WEEK OF PRAYER: From backslidden to Christ-driven

EDITOR'S NOTE: The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 6-13, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering provide support for missionaries who serve on behalf of Southern Baptists across North America. With a goal of $70 million, this year's offering theme is "Here I am. Send Me." For more information, visit anniearmstrong.com. To read about other 2016 featured missionaries, visit anniearmstrong.com/missionaries-2016.

SAN DIEGO (BP) -- At age 16 Manny Sanchez tagged along with his family to an Amway Convention. They were independent business owners with the mega network marketing company that sells soap, vitamins, makeup and other products.

On that Saturday, someone announced there would be an optional Sunday morning session. Sanchez went to what turned out to be a worship service. He learned that life could be about more than making money.

Because of his own experience as a young Christian, church planter Manny Sanchez (right) places a heavy focus on discipleship in his congregation.
Photo by Greg Schneider/NAMB
"The guy preached an evangelistic message," Sanchez said. "I went forward and got saved. My heart really did change. I was the first in my family to get saved."

But Sanchez had no Christian orientation and didn't know what to do next.

"I didn't know anything. Didn't know to go to church. Didn't know to read the Bible. All I knew was that something had changed," said Sanchez, who was born in Mexico.

Common teenage rebellion followed, and he engaged in blatant sinful activity.

"I really see this as Satan's attempt to destroy my life," Sanchez said.

After a serious traffic accident became his wake-up call, his two sisters, 10 and 11 years older, stepped into his life. One of them enrolled him in a Christian school, Valley Christian Academy, in Santa Maria, Calif.

"That became my season of discipleship," Sanchez said. "I started growing in Christ."

He gave up the party life, drugs and other non-edifying habits and behaviors. After he saw Christ modeled in his new friends, Sanchez began soaking in the Bible and wanted nothing more than to obey Christ.

Stan Bickley, a youth pastor at First Baptist of Santa Maria, which sponsored the academy, became a major influence on Sanchez.

"I wanted to be what my youth pastor was to me to other kids in my same stage (of life)," Sanchez said.

College and a call to missions

Following high school, Sanchez attended a Christian college in San Diego. One of his sisters, the one he calls "super mama bear," got into his business again, signing him up for Vision, the college's singing group. Sanchez joined the group, which toured to promote missions and spent three to six weeks each summer on an international mission trip. He was in Vision for three of his four college years and visited Brazil, Portugal and Malawi.

"Everything that I experienced from high school to college has, in some way, shaped my ministry," Sanchez said. "Our church is very discipleship focused. I don't want anybody to slip through the cracks like I did and be fresh bait for Satan."

He spent several years as a youth pastor at several churches before joining the senior staff at Shadow Mountain Community Church, pastored by David Jeremiah. While there, he completed seminary masters studies through Southern California Seminary, which the church sponsors.

"Our church became Southern Baptist, and that just opened up the door for me," Sanchez said of his journey toward church planting.

Having grown up in Los Angeles and attended college in San Diego, Sanchez feels comfortable in the Southern California culture. Through research, he learned that San Diego is the eighth largest unchurched city in America. One reason is what he calls the "San Diego factor."

"San Diego is beautiful 350 days out of the year and there is so much to do here," Sanchez said. "The culture of San Diego is entertainment and to enjoy life. For some reason, church isn't on that list for most people."

With his wife Jennifer, their four children and a core group from Shadow Mountain, Sanchez turned his attention to planting Catalyst Church in downtown San Diego -- a place that has seen an estimated 10 church plants start and fail in the last five years.

Eventually, he found a meeting place downtown at the corner of 16th Street and G Street inside a warehouse. The venue is only available for three hours on Sunday evenings.

"Our goal was to focus just on that one-mile radius of the 25,000 people who live in the heart of downtown," Sanchez said of a city with very few evangelical churches.

The city is transient. Between military families and others on a determined career path, establishing a stable membership has been challenging.

"We started the church with 18 people at our preview, then the second month we had 42," Sanchez said. "The third month we lost 11 couples. It's like trying to keep a leaky bucket filled."

Catalyst reflects the diversity of upscale urban America, though there has been one surprise.

"You attract who you are," Sanchez said. Young adults with children are attending Catalyst Church.

"On a typical Sunday we average about 130 people, and 40 to 50 are kids," Sanchez said.

Eventually, Sanchez wants Catalyst Church to have a storefront presence that is at the hub of downtown and constantly interacting with the city. He has no illusion of growing into a mega church downtown like Shadow Mountain. Instead, the goal is for Catalyst to be "large enough to dare, small enough to care."

He also wants to reproduce and develop a "well-oiled church-apprenticeship program."

"We started with the goal of planting another church," Sanchez said. "We want to plant pregnant."

The establishment of Catalyst Church would not have happened without the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and the Cooperative Program.

"We would not have been able to plant without the North American Mission Board," Sanchez said. "They really supported us financially."

In their first year, Catalyst Church had 40 professions of faith and 20 baptisms.

"You can't orchestrate it. It feels like God is at the center of this and we're along for the ride."

Jim Burton is a photojournalist and writer living in Atlanta.
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