Chapter 3 of La Mesa: Glory Days
A church called “The Hill”
If you drive down Orien Avenue at just the right time on a Sunday morning, you’ll see it. Pass Helix High School on the right and look up on the hill to the left. They’ll all be there—African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, little kids in t-shirts and grandmothers in their Sunday best—hands squeezing hands, heads bowed. In a city known for its scenic vistas, passing motorists in La Mesa, California, will still almost always slow down for a second and third look at The Hill Church’s outdoor pre-worship prayer circle.
It’s very beautiful to look at. But it was painfully hard to create.
Each Sunday morning, everyone who’s a part of The Hill Church gathers in their parking lot to pray.
The uncertainty of it all seems crazy to him now. Jimmy Steele, now pastor of The Hill Church, moved his family here from North Carolina in mid-2017. At the time, even though the idea of replanting Windsor Hills Community Church was “on the table,” he brought his wife and kids across the country with zero expectations.
“We came out with nothing set in stone,” Jimmy says. “I knew for this replant to be a possibility, I would have to get close to this congregation. They would have to learn to trust me, and I would have to learn to trust them.”
“So, for the first 6 months, we basically dated.”
Months of praying together produced a strong bond between Sam and Jimmy. “Now, I love him like he’s my son,” says Sam.
It was such an unlikely pairing. That’s why Jimmy Steele and Sam Calhoun, who at the time was the pastor of Windsor Hills Community Church, moved slowly.
“Moving slowly meant we started off just sharing the preaching,” Sam says. “And along with that, we started to talk about what the best thing to do would be—if they should just plant an entirely new church, or if we should make the big transition and replant with them.” Sam and Jimmy both knew if God led them to replant, compatibility would be complicated. An aging, declining, set-in-their-ways, mostly white congregation, a 34-year old just-graduated-from-seminary church planter, and a multi-ethnic team of families who came from points east to help that planter hardly sounded like the ingredients for a marriage made in heaven.
“The biggest hurdle would be the competing cultures,” says Jimmy. “Within Windsor Hills there was a culture. And within our church plant team, we’d been meeting together for over a year, so we had a culture. And the two cultures weren’t the same. That was the problem.”
“So, we all had to ask ourselves, ‘What’s the best expression of the gospel in this community?’”
Election day for the members of Windsor Hills Community Church was Sunday, January 14, 2018.
“That night, we told the congregation you have a choice when you go to vote,” remembers Sam Calhoun. “The choice will be, ‘do you want to replant as The Hill Church with Jimmy as the lead pastor, or do you want to remain Windsor Hills Community Church and just help Jimmy plant another church?’ And all the people that night voted for the replant.”
In less time than it took to sing their closing hymn, the 60-something-year-old Windsor Hills Community Church ceased to exist. The Hill Church was born. The old was out, and the new was in.
And it all happened so fast, no one realized at the time that the deciding would be much easier than the doing.
Changing the sign out front was easy. Changing the congregation inside was hard.
Everyone was invested. Some had been a part of Windsor Hills Community Church for 50 years or more. Others had left family and friends and moved across the country to start a new church. In the middle of them all was first-time pastor Jimmy Steele.
“At the time, I was shepherding two completely different groups of people,” he says. “One who moved to the other side of the United States and wanted to hit the ground running, and another who were kind of sitting still, wondering what’s next.”
There were changes to make. But almost immediately after the vote, Jimmy realized starting a new church out of an existing church would have its own unique set of difficulties.
“Right then, there was a lot of tension we had to work through,” says Jimmy. “What is tradition, and what is gospel? What are we willing to set aside, and what are the things we’re not going to compromise on?”
For longtime Windsor Hills members like Janice and Lu Jean, replanting turned out to be harder than they thought. Jimmy Steele says, “None of us anticipated the mourning process that would take place.”
Ever since the night when the only church they’d ever known was voted out of existence, Janis Schlundt and Lu Jean Conrad have repeated to themselves what they know to be true. For Lu Jean, who says, “The Lord’s going to work no matter what, and you can be in it or you can be out of it,” and Janis, who reminds everyone, “It’s ok for things to be different as long as you can see God moving,” it was Jimmy who helped them through the pain of losing Windsor Hills.
“Pastor Jimmy was very tender towards people like us,” Janis says. “He knew this was a big change, and he was always making sure we were ok with everything.”
Nevertheless, when the music, the preaching, the org chart and the sign outside and the décor inside began to change, Janis, Lu Jean and the other longtime members of what used to be Windsor Hills Community Church were given probably the hardest work assignment of anyone in the church.
“We older people, we don’t like change,” says Sam Calhoun. “That’s why many of our seniors felt like they were losing their church. But these dear saints who have worked so hard for so long, they just wanted to see the kingdom of God advanced. So, they sacrificed.”
“I think a lot of people don’t understand what it takes for some of our older generation—how much we really have to give up. But the great thing about it is when I talk to our seniors now, they say, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing, because I see what God is doing.’”
Now The Hill Church looks like the neighborhood around it. “There’s new life here,” says Jimmy. “And that’s exactly what we prayed for.”
Now, one year later, everyone sees what God is doing. Attendance at The Hill has doubled. The children’s ministry has tripled. And on Sunday mornings, the multi-ethnic, multi-generational circle of people standing outside, holding hands and praying together sends an impossible-to-miss message to the rubber-necking motorists driving down Orien Avenue: God is great, and we’re still here.
“Throughout this process, the book of Nehemiah has been huge to me,” says Jimmy. “He was devastated about Jerusalem, but he wasn’t devastated about just the city itself. He was devastated about what the city represented. It represented the glory and the beauty of his Lord, just like this church. And just like Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, we did this to replant the banner of the Lord on this hill.
“And now, the glory is back.”
To learn more about church replanting, go to namb.net/church-replanting
To hear the story of a family who met Christ at The Hill Church, go to www.namb.net/cruz