Until four years ago, car designer Carlos Salaff, 26, of Fullerton had never attended church service and had no interest in associating with Christians.
“I just had this idea that church people are real quick to judge you: ‘You are a sinner and you will go to hell,’ ” he said. “I thought Christians were detached, condemning and nerdy.”
Then Salaff visited Mosaic, a multicultural, multiethnic, multi-location urban church that was meeting in a nightclub in downtown Los Angeles. He went because a woman he liked had invited him.
What he found there blew his mind. “They were people just like me,” he said. “They weren’t nerdy or irrelevant. They were extremely friendly and they were cool.”
Salaff was especially taken with the Rev. Erwin Raphael McManus, 46, Mosaic’s charismatic senior pastor, who preaches in jeans and a T-shirt.
“He is always talking about relationships and serving other people. I love that.”
So Salaff kept going back.
Within three years, he had become a Christian, married Jennifer Cho, the woman who introduced him to Mosaic, and started to teach with his wife a weekly Bible class.
“My greatest joy is being obedient to Jesus Christ,” Salaff said.
Mosaic’s appeal to people like Salaff has caused it to grow in less than six years from fewer than 100 members to nearly 2,000, with sister “communities” in San Francisco, Seattle, Manhattan, Atlanta and Nashville and more underway in Germany, Spain and Scotland.
Its services include a creative mix of spirituality, the visual and performing arts and borrowings from non-Western cultures.
Mosaic, originally the Church on Brady, a Southern Baptist church on the Eastside, is the talk of many Christian leaders who want to reach out to the younger generation.
Its unusual name is meant to reflect the diversity of its members and “a broken and fragmented humanity which can become a work of beauty under the artful hands of God,” according to McManus.
“Part of the reason we are large is because we take people to Christ, people who would normally consider Buddha, New Age, something more mystical or kabbala,” said McManus, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who has become something of a guru among younger church leaders.
Associate pastor, the Rev. Eric Bryant, an ordained Baptist preacher from Seattle, first worked at Mosaic as a volunteer parking lot attendant.
“I felt that I’d rather be an attendant in a parking lot of a movement than in the pulpit of a dying church,” he said.
“We can’t reach L.A. unless we’re relevant, speaking the language of Angelenos,” Bryant said. “When Jesus was walking on Earth, he spoke the language of the people: Aramaic,” he said.
Mosaic is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but it does not subscribe to many stances of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination; Mosaic, for example, allows women pastors.
Mosaic has a high percentage of artists, musicians, actors and writers, who might not be comfortable in more traditional congregations. They write songs and plays and participate in performances.
A worship service sometimes begins with an East Indian musical prelude and continues with exuberant dancing, a skit, thumping hard rock praise and worship songs and tranquil Japanese koto music during offering.
They don’t sing hymns. McManus says “European” songs have no relevance in a multiethnic, multicultural urban church of revolutionaries in the heart of Los Angeles in the 21st century.
On one recent Sunday, while McManus spoke about wisdom -- he said wisdom is about relationships and how one treats other people -- several artists stood at easels and painted.
One huge red canvas contained the Chinese character for love in gold.
Everyone is on a first-name basis at Mosaic.
“Hi, I am Erwin,” McManus greets each visitor with a big smile, extending his hand.
Mosaic’s three Sunday services are held in rented spaces, at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at the Mayan, a salsa club on South Hill Street, and at 10:30 a.m. at William Carey International University in Pasadena.
Mosaic recently moved to the Mayan because it lost its lease at a downtown nightclub in the Los Angeles Entertainment Center at Boylston and 3rd streets, where it had met for nearly six years.
At the Mayan, about 60 volunteers arrive -- some as early as 5:45 a.m. -- to clean and set up for Sunday services.
Because the place is a nightclub the rest of the week, volunteers later remove Mosaic trappings, sometimes not finishing until 10 p.m.
Mosaic rents office space in Industry and operates on a $1.8-million budget this year, mainly from members’ tithing, officials said.
Many members volunteer their services, and Mosaic also has 70 missionaries abroad, called “overseas workers.”
Theologian Ryan Bolger, who teaches about the church in contemporary culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, says Mosaic serves as a model to many younger churches.
“Mosaic, rooted in the Southern Baptist tradition, seeks to embody a 21st century expression of church life while remaining true to its conservative tradition,” Bolger said.
“A guru to many younger American church pastors, Erwin McManus is a true innovator, full of passion and visions,” he said.
McManus, whose latest book is “Uprising: A Revolution of the Soul,” refers to himself as a cultural architect of Mosaic.
“We’re a part of the insurrection, trying to turn Christianity upside down,” he said. “We’re an experimental church, God’s research and development arm.”
McManus, a Salvadoran who came to the United States as a first-grader, spoke Spanish before English. (McManus is his stepfather’s name.)
After he and his brother, Alex McManus, who is a year older, finished Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, they were ordained in 1984. Both ministered to the poor there before heading to California.
Erwin McManus was invited to Los Angeles to work at the now-closed Church on Brady. He started an alternative service there that grew into Mosaic six years ago. Alex McManus is now a Mosaic pastor too.
Mosaic’s membership represents 57 nationalities, almost half of them Asian and the rest a mixture of Latinos, whites, blacks and others. About 80% are single; the average age is 24.
Jennifer Cho, a journalist in the Inland Valley who grew up in a traditional Presbyterian home, says that God is made more personal for her in a setting like Mosaic.
“People are drawn to informal settings because it’s less intimidating,” she said.
“After all, it feels pretty good to worship God while wearing jeans and flip-flops.”