By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
* * *
The young family climbed into a U-Haul and lugged its life toward Orange County, one of the Holy Lands of American Christianity, the region that has spawned everything from the modern-day megachurch movement to the Jesus Freaks to the pioneering radio evangelism of Charles E. Fuller, an orange farmer in Placentia whose Old Fashioned Revival Hour revolutionized the use of media to spread the Word and who founded Pasadena's influential Fuller Theological Seminary. By the 1990s, a second wave of influential Christianity had hit the county and its booming South County suburbs in the form of the post-suburban megachurch. There was Mariners in Irvine, Saddleback in Lake Forest and San Juan Capistrano's Ocean Hills Community Church—all places that ditched the pipe organs and pews to become modern Protestant supercenters led by charismatic, casually dressed "pastorpreneurs."
Through that decade, the buzzwords in modern American Christianity were "church growth," heavily pushed by the Fuller Theological Seminary. Gibbons, a wide-eyed pastor in his early thirties, was inspired by OC's mega-movements—Saddleback's Rick Warren and other Christian icons such as Bill Hybels of Illinois' Willow Creek Community Church were like rock stars to him—but he was also conflicted. These churches were very big, but they were also very white. And the Korean megachurches in Orange County—Bethel in Irvine and SaRang Community Church in Anaheim (the largest non-English-dominant church in the United States)—weren't much better in spreading diversity.
"I saw the megachurch growing, but it was based on a homogeneous principle," Gibbons says. "It was all about relevance, and it was all about targeting people. It was like setting a trap. Their idea was 'We can grow our churches if we can attract people like us.' Is there anything outstanding or brilliant about loving someone like you? Anyone can do that. I think it's really tough to love someone who's not like you."
Newsong started in 1994 with seven people in Gibbons' living room. It snowballed from space to space—the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, Irvine High School's football field, the Santa Ana Elks Lodge, a conference room at the Atrium Hotel in Irvine. Eventually, Gibbons connected with South Coast Community Church; it let Newsong use its church facilities for worship services and offices.
The church had a constant forward momentum, attracting mostly Gen X Asian Americans from surrounding churches and UC Irvine. Christine Bae, 26, attended Newsong in its early days and found it a refreshing departure from Bethel, the church she grew up in, saying Gibbons spoke about real-life issues with an honesty and sensitivity she'd never seen.
"At Bethel or any other traditional Korean church, they don't know what marriage counseling is," says Bae, who works in the entertainment industry. "Addictions, pornography—these are things that aren't talked about. It's all about the image factor. You have to be this perfect person. Dave opens up the conversation and allows people to touch on these deeper issues in a safe place. He makes you realize we're all jacked-up people."
She adds, "Dave is one of us. He never puts himself on a pedestal. He's not just someone who just gets up onstage. He makes us feel like we're all doing life together."
Newsong was growing fast. It had planted churches in Fullerton and Los Angeles, and its Irvine congregation had settled into a 65,000-square-foot home. In 2004, the staff discovered a 10-to-20-acre expanse of land on Jamboree Road off Interstate 5 had become available. The church launched a collection campaign, and Gibbons started studying a packet popular in evangelical churches called "How to Raise Funds." When encouraging church members to give, it suggested to use the line "It's not about the building; it's about what happens inside the building."
Gibbons tried it, and it worked. "I felt like I was a puppet," he says. "It felt really weird."
Ultimately, after raising $5 million, Newsong was outbid by Korean car company Kia Motors for the land. "I felt God say, 'Why are you so disappointed?' I thought it wasn't about the building, but what happens inside the building," he says. "Then I heard God say something that wrecked me. He asked, 'Is it more important what happens inside the building or outside?' And that really messed me up. And then God said, 'David, what would the church look like if it weren't confined to a piece of land?' And that just blew my mind."
The pastor was disenchanted by the growth pamphlets and the numbers and the Easter showcase; he went into a deep funk. Gibbons told his staff he didn't want to be a pastor anymore, that his heart just wasn't in it.
Then, in an act of providence, one of Newsong's first major investors invited him to Thailand to start a church there. Gibbons felt God telling him to go. Seeking a good opportunity to get away and perhaps gain some clarity, he left for the country in 2005.
It was an enjoyable experience, but Gibbons noticed things that taught him what not to do in order to successfully spread the Word. Christianity had been in Thailand for 100 years, yet the population was only 1 percent Christian. Westerners had come into Thailand and built Western-style churches with rows and a pulpit in the front, even though Thais traditionally sit in a circle and face one another. He looked at the Christians there and saw that a lot of them wore suits to services despite the relentlessly humid 95-degree weather. "I go, 'Gosh, this is what we do in America. We have all these new cultures coming through, and there's, like, this imposition of culture,'" he recalls.