What does effective ministry and enduring faithfulness look like in a city like Los Angeles? What are the unique challenges and opportunities facing pastors and churches in the “City of Angels,” a sprawling and complex metropolis Jack Kerouac once called “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities”?
Jeremy Treat is a good man to ask. He’s the lead pastor at Reality L.A., one of the largest and most vibrant churches in the region, located in the heart of Hollywood.
Reality L.A. is an enigma to many observers in Los Angeles, who don’t have a category for a theologically conservative, Bible-centered church packed with 20-something artists, actors, DJs, and entrepreneurs who sit attentively through doctrinally rich, 50-minute Sunday sermons preached by a non-tattooed, non-bearded, non-edgy guy who wrote a book on the atonement.
As one secular journalist recently put it, “How, in famously liberal Hollywood and among statistically progressive millennials, had good old-fashioned evangelism gained popularity? In this context, a church like Reality L.A. seemed like something that could never work.”
Treat grew up in Alaska and Seattle, played college basketball at Biola (where today he teaches theology as an adjunct), and earned a PhD in theology at Wheaton College, studying under Kevin Vanhoozer. He’s been in pastoral ministry since age 20, but even he admits he’s an unlikely person to be leading a prominent church in Hollywood.
“Our church is Hollywood; it’s artistic. It’s hipster. And I’m like this jock,” says Treat, who lives in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood with his wife, Tiffany, and four young daughters. Treat has been on staff at Reality L.A.—an outpost of the larger Reality family of churches—since 2013. In 2015 he became the lead pastor after Tim Chaddick was sent to plant Reality London.
I recently sat down with Treat in Los Feliz to talk about the spiritual landscape of L.A., the challenges of ministry in Hollywood, what it’s like to disciple people who work in the entertainment industry, and how to faithfully preach the gospel over the long haul in a city so driven by transience and ephemeral trends. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What would surprise people who are not from Los Angeles about ministry here? What goes against the grain of conventional wisdom?
I would say L.A. is very different from the culture people assume about the East Coast: “The East Coast is secular, post-Christian, like London is.” L.A. is not like that at all. L.A. is hyper-spiritual, a religious melting pot.
L.A. isn’t secular and post-Christian. It’s hyper-spiritual, a religious melting pot.
Within two square miles of here, there are 16 houses of worship that are all the major religions. And then you have the syncretism of various religions combined. You have the Church of Scientology down the street. The Church of Self Realization is right next door. There’s also the Temple of Intuition.
I actually think, when you look at the trends, L.A. is more the future than New York is. The world is actually getting more religious. The secular, Western, white world is getting smaller. The future is more pluralistic, more urban. We’ve experienced it. In the last six months, I could tell you multiple stories of people who have gotten saved out of specifically cultic or demonic activity. That has almost become the assumption among people. They are not becoming spiritual when they become a Christian. They’ve been that, and now they are meeting Christ, who is sovereign over it all.
People here are not becoming spiritual when they become Christian. They’ve been that, and now they are meeting Christ, who is sovereign over it all.
L.A. can be a transient place. How does this affect the way you do ministry here?
Transience is the biggest surprise and obstacle to ministry here. We are noncommittal in our flesh to begin with. Then you add modern American culture, where our highest commitment is to self. Then you add that most of our church members are millennials. And then you add that this place culturally creates a pressure that is hard to maintain. So people come and go. You try to make it for a few years; you spend most of your savings; you can only live with six people in an apartment for so long; you get your hopes up because of an audition, but it doesn’t work out. The city chews people up and spits them out. It’s also a challenge for families. I get why families move to the suburbs. I have four kids, and we live in a small, two-bedroom house, about 100 years old. It shares a lot with other people who live right behind us. I get the transience, but it makes ministry hard for the same reasons youth ministry is hard. You pour into people, and then they leave.
There are positives that come from transience for the sake of the kingdom. Transience means we have sending capacity.
But what we’ve tried to do is recognize there are positives that come from transience for the sake of the kingdom. Transience means we have sending capacity. We want people in our church to recognize that you don’t just leave; you’re sent. You’re being sent by a church wherever you’re going. So we literally have people all over the world who have spent three years at Reality L.A., and for a lot of them it was a really pivotal experience of either becoming a Christian or understanding the centrality of the gospel in their lives. We love that. It enables us to be a missional church in a different type of way. But it’s hard, too. The turnover when it comes to people in the church, staff, all of it, is difficult.
L.A. can also be a lonely, isolating place. Everything is so spread out. It takes an hour to get anywhere to visit a friend. Do you find this challenging for people in their spiritual growth?
