California church works to connect with people from every sector of society.
By developing staff members into leaders, inviting newcomers to worship and creating an excellent Sunday experience, Discovery Church in Bakersfield, California, has steadily grown, says Lead Pastor Jason Hanash.
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches worldwide to go solely digital, however, it hasn’t been easy. Discipling others and uniting in prayer are typically activities that require people to be close to one another.
“When you take the proximity of church away from the gospel community, it greatly impacts the movement,” Hanash says. “The church was not intended to move this way, but we’re meeting the challenge. We have online groups, and we’re connecting to people in a digital age, even though the kingdom has definitely been impacted by the restriction of physical gatherings.”
Digital small groups and worship services have had their upsides, though. Discovery has gained followers who regularly tune in from out of state, and newcomers continue to give their lives to Christ.
Four years ago, Myrna Velasquez was one of those newcomers. She visited Discovery with a friend who’d heard about the church on social media and didn’t want to attend a service alone. Velasquez still remembers the energy of the worship service and how welcoming the congregants were. She says they treated her like a long-lost family member.
“I felt very loved right from when I got to the church doors, before I even stepped in, and then just the experience itself, when I was there, I had never felt anything like that before going to a church,” she recalls.
Prior to attending Discovery, Velasquez describes herself as a someone seeking spiritual fulfillment. A friend had told her about Jesus, and wanting to learn more, Velasquez started to develop her own personal relationship with God. After visiting Discovery, she quickly got involved, serving on the First Impressions team, where she welcomed visitors to worship services.
“To me, that was like an honor,” she says. “I had never been to a church where I had been asked or given the opportunity to serve. So, I was like, ‘Oh, I want to serve; I want to help.’”
The following year, Velasquez and her then 8-year-old son got baptized at Discovery. At other churches, she never felt quite like she fit in because she didn’t feel good enough or that she was dressed fancy enough, she says. Having served on the First Impressions team, she knows that newcomers to churches often feel nervous, but Discovery stands out for putting its guests at ease, she says. “You can be who you are. You can come as you are, and there’s no judgment.”
Hanash says that the city of Bakersfield, which has a population of just under 400,000 and a thriving agricultural sector, can be a conservative town. The older residents tend to lean right politically and be more religious, while their younger counterparts lean left and are likely to have no religious affiliation at all.
Serving as a pastor in Bakersfield means learning how to connect with all pockets of the community. Spiritual leadership, especially amid a deadly pandemic and widespread civil unrest, required that Hanash not turn away from challenges.
“This past year the pain principle has been more apparent than ever,” he says. “Leading a growing ministry at higher levels means you have to be willing to endure pain. If you’re not willing to endure the pain, you’re not able to sustain the growth.”
—Nadra Kareem Nittle
Lead Pastor: Jason Hanash
Affiliation: Assemblies of God
Growth: +342 (26%)