It was a joke or an impromptu skit—I’m not sure what you’d call it—but at most it received a polite chuckle or two. Still, I pressed on with the bit—my presentation of thanks to Erik “Skitch” Matson (11) and Jeremy Schultheiss (PLNU English education major). Their youth group had just finished a mission trip to our neighborhood in Ocean Beach.

“Something to remember us by as you head all the way back to your home church,” I said, handing them each an orange, a lime, and an avocado (which, ok, I bought at the grocery store).

The joke—at least as I saw it—was that their trip back home was, at most, two miles back up the hill to San Diego First Church of the Nazarene. To me, this mission trip was both wonderful and—in the best way possible—absurd. Youth group mission trips, except when their travel plans fall through (and I was assured this wasn’t the case), aren’t planned down the hill. Provided the lights are in your favor, about all it would take to get from First Church to Ocean Beach is the release of your parking brake.

But in retrospect, perhaps this mission trip was not so absurd. Dr. Mark Mann, in addition to serving as director of the Wesleyan Center at PLNU, is an associate pastor at Peace River Christian Fellowship where I serve as lead pastor. He sees such emphasis on local ministry as a corrective.

“The trend the past couple of decades has been to build mega-churches: churches that draw from a wide geographical area,” Mann explained. “So, members of the Rock Church who live in Clairemont and members of the Flood Church who live in Point Loma pass each other on the way to church each Sunday. This is a kind of globalism of the church, if you will. In the past few years, however, there has been a new trend in church planting, a focus on neighborhood.”

Perhaps some of this is unavoidable. Whatever the size of the church, we tend to be drawn to music we like, preachers we like, with people we like. For many of us, our church congregations become our families, and we’re hardly likely to change families simply because we’ve found a new one across the street.

On the other hand, how are we to live out the command to love our neighbors—except in the loosest, broadest definition of the term—if we don’t know the names of the people who physically live next door to our homes and our churches? Peace River Christian Fellowship in Ocean Beach and Genesis in North Park are two young sister churches (operating under the larger umbrella of First Church) that are trying to live out this second approach in their San Diego neighborhoods.

On the street corners leading up to McKinley Elementary School are small hand-painted sandwich boards with the Genesis church logo and service info. Coffee sits out on a cloth covered table in front of the walkway leading to the school’s auditorium, a set of festive ceramic mugs sit empty and ready. Andy, a young man in his early 20s, is greeting folks as they pass. Most don’t stop but give a polite smile or nod; however, the faces are getting more familiar.

The service takes place a few steps inside. A warm, candle-lit environment greets worshippers with double rows of metal chairs forming a semicircle in front of the platform. Pastors Wil and Charlie weave a sermon together, in something of a departure for them. But it fits. It’s an Advent message, but a hard one. Herod and the Christ Child, light and dark. To either side of them as they share, two artists, Lauren Richards and Anne Brady bring the larger themes of their message to the canvas.

It’s the last preview Sunday for Genesis in North Park, a last dress rehearsal, but with the public decidedly welcome. Next month, they will begin meeting here every Sunday morning. For Wil Ryland (05), Genesis’ teaching pastor, he’s already home.

Ryland and his pastoral partners, Charlie Lyons-Pardue (03) and Zach Rollins (06), turned their long-distance theological discussions (and occasional frustrations) about modern church trends toward dreaming and praying. Was church intended to only be a building pastors and congregations commuted to once or twice a week? Could church represent something more to the people who lived in that same neighborhood?

As their conversations (and restlessness) grew, prayerful planning began to take shape. If they were to put their money where their dreams were and plant an incarnational ministry that truly lived, ate, learned, and shopped along with their neighbors, what would it look like, and where would it be?

Perhaps recognizing some of their own artistic gifts and leanings, the San Diego neighborhood of North Park grew larger in their hearts and prayers.

“We started talking about neighborhoods that we knew, and we kept coming back, and back, to the North Park/South Park neighborhoods,” Ryland told me over coffee. “One of the things we looked for was: Are there a whole lot of local businesses or are there a whole lot of chains?”

In fact, the owner of the coffee shop in which we were meeting, Santos Coffee, was working there that morning. Across the street was North Park Nursery; the owners’ kids go to school with Ryland’s kids.

“People work here, but they also live here and they are connected,” he said.

Not that this move has come easy or cheap for Ryland and his wife, Amy. North Park, no doubt due to its artsy charm and local-mindedness, is not a cheap place to own or even rent. In fact, Lyons-Pardue (worship curator) and Rollins (communal ministry pastor) still need to commute in from Santee, a less expensive area in San Diego’s East County. Still, as a group, the three friends and pastors have made a commitment to not just use a building in this neighborhood or simply draw on the resources of North Park, but to become part of the very fabric of life here.

