Lighting Up the Valley
Lighting Up the Valley

By Mel McGowan

A campus redesign is helping Shepherd Church to be an influence in Hollywood, Los Angeles, and the world.

Imagine if the world’s cultural capital and dream factory exported God’s truth instead of Hollywood’s “false north” of political correctness and moral relativism. Imagine if a church in Los Angeles expressed the diversity of the City of Angels and offered a taste of kingdom come, where “all the colors will bleed into one,” as Bono sang.

Dudley Rutherford—an Ozark Christian College and Hope International University alumnus—leads the 12,000-member Shepherd Church, called “the most racially diverse church in Los Angeles” by the city’s mayor. During the recent grand opening of Shepherd’s new 3,500-seat auditorium, Rutherford, the senior pastor, shared how the church’s roots go back to 1912, when a hundred believers began meeting to worship God on an old railroad car. In 1995, Hillcrest Christian Church in Granada Hills united with First Baptist Church of Van Nuys to become Shepherd of the Hills Church, now known simply as Shepherd Church.

While serving with Visioneering Studios, I got to know Rutherford and executive pastor Tim Winters during the early stages of redesign of their campus and new sanctuary.

The Light on a Hill

“One of our big concerns was getting city approval for what we wanted to build,” Winters said. “When we went before the city to present our building plan for approval, we watched the city commissioner turn down the person right before us, swiftly and matter-of-factly.

“When we presented our plan, the commissioner explained that when she moved to Porter Ranch 10 years before, she struggled to find a place to hold a series of community meetings in the area, and we had allowed her to meet in our building. She told us from the time we had opened our doors, we’d been sharing our building with the fire department, police department, homeowners’ groups, and the community. So, she enthusiastically approved our plan!”

“Our mission at Shepherd Church has always been to lift up Jesus that the whole world might believe, as we see in John 3:14 and 15 and John 12:32,” Rutherford said. “When we got together with Mel and his team, we talked about this theme of lifting up the name of Jesus and being a light in a dark world.

“Our church is situated on the hills of Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, which makes us feel we are a small part of whom Jesus was talking about when he said, ‘You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.’

“Then we thought about the city in which we live,” Rutherford continued. “Los Angeles is a unique and diverse city, and Shepherd Church is filled with unique people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds who love and serve the Lord Jesus together.”

Pointing to “True North”

“Mel McGowan from PlainJoe led us through Disney’s unique BlueSky discovery process as we started this project,” Winters explained. “During that process, we discovered this area had a unique tie to the early roots of the Hollywood film industry. It was the location of historic movie ranches and the setting of classic western movies.

“With those roots, we want to continue to have an influence with Hollywood, Los Angeles, and the world. So, we have built this amazing worship facility above the San Fernando Valley looking down toward Hollywood and Los Angeles,” Winters said. “From here we want to be a light pointing to the ‘True North’ which is God’s Word, and to lift up Christ that all might believe.”

Shepherd’s DNA centers on God’s Word as a driving “True North” of truth and light, and the church’s celebration of LA’s diversity led us to the northern lights as our driving “big idea.” In the northernmost places of the world, you can see these beautiful, radiant, and colorful auroras displayed across the sky. We learned that these lights are actually caused by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun as they enter the earth’s atmosphere.

“Similarly, believers in Christ at Shepherd can light up the valley when we allow Jesus to collide with our lives,” Rutherford said. “Our different shapes, colors, and cultures come together as we boldly engage the culture with the transforming truth of the gospel.”

Creatively Reaching 2 Million Angeleños

A former surface parking lot and underutilized courtyard were reimagined as CandleWalk, a meandering pedestrian plaza following the path of 12 iconic stone “pillars” with a torch on top of each. We designed and fabricated Spatial Storytelling graphics that depict the accounts of the 12 apostles on one side and the 12 tribes of Israel on the opposite side, creating an experiential discovery trail across CandleWalk.

Another unique environmental art feature is a series of amber-colored LED lit “cattails” that sway in the wind capturing the eye of surrounding Angeleños. Outdoor fireplaces, seating, and water features create an invitational gathering place across the street from the area’s largest shopping district.

“Our desire is to reach all 2 million people living here in the northern Los Angeles area,” Rutherford said. “When I look around at the new design of our campus and our new worship center, I can’t help but feel joy and excitement for the people in our community and in our city who will come and learn about Jesus Christ. I think we’ve succeeded in creating a warm and welcoming environment that honors God in all the details, big and small. And we’ve built this new worship facility not only for the lives that will be transformed for Christ today, but also for future generations.”

Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.

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