A Separatist's First Stroll Through Grace Community Church

Traveling from the firecrackers and firewater of mountain man country in Wyoming (and Red Cliff Bible Camp), through the white steeples and dark sanctuaries of Mormon country in Utah, and then on through the slot machines and strip joints of gambler’s country in Nevada, my family finally arrived in the L.A. area, the mecca for Christian and “so-called evangelical” movements in the West. You see, Robert Schuller leads the way for the Self-Esteem Movement; Rick Warren leads the way for the Purpose-Driven Movement, Jack Hayford [1] leads the way for the Foursquare Movement, Chuck Smith leads the way for the Calvary Chapel Movement, Paul Chappell leads the way for the Independent Baptist Movement, and John MacArthur leads the way for the Nondenominational/Cessationist/Conservative Evangelical/Expository/Dispensational/Sufficiency of Scripture/Doctrines of Grace/Community Church Movement. I am smiling toward any of the guys from Grace Community Church (GCC), but is that not a fair assessment and not a jaundiced eye? [2]

This tinhorn preacher has never been to any church service in Southern California. So I explicitly told my wife that Grace Community Church would be our first service to visit among the six ministries mentioned. [3] Our first meal in Southern California happened to be Coco’s Bakery Restaurant. So jubilant about tomorrow’s Lord’s Day, we splurged … actually me, feasting on steak, shrimp, and ribs (though I did share all around the table). We rejoiced, handing out Hispanic gospel literature and inviting the manager, waitresses, and the front greeter to GCC. They just smiled over our Idaho enthusiasm. When I asked about motel accommodations, the manager directed me to the Holiday Inn Express down the road. For which I am grateful because the hotel attendant allowed my whole family of six to quietly slip into one room, and then he granted me a corporate discount when I told him my family’s sole purpose for being in the area was to attend GCC in the morning. That night, I could hardly sleep, hungering for some rich biblical exposition from God to be served to my family on the following morning. Here is my tale.

On July 1, 50 years ago, Grace Community Church conducted its first public service. On July 9, 2006, after pulling in the north parking lot and following the stream of families carrying Bibles and dressed in “Sunday best,” my family stepped on the Bible campus at 13248 Roscoe Boulevard for the first time. And I was totally disoriented with buildings sprawled out over 14 acres. It was 8:25 a.m., and I knew I was in trouble. The friendly usher did his best to provide directions to various youth rooms, but I quickly decided to just bring my whole family (kids ages 10, 8, 6, and 4) into the service.

Really, it is pretty dark inside the Worship Center even with the spotlights, a medieval (seventies) brick brown yet accented in red. [4] Sitting in one of the distant back pews, my wife and I looked at each other in those first initial moments and remarked over how much we missed the warm feel of our small, sunlit Idaho auditorium and the family atmosphere of our Sunday morning services.

But our feelings of misplacement (well, at least mine) soon vanished as the choir called us to worship after the organ prelude. Utilizing a book in the pew rack, [5] The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration, we sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,”“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven,” and “To God Be the Glory.” I drew close to God in worship through the string quartet and piano in the “Praise to the Lord Medley”–thanks to Clayton Erb’s preparation. I listened closely to the reading of Psalm 36 (NASV) and bowed my head as Tom Pennington led us all corporately to the throne of grace.

Then the worship choir sang a seemingly traditional, black spiritual, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” It had some nice rhythm to it. But I detected only one dear, black believer in the whole choir of around 100. GCC needed to haul in Dove Award winner Calvin Hunt and The Church On The Way Choir from several streets away to make that music really come alive. Don’t you think? And finally, during the offering, Christian Ebner sang, “Lord, I Believe in You.”

For the preaching, rather than hearing from John MacArthur, the church was honored to have guest speaker Tom Pennington. The bulletin carried this blurb: “Since 2003, Tom has served as the senior pastor at Countryside Bible Church in Southlake, Texas. Prior to this, Tom served for 12 years at Grace to You, and four years at Grace Church as the executive pastor and personal assistant to John MacArthur and as a co-pastor of Sojourners. He earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Bob Jones University, where he also took Ph.D. classes in New Testament Interpretation. Tom and his wife, Sheila, have three children: Lauren, Katie, and Jessica.”

Here was the irony of the day. Tom was ministering back here at GCC for the day while Adam Bailie, whom Tom’s church in Texas newly hired as staff from GCC, was settling down there for their first Lord’s Day and surely creating a wild ruckus.

Immediately, my sinful nature wasn’t happy at all over the morning message. Tom had the nerve to title his peremptory message, “Watch Your Mouth!” Then, to make matters even worse, he backed it up exegetically with the full authority of Scripture in James 3. Good grief. And I was planning on blogging all over the WWW everything bad about this place. Instead of being in this service, I should have been in the Sunday School class fellowship, GraceLife, with Phil Johnson, acting out as one of those wide-eyed, mealy-mouthed, fulminating, fundamentalist rabble raisers that he talks about in his famous conference sessions. But I was stuck here. And Tom was blowing everything. Why did he have to bring this up—the whole metonymy, tongue idea? I was starting to get sick to my stomach. He started saying things like, “Your mouth is going to get you in trouble,” and, “A renewed heart will be accompanied with a new tongue.” How dare he say that to an SI blogger! I am an elite emissary to the Internet.

The preacher announced that this passage in James 3:1-12 gives us five reasons we must control our tongues. But Tom gave us only two of them this morning. Thank God. Just those two alone were enough to send me cowering in repentance under the pew. Go ahead and buy the sermon recordings if you dare. Here is just a little fraction from my infallible notes.

