Musically driven Jesus Culture grows from California roots into global faith community

A UCLA chaplain, a recovered meth addict and an Ethiopian student beamed and swayed together Sunday to the song “Faithful Till The End.” They were attending one of three services at Folsom High School by Jesus Culture, a musically driven movement that began in Redding and has gone global.

Each service attracted about 500 people in folding chairs and dozens more on their feet, nodding their heads in affirmation of Pastor Banning Liebscher’s blend of gospel and personal anecdotes preaching that people are not defined by their mistakes or dysfunctional families but their choice to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and “act Christlike.”

Liebscher coined the term “Jesus Culture” when he saw a hat with the logo “Counter Culture” at the mall. In 1999, Banning’s youth group at Redding’s Bethel Church hosted its first Jesus Culture Conference. Conferences have since been held from London to Melbourne, driven initially by the popularity of church songs such as “Your Love Never Fails” and “How He Loves Us,” said Executive Pastor Zack Curry. As of Sunday, “How He Loves Us” had nearly 18 million YouTube views.

Jesus Culture opened its Sacramento church in September 2014 and now draws about 2,200 congregants every Sunday, Curry said. “We’ve been known as a youth ministry, but the church has become multigenerational, with an average age of 37.”

Curry said the heart of the movement is that congregants “encounter God personally – we just want people to know Jesus, who Jesus is and what he’s done is really good news!”

Jesus Culture performs faith healing – one of the controversial aspects of the movement that has produced headlines such as “Inside the Popular, Controversial Bethel Church” in the current issue of Christianity Today.

Event host Amanda Key, 28, said she and her husband moved from Houston to Sacramento just to join the Sacramento church and be closer to the magic. Key, who has attended Bethel’s Supernatural Ministry in Redding, said, “I’ve seen broken bones being healed, stunted legs growing out, back pain relieved.”

Key said she likes the church’s “gentle” approach – it doesn’t spit fire and brimstone or talk of hell for sinners. “We are all in love with the heart they have,” added Key, a paralegal.

Many congregants have left other churches. Mike Matheson, 61, said he’d been a pastor at Praise Chapel Christian in south Sacramento, then attended Bayside Church before coming to Jesus Culture.

“Bayside’s a great church doing great things, but I find Jesus Culture more into what God can do for you as a person in regards to emotional, mental and physical healing,” he said. “It has a Pentecostal flair to it.”

Pastor Banning, in his homespun sermon, said no one is defined by family or past failures.

“My extended family is extremely dysfunctional. There are womanizing alcoholics … but none of them define who I am,” he said. “Some of you have had failed marriages, failed businesses, moral failures, but your past and failures don’t determine who you are, only (Christ) does.”

Chris Humphrey from the Pocket area gave an amen. “I’ve been in prison before; I’ve been a meth addict homeless on the street, when I realized (Christ) loved me even with my failures,” said Humphrey, 40, who now owns his own business. He said his life turned around when he realized his reason for living was to love other people “the way (Christ) loves me.”

Next to Humphrey, Ruth Asmamaw, 26, a nutrition student at Sac State from Ethiopia, couldn’t stop smiling as the music filled her. “I grew up listening to the Jesus Culture band,” she said. “Everyone is family here; you don’t feel alone. This is home away from home. No one sees color here.”

To her right, Andrew Eppes, a UCLA chaplain here for the NCAA tournament, scribbled notes. “I listened to their music, and it really impacted my life,” Eppes said, as the song “I’m A Lover of Your Presence” filled the auditorium.

Jennifer Yevtukh, a 16-year-old from Russia, said she attends with her family, while her grandmother still attends Bethany Slavic Missionary Church. “I’ve been going since it started,” she said. “It’s very welcoming.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini