July 21, 2011

A Church Plant Success

Sunday evening Shane and Amy’s small group laid hands on Shane and pleaded with God to give him a different job. He worked as a sales representative for Pepsi, but delivering those cases of pop was killing his already-bad shoulders. He was their top salesperson, winning yearly awards for sales, etc. But Shane just couldn’t continue—and yet he didn’t know what else to do.
He had a family to support and couldn’t afford to be off work. For Shane, the love and support of his small group that evening were a gift.
The next day when Shane arrived at work at 5:00 a.m., his boss called him into the office and fired him. Although a bit confused as to why the company would fire a longtime, model employee, he walked out with a smile on his face, thinking, I wonder what God is up to? Getting Shane to that place of comfort in the midst of the storm was quite a journey.
2011 1519 page16 linkFirstfruits
It all started in the spring of 1998. I received a call from the Rocky Mountain Conference to do something I was very passionate about for nearly six years: to plant a church in northern Colorado with an evangelistic approach. It was an opportunity to see if what I said either worked or didn’t work.
I had been on the development team of two other church plants, and as a kid was baptized in a church plant. But I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Church planting turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done (think construction worker, backhoe operator, youth/young adult pastor, and senior pastor all in one!). I didn’t have my approach all mapped out—and this was a good thing, because we had far more failures than successes.
My goal was to create a church that would reach a new generation of people. Could we create a church that would speak to them? Could we do something that would be sustainable, creative, and relevant to the people in my generation who were unchurched?
In July that year my family and I moved to Colorado. God blessed our efforts, and we grew from zero to more than 240 in weekly attendance, on two campuses, with an average age of 32.1  At one point we had three pastors on staff, and we were growing people deeper and the church larger. When I left in February of 2009, after nearly 11 years of ministry at The Adventure in Colorado, 65 percent of the church was having regular daily devotions. About 50 percent of the church was involved in a small group for discipleship. A large share were new converts to Adventism and Christianity.
One Basic Philosophy
The questions always come up: What worked and why? What made the difference?  I believe it comes down to one basic philosophy that’s articulated well in this brief exchange.

When my associate first came to work with us, he said to me, “Rog, I always heard The Adventure was so cutting-edge. I heard that your music was cutting-edge, your sermons were, etc. But you aren’t that cutting-edge. What’s up?” 
My response was simple: “My goal in starting this church wasn’t to be cutting-edge. My goal was to be effective.”
So with that effectiveness mind-set in place, allow me to share some of what we learned along the way and some of what we did right that made us effective. This isn’t just about church planting—it’s about creating a working, outreach mentality for any church in any setting.
Funding Outreach
The first thing we did right was that we dedicated between 35 and 40 percent of our monthly income toward outreach and evangelism. This allowed us to continue to do all kinds of things in the area of reaching people with the message we hold true and dear.
Our highest value was this: “Lost people matter to God; therefore, they matter to us.”  I never once stood in front of my congregation and asked for money. I never said, “We’d really like to do evangelism, if only we could get the money. Will you please give?” We simply made sure the money was there.
Effectiveness, not Innovation
This idea took root slowly. Within just a few months we grew to more than 100. But then, for nearly three years, we got stuck at approximately 100 people in attendance.

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GO TEAM!: The pastoral staff of The Adventure (left to right) during a planning session: Amy and Shane Del Vecchio, Ingrid and Jim Moon, Gail and Roger Walter.