1. Our tongues condemn us.

Teachers use more words than others. Our words are our works, also. We are held to a stricter standard than others. We must understand and practice (Rom. 2:21-22). Our words will be involved in the final judgment. Of course, unbelievers will hear their own words passing judgment on them (Matt. 12:36; Rom. 3:13). But so will believers (James 3:1; 1 Cor. 3:13 – judgment of our works and motives and our words). I thought for sure that Tom was going to slip in the logon of the climactic phrase in Romans 14:12 that slew me in 2005. It took me weeks to recover.

Tom quoted Douglas Moo over how we teachers “will be scrutinized more by the Lord than others.” And Pennington illustrated how John Knox wept uncontrollably during his first sermon. Really, how hard do we study to get it right? Didn’t John MacArthur always say, “Keep your rear in the chair until your work gets done”?

2. Our tongues control us.

Is “perfect” in James 3:2 hypothetical or spiritual maturity? Tom suggested the latter. And the tongue has the ability to bridle the whole body illustrated in the text with both the bit (v. 3) in a horse’s mouth (one of God’s most majestic creatures, Job 39:19) and the ship’s rudder (v. 4).

Tongues are little boasting members (v. 5) guiding, directing, and controlling our lives. Tom brought up Proverbs 18:7. And then he started bringing in forceful application about not joking about sexual sin or using the word divorce in our marriage communication. [6] The control of the tongue is the means to maturity. He questioned, “How are you doing watching your mouth?” and then started listing a whole catalog of tongue ugliness: lying, deceit, dishonesty, gossip, slander, fighting, whining, complaining, self-justification, blaming, cussing, talking too much, talking too little, flattery, selfishness, self-pity, etc.

The preacher called for us to identify the sinful patterns, to put off, and to renew our minds. SINS OF SPEECH ARE SERIOUS! I would add elephantine.

The sermon was over. And I eventually crawled out of the worship center, thoroughly shaken and terrified over even being a teacher. Sophia over in the umbrella-top courtyard for the visitors was a godsend–all smiles and sweet. I picked up a “Stop. Who Do You Think I Am?” Gospel tract and MacArthur’s CD, “15 Words of Hope.” Surely, I needed some hope and Gospel grace for my miserable soul and big, bad tongue.

I picked up information on the Fundamentals of the Faith class, a prayer sheet, an opportunity sheet, a Grace Books International advertisement, and a Home Bible Studies sheet listing 83 possibilities. Wow. I actually wondered what Adam Bailie had been teaching on second and fourth Fridays over in Northridge when he was on staff at GCC. And I praised the Lord for the Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Thai, Arabic, and Spanish outreaches.

And then. Just then. I saw doors opening to some kind of bookstore. Could it really be? My wife knew it was all over. No more fun conversation with the family and Sophia. No more refreshments. The theological antenna was up. The radar had locked in. My heart started experiencing wild palpitations. I was on a mission.

Do you know how long I have been in a bookstore of such caliber? The LDS Deseret and Seagull bookstores in my city get a little old after a while. And the only evangelical bookstore in town is at the Calvary Chapel, which you know simply bursts with praise toward the theological system of Calvinism. In about 15 minutes, I put the following on my credit card in random order:

1. The MacArthur Study Bible (NASV, hardcover) (Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2006)
2. The Message of the Old Testament (Crossway Books, 2006) by Mark Dever
3. The MacArthur NT Commentary, John 1-11 (Moody Publishers, 2006)
4. Teaching John (Christian Focus Publications, 2002) by William Philip
5. John (Eerdmans Publishing, 2003) by Colin G. Kruse
6. John – NIV Application (Zondervan, 2000) by Gary M. Burge
7. John (Vol. 1 & 2) The New American Commentary (Broadman, 2002) by Gerald L. Borchert
8. The Glory of Christ (Christian Heritage) by John Owen
9. God’s Greater Glory (Crossway Books, 2004) by Bruce A. Ware
10. The Worship of God (Christian Focus Publications, 2005) – Reformed
11. The Character of God (Regal, 1995) by R.C. Sproul

I didn’t tell my wife on this particular Sunday morning how much I spent when rejoining the family in the van. Midway through our California trip, I almost suggested to her the possibility that we might all be wearing barrels for clothes, but then I thought better of it. Didn’t the preacher that morning say “Watch your mouth”?

__________

1. Jack Hayford called me up at the church (albeit phone recording) yesterday, telling me I need to join BattleCry.com. The mailing from the NAE came earlier in the week.
2. I have to admit Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa chose to categorize their church as “independent fundamental” in the phone book. This complicates things.
3. Someday, if I return to the LA area again, it will be to hear two preachers probably most have never heard: Randy Fox and Tim Lovegrove.
4. I suppose GCC must be one of those crazy churches in L.A. that places more money into the spread of solid, mind-stirring theology than in transforming the campus into an updated, 21st century, lush theme park.
5. No overhead, computerized screens? What is wrong with these people? Are they still living in the dark ages? How come they are not synchronized with the digitized culture of 2006 and its fluidity? Don’t they know books are just plain archaic?
6. Does that mean my wife and I need to stop saying “murder,” too?


———–
Todd Wood is pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He received his B.A. in Missions, M.A. in Theology, and M.Div. from Bob Jones University. But more than anything he hungers for the A.I.G. degree affixed to Apelles (Rom. 16:10).

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