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New pastor has a familiar face
Fresh blood, yes, but also a familiar face.

Jonathan Smith is a strange paradox as he became pastor of Valley Christian Center in Ceres a few weeks ago. He may be young, but he's been in and out the doors as an attender for the past decade.

Smith, 33, replaces Pike Robinson, who served as senior pastor for nearly 12 years. The 1992 Ceres High School graduate admits he has some big shoes to fill but also some big plans.

"One of my ideas is to get 10 new families here by 2008 and get them plugged into the church," he said. "Maybe people who have never come to church before."

Smith's downtown church, an Assemblies of God denomination, is already attracting new families. A recent change was a move toward more contemporary music, led by David and Rachel Jackson.

Just having a younger pastor is generating some excitement as well.

"Our worship service as changed dramatically," said Smith. "They do a lot of the newer songs. He plays guitar. It's more contemporary now. I think that in itself is drawing a lot more of the younger couples."

Even the older generation seems to accept the newer music style.

"It's really neat to see how the older people (respond). They're saying it's beautiful how these younger couples are coming in. I've been here so I know a lot of the older people and have had relationships with them so it's a little easier for me to make some of the changes I had to make to get the younger people in. I haven't had anyone coming in here yelling at me yet."

If anything, the saints of the church have offered him accolades and words of support.

"There's a lot of younger couples coming in and we haven't even done advertisement or anything. It's basically word of mouth. Our attendance has gone up tremendously on Sunday mornings and Sunday nights."

Currently Smith is assembling a "welcome campaign," which involves direct mailing 2,500 postcard invitations to new residents of Ceres.

Attendance has been running about 115 on Sunday mornings.

Smith said he plans to make the Bible relevant to people's lives by following the example of Billy Graham. "He said, 'Preach with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.' I preach a lot about purpose. And I preach a lot about people's finances. Because I know that finances right now are a major issue ... I know the stress it creates in a family. So I think if you can kind of battle those things with the word of God and teach how to come under the umbrella of God's protection .... that it will begin to spark something in them and hopefully create more peace in the home."

Smith's goal is to move mere attenders to members and then to servants in the church. There's plenty of work to be done at Valley Christian Center, which has a program that already focuses on young people. Three former houses located north of the sanctuary are used for three youth programs on Wednesday nights. They include the Royal Rangers for boys aged 5 to 18; the Missionettes, for girls 5 to 18; and Youth, for teens 13 to 18. The church also offers Sunday School classes at 9:15 a.m.

Smith feels the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true answer to what ails people's needs. He turned to drugs at the age of 21, trying to fill a need, a void in his life.

"I was pretty messed up," said Smith. "Right out of high school I got into drugs and started living that lifestyle."

He remembers being "so miserable." Smith recalls the godly influence of his grandmother, Hattie Elliot of Ceres. She is now 95. Also helping in his conversion was watching a video presentation of the drama, "Heaven's Gates, Hell's Flames."

"It scared the liver out of me," Smith recalls.

He accepted Christ in front of his sister's TV and then started attending Valley Christian Center.

"I gave my life to the Lord when I was 21 and haven't gone back. When I did find that peace that the love of God brings, it brought me out. It was a process. I was stuck in a rut and didn't to get out."

Jonathan became an evangelism pastor in Eureka, spending much of his time reaching out to the large Hmong population there. He also started "sidewalk Sunday schools."

From 2001 to 2004, Smith was back in Ceres attending the church. He then became a youth pastor at the First Assembly of God in Merced. He also worked with youth in Sutter, near Yuba City.

He returned to Ceres in August 2006.

When Pastor Robinson retired, the pastor role was filled on an interim basis by Carol Ford, the associate pastor.

Jonathan and his wife, Jennifer, have a 3-year-old daughter, Emily.