We were facing a turning point—grow, or become part of a district of churches. I gave an impassioned speech one evening to my leadership team, saying, “We have $60,000 in the bank. We’ve spent money on equipment (sound, video, etc.); we’ve done a lot of creative things. But we’re not growing. Let’s stop spending money on ourselves, and let’s spend what we have on reaching people for the kingdom.” 
They agreed and we brought in an evangelist to do a traditional series. We rented the only place in town that would work, but it held 850 on the main level and more on the upper levels. We expected about 350 to show up on opening night and were afraid of being swallowed up with too many open seats.
God surprised us on opening night with almost 800 in attendance! In the end we spent every dime we had in the bank, and afterward we still had $90,000. Go figure. We baptized 50 people, half of whom went to a neighboring church that was helping us, but our attendance went up by 70. Go figure. God’s math didn’t make sense to us, but we enjoyed it anyway.
During the next few years we conducted one to three evangelistic seminars per year, and we baptized 25 to 40 per series and maintained a retention rate near 70 percent. We also followed up each seminar with classes or small groups to back up the teaching. Without a budget, most of those were smaller and in homes or once a week at church.
During the last three or four years I was there, we spent about $40,000 to $60,000 per evangelistic series; and we were spending about $100,000 per year. We were able to do this because we had done our budget correctly.
As we crunched the numbers, we discovered that even though we spent that kind of money, it was the most cost-effective thing we did to reach people. We simply put our money where our mouth was to do not what we “liked,” but what worked.
Focusing on Mission
Some churches focus on mission for a while, but eventually begin to drift toward maintenance mode. We stayed focused on our mission, which was both evangelism and discipleship.
I preached about the mission regularly; the board and leadership teams talked about the mission as the reason for our existence. No one seemed to want to go into maintenance mode. Everyone wanted to keep us growing and learning, but also making sure everything was going well. Our budget mantra was: “Money follows vision!” And it did.
Grace—Front and Center
Grace. My personal paraphrase of Titus 2:11-14 is this: Grace saves us and grace changes us. We sought to teach that God loves us no matter what (grace), but because of that love, we are changed into His image. God’s grace will never leave us as we were. Grace saves, grace changes.
We never had a fight on the church board. We never had a disagreement about the color of carpeting, the music, or the direction of the church. We never met someone at the door of the church and told them to go home to change their clothes.
One of our core values was to love everyone and encourage them along their walk. Our example was the woman caught in adultery. Jesus sent the accusers home, then told her that He didn’t condemn her, but to go home and stop doing the things that got her there.2
That attitude of grace permeated everything we did as we dealt with people. But it never got boiled down to cheap grace, in which people are given a license to do whatever they want. So many churches teach about change, but no grace. Others teach about grace, but no change. We believed simply—and taught—that Adventism had the complete picture.
Running the Show
The Adventist Church has traditionally provided pastors for their churches at a ratio of about 1:250 people. This seemed to work well in a generation gone by, when we could systematically add staff as the growth happened.
2011 1519 page16Today’s church-growth literature tells us that each pastor should “pastor” only about 150 people. The second and subsequent pastors need be added before the growth will happen. In other words, when you get to about 125-150, you add the next pastoral position—and every 100-150 people thereafter.
We had the opportunity to put this to a test when the Mid-America Union provided funding for a half salary over a span of five years. We provided the other half salary out of our local funds.
About the same time we received funding for the second pastoral position, a church member significantly helped us financially. With that money we hired a local person as our third pastor, who is now also in full-time ministry.3
This provided us the flexibility not only to pastor the people we had, but to grow the church with more ministry, more opportunities to serve, and more staff to help people get involved in ministry as needed.
Within a year after hiring the extra staff, we grew by an amazing 60 percent. We saw three key things above the norm that helped us grow like this. First was our commitment to evangelism. Second was our commitment to staffing for growth. Finally, in the same year, we launched our second campus.
Different Locations
We figured that we had people driving 45 minutes to church—and we needed a second service—so rather than create a 9:00 a.m. service, we started a service on Saturday evenings. For the next four years we drove to church in the morning, then again in the evening to another local city.4 We had the same structure, the same finances, the same leaders, the same music, the same mission and vision, but two rented buildings at less cost than it would have been to have a single facility of our own.
This second campus, meeting in the evenings, grew to a high in attendance of about 90 to 100. Because so many non-Adventist churches have Saturday evening services, that time slot had one less cultural barrier for new people to cross. That single service was 70 to 75 percent non-Adventist, until that balance shifted after another of our evangelistic series.
Looking for New Ways
We can read all the church-growth literature we want, but until we understand that Adventism grows differently, we will continue to see churches that baptize few people every year and unchanging attendance. Our theology and our practice demands that we research new models of ministry. We can use what others have tried, but we will always need to adapt that to meet the needs and growth of our own congregations within the context of Adventism.

Shane and Amy had come to Christ and Adventism through an evangelistic seminar while they lived in Idaho. But over time they had become less involved. When The Adventure started, they made the decision to become part of the core of the church. Even then, however, they’d have to be called on some Sabbath mornings so they could get up in time for church.
Through the years, Shane and Amy put their roots down deep and grew significantly. One evening during social time at their house, I told Shane that God was calling him to the ministry. He turned white as a sheet, walked out of the room, and didn’t return. But when Shane was fired, I went to visit him and told him that I hoped he didn’t leave because he was so valuable to me, to the church, and to God. I felt that God might’ve been opening the doors for him to enter ministry. Shane was agreeable, and we talked about what that would mean to go to school, what it would do to his family, etc.
About three days later Shane called and said, “Could I go with you to work today?” We spent the day visiting people, giving a couple of Bible studies, praying together, talking about the vision to reach people for God’s kingdom. At the end of the day, when we pulled up to his car, we both spoke at the same time: “Why don’t you hire me, Rog?” “Why don’t you come to work for me, Shane?”
The next Sabbath a church member, impressed with our evangelistic vision, asked me, “Pastor, what do we pay for rent a month?” I told him what we paid, and he then asked, “Would it be OK if I paid the rent for the next two years?”
My response: “Would it be OK if I told you our rent was more than what I just told you?” By his paying our rent, we took our current allocation and hired Shane. Three years later Shane went to work for the Upper Columbia Conference. He now pastors there—building another church with an evangelistic mind-set.
Our focus should be on finding what we do well and getting better at it. I used to think that if you created a contemporary worship model, people would flock to church. It didn’t happen.5 Let’s keep innovating, let’s keep experimenting, but let’s also focus on what is effective and do that! And let’s do the work of the kingdom!
1 The average age of Adventism has been well documented, as quickly approaching 60, by such experts as Monte Sahlin.
2 See John 8:1-11.
3 A note about staffing: This is an unsustainable formula within the current context of Adventism. If we are going to continue under the current pay structure and tithe distribution method, we simply cannot continue to add staffing at the same rate that many evangelical churches do. I suggest the model Wayne Cordeiro in Honolulu has discovered (www.enewhope.org). Cordeiro has captured the heart of volunteerism. He staffs his church, now more than 12,000 strong, with one employed staffperson at 1:250. This is the same ratio acceptable in Adventist churches. Cordeiro has learned how to harness volunteers. For example, he has a full-time personal secretary who works between 40 and 50 hours a week as a volunteer. She understands that this is a way she can help people learn about God.
4 My kids loved going to church twice to see a different set of friends and to enjoy God with others. Greeley and Fort Collins are about 20-30 minutes apart.
5 The number of church plants that have tried just that and are languishing at approximately 30-40 people is a very telling testimony.

Roger Walter writes from Vancouver, Washington, where he is the senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Community Church—and where he and his wife, Gail, are raising their seven children. This article was published July 14, 2011.