Sunday morning is the busiest time of the week on Leghorn Avenue, when Christians from far and wide pour into every crevice of every parking lot around the big-box stores, auto shops and industrial buildings to attend Abundant Life Christian Fellowship church.
The church moved to Mountain View about four years ago, after a giving its current home, a former plastic wares factory behind Costco, a $12 million transformation that included balcony seating and huge TV monitors behind the pulpit. Today, Abundant Life holds three services every weekend, with each one attended by over a thousand people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, mostly African-American.
Few are late for the gospel music that kicks off every service. Young children are shuttled into kids' rooms, protected by a unique security system involving photo identification and bar codes (a measure to prevent kidnapping). After a professional-quality video presentation of the week's church news, pastor Paul Sheppard steps up to the pulpit.
On May 24, amid words of worship and encouragement, Sheppard told his congregation a bit of surprising news: The church has outgrown even its current location, and will soon need a larger home.
"In order to reach thousands more we're going to have to build one more time," Sheppard said. "In a few weeks the elders will assemble a church committee to search the land" for a new location.
Sheppard said some have asked him, why not "call it quits in terms of trying to reach more people? But that doesn't resonate with me at all. If there are still unsaved people in Northern California, I should not assume God is through."
Originally a pastor in Philadelphia, Sheppard, 51, says that 20 years ago he received a call from God to come to the Bay Area and form a new church, and he answered that call. Setting up shop in Menlo Park with only 34 worshipers, Abundant Life today claims more than 6,000 members in its Mountain View location. The church is in the process of adding a fourth weekend service, which appears to be the maximum that the church can handle.
Abundant Life's recipe for growth involves a certain tolerance for diversity, both ethnic and political. For example, the church does not take political positions on issues such as gay marriage or abortion, because they can be "incredibly divisive," explained assistant pastor Tilden Fang.
Sheppard's message of tolerance and diversity is reinforced in his radio show, "Enduring Truths," which is broadcast over 500 radio stations. He recently wrote a book about improving relationships between diverse churchgoers called "Build a Bridge and Get Over it!" (His popularity is so great that he is requested for speaking engagements at Christian conferences all over the country during the week -- which is why, his assistant said, he would be too busy for an interview with the Voice.)
Sheppard's sermons are humorous and sometimes theatrical. On May 24 he talked about how being a Christian was sometimes a struggle requiring that you get up and fight when beaten down. He used boxing as a metaphor, and at one point stretched out on the stage like a knocked-out boxer for dramatic effect, riffing on what must go through a boxer's mind when he's been knocked down on cable TV.
His sermons are memorable, and quotable: "There is nothing worse to me than a weak-kneed, milquetoast man," he said, adding that "I don't let anything get me down and out."
When offering advice for finding a compatible marriage partner, Sheppard said, "If you want to live a thoroughbred life, you can't mate with a mule."
"Don't send me an e-mail," he added. "I meant exactly what I said."
Sheppard's practical lessons draw people from all sorts of backgrounds, which is why, Fang said, "It is not uncommon to find someone with a Ph.D. worshiping next to someone who just got their GED, or someone who just came out of prison," who heard Sheppard on the radio.
The next move
Sheppard says he plans to retire at 65, so he has 14 years to go. He says that "there is no success without succession," which means he is hoping someone will emerge to be the church's next leader. Much is at stake: The church has over 60 different ministries, such as drug and alcohol support groups and marriage counseling programs.
Fang said it was a possibility the church would remain in Mountain View as a "satellite" of a new, larger building leased or built somewhere else. Where exactly the church would set up its new headquarters is uncertain, but Fang noted that land is expensive in Silicon Valley.
Wherever it goes, people are sure to travel to get there. As it is now, churchgoers are drawn from around the larger Bay Area, with some coming from as far as Tracy and Vacaville. Many are from San Francisco and Oakland, and most are from Mountain View, Sunnyvale and East Palo Alto, where the church runs several outreach programs.