Church Without Walls Looks Outward

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By Donna Furey | LB Indy

A non-traditional breakfast club held their first meeting this month at Zinc Café on Ocean Avenue. All are members of the two-year old Salt Church of Laguna Beach, who are led in bible study by a veteran pastor, Gene Molway. The group relocated from The White House restaurant, which used to open early for them but doesn’t anymore.

Molway, 63, a graduate of Laguna Beach High School, served for 30 years at Mariners Church in Irvine. In his most recent position as leadership development pastor, he guided teams of volunteers bringing aid to Russia, Ukraine, Honduras, Haiti and New Orleans. Three years ago, he was commissioned by Mariners to plant a new church in south county, the fourth such charter nurtured by the non-denominational, evangelical Christian mega church. The post-Katrina volunteers formed the nucleus of Salt Church, which has since grown to 70 regulars. They worship together on Sunday in the El Morro Elementary School auditorium and for bible study at an elder’s home or Zinc’s.

Salt members pitch in to provide food and clothing for the needy in Santa Ana Civic Center Plaza.
Salt members pitch in to provide food and clothing for the needy in Santa Ana Civic Center Plaza.

Salt joins a half-dozen other established mainstream religious denominations in Laguna Beach, all of which worship in traditional settings. The new church hews closer to an Orange County trend in the evangelical community of younger worshipers shifting their loyalties from huge churches with thousands of followers. “The mega church was a baby-boomer suburban phenomenon that folks under 45 typically aren’t perpetuating,” said Ryan Bolger, who teaches contemporary Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

For example, the five-year-old Laundry Love Project, an ad hoc community of young Christians in Santa Ana, gather monthly at various inner-city, coin-operated laundries and wash patron’s clothes for free. The ministry began as an offshoot of Newsong Church, which has branches in Thailand, England, Mexico and India but no longer has an affiliation with them.

Another example is Rob Bell, the founder of the 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., and author of “Love Wins,” which questioned the existence of hell. Bell subsequently left his leadership position and settled in Laguna Beach with his wife and three children. “Bell is now loosely aligned with a cohort of pastors worldwide who are searching for ways to move beyond old-fashioned worship,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in The New Yorker Magazine in the Nov. 26, 2012, edition.

“Looking outward” is a major tenant of Salt’s purpose, said elder Will Gaston, of Irvine, who was raised Catholic. While the congregants of Salt come from all walks of life and varied backgrounds, their common goal is to help those in need and to form relationships with each other while doing so. “The idea is to interact with people,” he explained. “We volunteers benefit, too; often my problems are less troublesome compared with those we are helping.” The church’s website invites attendees to “discover Biblical principles to guide us in knowing the Lord’s will for us.”

Pastor Molway, who attended the Westminster Seminary in Escondido, echoes this sentiment. “We aren’t spectators; we are servants.”

In fact, before Salt was established, some of its members became acquainted as volunteer meal preparers for Friendship Shelter, home to 30 homeless men and women in Laguna Beach. Salt members also regularly volunteer at Mary’s Kitchen in Orange and City Impact, which serves the needy in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

The 30-year-old City Impact is their model, Molway said. It lacks an impressive church building, but it does have a rescue mission, a medical clinic and a thrift store. Likewise, Salt has poured its resources into charity projects rather than physical property. Their sustenance comes from a donation box placed at the back of El Morro’s multi-purpose room when they worship there. They do not pass the plate. In its first year, Salt gave 18 percent of its collection to those in need and this year gave a third, said elder John West, who attends Salt Church since moving to Newport Beach from Villa Park. He previously worshiped at Kindred Community Church in Anaheim. “The only paid salary is Molway’s,” West said.

The remainder of the church’s budget supports a small office on Broadway Avenue, where the support staff is all volunteer, and covers the auditorium rental at El Morro. “We are a bare bones operation,” West said. “Everything we have can fit in the back of a truck,” Molway added. Both describe the church-building experience as a satisfying adventure progressing a step at a time.

One step towards broader outreach occurred this summer when residents of Friendship Shelter asked the Salt volunteers to hold a bible study at the shelter. Since residents themselves requested their presence, Friendship Shelter administrators sanctioned the group, Molway said.

Minimizing operating costs is a necessity. Salt’s charter from Mariners Church designates it as “independent,” meaning the offshoot receives no support. At 3,500 strong, Mariners spins off new churches when their congregation starts to exceed the size of their physical plant, or church members commutes become too long, Molway explained. Other saplings in Huntington Beach, San Juan Capistrano and Costa Mesa have a “cultural” charter, where they receive assistance from the mother church with their operating costs. Salt’s independent charter was the choice of the elders, “made because we were starting with a group of people who were seasoned leaders,” said Molway, who lives in Newport Coast with his wife, Kenette, a counselor and science teacher in the Irvine public schools.

Pastor Gene Molway, second from right, with wife Kenette, far right, baptize a church family at Crescent Bay. Photos courtesy of Salt Church.
Pastor Gene Molway, second from right, with wife Kenette, far right, baptize a church family at Crescent Bay.
Photos courtesy of Salt Church.

In another step that reflects the church’s deepening community ties, Laguna College of Art and Design student Dan Hagemann leads the 15-strong college group, which meets in a different location every week. Along with regular bible study, the group socializes together, playing volleyball, building beach bonfires and camping in Joshua Tree National Park. They are also participants in the regular outreach of the church. “I’d love to grow the group,” said Hagemann, a native of Zimbabwe who lives with Molway.

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