitting together, or there was no sharing of joys and concerns, or I was sitting facing a stage, I felt at times like a consumer rather than one who just walked into a community. City Church encourages people to join one of forty small groups scattered about the city. My sense is that these are essential to experience intimate support. There was also one inconsistency in the hospitality I experienced. While the staff welcomed me, the congregants (save the one) did not speak to me. They missed an opportunity to reach out to a newcomer. I suspect this is because it is hard to tell who is a newcomer. There are 380 attendees at three different services, and the congregation of urban professionals is highly transient (with 40 percent cycling in and out every two years). Regardless of the reason, I felt a bit sad watching the young people talk to their friends, but not to me.

I have been attending Reformed worship services in the Bay Area for ten years, and the one at City Church is among the very best. I’ll be back in a heartbeat.

Gregory Anderson Love teaches systematic theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. His most recent book is Love, Violence, and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ.