The congregation of Christian Life Church prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary – with or without a sanctuary.
By Michael J. ARVIZU
At first glance, Christian Life Church at the corner of Ramsdell and Montrose avenues does not really look like a church. It is by no means big. Its worship space can only seat 53 people and is no bigger than the size of a small classroom. Its white walls are relatively bare. There are no priceless works of art or ornate statues. There is no steeple outside. A belief in Christ is reflected only by a simple wooden cross in the corner and the word “Christian” in the church’s name.
On a typical Sunday morning, church members crowd into the space and sit on plastic fold-up chairs. The choir sings contemporary worship songs from the likes of Chris Tomlin, Darrell Evans, and Jesse Manibusan, the music pumped through a pair of small JBL speakers mounted high on the ceiling.
But to describe Christian Life Church as “small” is a gross understatement. One must look deeper, beyond the walls of the church, in order to grasp the true size of this house of worship.
A church burns
On the night of Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006, 6-year-old church choir member Rebecca Grove was busy rehearsing with a group of other kids in the main sanctuary of Christian Life Church for Christmas services when suddenly the smell of smoke reached their noses, the wood in the attic started crackling, and the sanctuary’s lights began flickering.
“We ran outside, and then we saw the whole top of the roof in flames,” recalled Grove, 11.
Grove was part of a group of 30 people preparing for Christmas services that night.
“Our pastor came and told us to go to the parking lot,” Grove continued. “Then we went to the parking lot and everyone was praying. When I came out, I was thanking God that we came out and that the roof didn’t fall. When I was out in the parking lot, I was relieved that everyone was safe, but I was still crying. Everyone was crying. It was scary.”
No one was injured in the blaze, but the sanctuary, built in 1951, and La Crescenta Christian School were a total loss, displacing an entire congregation.
“We had to take one day – almost half a day – at a time,” said former Christian Life Church Pastor Tim Manchester in a telephone interview from his home in Texas.
The Sunday after of the fire, Christian Life Church had to relocate its services to La Crescenta Presbyterian Church, and later to Crescenta Valley Community Church, where the congregation stayed for two years before moving back to the original church campus and into facilities that housed former classrooms.
A place to worship, learn
On most Wednesday nights, Christian Life Church is open and buzzing with activity. For church pastor Randy Foster, Wednesday night is Bible study night in the church’s worship space, which is reconfigured with a pair of fold-up tables.
Christian Life Church’s ministries suffered extensively after the fire. Most saw attendance drop. Other ministries simply ceased to exist because there was no one to lead them.
“We used to have a really big youth group, and then it sort of dwindled when the church burned down,” said youth group member Robert Seal, 17. “There wasn’t a lot to do. It was small, and we were just using these buildings, so we couldn’t do a lot. [People] got bored and they just ended up leaving.”
Today, Christian Life Church’s ministries meet in two small buildings on the east and west side of the campus, respectively – a far cry from the 12,500 square feet of space in the former church.
“In all, about 50 adults comprise the church’s ministries,” Foster said. “I would like to do something, like introduce drug awareness or assisting seniors programs. The need is there, and I would like to do more things in different ways.”
Arguably, one of the bigger consequences of the fire was the decision by some church members to leave. However, some members stayed. And in the years since the fire, the church has also welcomed new members.
“It’s a trying thing to go through this,” said Betty Benson, who has been a member of Christian Life for 25 years. “You stick with it. You don’t give up. You know God is faithful. The church is going to be restored. The Bible says it’s the people, not the building. We have to look at it that way.”
At 10 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21, Christian Life Church will celebrate its 90th anniversary. During the anniversary celebration, Foster will also reveal plans for a new 7,500 square foot sanctuary to be built on the same spot as the sanctuary that burned down in 2006. The new sanctuary will seat 188 people and double as the church’s fellowship hall.
“I want to build something that will really fit the community and looks good here, but in the same respect that it is not so ‘churchy,’ that it looks like it’s been here since 1922,” said Foster.
Foster came to Christian Life Church in 2010 after Manchester left when he realized that he did not have the skill set necessary to lead the church’s rebuilding efforts following the fire.
“I’m not a builder,” Manchester said. “That’s what they needed. Pastor Foster is that kind of person. He’ll do a great job there and has.”
Foster hopes to break ground for the new church in time for Easter in 2013. He would not comment on the exact cost of re-building, but he estimates it at tens of thousands of dollars, with most of the funds coming from insurance settlements, and donations from church members and the community.
“[His wife] Charlotte and I were going to move here and love all the people, bring peace and hope and love among the people, [and] set a new vision for the church,” Foster said. “Out of the ashes we will rise, and we will build again and be what God wants us to be in the community.”