We recently caught up Jon Ritner to talk about life and ministry in the heart of Hollywood. He’s the Lead Pastor of Ecclesia Hollywood, and also serves as the Director of Forge Hollywood. Originally from the States, Ritner spent several years in Europe as a “micro church” planter and gained a unique perspective that helps inform his vision for the American Church, and the Church in Hollywood.
TogetherLA: What led you from Brussels to Los Angeles?
Jon Ritner: I pastored a 3,000+ person mega church in Virginia for 10 years and slowly became concerned that the way we were expressing church was 1) no longer connecting with post-modern/post-Christian generations who were not interested in institutional expressions of faith 2) not really impacting the city we lived in. It just provided religious goods and services for our own Christians and 3) not healthy for its own leaders, as I saw mega church leaders all over the country failing in leadership and losing their ministry and families as a result.
Below is an excerpt from Ritner’s upcoming 2020 book that explains a bit more about why they went to Brussels and eventually returned to the U.S.
In February of 2012, I invited one of our church’s missionaries to share with our staff the work he and his wife were doing in Brussels, Belgium. Carlton and Shannon Deal live with their family in the capital of the European Union, where they planted a church, The Well, and formed a local charity, Serve the City, which mobilizes volunteers to meet the tangible needs of the city specifically amongst the homeless, disabled, elderly, victims of abuse, asylum seekers, and children in need. Carlton shared with our staff the challenges of pastoring a church in the post-Christian culture of Europe that rejected the institution of church. He talked about The Well as a “faith community on mission” that exists to help the city flourish, not just in the spiritual domain but in all facets of life: emotional, social, environmental, economic, etc. He spoke of their decentralized strategy to plant microchurches in the various neighborhoods of the city and then come together as a citywide movement once a month to celebrate what God was doing in the everyday spaces of life. His description of Europe’s post-Christian realities and his vision to see a church operating outside its own walls stirred something in me.
In that meeting, I heard God whisper to me in a way I have experienced only a few other times. “What if you could go to Europe and see the cultural future of America and then come back and prepare the American Church for what is coming?” The Well was experimenting with new ways of being the church in order to thrive in post-Christianity, and those lessons would be invaluable for American leaders in the coming years. In the same way that Joseph saw into Egypt’s future and was able to prepare God’s people for the famine ahead, maybe life in Europe would offer a glimpse into America’s future and insights for how churches needed to adapt to these approaching cultural changes. Gaining those insights now would allow other churches to transition while there was still momentum and resources available.
TLA: How did your work in Brussels prepare you for serving your congregation in Hollywood?
JR: The main insight I took away was that the American church has to rethink its disciple-making strategy for a post-Christian context that is no longer interested in engaging with a local church to pursue spirituality. We need to reframe disciple-making from being something that relies on property, program and professionals to being the work of every person and taking place in the everyday spaces of life, the places where people already live, work, play and create. Post-Christian people do not come to church, ever. Full stop. So any strategy that is built on growing a church through attracting people to Sunday mornings is soon to be irrelevant. Most Hollywood churches are simply competing for the same existing Christians who move to LA from the rest of the country. As that pipeline dries up, we will all be forced to reinvent how we operate as churches.
We try to emphasize the equipping of every disciple to know how to live as a cross-cultural missionary in post-Christianity and how to make disciples on their own, not merely “invite people to church” so that programs led by professionals can do that work. We are trying to return God’s work into the hands of God’s people.
We are trying to reclaim the sent and sending nature of God. If God the Father sent the son, sent the spirit, sent the church, why does God’s church so often operate as if people have to “come to us and our services” to experience God. That is anathema to the nature of God. We are sent to bless the world and incarnate Jesus and participate in His Kingdom among the people of the world. Too often the church becomes an insular organization that simply blesses itself or those with the courage to cross over and attend. As that cultural gap grows, less are willing to come join us in our spaces, and we must reform to God’s original plan – a sent community.
TLA: What are some of the issues your congregation wrestles with, unique to the culture and industry of Hollywood?
JR: A number of things come to mind.
- The insane pace of life as people juggle traffic, multiple jobs, young families, etc. 80% of our people are in the industry, and 50% are parents, so that comes with a lot of stress, never mind the fact that LA people live, work, and play often in many different parts of the city that cause our lives to feel disconnected.
- Since many of us are transplants who came here for the entertainment industry, we all lack the sense of community/family that comes from being closer to our “homes”.
- Existing paradigms of church that have formed us all to be religious consumers and not contributors. The expectation that “church exists for me as a Christian”, rather than “We are the church and together we exist for the good of the city.”
- As a transient city, we lose 20% of our community every year to the rhythms of the city. Many Christians who move to Hollywood looking for churches seem to be more interested in big Sunday productions (which have populated the city in the last 10 years). Or, they are so wounded by the institutional church they no longer pursue Jesus in community at all. So it is hard to make NEW disciples at a pace that keeps up with the number we lose every year, and we are not interested in “sheep stealing” from other places, so momentum and sustainability year over year are always issues.
TLA: Tell me a few ways in which God is moving in your church/neighborhood/people?
- We are seeing more and more stories of personal disciple-making wins in office spaces, neighborhoods, social spaces, etc. People are learning to how to bless others, discern how to join God’s ongoing work in the world, and engage in spiritual discussions that form others in the way of Jesus.
- We have launched several “Food Truck” expressions of church (check out our video: ChurchInHollywood.com) where small teams are operating as local church plants without needing professional pastoral leadership. Instead they are relying on all the gifts of the body being expressed through the team. They are being a church for local commutes that are not interested in “going to a church” as part of their life. They are making disciples in those everyday spaces.
- We are becoming a more ethnically diverse community and celebrating that Hollywood is becoming that as well!
- We have nearly 100 youth/kids under the age of 15 who are growing up in a church that is discipling them in this new way of life, and not the old paradigms.