In his Christianity Today column, Ed Stetzer wrote, “Planting a church is like having kids. It’s bloody, messy, there’s a lot of yelling, but then a beautiful thing is born, and you forget about all the problems and you want to do it again.”
Giving birth to new church campuses, mothering new daughter churches or even simply building new facilities on existing campuses can stretch congregation resources and challenge members and leadership. So why do it? And once a decision is made, how do leaders get members to buy into it spiritually and financially?
Starting from scratch
When the Rev. Matthew Vogt and his wife, Kelli came from Wisconsin to Las Vegas to launch Water of Life Lutheran Church 18 years ago, they started with a tiny seed, just one couple meeting Sundays in the Vogts’ home.
“It was the ’90s and Vegas was booming, and we said we have to start something in the southwest of Las Vegas,” Pastor Vogt said.
Within 10 years, those two members grew to more than 350. Vogt felt like he was faced with a big decision.
“You get up to 350 souls and it’s kind of at that tipping point where you have to decide,” he said. “Are we going to get a second pastor and continue to grow this thing? Or in my mind it made more sense to branch off, and let’s do something someplace else.”
Vogt said the church had more than a dozen families who were driving 30 or 40 minutes to the 5430 S. Grand Canyon Drive church.
“Some from as far away as Aliante and the 215, some even farther than that, coming down every week for church,” he said. “We said, man, if they’re that committed to coming to church, let’s capitalize on that while the opportunity is there before that enthusiasm wears off and before that drive just gets to be old. Let’s use this as that core group for starting an entirely new ministry.”
Vogt personally met with families and asked them if they would be willing to help launch a new church in the northwest. About 40 members stepped up and said they would. And that’s how Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church was born eight years ago.
Meeting growing needs
In services every week, the Rev. Derek Neider, senior pastor at Calvary Chapel Spring Valley, calls the congregation to repentance and invites them to be born again and accept Jesus as their savior. The Rev. Mike Katz, associate pastor, said in virtually every service at least a few new people accept that call and join the church.
The church’s 7175 W. Oquendo Road campus has a chapel, but with blossoming numbers, the membership outgrew it 12 years ago. Fortunately, the campus also has a high school with a gym.
“We have a setup crew that comes in every Saturday and turns a gym into a church,” Katz said. “We lay down flooring. We set up a stage. We bring in 800 chairs and set them up just like a big church. And then we have all our evening services in our regular-sized chapel. Then on Monday morning, we tear it all down so our school can use their gymnasium again for basketball and volleyball.”
Katz said many of the same faithful members have served on the setup team for more than a decade, getting up before 6 a.m. every Saturday to oversee the transformation.
“But we’re getting to a place where we have the property to build, we’ve just been praying for the right time,” he said. “It was probably about six months ago, our senior pastor along with a board of directors were prayerfully considering whether it was time to move forward with the building project. And they were all in agreement that now is the time to do it.”
Launching the Build to Reach campaign, the leadership is encouraging members to make donations to build a new chapel large enough to hold its growing membership.
Katz said they are careful to be good stewards of the church’s resources, and they don’t have any plans to go into debt to fund the expansion.
“We know where God guides, God provides,” he said. “So we laid out a plan, Build to Reach, for our congregation, and we’re asking them to invest in our future.”
In addition to the building project, Calvary Chapel Spring Valley has long been active in training new leaders and planting new churches.
The church houses a school of ministry where potential pastors can learn the trade and get hands-on experience through internships. After those pastors set out on their own, they’re never really on their own because Calvary Chapel Spring Valley sticks with them offering counseling and assistance.
Katz said even though those pastors frequently take members and even staff with them, training them and supporting them is worth it.
“Our senior pastor, Derek Neider, he is open to sending even the very best,” Katz said. “He’s not sending the mediocre. He’s willing to send the very best, and allows them to go forth. Again, we’re not about building our church we’re about building the kingdom of heaven. We want to see people won for Christ.”
When is it time?
The Rev. Paul Goulet, head pastor at International Church of Las Vegas, said he abides by the 80 percent rule. When you’re consistently filling 80 percent of the chairs, that’s the point something has to change.
“At 80 percent you’ve got to do something, either add another service or add another day,” he said. “Some people go to a Saturday. But we had a vision to have campuses around the town, so we bit the bullet through the years and had to recruit, train leaders and find facilities.”
Goulet said while some megachurches will build new facilities and then put up projection screens to broadcast the pastor’s messages from the mother church, he doesn’t think that’s the way to go.
“Personally, I wouldn’t want to go watch a screen. But the millennials might want to do that,” he said. “Ultimately my vision was raise up leaders. I never wanted it to be about me. I wanted it to be about others. My philosophy is raise up leaders, have them preach and teach and make mistakes and grow.”
Goulet said starting new churches is one of the best ways to bring in more people, because those who launch the new effort feel needed and involved.
“When you go to a smaller campus chances are you’re going to need everyone and his brother to serve in some capacity, whether it’s cleaning or setting up chairs or teaching Bible study,” he said. “You may start with 50 people or 150. You kind of feel cozy. My goal is for everybody to feel a part of something. When I first gave my life to Christ, they asked me to pass out bulletins at my college Bible study, and for me I felt like that helped me buy in.”
When Shepherd of the Hills launched with about 40 members from Water of Life, Pastor Vogt said those members were missed immediately in no small part because of the recession.
“If you go back eight years, do the math, simultaneously with us giving up about 40 of our members to start the new mission, over the next 12 to 18 months we lost well over 100 souls, who just lost their jobs, lost their homes, and had to head out of town. So we dropped down pretty quickly to the 200 to 250 range.”
While membership is up to 275, Water of Life has yet to fully bounce back.
“But here’s the deal,” Vogt said. “We’re not here to build our kingdom. We’re here to build the kingdom of God. And if I can adopt that attitude, it’s not about how big our church gets. It’s not about what we are able to do, but this is about building up the kingdom of God, and there’s no way we’re going to reach the average person up in the northwest part of town. The average person is going to find a church within three to five miles of their house. And we’re a lot farther away from there than that. So if we’re going to reach the unchurched, the dechurched, the spiritually lost and searching, the only way that’s going to happen is by being there for them. And we’re not going to reach them from here.”
Shepherd of the Hills is at about 150 members, and now that the church is planning to move out of its storefront facility into what will likely be a highly visible church at the Durango Drive exit of the 215 beltway, those numbers are likely to grow even faster.
“God has blessed that work up there. With the new land and the new building I’m really excited, in fact I have every reason to believe that give it five or six years they’ll be bigger than we are,” Vogt said, adding that that’s fine with him. “It’s just like my 16-year-old, he’s bigger than me, too. So I pray that happens.”