Alone in Berkeley
To plant an Assemblies of God fellowship in Berkeley, California, the bastion of American liberalism, has required nothing less than a miracle, according to U.S. missionary Earl Creps.
That miracle, even more remarkable given that the church Creps pastors is the only one in downtown Berkeley, has relied on prayer, hard work, sacrifice -- and a revolution in how the gospel is presented to an entrenched secular audience. That formula is reflected in the name of the fellowship itself: 360church.
Creps and his co-pastor wife in ministry, Janet Creps, seemed an unlikely match for planting an AG congregation in the shadow of the college town synonymous with the counter-culture movements of the 1960s, the more established "left coast" politics of today, and of the 35,000-student University of California. When they decided in late 2008 to leave conservative, family-oriented Springfield, Missouri, the Creps both held doctoral degrees, and he was a popular professor at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.
But the year before, the Creps had visited Berkeley, and were impressed by both the community's vibrant, trendsetting atmosphere -- and its dormant spiritual landscape. This community had birthed more than American liberalism, they learned.
For instance, Creps says Berkeley pioneered the independent living movement for the physically impaired and housing desegregation.
"In the orbit of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, it attracts very creative people, from a science student writing computer code to a kid spraying artistic graffiti on a wall with a spray can," Creps says.
The seed was planted, took root, and blossomed into a decision to leave Midwest evangelical academia to plant what would be the only church in downtown Berkeley. They became Missionary Church Planters and Developers missionaries with AG U.S. Missions.
The challenge they faced immediately: introduce the city's creative residents with their Creator, show them their gifts come from God, and how -- through Christ -- they can both obtain eternal life and return their gifts to God by blessing people around them.
360church began in an abandoned, foreclosed pink stucco house in South Berkeley, renovated with volunteer labor and contributions from other churches. By 2009, prayer meetings started, and then dinner meetings once a week -- a time for shared meals, singing, Bible study, prayer, and dessert.
Easter 2010 saw the church move to Sunday morning services in a hotel conference rooms. The Creps, partnered with U.S. Missions Chi Alpha Campus Ministries U.S.A., which started a chapter at Cal the same year the Creps arrived in Berkeley. Chi Alpha at Berkeley now operates from its own facility just four blocks from campus.
The latter has included the Creps' involvement in the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, where they have been able to build relationships with business owners, the mayor's office, and police and fire chiefs.
Their current church home, leased space in a downtown theater, hosts what Creps says is a characteristic, highly individualistic Berkeley congregation. The 62-year-old Creps isn't deterred by the younger set who make Berkeley home.
Creps says growth has been slow and sometimes unpredictable due to the mobile nature of the community. But the congregation soon will have to find a new home, since the property where it is now meeting will be torn down for new apartments beginning in 2016.
In any regard, Chris Railey, senior director of Leadership and Church Development for the Assemblies of God, likes the ideas Creps brings to the table.
"We plant churches to reach new people with the gospel, and to do that, we must target exactly the kind of people Pastor Earl and 360church are reaching," Railey says.
Success in these new endeavors cannot be measured merely by Sunday attendance, facilities, or even giving, according to Railey, citing studies that show the U.S. population is increasingly moving into urban areas.
"Some of our greatest opportunities to bring hope to the hopeless, transform communities, and impact culture come from planting churches in the hearts of our great American cities," Railey says.