It’s not that there was anything wrong with Bel Air Presbyterian Church. Located on the Sepulveda Pass, which connects west Los Angeles with the San Fernando Valley, the church is home to those who come from across town.
But for a core group of people who loved the mission, vision and values of Bel Air, there was one significant problem: traffic.
Living in the South Bay, they were a mere 20 miles away, but more than an hour’s drive in traffic. Many of this core group had been involved at Bel Air as part of the college or young adults group and had begun to get married, have children and move further away from the church.
But it became increasingly clear that the inconvenience was more of an evangelistic problem.
“They wanted to have a more viable witness to pre-Christian people in their own neck of the woods,” said the Rev. Bill Crawford, lead pastor of Water’s Edge.
Water’s Edge, a Bel Air-sponsored new church development in Manhattan Beach, became the solution to that dilemma. Among the core group, “there was an evangelistic passion to reach people for Christ and the realization that Bel Air was just geographically undesirable,” Crawford.
When the economic downturn hit, it looked like starting something new in the South Bay might not be feasible.
“The core group was so passionate about starting this that they said, ‘Whether or not Bel Air is with us, we are going ahead anyway — we’ve got a commitment to the vision,” said Crawford.
So with that commitment, the group started worshipping once a month. Each time a different pastor from Bel Air or from local Fuller Seminary would preach.
During that time, the group tried to discern whether it would become a satellite site of Bel Air using a videocast of the main campus service.
“It became pretty clear from the get-go that this was going to be a multi-site that would become self-sufficient within a couple of years and would then ‘unzip’ from Bel Air,” Crawford said.
So, Bel Air formed a pastor nominating committee and called Crawford, longtime Bel Air Family Camp teacher, to be the organizing pastor. For the summer the core group will hold weekly services as a way of getting used to setting up each week — they meet in a school — with the intent that the new church’s official launch will be Sept. 11.
“One of the things that has been great about the support of Bel Air is that Mark Brewer (Bel Air’s pastor) has the most ‘capital K’ Kingdom mentality around — it’s about growing the Kingdom, not Bel Air,” Crawford said.
For Water’s Edge, this has meant being able to ‘use’ people from Bel Air as what Crawford refers to as a ‘fishing pond.’ Brewer has asked Bel Air members to consider Waters Edge as a short-term mission opportunity — to help them in the nursery, for example, so that the core group can focus on building relationships with visitors.
“The church in general sometimes has become inward-focused rather than outward-focused,” Crawford said. “Church planting is all about people who don’t go to church — existing churches are all about people who are already in the church.
“Our target is not to rearrange the kingdom — we want to add to it. We don’t want to trade fish with other churches — we want to get new fish.”
Most often, a church that does not plant another church within its first 10 years likely won’t. Bel Air, established in 1956, has clearly begun to buck that statistic.
“Bel Air has a vision to have many more baby churches that have been launched by Bel Air — a network of church plants throughout the greater Los Angeles area,” said Crawford.
“I don’t want to over-spiritualize it, but I’d be disingenuous not to say that it is, as the Bible says, not by might nor by power but by my Spirit says the Lord — the foundation of church planting is on your knees,” Crawford said. Prayer has been a key component of their process along the way.
Another important piece for Waters Edge has been to focus on its neighborhood and seek ways to welcome those who might not be comfortable in a more typical church setting.
“We are anchored to the rock, but we are geared toward the times. Our message doesn’t change but the wrapping paper is different, so people are more apt to open the package,” Crawford said.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.