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Members of the La Mesa Church of Christ in San Diego County worship on a Sunday morning.
Closing Churches
Photo by Cheryl Mann Bacon

Struggle to save a church inspires an innovative partnership

Nonprofits and congregations work together on a plan to plant or rejuvenate 10 San Diego-area churches in 10 years.

LA MESA, Calif. — It may take a miracle.

That’s OK. They know someone.

The leadership of the La Mesa Church of Christ has a plan.

La Mesa is one of 18 cities within San Diego County, the sprawling and culturally diverse home to 3.3 million residents — larger in area than Delaware and Rhode Island, slightly smaller than Connecticut.

And it is home to a church in transition. The La Mesa congregation, planted in 1940 by members of the El Cajon Boulevard Church of Christ, now finds itself at the center of an innovative collaboration, which, if it works, will combine the efforts of Heritage 21 Foundation, San Diego Christian Foundation, Kairos Church Planting and several other congregations. The shared goal is to plant or rejuvenate 10 churches in 10 years.

In separate conversations, leaders in all those organizations added the same caveat: Things aren’t final yet. Then they turned to explaining with palpable excitement their shared vision for California’s second-most populous county.


Related: Organizations offer struggling churches resources for the future


That’s a big target audience for the 30 or so folks who gathered for worship at the Nan Couts Cottage, a community center in La Mesa’s MacArthur Park, on a recent Sunday morning.

Graham Clifford preaches for the La Mesa Church of Christ in San Diego County on a Sunday morning.

Graham Clifford preaches for the La Mesa Church of Christ in San Diego County on a Sunday morning.

The diverse group included two young boys who were taught outdoors on the patio by an elder’s wife who is a retired physician. A U.S. Navy sailor home on leave and a former La Mesa church member from Japan joined a multiracial group with a 70-year age span. The preacher wore Bermuda shorts and, like the members of the praise team that included his wife, sported more than one tattoo. Older members dressed more formally, younger ones more comfortably. 

In other words, it looked a lot like San Diego.

In addition to the 30 worshiping in person, the La Mesa congregation’s community has grown online. Graham Clifford, minister at La Mesa who with his wife, Brianna, has served there in various roles since 2006, posted his Sunday sermon on the previous Friday night, and by Sunday lunch more than 500 viewers had played the video. Over a week the total is about 700. On Wednesday nights, a virtual event on Facebook includes what he calls a “mini church service” but with a Q&A that elicits honest conversation with participants.


Related: A final song, a familiar end


The Cliffords’ home and its lush, welcoming backyard provide yet another safe space for visitors and congregation events.  

“We have a lot of young people who don’t feel comfortable in churches anywhere who enjoy spending time with us,” he said. One young woman comes every Wednesday night to their home, listens to the conversations and tells him she “answers all those questions in her head.”

A young friend of Brianna Clifford’s from a former workplace wasn’t even a believer when he was recruited to play guitar on the praise team. A reggae artist in the county’s burgeoning music community, at first he came just for the gig. But, she said, he felt welcome and stayed on, and now attends all the church’s events and gatherings. He has begun referring to La Mesa as “his church.”

Praise team members strum guitars during the service.

Praise team members lead the Le Mesa congregation in worship.

It began with baptisms in the Pacific 

Churches of Christ have existed in San Diego for a long time.

The county has 30 congregations, including seven that are non-institutional or non-Sunday school, according to Kevin Withem, board chairman of San Diego Christian Foundation. 

“Three people were baptized in the Pacific Ocean in 1892, and out of that group came the El Cajon Boulevard Church of Christ that bought its property in 1923 in the heart of San Diego,” said Withem, who also is senior minister of the North County Church of Christ. North County is one of the largest congregations in the area with about 270 members. Three or four others have a few hundred, but most are much smaller.

Kevin Withem

Kevin Withem

El Cajon Boulevard helped plant 11 congregations in the San Diego area, including La Mesa.

As in many major cities, San Diego congregations span the breadth of the conservative-to-progressive continuum within Churches of Christ. Only two include instrumental worship services — La Mesa for more than a decade and North County, which has both instrumental and a cappella singing. But several congregations expanded women’s roles well before that, while others remain quite traditional.

Withem describes San Diego churches as pretty typical of congregations begun after World War II by hard-working people from smaller towns in the Midwest. As that generation passes, he said, “The culture of the church did not contextualize the Gospel well for Southern California.  A lot of people would say, ‘If I brought a friend to church, they were stepping into another culture of a different time.’”


Related: ‘Where did the people go?’


“If we’re going to do what we’re going to do,” he added, “we need to think in terms of how the gospel will spread in Southern California, not Tennessee or Oklahoma.”

Most of the La Mesa members remember when they assembled in the big, brick A-frame on Jackson Drive, just off Interstate 8. The building, opened in 1962, is still there. But the La Mesa Church of Christ isn’t.

The La Mesa church’s former auditorium during the COVID-19 shutdown in San Diego.

The La Mesa church’s former auditorium during the COVID-19 shutdown in San Diego.

Back in the 1970s, attendance at that building was about 600. Decline began in the ’80s and continued over 40 years, with members departing when preachers moved or worship styles changed.  

Sylvia Wright, a diminutive African-American woman who has been a member at La Mesa more than 30 years, said many of her friends left over time. “Some people leave when preachers change. Some people leave when things change.  They say ‘I’m not going to do that.’  A lot of my friends have left — but this is my home.”

After decades of dwindling membership, two failed experiments with leasing portions of the building to schools and $250,000 worth of damage caused when a 6-inch fire line blew out, the congregation reached a turning point as COVID-19 shut down gatherings and much more.

