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With new pastor, Costa Mesa's First United Methodist Church keeps its eye on revival

It's been a busy and momentous time for First United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa.

The downtown institution's roots in Costa Mesa date to 1912, and its distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival sanctuary, built in 1928, predates everything around it.

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But in the past year, the church has had to dispel rumors that it was closing for good. Its worshippers — the few who were left after decades of dwindling numbers — dodged suspicions that the West 19th Street property was making way for a housing tract, as has been the fate of several other Costa Mesa church parcels in recent years.

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In February, a vandal threw a brick that shattered a portion of a 90-year-old stained-glass window depicting Jesus. Adding to the mystery of the incident were reports of pentagrams — a symbol associated with the occult — drawn on the glass. The window has been fixed, with help from donations.

In May, First United began a demolition project. By getting rid of the church's add-on buildings, leaders hoped the nearly 1-acre property — with only 19 parking spaces — would have room to accommodate 70 to 75 more cars and, consequently, more worshippers.

Then, on June 30, the church's senior pastor, Amy Aitken, was reassigned to another Methodist church in Redondo Beach. She had been in Costa Mesa for a year.

The Rev. Sarah Heath, a Duke University graduate and Mission Viejo resident, stepped in July 1.

In an interview this week, Heath said still more changes are coming for First United.

The Canadian-born Heath, 36, was appointed lead pastor after serving five years at Shepherd of the Hills in Rancho Santa Margarita.

Since her first day, First United's congregation has risen from a low of about 20 in June to about 60 now.

Church leaders said it's a far cry from the hundreds who used to call First United their church, but regaining such numbers will take time.

Heath attributes the recent boost to word of mouth and First United's exposure in new outlets like "The Liturgists," a religion podcast. She was featured in a September episode about sexism.

Heath also made an appearance on "The Committee," a web series about a fictional church looking to reinvent itself — a scenario not unlike what's happening at First United.

Heath described her philosophy as bridging ancient traditions with modern ones. As an example, she pointed to First United's new organist, a thirtysomething who promises to play the instrument in new and exciting ways.

Other changes are coming to the sanctuary itself. Heath recently installed a children's room that replaced an unused prayer chapel. The bathrooms were renovated, the pews polished. She wants to add a prayer room in the five-story bell tower.

The church has a new website, costamesafirst.com, a Facebook page and an Instagram account, with hashtags galore — #church, #historic, #newstart.

The church also will take a more progressive bent than in the past, Heath said.

In November, First United will host book launches for two authors: Brandan Robertson, a Christian LGBT activist, and Mike McHargue, aka "Science Mike," who writes about the intersection of science and religion.

"We're not a church under a cause by any means, but we really are trying to be disciples in the community, which necessitates loving everyone and everyone being involved," Heath said. "We're all about God and Jesus, and therefore everyone is welcome."

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Bradley Zint, bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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