Northern Lights Above LA: California Church’s New Design Shines as a City on a Hill

“We’ve succeeded in creating a warm and welcoming environment that honors God in all the details.”

At the northwest corner of the City of Angels, Shepherd Church has grown to become one of the largest churches in Los Angeles with nearly 10,000 people a week gathering at one of its four campuses. Its roots date back to 1912, when 100 dedicated believers began meeting in an old railroad car to worship God. It has become a significant gathering place in North LA, hosting nearly 19,000 people for Easter and more than 45,000 for Fourth of July fireworks. In addition to television, radio and internet ministries, the church has been able to reach beyond its campuses to love God and love people in 22 different countries with 32 global partners.

Despite having successfully launched other campuses and even spinning off two congregations as separate churches, the main campus—with its 2,100-seat auditorium—was beyond full. Shepherd Church was even forced to develop a multilevel parking structure.

In kicking off the redesign of the main campus and new 3,500-seat auditorium with the Visioneering Studios team, we had the opportunity to explore the story of the church, the city and the site. We discovered that the area had a unique tie to the earliest roots of the Hollywood film industry, being the location of historic movie ranches and the setting of classic Western movies. Today, as Hollywood offers a “false north” morality to the world, Shepherd Church seeks to offer God’s Word as true north through multiple live and media-based ministries.

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

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“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 what 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. 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.”

Their Bible-based DNA, their desire to serve as a “true north” of truth and light, and their celebration of the community’s diversity led us to the aurora borealis or northern lights as our driving “big idea.” In the northernmost places of the world, you can see beautiful, radiant and colorful lights displayed across the sky. We learned that these lights are 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. Our different shapes, colors and cultures come together as we boldly engage the culture with the transforming truth of the gospel,” says Rutherford.

A former parking lot and underutilized courtyard was re-imagined as CandleWalk, a meandering pedestrian plaza following the path of 12 iconic stone pillars with a torch on top of each one. We designed and fabricated “spatial storytelling” graphics that tell the story of the 12 apostles on one side and the 12 tribes of Israel on the other, creating an experiential discovery trail.

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

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“Our desire is to reach all 2 million people living in the northern Los Angeles area,” says Rutherford. “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, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, co-founded Visioneering Studios and PlainJoe Studios, where he now serves as chief creative principal. PlainJoe Studios, is a multidisciplinary design firm focused on storytelling from branding to building. Mel also serves as chief creative officer for Storyland Studios, giving leadership to its multidisciplinary Spatial Storytelling practice.