Eric VanValin, contemplating the best way forward through written words & moving pictures.

Welcome to Holy-Wood

Welcome to Holy-Wood

This article originally appeared in the magazine RELEVANT Magazine > Issue 79: January/February 2016


Seemingly ripped from one of Los Angeles’ fashion billboards, hundreds of twentysomethings create a line down Sunset Boulevard outside of an LA nightclub.

When the red rope gets pulled back, the crowd is treated to a sensory experience of bright rhythmic lights, impressionistic videos and an auditory explosion with decibels that shake your chest cavity.

Then, the crowd begins to sing praise and worship songs. An offering is taken, a sermon is preached, the altar call is given.

This is the scene at the first service of Zoe Church, a new LA church plant whose christening took place at the infamous 1OAK nightclub on the Sunset Strip.

“They’re having church at 1OAK?” remarks a seasoned bouncer at a rival nightclub after hearing about Zoe’s location. “That’s where Suge Knight got shot.”

Zoe was started by Pastor Chad Veach, who moved his family from Seattle to LA in 2014 to start a church that is almost entirely staffed by and seeking to serve those born in the ’90s. The congregation stands in total opposition to the recent Pew Research Center study that suggests those under the age of 30 are less likely to identify as Christian than any time since the 1930s, with the steepest rate of declines happening in the past 10 years.

Veach sees reaching LA’s next generation as necessary to the future of the Church.

“We’re creeping up on a post-Christian society, on a brink of what we believe in our religion being a hate crime,” he says. “We need something in influential major cities that stands up—not so we can protect the morals of our nation, but so God can change the hearts of people.”

Staying Put

Another major player and recent church plant that is providing a spiritual swell in the city is Hillsong LA, the West Coast branch of the Australian megachurch, which has 100,000 members worldwide.

The LA iteration began modestly, with 20 people meeting in Pastor Ben Houston’s house in January 2014 before growing to a crowd that packs out The Belasco Theatre, a 2,500-seat downtown venue where Hillsong hosts their four Sunday services.

“We didn’t have any grand plan for us as a church. It was something God broke my heart for,” Houston explains. “We’ve really just tried to set our hearts on the people of Los Angeles and do everything we can to point people to Jesus.”

Houston recently announced Hillsong signed a lease on a building that will keep the church in the city for the next 25 years.

“We’ve tried to really build something with longevity,” he explains. “This is a transient city, but we’re not going to be a transient church.”

Veach suggests the appeal of these young pastors and their young churches is more inherent than strategic.

“It’s natural, you follow your favor. If you naturally have an audience, then you run with that.”

When asked how he would describe what’s happening in LA, Houston replies, “I’m not afraid to use the word ‘revival’—I think it’s exactly what we’re in. We’re seeing a flood of young, passionate church planters who have moved into the city and have a heart to build something. We’re seeing thousands of people respond to Jesus, seeing thousands of people helped.”

Something Bigger

An example of a “veteran” church in the area would be Reality LA. Founded in 2004, the church has sustained a several-thousand-member congregation in the heart of Hollywood over the past decade.

Jeremy Treat, pastor for preaching & vision at Reality LA, sees it as a church that is serving those under 30 by sticking to the basics.

“We’re old-school,” he says. “We preach the Bible, proclaim the Gospel, point people to Jesus and trust the Holy Spirit to build the Church. The pressure is not on us to build something. We really believe Jesus builds His Church, and so there’s a freedom that comes with that.”

Treat sees the past decade as major revitalization for churches in the area and for LA as a whole.

“Ten years ago, there was hardly anything around here in terms of churches. At least Bible-preaching churches,” he says. “LA has changed so much, too. I can remember in 1999, downtown was a ghost town. It shut down at like 5 o’clock. It’s so different now, booming, in a lot of ways. It’s amazing how much LA has changed—and it’s changing really fast.”

Treat also recognizes there’s no limit to the need for new churches to the city.

“You’re talking about 500 square miles and 4 million people. We could have 1,000 more Reality LAs tomorrow and you still wouldn’t have enough room for all of the people in Los Angeles to go to church on a Sunday. For me, the more the merrier.”

And while Treat freely issues encouragement for what’s happening, he also acknowledges a need for patience.

“I think the Lord’s doing something that’s bigger than any one church,” he says. “But I would want to give more time to judge the fruit of it before saying words like ‘revival’ or ‘awakening.’ I’m hoping and praying these churches are making disciples. If it’s just kind of a movement and ‘rah-rah’ that people kind of move from here to there, then that’s going to be bad for the city of LA in the long run.”

Celebrity Sightings

One of the most notable characteristics of these new-approach pastors is their willingness to embrace the pop-culture makers of their generation.

Judah Smith, the Seattle pastor who is close with Justin Bieber, started a weekly Bible study in a five-star hotel off the famous Rodeo Drive, seemingly catering to the LA elite. Veach and Houston regularly spend time with young celebrities and pro athletes. Bieber, Tyson Chandler, Ricky Fowler, Ashley Benson and Haley Baldwin even got tattoos in support of Veach’s daughter, Georgia, who was diagnosed with a rare brain disease.

“Some may ask, ‘Why would you hang out with that artist, or that model, or that rapper?’” Veach says. “‘Don’t you know what they sing about? Don’t you know they made a sex tape? How could you be friends with them?’ These are the people Jesus hung out with. He hung out with notorious sinners.”

Houston attributes the attraction of celebrities as a sign that the Church can offer a space where class isn’t an issue.

“All we’ve tried to do is love people in the city God has called us to,” he explains. “Whether you’re sleeping on the street or you’re one of the most photographed and famous people on the world, no matter where you fit in-between, we create an environment where people feel valued.”

