It was Christmas of 1973. Jay Haizlip was 10 years old, and his mother gave him a present that would change the course of his life. It was a 20-inch piece of plywood and plastic, four and a half inches wide, with ball-bearing wheels—an old-school skateboard.
“There is no way I can explain the thrill I experienced that Christmas,” he wrote in his book The Hooked Up Life. “Something forever changed in me.”
Jay started in the driveway, but soon advanced to building his own ramps, skating in concrete ditches, empty pools and anywhere he could find to practice his new obsession. His passion, combined with a natural sense of balance and growing skills, earned Jay the respect of older skater peers.
In addition to skateboarding, his new friends smoked weed, stole their parents’ booze and reinforced all the stereotypes of the rebellious skater subculture. Not that any of this was new to Jay. His mother, only 15 years his senior, was a child of the ’60s, and Jay was exposed to alcohol and drug use from an early age.
“The first time I ever remember getting drunk or high was from older people that thought it was cool and cute to blow pot smoke in my face,” he recalls. “My mother didn’t, but my cousins and some other people that she was friends with did.”
This exposure to alcohol and drugs normalized them for Jay, so he found himself naturally joining in his skater friends’ escapades.
“I didn't become an alcoholic or a drug addict immediately or overnight,” he says, “but the exposure did kind of bend me in a certain direction.”
In his mid-teens, Jay’s mother moved the family from their hometown in northeastern Alabama to Southern California—a mecca of the emerging skateboarding culture—and soon after, Jay’s life became a blur of only two things: skating and getting high. It was around this time that he was first exposed to hard drugs like cocaine, and it wasn’t long before the drug completely dominated his life.
Jay describes himself at the time as “a functioning addict,” living in Hollywood and pursuing a life of sex, skateboarding, music and a variety of drugs. He continued to make a name for himself in the skateboarding world, landing on the July 1983 cover of Thrasher magazine. “Albamy Jay,” as he was known, was even featured in the center spread of the magazine, flying through the air above an empty pool, beer in hand.
In addition to skating, Jay harbored aspirations to act. He landed a spot in the prestigious Actors Studio West, where legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg taught. Because of his passion for partying, he rarely showed up to class and even ditched opportunities to advertise skate gear and clothing. Eventually, his appetite for drugs completely eclipsed any skating and acting ambitions.
“It led to a point where, little by little,” Jay says, “things that I cared about—things I wanted to do and to become—began to just kind of slip away.”
Hoping to escape his demons, he moved back to Alabama. He remembers thinking on the drive, If I just smoke pot and drink and quit doing all this coke, I’m gonna be all good. Jay’s addictions followed him to Alabama, however, and soon he was on the phone with his dealer in California, asking him to send more cocaine.
Caught attempting to sell some of his cocaine, Jay was sentenced to two years in prison—a term that was suspended with the stipulation that he would leave Alabama and never return.
Jay found it impossible to comply with this requirement. He had met a girl named Christy, and he returned to his hometown to see her whenever he could. He eventually moved to Alabama for good but was soon arrested on another set of drug charges and found himself in front of the same judge who had warned him never to set foot in Alabama again.
The judge was unexpectedly lenient, and Jay ended up serving only six months of the original two-year sentence. In 1986, he and Christy were married and settled down in their hometown, Gadsden, Alabama, where Jay worked as a landscaper and Christy had a clerical job in a hospital.
Within a year of marrying, they were living separate lives, and Jay once again slipped into partying and drugs. He tried everything to get his life together—from counseling and five-step programs to rehabilitation and other treatments.
“None of it really worked for me,” Jay explains. “I was able to abstain from it for periods of time, but there was just this monster on the inside of me. It wasn’t until God put a businessman in my path who shared Jesus with me.”
Although Jay was planning to head to another drug deal after talking to the businessman, “when he prayed with me, I felt all the hurt, the pain, the weight, everything I’d ever done—it just supernaturally lifted off of me, came out of me, and God filled me with the most incredible peace and joy.”
The businessman also anointed Jay with oil and prayed that he be filled with the Holy Spirit.
“I stood up from that moment, and it was the greatest state of ecstasy I’d ever experienced in my life because it was like Acts chapter two,” Jay recalls. “I was drunk, but not like what other people would have thought I was drunk on. That was the Holy Spirit. I looked at him, and I said, ‘Man, I’m changed.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you are.’ He gave me his Bible, and that is the beginning. That’s how it all started.”
