holds its first Sunday morning worship service this weekend. But don’t expect this to be a church that takes the other six days off, or waits to get its own house in order before caring about those in the neighborhood.
“I believe Sunday morning needs to be done with a lot of excellence,” said , pastor of Riverview. “It needs to meet the needs of people that day. But our thinking is, it’s not just about Sunday morning.”
“One of the things we’re looking to do is really make an impact on the community,” said Bob Surber, an elder at the church and systems analyst for ’s UNIX.
Sunday worship time for the non-denominational Christian church is 9 a.m., this Sunday, March 27, at 9320 Willow Grove Ave. Beginning on April 3, Riverview will meet at .
Children’s programs are offered from birth through fifth grade. There is a full worship band for the adults, messages by Tolson, and a casual, come as you are atmosphere.
“Riverview is the kind of church that you can come into with zero church experience and feel like you belong,” said Tolson. “And also if you’ve got a lot of church experience you can walk right in and feel fed. We’re big on letting people just come as they are and start there. We’re not interested in people trying to get all fixed and then come to God. It’s the other way around.”
And it’s not just about Sundays.
“The biggest thing for me,” said Surber, “is to make sure that we’re able to make an impact on the community as quickly as we can. I kind of equate it to the way people say, ‘I don’t want to have kids until we can afford it.’ I don’t want to wait until we can afford it. I want to jump in as fast as we can.”
What will Riverview be jumping into? That depends on the community’s needs. The church is not interested in doing good, just for the sake of good. It will take time to figure out the real .
Early indications are that Riverview has a heart for the , and , and even both at the same time. Tolson was surprised to learn recently that at one area school almost half the students are on the free or reduced lunch plan. He points out that the local is open for only two days a week, with a packed parking lot and lines out the building. But while there’s a huge supply of hunger there’s evidently a short supply of food. Can Riverview help?
“I don’t have answers for all that,” Tolson said. “But our thinking is, it’s not just about Sunday morning. The needs are clear. .”
Tolson has been a church leader for fifteen years but says the high level of pain in the community is “new to me.” He has lived in neighborhoods and reached out to people wherever he has been. But after moving back to Santee a year and a half ago, he was surprised how interactive the neighbors were. People were not shy to come into his home and share their troubles, even without knowing he was a pastor.
“What that said to me is people are hurting at such a level that they’ll ask for help from almost anyone who looks nice enough,” he said. “That tells me the church should be ready and available to help meet their needs. And because God made us, he knows what we need. Things like marriage and parenting. God has a lot to say about how to handle things like money. God has a lot to say about the stuff that’s going on in the world today. So I think the church needs to be able to meet people’s needs as they walk into the door. “
“And I think part of the answer the church needs to give to those people is: ‘The answer to your problems are actually bigger than you.’ The church is a family and the community (Santee) is the greater family, and part of our responsibility is to serve the greater family. And you’ll find that issues like work stress and marital stress get resolved as you take the focus off yourself and help meet the needs of people in worse shape than you.”
Beyond hunger and economic issues, Tolson points to an even more fundamental social ail that he says should be illegal: Loneliness. To thwart this, Riverview is set up around midweek small groups. The primary role of small group leaders is to call everyone in the group at least weekly, just to see how they are. The meetings center around time for sharing, loving one another and praying.
“Life is too difficult to do by yourself,” Tolson said. “So that’s been on my heart.”
Facebook is a tool that Tolson plans on using to bolster community by nurturing existing relationships, and he's already huge on Twitter.
“If I only see you once a week, then every time I see you I have to start with small talk. ‘How are you. What’s going on?’ Social media allows me to continue that conversation throughout the week so when I see you the next Sunday I don’t waste time with small talk. I get right to the heart of the matter.”
Social media also allows pastors and their families to be open and authentic with who they are. They are real people. The cloud of mystery is eliminated and Tolson is just another “normal dude.”
One thing’s for sure, this Pastor loves Santee. His dad was in the navy, and Tolson, 34, lived in Santee from 1990 until 1998. He graduated from Santana High School. After getting married, he and his wife Sarah moved away, before returning in 2009.
“These are my people,” he says. “I really take an ownership in Santee. I love this town.
“It would be the coolest thing in the world if one day I could retire as the unofficial mayor of Santee. I’d like to be in a walker and everyone would say, ‘That’s Todd. He loves our town. That park over there, or that daycare center for single moms, or that pregnancy center, got started because of that dude’s church.’ ”
Surber, meanwhile, grew up in Santee and spent five years away before moving back. He had bought a big piece of land in Ramona but wanted to simplify his life again near family and friends. A new interest in simplicity was accompanied by an interest in helping others.
While attending in La Mesa, where Tolson happened to be a pastor, Surber spent a Friday night with the urban . That changed everything.
“It blew my mind,” said Surber. “I talked with a guy for 40 minutes. My mind totally shifted for homeless people. And since then I have tried to make it a point when I see people, if I have time, I’ll sit and offer to buy lunch. . More people are in need of care and love.”