Genesis and the Peace River Christian Fellowship, though different in style and with the latter perhaps a bit more fortunate than strategic in its founding, share spiritual DNA. We at Peace River are also seeking—more and more— to be part of the lifeblood of our Ocean Beach neighborhood.

“You don’t happen to have a suit do you?”

I looked at the pile of clothes spread out on the tables before us. We were in the courtyard of the Episcopal Center where they have a weekly breakfast. Once a month, Mann drags clothes and volunteers down the street from a storage room at the Methodist church. The clothes are passed out to the homeless, needy, and travelers who pop in for the meal. But what had been loosely organized 20 minutes ago into clothing stacks based on size, style, and gender now resembled debris left after a storm. What was left represented slim pickings. A suit? Was this guy kidding?

Just as I was preparing to verbalize a more pastoral response, Mann mentioned something about seeing a grey suit back in the storage room at the Methodist church. It was down the street, but I didn’t mind; I’d been standing around failing to look busy for 10 minutes anyway.

The suit fit, of course—though at the time, I was shocked. It fit him like it had been tailored for him. Steve, who plays piano in local restaurants and clubs when he can get the work, had an interview coming up. It looked perfect. Other than the sneakers, he looked perfect. With no prompting other than a showman’s natural initiative, Steve modeled the suit in front of us, beaming, giving everyone his best Elvis poses. I haven’t caught his performances, but I can’t imagine them being boring.

Organizing our clothes closet was just one of the projects the teens helped out with during this year’s mission trip to Ocean Beach (last year they washed dozens of bags for us at an Ocean Beach laundromat). They also helped clean bathrooms and organize supplies for local businesses. They painted Hodge Hall, where we meet, and they even performed a little interior demolition to make room for the Methodist church to expand their own youth program.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty. Last year, the teens went to Arizona on a trip. Other trips have taken them to Mexico and Belize. Were the teens disappointed to travel to such an un-exotic place (at least relative to their own experience)?

Sophie Callahan (10), who served both as leader and host family on the local mission trip, admits there was a little less enthusiasm when the trip was announced and, in fact, fewer kids ended up going than last year’s trip to Arizona.

“When you do something local, kids start to bow out to their regular responsibilities … but the kids who participated were very grateful that they did,” she said.

Part of First Church’s strategy in moving the teens’ attention away from their regular responsibilities and distractions was with a full immersion into the community, staying with host families each night just as they might on a trip out of state or overseas.

“I think doing home stays allowed them to share life on multiple levels—getting ready in the morning, doing devotionals together, going to the church and working together … the relationships formed were so much deeper because we sat around and ate a meal together,” Sophie said.

Sophie’s husband, Jared Callahan (05), who serves as pastor to youth and their families at First Church, summed up their decision to minister locally this year as follows: “I believe the global body of Christ is wildly important, but we glamorize what it means to go serve your neighbor on fancy trips, and I think that we’ve really missed out on an opportunity to actually serve our physical neighbors. I realize not all churches have the ability to do this, which is why I think global missions are still important, but if every church that existed did a good job of actually loving their physical neighbors, we could live out the kingdom as it was intended to be.”

This commitment to serve the Ocean Beach area was also evidenced this past August by the VBS program at First Church. Under Shelle James’ (78) leadership, the kids and their families collected more than 200 bags of groceries for the Loaves and Fishes food pantry.

Both for Genesis and for Peace River, this type of help has been invaluable. While we each raise our own support and are free to flourish (or stumble) as we see fit, First Church, has served as accountability and prayer partners. In addition, we have been allowed to utilize their payroll and accounting help. They also offer us background checks on any new hires for children’s ministry.

“If we can provide (those helps), and it frees up energy and time for others to do what God is calling them to do, what a blessing!” said Pastor Dee Kelley, senior pastor at First Church. “That then becomes a chance for us to minister in unique ways.”

Re-imagining the environmental slogan of ‘think globally, act locally’ to their own context, Pastor Kelley embraces a congregation-wide ethos that supports both global missions and the call to love locally. “One of the great shifts in missions that has happened in my lifetime is this shift from imposing on other cultures what I think is the best for their life [toward] sharing my faith in other cultures, realizing I have much to learn from those places,” said Kelley. “There is this ‘shared mission’ attitude globally. Having learned this on a global scale, [we now can] take those same principles and use them locally, which I think is the goal of those two pieces, global and local.”

Bruce Paul is a pastor at Peace River as well as a freelance writer and an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene.

By Bruce Paul

PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.