On the same Sunday Jay was baptized in water, his wife Christy was saved, and not long after that he started being invited to share his testimony at churches. Jay sensed that God was calling him to preach, and within two years he was in full-time ministry. His itinerant evangelistic travels led him back to Southern California, where, in 2002, he and Christy planted The Sanctuary Church in Huntington Beach.
Jay’s vision for The Sanctuary is to create a place where unchurched people from diverse backgrounds can experience the same community he enjoyed with his skater buddies, but with spiritual substance.
“You see that throughout Scripture,” Jay explains, “where it’s all about a tribe, a community, a family that gather in God’s presence and around His Word.”
The Sanctuary has a skate park and hosts events to attract both believers and unbelievers, but Jay notes community for community’s sake is not his aim.
“What I see is it’s either one or the other—it’s all social and very little substance in terms of spiritual. Even though it’s in the name of Christianity or Jesus, there’s no depth and power and presence,” Jay notes. “And then you have people that are all fire and power and presence, but it’s no social [engagement]. Get to the altar, and nothing else matters. I think it needs to be more of a holistic approach to community—community centered around God and His presence.”
Jay notes that this has become increasingly important as the values of secular society influence the church. People need a place where they can experience authentic community with other believers but also allow their worldviews and behavior to be shaped by Scripture and the Holy Spirit. He observes a creeping “cultural Christianity” that affirms religious language and practices but exhibits little lifestyle change.
“It’s very common for [unmarried] people in the church to be living together,” Jay points out. “It doesn’t even dawn on people that we should get married.”
Likewise, he observes an increase in alcohol abuse, marijuana use and other lifestyle choices openly practiced in the church today—all under the guise of grace—that would have been hidden or frowned upon in the past. Jay attributes this shift to a pattern he sees in Scripture.
“I may not be an expert in what I’m about to say, but I think I’ve noticed a pattern in the Bible—in the Old and New [Testaments],” he notes. “Whatever’s happening in the priest affects what’s happening in the body.”
He cites an experience he had on a Sunday night at a local restaurant where he observed staff and volunteers from a well-known Southern California church getting drunk and using profanity—all while talking about the service they had attended and served at earlier in the day. One member of the group boasted that he expected to be drunk while preaching at an upcoming conference.
“It so broke my heart,” Jay recalls, “and I said, ‘God, I never want to become like that. Please don’t ever let me drift into a state of being that deceived.’”
Although, due to his own struggles, Jay is grieved by church leaders who have an indifferent attitude toward their own sin, he is passionate about The Sanctuary being a nonjudgmental place where people who are at all stages of spiritual growth can feel welcome.
“We accept people here, regardless of how they’re living, where they’ve been, and what they’ve done. That’s a distinct characteristic of our culture,” he explains. “But it’s not an enabling culture. It’s a culture where people feel like I can be real. I don’t have to act like nothing’s going on in my life. I don’t [need to] have it all together. Where people can be transparent, but yet there’s an environment that inspires and encourages and disciples people to work out our salvation.”
An example of this philosophy relates to the normalization of marijuana use. (Recreational cannabis is legal in California.) Jay faces the challenge of not only discipling people who use marijuana, but those who may be involved in the burgeoning industries surrounding its farming, processing, distribution and marketing.
Recently a man who owned a large cannabis distribution company approached Jay to meet with him for counsel on what he should do as a Christian involved in the business.
“He said, ‘I wanna be right with God. I need your help to navigate through what I’m going through in life. I wanna honor God with my decisions. I’m willing to do whatever God wants me to do,’” Jay recalls. “I say, ‘Cool, you come meet me. We’re gonna sit down. We’ll work through this.’”
For pastors and church leaders who assume they will never face a similar situation in their context, Jay says, “Think again.”
“Southern California is almost like a different country than the rest of the United States,” he explains. “But what goes on here in Southern California, especially Los Angeles, is a precursor to what will begin to work its way through the rest of the country. What gets normalized here—it’s only a matter of time before it’ll probably be normalized everywhere else.”
Jay acknowledges that, although for him freedom from drug addiction was instantaneous and miraculous, that’s not the case for everyone.
