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When he appears in Exodus 3, Moses is not a Rock Church kinda guy.At last Sunday’s service celebrating Rock Church’s 20th anniversary, Pastor Miles McPherson read the Old Testament passage in which the prophet questions the Almighty’s command that he confront Pharoah.Moses’ response: “Who am I?”Wrong question. “It’s not who you are,” McPherson said, “it’s whose you are!”
Small goals, self doubt and uncertainty about God’s message have no part in the Gospel according to Miles. Since 2000, the lanky and energetic former Chargers safety has led a self-proclaimed “do something” church. He routinely urges believers to get busy on the tasks God has assigned them, even if it requires the sort of commitment that would make Moses sigh.“That’s the ‘do something’ mentality,” he said in a recent interview. “We want to put you in a position to help people who are struggling today with what you struggled with before.”If struggle is an essential element of the Rock Church story, so is success. Once a nomadic community of worshipers, occupying 33 temporary homes in its first five years, the church now boasts five campuses scattered across San Diego County.The headquarters is in Point Loma’s Liberty Station, where its 224,000-square-foot complex is valued at $35 million. The sanctuary there has seats for 3,400 — that’s 1,400 more than Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre. Sunday services at the five Rocks regularly attract a combined 25,000 people, more than five times the population of Del Mar.
Large buildings and even larger congregations are common among nondenominational evangelical megachurches, the fastest-growing piece of the mosaic that is religion in America. Rock Church is part of this phenomenon, yet also stands apart.A Pew Research Center survey found that three-quarters of American nondenominational evangelicals are white; about two-thirds are married; and seven in 10 are Republican. At Rock Church, though, an independent 2011 study found that almost half (45 percent) of the congregation is non-white, more than half (55 percent) are single, and no one proclaims their politics.This apolitical stance is especially pronounced with the pastor, although it wasn’t always.Years ago, he campaigned on behalf of a hot-button issue. He still regrets this.
“As I reflect on my growth since Prop. 8,” he said, referring to his role championing the 2008 measure meant to ban same-sex marriages in California, “I cannot but regret any division and pain I’ve brought to the LGBT community. Though I am anchored in my biblical view of marriage, I am also committed, more humbly now than then, in my conviction to engage everyone with grace and love.”In this contentious election year, McPherson is determined to keep Rock Church above the ideological fray.“I’m more concerned about your soul than your politics,” he said.
Family members and others prayed for Pastor Miles McPherson and his wife Debbie, as they sit on a chair he found on the roof of the church 20 years ago.(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Living the dream
Moses’ question, “Who am I?,” is central to McPherson’s story. As a boy in suburban Long Island, Miles was raised by his mother, a school nurse, and his grandparents. One grandmother was half black, half Chinese. The other, white. His grandfathers were black. Given his mixed racial heritage, young Miles was often hit with questions about his racial identity.“That was a hassle,” he said. “You get told you are not really white and not really black.”As McPherson tells the tale, he was a wild kid. His mother tried to raise him in the Catholic faith, enrolling him in the local parochial school and taking him to Mass. But he stopped attending church as a teen, and began experimenting with drugs and sex.A temporary turning point came when he was 19. A pair of young, long-haired white guys — “two hippies,” McPherson said — shared the Gospel. They found a receptive soul.
“I was born again,” McPherson said. “For a period of time I stopped having sex, stopped getting high.”A star football player in high school, McPherson became an All-American at the University of New Haven. He went straight from school to the NFL. As a 22-year-old San Diego Charger, he was living the dream. He was well-paid, taking in $9,000 a week. He was in love, head over heels with Debbie Spencer. He had friends, including teammates who prayed with him and others who supplied him with coke.“Every day,” he said, “God was telling me, ‘When you are ready, I’ll get you off cocaine and you’ll marry that girl.’”McPherson cites the day his coke habit ended — April 12, 1984, when he recommitted himself to his Christian faith. That season, he graduated from the Chargers’ special teams unit to a starting position. In the fall, he married Debbie.
