The internet is both a marvel and a curse. One marvel is that through it, we can, if we will, time travel. This occurred to me after listening to an episode of the Presbycast in which someone mentioned City Church of San Francisco. Why would one want to visit City Church of the past? Because it was one of the original PCA “for the city” congregations, a movement emanating from Redeemer PCA in Manhattan and because it is now a RCA (Reformed Church in America) congregation, which presents itself as a progressive, inclusive congregation. Their website announces prominently “City Church welcomes everyone – inclusive of age, race, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and stage of belief.”
In 2015 City Church stirred controversy with its pastoral letter where it announced that it had abandoned its policy of requiring celibacy for Same-Sex-Attracted (Gay) members of the congregation (the so-called “Side B” approach). In place of Side B it decided:
…We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining. For all members, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to expect chastity in singleness until marriage. Please pray for our Board as we continue to discuss pastoral practices with our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray for our denomination, the Reformed Church in America, as it does the same.
So, between 2000 and 2015 there was an observable trajectory in City Church.
Marking The History
Let us go back in time to 2000. Twenty years ago City Church described its purpose this way:
City Church exists to make a visible difference in the quality of life of the San Francisco community. We are here neither to encourage people to transfer from other churches nor to merely meet the needs of our own people.
They explained: “Our name comes from two beliefs:
- that God has a special concern and love for cities, and
- that people cannot reach their fullest potential unless they enjoy a relationship with God and know Him personally.”
They said that high aesthetic standards and the like are “not enough.” Rather, the “classic Christian message, called the “gospel” (literally, the “good news”), is that it is possible to have such a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.” One notes that sin does not have a prominent place in this narrative. The idea that the Christian faith helps humans to reach their fullest potential has more to do with Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller (1926–2015) than it does with Calvin or Luther.
They indicated that the church would have an open door toward making Christ known and would offer a “clear path for those who journey toward Him and are following Him.” They explicitly identified themselves with the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) a conservative Presbyterian denomination with roots in the old Southern Presbyterian Church, the PCUS.
Between 2001 and 2002 the church website had a link to a page articulating the gospel as it was being presented in the Redeemer model.
The gospel is: you are more flawed and lost than you ever dared believe, yet you can be more accepted and loved than you ever dared hope at the same time, because Jesus Christ lived and died in your place
The page quotes Jonah 2:9, “salvation is of the Lord.” It discusses repentance, observing that the irreligious do not repent and the religious repent of their sins but notes carefully that Christians “also repent of their righteousness.” A Christian, it says,
is someone who has adopted a whole new system of approach to God. They realize their entire reason for either irreligion or religion has been essentially the same and essentially wrong! Christians realize that both their sins and their best deeds have all really been ways of avoiding Jesus as savior. “… the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin…” (Flannery O’Connor)
It observes that a Christian recognizes that his own attempts to obey the law for salvation is an attempt to make himself Savior. It contrasts the two thieves on the cross, legalism and and liberalism. The former has truth without grace and the latter has grace without truth. Jesus came full of grace and truth. The page invokes Luther and then turns to the “impact” (influence) of the gospel on the city. City Church was set to avoid the liberal multiculturalism, which relativizes all cultures and the conservative approach, which idolizes some cultures. The gospel was said to empower City Church to avoid both the liberal of the “religion of the poor,” which sees them as helpless victims, and the conservative approach which sees them as failures and weaklings.
The reader doubtless sees the emerging pattern. A similar approach is employed to the the problem of “difficult emotions,” the approach to “the physical world,” to “love and relationships,” suffering, self-control, ministry in the world, and worship.
For City Church c. 2001–02, “All problems, personal or social come from a failure to use the gospel in a radical way.” This is an interesting expression, “use the gospel.” The whole page has a technocratic sensibility, as if the gospel is the ultimate tech breakthrough to solve our problems. Remember, this was the period of “dot com” bubble. Public access to the internet was still a relatively new thing and San Francisco was adjacent to Silicon Valley, the center of the new high tech universe.
The summary extols the virtues of “using the gospel” in a radical way. One application is notable because it seems exceptional. There is little to see on the site about sexual orientation except this: “For example, gays are used to being “bashed” and hated or completely accepted. They never see anything else.” It is a passing reference situated among other applications, e.g., addressing poverty, and “[a]voiding the excesses of the dispensationalist, charismatic, or mainline liberal churches (who all lose the balance of the gospel truth in different ways), a gospel-centered church will break stereotypes and shine brightly in the city.”
In 2006 City Church announced that they were leaving the PCA for the RCA, the oldest of the Dutch Reformed denominations in North America. The RCA is the sister denomination to the old Reformed Church in the Netherlands, members of which began emigrating to the New World in the 17th century, forming the Collegiate Reformed Church in New Amsterdam in 1628. We might say that this was the original “for the city” congregation, since it would later become the home of the father of the “positive thinking” movement in America, Norman Vincent Peale (1898–1993). Early in the 19th century the Dutch formed the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church (1819) and finally the RCA in 1867. Readers of this column will be interested to know that the Christian Reformed Church in North America split from the RPDC in 1857 because the “Dutch Reformed Church” sent their children to public schools, allowed elders to join the Masonic Lodge, and sang hymns in public worship.
