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A church for anyone and everyone

Pastor seeks to bridge ethnic and racial divides

Posted: July 12, 2008 1:06 a.m.
Updated: September 12, 2008 5:04 a.m.

Pastor Marlon Saunders is the founder of a new church called the Valencia Christian Center. The church has been open for only three months and already has more than 100 members. The Sunday services are lively, filled with singing and dancing.

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About a year ago, Senior Pastor Marlon Saunders believed God spoke to him about establishing a church in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Church involvement is in the Valencia resident's blood. His ancestors took part in popular church movements, including the 1906 Azusa Street Revival. His parents served in the church and Saunders said he "grew up in the church, surrounded by preachers and ministers." Saunders even met his wife while working at a church in Denver, Colo.

While maintaining a full-time career as a sound engineer for Sony Studios in Culver City and raising a family, Saunders carried God's message and created the Valencia Christian Center, a "multicultural and non-denominational" congregation.

In the four months that the church has been holding services at a Stevenson Ranch elementary school, Saunders said they have gone from "nobody, to approximately 125 people on Sunday," a number he expects to see grow.

For that, he credits the church's youthful and casual attitude, and a strong base in Christianity and a focus on the impact faith can have in a person's life.

A different style of worship
Saunders hopes his church will bring everyone together.

"The idea behind Valencia Christian Center is to bridge the gap between all ethnic backgrounds," including social, economic and religious backgrounds, he said.

"We're just a Christian church and a church for all people."

Saunders, who visited numerous churches with his wife, Tamara, before opening the center, said he started to notice a trend when it came to Sunday morning church services.

"It was interesting to me to find out that one of the most segregated times in our country is on Sunday morning between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.," he said, later adding that churches will often be referred to as the "black church" and "white church" based on membership.

For Saunders, it was an eye-opening experience, given people of all backgrounds will perform just about any other daily task together.

"It's not like we're going to go to heaven and God's going to say, ‘OK, all the black people over here,'" he said with a chuckle. "So our church is designed to reflect what heaven will be like."

A church of young people
With a church leadership of seven (the center already has a singles, college and Bible study, among other divisions), Saunders, a Howard University graduate, has seen a "very small" turnover with its more than 100 worshipers so far.

He believes the members so far come from three categories: people he considers "hurt by the church," people who were commuting outside of the valley to attend Sunday services and worshipers who attended church, but never felt connected to the message they were receiving.

As for people who have been "hurt by the church," Saunders elaborated by saying, "It's situations where they put their trust in the institution as opposed to putting their faith in God," leaving them to be "let down" for whatever reason.

With its lively attitude, Saunders, 32, said the majority of the church is made up of young couples, ranging in age from 25 to 35 with young children, a reflection of the center's leadership.

Saunders, a six-year resident of Valencia with wife Tamara, has a 20-month old son and a second baby on the way.

The lively Sunday service
Through its energizing Sunday music and engaging preaching style, Saunders hopes that Sunday worshippers will feel a connection to their faith.

Saunders notes that the music doesn't sound like "traditional church music," but rather music with a beat.

And Saunders knows good music. He grew up playing the drums and has been involved in producing and writing music. In 1998, Guitar Center named Saunders the number one amateur drummer in the country.

Along with his own musical experience, Saunders said the center's minister of music and band leader recently toured with the French entertainment show Cirque Du Soleil, as well as singer Chaka Khan.
But at the same time, Saunders said the musicians grew up in the church.

"So that gives you an idea of what they're bringing," he said.

Paired with the strong music is Saunders' informal preaching style.

"I've always wanted to be able to talk to people from the pulpit as if I was talking to them on the phone," said Saunders, who has been preaching since the age of 19 and holds two pastoral licenses.

"The teaching, it sounds like I'm just talking to you and I've invited you over to the house to just talk."

However, the church maintains its "Pentecostal flavor," giving people a connection to Christianity.

Saunders, who is currently preaching a two-month series based on Genesis 22, strives to give members a connection to faith.

"What does faith look like in everyday situations?" he questioned.

The connection to faith is just one aspect of the center's overall mission: "Providing encouragement and hope through the comfort and love of God's word."

With every Sunday service, Saunders hopes to build the center's membership and one day, find their own facility to worship in.

He also hopes to give the worshipers what they want.

"I don't want there to be one need that you can't come to Valencia Christian Center for," he said.

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