As an NFL player, he was in demand off the field. He raised money for a nonprofit dedicated to children’s issues and toured five California prisons in four days, giving his testimony.“In that prison,” McPherson said, “the night I had been in Tehachapi, I had an epiphany. I think I need to do this.”At Horizon Christian Fellowship, Pastor Mike McIntosh invited McPherson to give a brief talk from the pulpit. After that, the football player started a Bible study for teens in his Rancho Bernardo home. When a knee injury ended McPherson’s NFL career in 1986, it seemed natural that McPherson would join the Horizon staff.Natural, perhaps, but not economical.
“I was paid $125 a week,” McPherson said. “I had a wife, a house, two cars and three kids. It was three years before my paycheck paid my bills.”
Aron Guidroz (in hat) and Lilea Alvarez, right, and other members of the youth ministry sing during the Rock Church’s 20th Anniversary Service on March 1, 2020.(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
The next 13 years were an education for McPherson. While he earned a master’s degree in divinity from Azusa Pacific University in 1991, most of his schooling took place on the job.He was Horizon’s youth pastor, then leader of the Sunday night service, where weekly attendance swelled from 600 to 3,000. He absorbed lessons from preachers he admired, like Azuza Pacific’s Rev. Kevin Mannoia and Bishop T.D. Jakes, the Dallas-based pastor of Potter’s House, one of the country’s largest churches. And he embraced a style of worship he terms “blunt” and “non-religious.”
“The Catholic church is completely the opposite,” he said. “It would be very religious, that’s the style, a lot of ceremony.”Unlike Catholic Mass or most mainline Protestant services, Rock Church has no written liturgy, no common prayers, no kneeling, no pews (instead, there are comfortable theater-style chairs). Few men wear suits and ties, few women Sunday-best dresses. The pastor is usually decked out in an open-neck shirt and slacks.Despite the informal atmosphere, Sunday worship is tightly organized, timed — 80 minutes, almost to the second — and enhanced by 21st-century technology. There’s rafter-shaking Christian rock, the band and lyrics beamed onto screens flanking the stage; the collection is taken via cash, check, credit card, text messaging and over the church’s website; a video presentation precedes McPherson’s live sermon, which is streamed to the other Rock campuses.The entire service is translated in real time by a team of Spanish-speakers. In many immigrant families, Jonathan Sanchez explained, parents and grandparents don’t speak fluent English while the children and grandchildren are more comfortable with English.
“This keeps families together,” said Sanchez, who translates at the 10 a.m. and noon services each Sunday. “They can all go together.”McPherson’s talks start with an anecdote from his life or the news; a lesson is tweezed from this story; and the lesson illustrates a biblical passage. The difficult task of transforming a Liberty Station building into a church, say; the faith that was required to push forward; and, if you open your Bibles to Exodus 3, how Moses’ self-doubt was no match for God’s triumphant vision.“When we are united for his purpose, nothing is impossible,” McPherson preached, a large “20″ hanging onstage behind him. “Long after all of our grandkids are long gone, you — this church — will still be sharing the Gospel in San Diego and around the world.”
Pastor Miles McPherson preaches during Rock Church’s 20th anniversary service.(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
‘Politics will never save the world’
Building the Rock wasn’t easy. There were the usual construction delays, permitting issues, financial hurdles. After the Liberty Station church opened, there were more obstacles. An unsuccessful class-action suit argued that the megachurch caused megacongestion on residential streets. In 2012, the county grand jury echoed these concerns, urging the city to suspend Rock Church’s permit.Jerry Sanders, then San Diego’s mayor, rejected the grand jury’s recommendations, dismissing them as “not warranted or reasonable.”In 2014, a husband and wife who claimed their addiction recovery center was affiliated with Rock Church were sued by six women who claimed they were sexually harassed while seeking treatment. While David and Tina Powers claimed ABC Sober Living and other recovery centers were part of “Rock Recovery Ministry,” church officials denied any connection to the church.The case ended with a mediated settlement.