A Turning Point
In 2006 City Church left the PCA because of the denomination’s restriction of office to males. The website snapshots from the early years tend to be consistent between 1999 and 2005 so ’06 seems to be marked a turning point.
The “About” page from July 2009 follows the pattern established earlier:
City Church of San Francisco is a worshipping community that seeks to be the very presence of Christ in word, deed, and lifestyle – through many people in multiple ministries doing one thing – following Christ in mission to a beautiful and broken city, and through the city, the world.
This is church as incarnation. There seems to be less soteriology (what has been done for sinners) and more eschatology (what will be cosmically): “We want to see San Francisco become more and more a place where Jesus Christ is known, honored, and served.” God is still said to have a special affection for cities and the reaching one’s “fullest” potential (by knowing God personally) explains the church name.
Graphically, the church is presented consistently up to 2015. We see city scenes and buildings. This is typical:
The weekly contemplation for October 12, 2015, however, does not come from Calvin, Luther, or even Keller but from Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic mystic who has influenced the Side-B (“Gay Christian”) movement. According to Peter Jones,
This spirituality is espoused by Fr. Richard Rohr,the Buddhist-Christian guru who, over the course of his priesthood has sought to normalize same-sex “marriage,” by denying natural law and insisting that binary genders (male and female) are an imposition of dualistic minds rather than the nature of reality, which is Oneist. Rohr argues that homosexuals are “non-binary” in their DNA.
In 2015 the the “About” page was rather different. City Church is composed of “Jesus followers,” on two campuses, North and South, with a ministry in the Tenderloin District and a Newbigin House for theological study. The church is said to exist for the renewal of the city and “partnering with God.” The RCA influence is clear, however:
City Church wholeheartedly embraces the historic Christian faith expressed in all the ecumenical creeds of the universal church (e.g., the Apostles and Nicene Creeds). It is also committed to the theological heritage of the Protestant Reformation as a member church of the Reformed Church in America, a denomination with roots back to the 1600’s in America, and grounded in the historic reformation theology of the Belgic Confession, The Canons of Dordt, and the Heidelberg Catechism. The RCA’s calling is be “the very presence of Jesus Christ in the world, a thousand churches in a million ways doing one thing-following Christ in mission, in a lost and broken world so loved by God.”
In some ways, this paragraph is an improvement over what one sees from the earlier decades, during which the Reformed confessions seemed (as much as one can tell from what is available) to have been largely absent from the site.
The message of inclusiveness in 2020 is front and center. The color scheme is overtly LGBTQ friendly. The welcome statement says, “City Church welcomes everyone – inclusive of age, race, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and stage of belief.”
The front page says:
City Church is a community of Jesus followers, seeking the renewal of San Francisco, and through it the world. We welcome all persons into our community, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age, physical or mental capacity, education, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and socioeconomic or marital status. We invite everyone to join us in our mission. Whether you are spiritually homeless, skeptical, curious, or a committed follower of Jesus, we value making room for wherever you are in your process and supporting you in your ongoing spiritual journey. We are simply glad you are here!
The congregation now describes itself as “Jesus Centered, Grace Saturated, Kingdom Oriented, Biblically Grounded, Ever Reforming, Intellectually Honest,” and “Communally Designed.”
The church staff page is impressive. It features 18 staff members, males and females, with members of both sexes wearing the plain, white clerical collar (familiar to those who know the Anglican tradition). They list 7 (male and female) elders and 5 deacons, three of whom are female. It looks like a mainline church, which, in some respects, remembers its roots.
Remarkably, Lent is more prominent than gay sexuality. A site search does show events featuring people telling their “coming out” stories, e.g., the child of someone from Focus on the Family gave a talk under the auspices of the church but for as much as the site signals inclusiveness and an LGBTQ friendly vibe, it signals just as often that it is a moderately conservative, eclectic, RCA congregation. A site search brings up many more references to sin and salvation than to LGBTQ themes. The events page could be from Orange City, IA rather than from San Francisco.
When I started this project I expected to find something different than I did. When I first started reading the current site, I thought it would be more radical than it is.
Nevertheless, it is radical enough and it does serve as a warning. City Church has embraced a view of Scripture that essentially ignores those passages that forbid the ordination of females to ruling and teaching office. After that, the congregation moved well beyond the bounds of the historic Christian sexual ethic with which it presumably began in the early 1990s. It has embraced attractions, relationships, and behaviors that are explicitly condemned in Holy Scripture. Its embrace of these things is at odds with its prominent confession of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. The congregation’s embrace of Side-A Gay Christianity (e.g., gay marriage) is a warning to those in NAPARC who think that they can safely embrace “Side B” (celibate) and remain essentially theologically conservative and broadly confessionally Reformed.
Given City Church’s history in the PCA and the prominence of the “for the city” rhetoric in the life and history of the congregation, the PCA needs to think critically (not negatively) about whether such orientations are innocent or whether they carry with them this sort of outcome. I do not pretend to know but given what the PCA is facing with the Revoice theology she can hardly avoid the question as she contemplates her future.