“Education is a process, and some people get it quicker than others,” he explains. “When I got saved, all of that instantaneously fell off. It had created so much pain and hurt in my life, I didn't ever want to return to it. The memory and emotions of pleasure associated with it had faded years before I gave my life to Jesus. I try to give people space and grace for the Holy Spirit to work in their life, and as long as they’re not trying to influence others and indoctrinate people with those thoughts, keep coming, keep sitting at the table with us. We love you. We care about you and we’re not gonna throw stones or condemn you.”
Jay and Christy gained a measure of public exposure in 2013 when they were cast for Real Preachers of L.A., a reality show on the Oxygen network that explored the private lives of six Southern California pastors and their families. The show stretched two seasons and gathered controversy around some of the participants’ lifestyles. Knowing how reality shows can often reflect anything but “real life,” with their scripted narratives and manufactured conflict, Jay and Christy decided at the outset that they wanted to represent Christ well through the show.
“We were very intentional about staying true to who we are and not allowing anybody to pull us out of being who we are and getting us into situations to try to get the worst out of us,” Jay explains. “Even though it’s a reality show and non-scripted, they’re looking for these storylines and they want to step into those things and sensationalize and magnify them.”
A year prior to the show, Jay had received a prophetic word that he would be on TV, but not Christian TV, and that it would be “a new kind of fishing show” that would reach millions of people. He says he “kind of put that on the shelf” until a year later when he received another prophetic word predicting that he would be on secular TV. The next day Jay received a call from the production company wanting to cast him in the new show.
Looking back on their experience with the show, Jay says that he and Christy felt they were well represented—and that they were able to be both authentically themselves and witness to the gospel. He cites fans of the show who would come to California for vacation with two destinations in mind: Disneyland and The Sanctuary Church.
One fan of the show, a woman with terminal cancer, lived in Kentucky and had meeting Jay and Christy and visiting The Sanctuary on her bucket list. Her beautician heard her story and raised funds for the woman to fly to Southern California.
“They came to our church, and this lady gave her life to Jesus,” Jay says. “And then within a couple of months, she graduated to the other side.”
In the years since Jay and Christy planted The Sanctuary, the church has maintained a youthful demographic, reaching a generation jaded with organized religion with a fresh, authentic approach that combines biblical preaching and teaching with community outreach. With a concentration of attendees in their 30s and 40s, ministry to children and families is a priority.
“No parent is going to go to a church that their kids are not being taken care of,” Jay notes. “They want them to be in a safe, secure environment where they're authentically learning about Jesus.”
The church maintains this focus with a lean staff of 12 and an “army of footwashers,” as Jay describes the faithful volunteers that carry out the ministry at The Sanctuary. His desire is to lead a “generational church” whose success is not tied to his permanent presence as the spiritual leader, but to the people he can empower to lead long after he’s gone.
“Somebody gets saved like me, they get on fire, plant a church, revival breaks out and it grows. And then it just kind of begins to plateau and everybody grows older together,” Jay explains. “And whether they move on or die, eventually the church dies off, dwindling with a handful of people in something that used to be vibrant and alive.”
Instead, Jay aspires to lead a church that is multi-generational, following the pattern of Abraham passing his faith on to Isaac and Jacob, and Elijah passing his mantle to Elisha. Comparing it to the seconds it takes for a relay racer to pass the baton to the next runner, Jay points to the importance of the “transitional moment” in leadership succession.
“There’s a moment in a relay race when both runners are running together,” he explains. “And over the course of that portion of the race, the important part is the handing off of the baton.” Jay points out that, as it occurred with Elijah and Elisha, finding a replacement shouldn’t be a frantic, hurried process. Instead, “it is almost like, it happened and you’re like, ‘Oh, it happened!’”
If it’s done right, he contends, a successor will be even more successful and have an even greater impact than the one he or she follows.
“Whatever territory we pioneer and take, we don’t empower people to be managers. We empower people to continue to be leaders and go far beyond anything we’ve ever accomplished,” Jay says. “And so we’re handing this to you with the intention that you’re going to continue to build and thrive and pioneer and take territory.”
This can only happen, he contends, when a leader is secure in his or her own identity and calling.
It’s about understanding who you really are as a person—and being okay with that,” Jay says. “I’m not Andy Stanley. I’m not Sam Chand. I’m not T.D. Jakes. I’m not Steven Furtick. I’m not Michael Todd. I have a unique expression that is God-given. It’s that relationship with Christ as a leader that attracts the people that God wants to reach that none of the other guys I just mentioned would ever be able to reach.”
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