Stylistically, churches like Hillsong and Zoe seek to offer “experiential” worship services. They feature loud, passionate worship, engaging call-and-response preaching style and an exhortation for salvation at every service. This makes them fit in the vein of charismatic and non-traditional liturgy that can be traced back to 1906 to LA’s original spiritual movement, the Azusa Street Revival, which Pentecostal scholar Cecil M. Robeck Jr. calls “the birthplace of Pentecostalism.”

“These are never new wells,” Veach says. “We’re the result of the power of a praying parent. I’d like to think what’s happening in LA is the result of a lot of people praying for this city, begging God to move and believing for signs and wonders.”

A Different Approach

On the other side of the denominational spectrum and the other side of the Hollywood Hills is Story City Church, a Southern Baptist church plant in Burbank, California. The church’s pastor, Matt Lawson, partly felt the need to plant in that area because there just weren’t many other options of his ilk in a city known for its culturally progressive lean.

Lawson explains, “Until two years ago, there hadn’t been any churches from our stream planted in the Valley since 1965.”

This 50-year denominational absence has caused Lawson and Story City to somewhat start from scratch in the neighborhood. The church found a venue in the comedy club Flappers, whose website boldly bears the motto “Still Celebrating the Repeal of Prohibition.” It’s an unlikely location for a conservative church, but simply finding a location to gather can be difficult when rent rates rival those of New York City and London.

“It’s a hard place to plant a church,” Lawson says. “It’s almost impossible unless you have a network of churches supporting you.”

Despite the challenges, Lawson recognizes a definite need for continuing to plant in rough ground.

“There are 19 million people in metro LA,” he says. “I hear people say, ‘I feel like this is the loneliest place I’ve ever been.’ I think people experience that whether they live in Beverly Crest or they’re 22 years old trying to make it in the industry. It’s a city where nobody comes to give something to you; everybody comes to get something.”

To combat this mentality, Story City Church has begun hosting free movie nights in local parks as well as providing random acts of kindness like paying for an afternoon of car washes for Burbank locals.

“In our city, we think there’s something redemptive about generosity,” Lawson explains. “Our approach is to simply say, ‘We’re here to serve and to give.’”

Embracing Diversity

Another challenge facing LA church plants is navigating how to appeal to and include diverse populations in their congregations. U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2015 showed that over 83 percent of the children under the age of 5 in LA were part of a minority race or ethnic group.

2015 also marked the year that Latinos became the largest ethnic group in California. Estimates suggest that by 2040, LA’s Hispanic population will be double the size of all other nationalities put together. This raises an interesting question: What will it look like for a new group of young white males to lead churches as the minority?

“Being a minority doesn’t say enough. We’re a privileged minority,” offers Jon Ziegler, a Caucasian father of two who recently started Gold Line Church, an Anglican parish, with his wife and co-pastor, Janna. The couple, in their mid-30s, have positioned themselves to plant in the ever-gentrifying neighborhood of Highland Park, where Hispanics outnumber other ethnicities eight to one.

“We strive for diversity,” Jon says, “to serve both the Latino community and those with skinny jeans.”

The Zieglers started Gold Line with Colombian transplant missionaries Juan and Maria Marentes, who hope to represent the Spanish-speaking majority in the neighborhood. During a Gold Line Church service, worship choruses bounce from English to Spanish, creating a new type of “call and response” worship.

“We’re figuring this out,” Jon says from the pulpit at their inaugural service. “For those of you who are Spanish dominant, please let us know how we can improve.”

Gold Line’s challenge is one many neighborhoods in LA will have to address as communities of varying portions of Asians, Hispanics, Arabs, Native Americans, Caucasians and African-Americans seek to integrate and worship together.

It’s a challenge many pastors see as a tremendous opportunity.

“I always tell people you can fulfill the Great Commission by going to all the nations or going to Los Angeles, where the nations have all come to one place,” Reality LA’s Jeremy Treat says. “I love that aspect of it. [But] it’s also hard.”

In a recent national event titled “The Turbulent Church in 21st Century America,” professors and presidents from some of the nation’s top seminaries gathered to discuss challenges faced by the modern church in America. A major theme of discussion was, unsurprisingly, race.

“Our religious leaders are diversity blind, and Sunday morning is the most segregated day of the week,” said Oscar Garcia-Johnson, the associate dean for The Center for the Study of Hispanic Church and Community at Fuller Theological Seminary. He cited an example found in the very way we name our churches: “We have black churches, Korean churches, African churches, Hispanic churches, then we have ‘the Church.’”

Just Getting Started

Back in Highland Park, Jon and Janna seek to create a space that works against systemic segregation. In addition to creating a bilingual church, they’re also starting a liturgical-focused Anglican parish. “Neither of which exist in Highland Park,” Jon says.

Despite the challenges, the Zieglers can’t see doing it any other way.

“Part of it is how we understand the Gospel. We don’t invent the Church, but we are being reinvented by the Church,” Janna explains. “We are called to include all of God’s people. The kind of people we invite—we don’t feel like we get to decide that. That has been decided, and we are doing best to facilitate that.”

The Zieglers see the Anglican community as middle ground for the two main Christian traditions in their Highland Park neighborhood, which they describe as a mix of Roman Catholics and Pentecostals.

The degree of difficulty is not lost on the young pastors.

“We are asking everyone to be uncomfortable with something,” Janna says. “Can you participate in a worship experience that’s not all going to be in your language, that’s not all going to be in your Christian tradition?”

Like many of the other pastors of growing churches in LA, the Zieglers know they are just getting started.

“Pray for us,” Jon says.

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