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Striking gold in California

CORDOVA CHURCH finds that winning converts in an image-conscious society is best accomplished by developing authentic faith, genuine work ethic.
RANCHO CORDOVA, CALIF. — Getting real.
It can be a problem at this stop on the seamless stretch of suburbs along Highway 50, about seven miles east of Sacramento.
A Hollywood transplant named “Ahnold” lives nearby in the governor’s mansion, a fact that still has some in this blue state seeing red.
Median home prices run $376,000, paid for with varying degrees of success by residents earning median family incomes of $43,210. The monthly price tag on a one-bedroom apartment: $900.
The commute to work can take 60 to 90 minutes or more in traffic so dense you rarely see anyone’s rear tires ­— and that’s not taking into account thick fog that sometimes envelops the expansive Central Valley.
In northern California — founded on gold and sustained largely on technology and celebrity — life for the average person is all about keeping up appearances.
So members at the Cordova church say they must focus instead on reality: They minister to a spiritually needy community, encourage Christians to build godly relationships, and help heal wounds caused by drugs, alcohol and misplaced priorities.
“This is still Mickey Mouse country, all about show and entertainment,” minister Chris Goldman said. “So we have to be an authentic community of believers.”
The Cordova church is one of the largest in California, with 600 or so filling the pews at two Sunday morning worship sessions. Most come by car, but several hop aboard the city’s light rail system or take a bus to get here.
When Goldman looks out over the auditorium each Sunday, he sees a sea of faces — Russian, Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, South African, Hispanic and Sri Lankan, to name just a few.
The faces reflect Sacramento County, which is notably diverse and heralded as one of the most racially and ethnically integrated major cities in America.
Much of that diversity can be attributed to immigrants drifting the 80 miles inland from San Francisco to escape its near-crippling cost of living.
The elders estimate that Cordova’s 330 families represent at least a dozen nationalities — and they say the church takes pride in its diversity.
“I think it’s one of our greatest strengths,” elder Jim Dixon said. “It says volumes about who we are as the body of Christ.”
Members graciously accept — or at least tolerate — the customs and traditions of others, leaders said. For example, some immigrant members come from parts of the world where it’s considered respectful for all to stand for public prayer. So, many native members join them in standing even when they’re not specifically asked.
Potluck dinners can be an event unto themselves, with a true global menu. And while some may cover their heads for Sunday worship, others might use the same spot to prop up their sunglasses while indoors.
“This is a very loving congregation … full of receptive people,” Dixon said. “We work at understanding each other and getting along.”
The approach works. In a part of the country where Goldman said four Churches of Christ closed their doors in the last year and only a few have shown any growth, Cordova thrives. The theories as to why seem to outnumber the members.
“There’s a great multigenerational blend at Cordova,” said Bonnie Creeger, 60, whose two children, their spouses and her two young grandchildren call the congregation home.
“There are parents here, myself included, who think there’s nothing better than taking the Lord’s Supper with our families every Sunday and passing our grandchildren back and forth to keep them from fussing,” Creeger said. “I think that’s why this church works.”
On Tuesday mornings, the Cordova building hosts meetings for a local chapter of Mothers Of Pre Schoolers, or MOPS.
More than a dozen Cordova members lead the discussions and bring snacks to share. Some might pick up stray Cheerios or bounce fussy baby on their shoulders, while others compare stories of hormonal teen angst.
The next day, senior adults gather in the same room for a class that allows them to explore sermon or lesson topics from the previous Sunday. Driving here during the day keeps them from having to navigate Wednesday night traffic, Goldman said, and gives them one-on-one time with the minister.
Young, old or in-between, Goldman said, stability is the common denominator at Cordova. People of any age will come and stay, he said, when the church consistently meets their needs.
“The average church in California loses 25 percent of its members each year,” he said. “There’s so much instability in our culture that stability breeds growth.”
But it’s not enough just to be there, even with good intentions, Goldman said. Nor is it possible simply to serve people in some way and expect they’ll return.
California culture dictates otherwise.
“Theologically speaking, you can offer people drinks of water and food and they say, ‘Thanks a lot!’ and leave,” he said. “It’s the ones watching you do that who are coming to us now.”
Years of mistrust and layers of deception with religion mean people want to come on their own terms, Goldman said. “If they observe you doing good, then that’s proof to them that you’re well-intentioned.”
In the next few months, Cordova plans to expand its local outreach so that more people can watch members at work in the community, said Larry Stafford, outreach and involvement minister.
One weekend, members might repaint a neighborhood’s entrance. Over the summer, they’ll put on a day program and marketplace known as Cordova Christian Camp for 150 neighborhood kids. Later, they’ll work where the homeless gather, just across town.
“Yes, this is Rancho Cordova, and we’re sitting in a pretty nice spot of it,” Stafford said of the upper-middle-class community where he lives. “But you don’t have to go far to see the homeless camps.”
Ask the average Sacramento County resident if they’re familiar with the Church of Christ.
You’ll likely hear about an expansive, gold-domed temple built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the blitz of television ads that accompanied its dedication a few months ago.
“They promote themselves as the Church of Jesus Christ,” said Cordova member Janice Mara, whose curiosity drove her to tour the facility during a short time of public access. “The rest of their name is in fine print now.”
Confusion is a real problem, one Cordova church leaders struggle to address.
“We are the Church of Christ in this area, that is our brand,” Stafford said. “But marketing that brand can be tough.”
So Cordova can’t rely on tradition when it comes to forging an identity in this part of the United States, much less spreading the gospel, leaders said.
Being the right kind of church has become paramount to calling themselves one, Goldman said, and the dilemma actually frees the church in some ways to be more missional.
“It’s not fair to say we disregard tradition,” Goldman said. “We just don’t let it dictate who we are. In worship, we’re very traditional. As a leadership, not so much.”
For example:
• Current elders appoint others to help shepherd the flock at Cordova, under the model of “godly men appointing godly men.” The
congregation approves the selections.
• Sunday nights are dedicated to service opportunities after a brief devotional. Groups meet at the building and off-site.
• Vacation Bible School was replaced with Cordova Christian Camp, which leaders say let church members build closer relationships with neighborhood children. As a result, 75 percent of the participants are now visitors and 25 percent members, instead of the other way around.
• College students and young professionals were commissioned last summer to create a comfortable place to meet for Bible study. The result: Café de Cristo, a mocha-colored room with bistro tables, mirrors and track lighting.
“We have people tell us how pleasantly surprising our church is,” Goldman said. “This isn’t your dad’s Church of Christ.”
Isaac Steiner, 23, is a graphic designer who came to Cordova a year ago. He grew up in a Baptist church, but said he realized in high school that his faith was “inauthentic.”
Perched on a high stool inside Café de Cristo on a Sunday night, Steiner talks about an upcoming election. He admits that he was thinking about politics on his way to church — because church is less troubling, he laughed.
“I don’t know the traditions of the Church of Christ,” Steiner said, “But I know this church cares about all kinds of people. That’s the delightful thing about how they classify themselves. They care what you do and what you think.”
A few dozen 20-somethings fill the room. Most bring Bibles and almost all participate in the discussion about what they like best about the congregation.
“Support from the elders,” says one.
“For the ministries,” says another. “They’re really open to that.”
Bill Mara appreciates that connection. Cordova’s newest elder wants the young people to spend a majority of their time out of Café de Cristo and help lead a more aggressive community ministry.
“Our tolerance level for someone to just sit on a pew is over,” Mara said. “It’s showtime.”

Filed under: Churches That Work Staff Reports

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