It’s a challenge and an opportunity. It’s ironic because L.A. is the second-biggest city in the United States, a melting pot, but it’s one of the most isolating places. There are a lot of factors to that. Selfishness and consumerism are ultimately isolating and ruin relationships, and this city runs on using other people to get what you want. When people arrive, I prepare them. I say, “It’s awesome, and you’re going to love all the coffees hops and the weather, and connecting with creative people. But you are also going to have good friends who disappear. You’re going to feel the pressure of it.” It’s really isolating.
But that’s also an opportunity. We talk about the church as a family. It’s easy when you have your biological family close by to give nods to the church as being a family: “Of course, the church, brothers and sisters in Christ. But my family. That’s really who I go to.” Yet the church truly is a family—and we’re forced to live that out here. Most of the people in our church are not from L.A. On top of that, L.A. is a magnet for broken people. You have a lot of brokenness and “authenticity,” which means I’m good at talking about my wounds and brokenness. It forces people to act like family together, in really beautiful ways. When you are in despair and don’t know who to turn to, the only people you’ve got are your community group. But also really practical things: Who takes care of you when you’re sick? Who takes you to LAX? That’s like laying your life down for your brother in Los Angeles—taking him to LAX. Those kinds of things force us to be family.
What have you found are the unique discipleship challenges in pastoring people who work in the entertainment industry?
It’s more complicated than just telling them, “Live with integrity, don’t do nude scenes, and insert the gospel wherever you can.” It’s deeper than that. Here’s a practical example. Most of the people I know in the entertainment industry don’t have a salary. Their income is up and down. They’ll make a lot of money off one project and then go months without getting paid. You take things like Dave Ramsey and conventional wisdom on financial stewardship, and it usually doesn’t work for these folks.
Character and wisdom take more time than techniques and formulas.
The other thing is schedule. A lot of discipleship is about rhythms and patterns. When you have people whose lives don’t have a lot of rhythms and patterns, it’s harder. Think about a professional athlete. It’s hard for them to be involved in the life of a church, just because of travel schedules. They normally can’t gather with the body of Christ on a Sunday. For them, it takes a unique approach to discipleship. The opportunity in that is we are forced to teach wisdom rather than just methods. When it comes to finances, there is no cookie-cutter formula to give them, so it forces me to say, “We’ve got to get you to a place of character and wisdom, where you know how to deal with the gray areas.” But again, it’s hard to do this with transients. Because character and wisdom take more time than techniques and formulas.
When you survey the spiritual landscape of Los Angeles, what else do you find interesting?
As I mentioned, L.A. is a melting pot of world religions. But there is also a really interesting Christian history here. You think of Aimee Semple McPherson, and how that came out of Hollywood culture in the 1920s-’30s and dovetailed with celebrity culture generally. You think about the charismatic movement coming out of downtown Los Angeles and now being one of the fastest-growing movements in the world. You think about Billy Graham really getting onto the national platform after coming here and having those weeks of crusades. There is this rich history here that is also really convoluted, where it’s hard to know what to celebrate and what to lament.
It’s also interesting that a lot of seminaries didn’t make it out west. And many of the ones who did sadly abandoned the most urban areas. Westmont started in downtown Los Angeles [and moved to Santa Barbara]. Pepperdine started in South L.A. and moved to Malibu. Biola started in downtown L.A. [and is now in La Mirada]. And now you have Fuller [who just announced their move from Pasadena to Pomona]. So you have the most faithful to Scripture often abandoning the city, and you have other things filling that vacuum. There are historic Christian churches around here that have turned into Buddhist temples. You have mainline churches that literally show movie clips for their sermons and have replaced the cross with a rainbow flag.
It’s interesting to me, even in the last five years, to see church planting in L.A. become trendy. There are a lot of good things happening. People are coming to Christ. But is some of it being smuggled in under a false gospel? It’s tough. I’ll tell you this: There are a lot of small, neighborhood church plants in L.A. that most people don’t know about, who are being really faithful. And it’s really hard. They are barely scraping by, but the Lord is doing sweet work there.
A recent Vice profile of Reality L.A. called it “Hollywood’s hippest evangelical church.” How do you navigate the high value placed on trendiness and hype and relevance and “cool” in a place like L.A.?
Being cool, hip, trendy, are not values at all for us. Contextualization is a big value, but those are very different things. There can be overlap, though. Something good can become trendy, where people can be drawn to it and think, Wow, that’s cool. But we have no intent to try to leverage being hip or trendy or anything like that.
One of the most important distinctions is recognizing the difference between contextualization and classic liberal theology that redefines itself in order to meet someone. There’s a difference between telling people what they want to hear and telling them what they need to hear in a way that they understand. That’s what we try to do. We tell them what they need to hear, and they need to hear the whole counsel of the Word of God. But we try to do it in a way that they understand.
There’s a difference between telling people what they want to hear and telling them what they need to hear in a way that they understand.
I want to be an Angelino in any way that is not going contrary to the grain of Scripture. I don’t feel like I have to try hard to do that. I mean, I’ve become a bit more of a coffee snob living here. But I want what’s distinct about us to be the work of Christ in our lives, not the way we dress, the vocabulary we use, or our cultural customs.
