Praying in a salsa club

Alhambra’s newest church meets Sunday mornings at the Granada salsa club, just a few hours after the band has played the last song. James Gaan started the evangelical Life Together Church this year while also working helping flip houses with a business partner. Trained as an architect, his journey from being a successful pastor in a big downtown church of 3,500 to one of about 70 is one about re-envisioning what faith and community means for the 21st century.

The Granada is not your usual space for “church.” How did you choose it?

Honestly, some of it was when I walked into the Granada and saw its layout; I got this feel. Maybe it’s the architectural background. High ceilings, wooden floors, the rustic chandeliers. I liked that it was an “every day place.” People go there to dance, eat, and hang out, and that’s what I see church to be like: an everyday place and experience.

Another reason we meet there is that we don’t want people to feel the many barriers of coming to a typical church setting. Plus, this downtown area is just a cool place to hang out for families and people!

James Gaan, pastor, at Life Together Church.So besides loving the Granada’s space, why start a church in Alhambra?

Geographically it made sense: about one half of our congregation lives in the San Gabriel Valley and it’s almost a halfway point for those coming from the downtown area. And it also made sense not to seem like we were “competing” with the downtown church many of us departed from.

You left a full-time staff position at a successful church for a much smaller one that can’t even pay you full-time. Why did you do it?

I grew up in a “big church mentality,” but while there are a lot of great things about big churches, one downside is that the relationships aren’t fostered well. The programs and ministries come first, and this priority often treat those in your church as commodities rather than people who may be having lots of family struggles or personal problems. It’s frankly a business mentality.

I was in charge of the small group program at the church, I started getting a lot of people who were complaining to me about the lack of community, and I was stuck in the middle of dissatisfied members on one side and staff on the other asking what was going on.

Dissatisfaction is good because it can force you to look for what’s true and it drove me to pray more and figure out what is right. I spent a good deal of time relooking at passages in the Bible and asking the question, “What was the early church like that’s able to point to a better way of doing church?”

One thing that came out of that process is that church should be a continuation of life rather than a separate part of life that you do for a few hours. It’s one of the reasons why we meet at the Granada.

Sunday morning congregation at Life Together Church in Alhambra.What other ways are you living out your new vision of church?

We really believe that the community we are in should be better because we are there. At the end of the school year, we passed out a bunch of flyers for local K-8 schools and had an event with kids and families at Story Park. We had a lot of fun with a big water balloon fight and lots of food.

I also want to be an example of someone who can work a full-time job and also do church ministry. I don’t want to be a financial burden to the church. Most budgets in churches are taken up by staff salaries and buildings, and I didn’t want that—I’d rather see the money used for meeting the needs of its members and the community.

It’s been nearly half a year since your official launch. What are some good things about being a smaller church that you’re experiencing now?

You can’t sweep things under the church when you’re small. That’s one of the beauties of a smaller group. Church feels more like a family. It’s a lot easier to meet the needs of the people and be aware of what is going on in people’s lives. 

Part of the illustrated sermon, a member of the church dresses in chains.Although we are a mostly Latino church with some Asian and Caucasian mixed in, we have a mix of low- and middle-income families and young adults in our church. People are struggling due to the recession—some are in the process of losing their homes or lost jobs. The good thing that has come out of that is that there’s been a closer bond that’s created when we are facing struggles together.

Being able to develop regular people in their own gifts and vision in leadership is a focus that is much easier to implement too. If we were ever to get larger, I’d be more than happy to divide the congregation in a good way so that all these positive features aren’t sacrificed.

Life Together Church meets at the Granada, 17 South First Street on Sundays at 10am.

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