“It was never an option to close everything down – we weren’t ready. We still saw there was a place for us in the community. We thought there’s something we could do to bring Jesus into the community.”

Clifford said when a charter school tenant exited during the pandemic, walking away in year one of a seven-year lease, the congregation lost about $22,000 a month in income. The church also had been paying on a million dollars worth of bonds since 2010 and a loan from San Diego Christian Foundation that helped with the water damage.

“It was never an option to close everything down – we weren’t ready,” Clifford added. “We still saw there was a place for us in the community. We thought there’s something we could do to bring Jesus into the community.”

Finding a new tenant in the midst of a pandemic was not really an option. Leaders could have mortgaged the parsonage or borrowed more money from the foundation. But rather than borrow again, they decided to sell the building.

“We were told it would take a year,” Clifford said. It took a week, culminating in a bidding war with five contenders. The $5.2 million sale left the church with about $3.5 million after debts were paid off, and allowed the congregation to “start dreaming of a future.”

“That’s where Heritage 21 came in,” the minister explained, specifically mentioning Scott Lambert, the foundation’s president. “Scott latched on and was willing to do the journey with us.”

A new space, much different and much smaller than the old building, has been leased for three years — a former attorney’s office just a block off La Mesa’s downtown main street. Clifford is doing much of the remodeling himself.

It may be months, however, before the building is permitted for a place of worship, so until then Sunday worship will continue in the community center.  

Meanwhile other activities can take place at the new location so a potluck will welcome members to the new digs and a space for children will allow the church to again host a parents night out – an event that regularly drew about 65 families from the community to the old building. This time they will market that event directly to military families. 

La Mesa Church of Christ members eat on a patio.

La Mesa Church of Christ members eat on a patio.

You’ve got to mourn a little

Heritage 21’s Lambert lives in Texas, where he’s a member of The Hills, a Church of Christ in the Fort Worth area. But he spent 34 years in ministry in Southern California. So he quickly planned a trip to San Diego in April 2021.

“We sat at Panera Bread for four hours,” Clifford said of that initial conversation. “He was excited there was a church willing to get rid of the comfort of a building and invest in the future of what the church can become, invest in church planting.” 

Shedding the comfort of a building is a big challenge for any church.

“Everyone is in mourning about their building, and before you can have a strong vision, you’ve got to mourn a little and go through detox.”

“Everyone is in mourning about their building, and before you can have a strong vision, you’ve got to mourn a little and go through detox,” Lambert said. The La Mesa members spent last summer in that detox phase.

The Heritage 21 leader also leads The Conversation Group, a ministry focused on providing mentoring for church leaders. In the spring of 2021, he led a weekend retreat with the whole church.

“He helped us find the questions that needed answers,” Clifford said. “He had 30 of them,” focusing in particular on who are the leaders, and who are the people the church can see itself reaching out to.

“We like to think of Scott as a wedding planner — someone who knew the heritage of Churches of Christ and who could connect us with what to do next.”

The idea of a cohort involving multiple organizations developing a countywide church-planting program began in those discussions and in Lambert’s conversations with other leaders, including Withem and Ron Clark, executive director of Kairos Church Planting. If it works, about $1.5 million from the La Mesa sale will be dedicated to rejuvenation of churches in the county over a decade.

Heritage 21 is involved in revitalization of churches. Kairos focuses on plants. San Diego Christian Foundation has a long history of supporting congregations in the area. Begun in 1977, the foundation built Southwestern Christian School in Chula Vista, a K-8 school that closed around 2008. It supports Palomar Bible Camp for young people from area churches and built a Christian retirement facility.

Ron Clark

Ron Clark

The details are still a work in progress, but the Kairos team will do an onsite training with La Mesa leadership — its staff and two elders — in June.

“Our role is to train and develop the existing core leadership team to reboot that congregation and to empower them to lead a renewal of La Mesa,” Clark said. “Our goal is to help people succeed.”

The leadership already has spent time establishing its core values, which Clifford recapped as he began his Sunday sermon:

Gather — a safe place for all people to come together.

Belong — a community that welcomes the outside in. 

Discover — who we were always meant to be in Christ through very intentional relationships.

Share — expressing God’s love and blessing to those who are not yet in the same place.


Related: Church closing trend began before COVID-19


Cautiously expecting a miracle 

Whether the plan functions as a loose agreement or a new 501(c)(3), along with other details, remains part of discussions. But cautious optimism seems to prevail.

Longtime La Mesa elder Jim Banks, a retired engineering professor at San Diego State University, said he is a bit of a pessimist by nature. But he is cautiously optimistic about La Mesa’s plans.

In many ways, La Mesa’s diversity reflects congregations across the county. Though many are more traditional, Lambert believes at least some will buy in for mutual support, and he is committed to working with people in their areas of interest. One workshop, for example, is planned to help churches improve their use of technology, something several expressed interest in.

Heritage 21 needs to be a unifying group,” he said. “We know there will be skirmishes, but our interest is to be a unifying group for rejuvenation and new churches. We’re the catalyst who can help bring things along.”

Clark shares his optimism. He knows someone, too.

“I’m optimistic that God can do this,” he said. “If there are people who will say, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to change, to follow Jesus, to do what God wants for this community,’ then the potential is there.”

CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected]

Filed under: California church closures church collaboration Church decline Closing Churches Heritage 21 Foundation Kairos Church Planting National News San Diego Christian Foundation San Diego churches of christ Top Stories Uncategorized

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