We’ve had several people who have written these articles on us, and it’s always the same question: Churches are dying, so why are these young people coming? There is always an assumption with it that we have changed something to get the young people interested. But we haven’t changed our theology. We preach the Bible. Historically we preach hour-long sermons. I’ve reeled it in a bit. I preach for 50 minutes now.
Which is so unexpected for a church in Hollywood full of millennials. They sit through 50-minute, deeply theological preaching? That’s so countercultural.
We preach Scripture because God calls us to do that. The church is founded on the Word. But I think that’s what people want. They want a loving resistance to their own propensity to self-destruct.
I’ve found the weightiest sermons I’ve preached are actually where I get the most heartfelt responses from people. I remember preaching on divorce and remarriage. Someone came up to me and said, “I’ve never heard someone talk about this. My assumption is we all just make these decisions privately and then live in shame, hoping it was the best thing.” So I’m preaching with fear and trepidation, knowing it’s a sensitive topic, calling people to do things they don’t want to do. But they see my heart is for the church and that I care. People want substance. They want to understand what the Word means and how to apply it, and that takes time.
People want a loving resistance to their own propensity to self-destruct.
It’s easy for me now talking about the justice and wrath of God. Fifteen years ago, talking about the justice of God was considered offensive, but there is such a potent sense of injustice in the world right now. People actually want to talk about the justice of God. People don’t want a sentimental, Santa Claus god who wants to sprinkle them with religious fairy dust and won’t actually do anything about the brokenness around them. That’s another part of the urban context for me: You can’t ignore the brokenness. In the suburbs you can. The brokenness is just as much there, but it’s easy to ignore. Here it’s in your face. It’s human. When I talk about immigration, names come to mind. When I talk about homelessness, I don’t think of it as an issue on the ballot. I think of the people I know and love, and how they got there.
Do you also think that in a city like L.A., if you are going to go to church at all, you might as well go all in? The cultural Christianity thing—just going to church on Sunday to hear a nice homily—that’s not really a thing here. There’s no expectation or pressure to do that, right?
The church thrives when your two options are: be a Bible-believing Christian who is willing to go against the grain and suffer, or don’t do it at all. When you have the middle ground that says, “You can be a Christian and take what you want from it and leave out the other parts,” the church doesn’t thrive. You can see that in church history, from what happened in Rome to what has happened in the United States.
The theme of the upcoming TGC West conference (October 16 to 18 in Fullerton, California) is “Enduring Faithfulness.” What have you found to be key in terms of sustainable ministry for the long haul, especially in a California culture that is ephemeral and prone to entrepreneurial passion over longevity?
This is one of the most important questions. You read through 1 and 2 Timothy and see the call to faithfulness over time, the call to endurance. For me that is what I want. I want to make it to the end faithful and not jaded. One thing that I’d say is make sure you define success up front. If you don’t, you’ll end up defining it by comparison or by worldly standards. Is my church as good as theirs? Am I as good of a preacher as that person? Or by worldly standards like numbers, money, property, influence, buzz. It’s important for us to constantly come back to the idea that success is making disciples of King Jesus. If we are genuinely making disciples, then I can be faithful to that over time. Comparison never ends well. It will always lead to shame or pride. So I have to constantly come back to the calling of making disciples.
It’s important for us to constantly come back to this: Success is making disciples of King Jesus.
Another thing is learning to operate out of intimacy with the Lord and health from the Lord. One of the things we say in our church all the time is ministry for God flows from intimacy with God. We need intimacy with the Lord and also with our spouse and our children. The minute I sacrifice my family or my relationship with the Lord to serve other people, I’ve confused my role as being a servant with being a messiah. We should also know our limits. If being done with my sermon at p.m. on Friday means I can have a day on Saturday with my family—even if it’ll be a worse sermon—then that’s worth the sacrifice for the long haul.
It’s also really important to have good role models. It’s funny; in my church I’m like an old man. I’m in my 30s, but I’m older than most people in my church. So I’ve tried to surround myself with older, godly pastors who have been through the ups and downs and the seasons. There’s a guy named Pastor Joe who lives in Indiana—he was my wife’s pastor when she was a kid—and whenever I go back to Indiana I meet with Pastor Joe. He’s 72 and has been a pastor for 50 years. He has a file cabinet in his office with 5,000 sermons in there. I sat down with him and asked, “How can you be faithful to the end?” He opened the Bible to Colossians and said, “Christ in me.” That was his answer. It comes back to intimacy with the Lord.
There are two other pastors in Los Angeles who are in their 70s who I meet with pretty regularly, who offer perspective and are models for me. I want to be like them, not the pastor who is the latest blip on the radar. I want to make it to the end and be faithful. To make a dent in one place as much as I can.