But the biggest controversy, the one that still lingers, came in 2008 when Rock Church was just settling into its Liberty Station showplace.“What we did with Prop. 8, the marriage amendment,” McPherson said during a recent interview, “I would handle that differently.”Here’s how he handled it at the time: he broadcast two pro-Proposition 8 rallies from Rock Church; he marched in favor of the measure, joined by Pastor Jim Garlow, then the head of La Mesa’s Skyline Church; and insisted that this was not a civil rights issue.“It’s a spiritual issue, a religious issue,” he told a reporter. “Marriage originated in the Bible. God originated it and that’s who should decide what it is.”
Proposition 8 won 52 percent of the vote and survived a challenge in the California Supreme Court. But when a federal court found the proposition unconstitutional in 2010, McPherson did not protest. Neither did he publicly object in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld same-sex couples’ right to marry. While Garlow and other prominent evangelicals continued advocating conservative causes, McPherson stepped away from the culture wars.“There are Christians who are Democrats, there are Christians who are Republicans, and politics will never save the world,” he said. “My perception is coming from the Bible, not what the Republican Party says or what the Democratic Party says.”Today, McPherson still believes that marriage is a sacrament uniting a man and a woman. But the pastor stressed that Rock Church is open to everyone, no matter their sexual orientation.“We continue to strive to create an environment at the Rock where members of the gay community, who currently and will attend, are welcome and whose dignity is fully affirmed,” he said.
An independent 2011 study found that almost half (45 percent) of the Rock’s congregation is non-white, more than half (55 percent) are single and no one proclaims their politics.(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Large church, small groups
Because she’s Jewish, former Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman doesn’t worship at Rock Church. But she sounds like an enraptured evangelical when testifying about McPherson and his flock.“He’s just the greatest — all of them are the greatest,” she said. “Their army of volunteers — I call them an army of volunteers because they mobilize so many. And on so many projects!”The church’s large complex was used as a shelter for hundreds fleeing the 2007 wildfires — “one of the best experiences in our ministry,” McPherson said — and the sanctuary has hosted funerals for police officers and firefighters.
“They’ve been with us in our darkest hours, in line of duty deaths,” Zimmerman said, “and at some of our happiest moments.”On the happy side of the ledger, there’s the annual Toys for Joy, a toy, clothing, gift and food drive that benefits up to 20,000 San Diegans each Christmas. There are dozens of ministries run by church members, like Rock Cancer C.A.R.E. (Compassion, Awareness, Resources and Encouragement), inspired by Tamela Reed’s 2005 bout with multiple myeloma.She recovered, but never forgot how simple day-to-day tasks overwhelmed her. As the cancer ministry’s executive director, she’s determined to make patients’ lives easier.“We serve about 20 to 30 cases a month, each having various needs,” she said. “Maybe you need a ride to the hospital, maybe you need groceries, maybe you need to attend a support group.”
In this large church, there are small r-groups — the r is for Rock — for men, women, military members, students and others. Regina Stitch, 50, is taking the LIFE class, a course meant to help attendees find their purpose in life. Ebenezer Badger, 39, is part of the soccer ministry, which meets weekly to play the beautiful game and study the good book.Now a business analyst with Solar Turbines, Badger grew up in a traditional African-American church. Rock Church’s congregation, he noted, has a more varied ethnic and racial makeup, as well as a full complement of ages and interests.“It’s everybody. All walks of life and that’s what I enjoy,” Badger said. “Here, you come as you are.”And you come prepared for surprises. Some weeks, McPherson engages in a live conversation with a celebrity. Guests have included quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Drew Brees, the actor Jim Caviezel and even the porn star Ron Jeremy. Raised Jewish, Jeremy discussed his evolving views on the divine.
“You want to be really smart,” he told McPherson, “you want to make sure you hedge your bets, you pray to Jesus, Moses, Confucianism, Buddhism, Allah. That way when you go to heaven, somebody you talked to has got to be up there.”Too often, this pastor insists, we focus on our differences. In “The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation,” McPherson’s 2018 book, he wrote that there’s a temptation to see life as “a zero-sum game” of young versus old, white versus black, Republican versus Democrat, one group against another.But there are more than two options, he wrote: “God’s Third Option invites us to honor that which we have in common, the presence of His image in every person we meet.”Even in a porn star.
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