A Novel Approach
Berkeley, California, has a reputation as one of the most liberal cities in the nation. The Bay Area’s left-leaning tendencies have been well documented since hippie-led Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s. The tradition has continued this century. Berkeley is known for ushering in societal changes, including becoming the first U.S. city to proclaim a bisexuals recognition day and passing an ordinance providing free medical marijuana for the poor.
But Berkeley is also one of the wealthiest communities in America. With its close proximity to San Francisco, home and land values are exorbitant. Renting a house commonly costs $7,000 a month.
In such an ideological and financial environment, Berkeley has relatively few Christian residents per capita. Assemblies of God church planter Raymond W. Hudson is ready to step into such a mix.
“People in the city are in a fog with liberal viewpoints and work priorities,” says Hudson, 35. “They can’t see God. We want people to rethink church. They may have the wrong perception.”
Hudson is launching Our City Center Church, which is in a parent-affiliated relationship with Newbreak Church of San Diego. Hudson most recently served as executive pastor of New Life Church based in Dublin, California, where his duties included overseeing church planting and campus multiplication.
“I want to be in the fabric of the community, part of its DNA and culture,” Hudson says.
The tall and slender Hudson is a Central Bible College graduate who obtained a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri. He met his wife, Rachel, a graduate of Missouri State University, while in Springfield. The couple, married for 12 years, have four children. They feel blessed to be leasing a home in Berkeley for only $4,250 a month.
The Hudsons have taken Church Multiplication Network training and Raymond is now CMN multiplication coordinator. Currently, his church “office” is a Peet’s Coffee shop in the affluent Claremont/Elmwood area, where the church will be located.
On its website, Our City Center Church lists 17 “core families,” most of whom came from New Life Church. Hudson’s diverse lead team includes Hispanics, Asians, African Americans and Anglos. His own marriage is interracial: he is black and Rachel is white. The lead team has been holding weekly strategic ministry planning meetings on Zoom.
Although introducing in-person church services is on hold, the body nevertheless has been active since last fall. For instance, the church raised $12,000 for a local public middle school by staffing the parking lot for University of California-Berkeley sporting events. The church also has brought lunches to teachers at the school and provided school supplies for 2,900 needy students in the district.
The church is holding online services at 8 p.m. Saturdays as well as 10:15 a.m. Sundays that draw nearly 2,000 views. But Hudson doesn’t want to make worship and preaching the focus.
“Usually the gathering where people try to get their friends to show up is the most important element of church,” Hudson says. “We don’t want to get rid of the gathering, but we want to emphasize community service that builds the Kingdom. In true innovation, you disrupt the norm to create something that is better.”
That strategy involves the Hudsons investing in 20 team leaders in the church, who in turn provide ministry care for five other people as they “do life together.”
“They are called to influence others who may never show up in church — but that’s OK,” Hudson says. “Maybe going to have coffee or playing tennis with that person is as valuable as sitting in a church service, because it’s building genuine relationships. Are we trying to get people to church, or are we trying to get people to Jesus?”
Consequently, in part because of the high cost of leasing as well as government restrictions imposed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, Our City Center Church initially will be meeting in multiple sites around Berkeley while also continuing to build its midweek dinner party model over Zoom. The corporate meetings won’t simply be for Christians to get “filled up.” Hudson instead has chapter 2 of the Gospel of Mark in mind.
“When Jesus went to Levi’s house it wasn’t to hang out with ‘religious’ people,” Hudson says. “It was a social environment with food and conversation that wasn’t confrontational for the unbeliever.”
A typical city center gathering in Berkeley will feature a five-minute talk on faith, with a church team member addressing a topic such as doubt or fear and testifying how God helped. A 15-minute biblical exegetic talk follows, with a conversation around tables winding up the evening.
No one knows the challenges of Berkeley better than Earl G. Creps, who pastored an innovative Assemblies of God church plant near the UC-Berkeley campus for eight years that included mostly transient young adults. He found the city’s surroundings unlike anything else he’s come across in the U.S., likening the experience to trying to reach residents in post-Christian northern Europe.
“Berkeley is an urban world and a tech world, a place with parking lots that have signs reading, This space is reserved for Noble prize winner,” notes Creps, 67. “So much money is there, although it’s unevenly distributed.”
Creps says the variety of ethnicities and neighborhoods is mind-boggling.
“You can turn a corner and you’re in another world,” says Creps, who since 2017 has been director of the Center for Leadership Studies at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington. “A lot of creative energy that shapes the future of the whole nation comes from the surrounding area.”
Creps found it difficult to acclimate to such a unique community.
“If you bring a playbook from somewhere else and try to install it there, it won’t work,” says Creps. He commends Hudson for his ambitious team approach to ministry.
“Like Mt. Everest, Berkeley requires a lot of people to assault the summit,” Creps says. “No one climber will be the answer. It takes a lot of different ministry styles and approaches to touch the whole city.”
Hudson has many mentors, including Jeff S. Leake, pastor the past 29 years of Allison Park Church, a six-campus body in suburban Pittsburgh. Leake, 56, has helped launch 31 congregations over the years, but he says he never has seen anyone as technically prepared as Hudson.
“Raymond has a brilliant engineer mind,” says Leake, who continues to coach Hudson as he prepares to launch officially on Sept. 13 . “The huge number of documents he’s compiled is better than anything I ever had.”
But beyond being organized and having reams of blueprints, Leake believes Hudson will succeed for other reasons, including his affability and servant attitude.
“He has lived in the region, been on a church staff in the area, and has been able to build a launch team,” says Leake, a part of the CMN lead team. “It’s a huge advantage to be sent out and have people with you.”
Leake, who is founder of Reach Northeast, knows about planting congregations in difficult soil.
“Berkeley is a tough space, but God has already given Raymond favor in finding ways to be present in the community,” Leake says. “I’m convinced he’s going to plant a great church.”