‘If students can help start a church here, they can start one anywhe

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP)--Although Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary officially launched its restructured church-planting internship (CPI) program just last August, students have already helped start 17 new churches across the western United States through the program's field-testing period.

"Some of these churches were going to start anyway, but some of our students were at least part of the core groups," said Sam Williams, assistant professor of pastoral leadership and director of the CPI program. "The churches were larger and stronger because they had more leadership, and it was a hands-on learning experience for the students."

Williams, who also is pastor at BayMarin Community Church in nearby San Rafael, Calif., said the CPI program prepares students to start "healthy, lasting churches" throughout their stay at the seminary.

The program developed by Williams was the basis upon which the training program of the North American Mission Board's Nehemiah Project -- which establishes a NAMB church-planting center at each SBC seminary -- was built.

"Sam provided connections and accountability to get my wife, Kristen, and I involved with church planting," said Adam Simpson, a recent graduate who was one of the first to benefit from the renewed church-planting emphasis. "I learned how we can translate what I've learned in the classroom into the church environment. We learned to raise up local leadership rather than start something and keep it forever because that can be more effective."

The Simpsons, who are moving to Central Asia, worked with two church plants while at Golden Gate. "We realized how important it is to do anything new in unchurched areas like the Bay Area," Simpson said. "We saw that God has gifted us and wanted to teach us how to do new things and then turn them over to the local people."

Williams said the prototypes of this program were the Simpsons and Eric Maroney, who graduated last year and is currently developing churches with his wife, Julie, in Croatia with the International Mission Board. Both of them helped start New Hope Community Church in Redwood City, Calif., and The Bridge in San Francisco.

"I was about to leave seminary because I couldn't find a place to fit, but I decided to talk to Sam about doing some church planting," Maroney recounted. "Since God had called me to do missions, I figured that's what missionaries did. I told him that I'd pray about an opportunity that he said would be opening. After a couple of days, I told him I'd do it. It turned out to be New Hope."

Williams said many students who come to Golden Gate feel a call to plant a church. "Neither Adam nor Eric really saw themselves as church planters initially, but were just interested in helping start a church," he said. "Their first experience was such a good one that they helped a second one before they graduated."

The second church they helped equally benefited. "Church planting doesn't happen every day, and since every church is different, getting involved in several over time is valuable," said James Atherton, a Golden Gate alumni and founding pastor of The Bridge, a multicultural church reaching people mostly in their 20s and 30s. "Working with Sam as a student was really helpful and practical. I met other church planters and learned how they used various models to reach many different target groups. The more prepared we are, the better and more effective we'll be. One of the greatest reasons I see churches not starting effectively is not because of lack of desire, but lack of knowing what to do and what the resources are."

Williams reports these 17 churches which received help from Golden Gate students have a total attendance of nearly 1,500 on any given Sunday. "Though the oldest of these churches is just more than three years old, they themselves have already participated in the start of nine other churches or missions," he said. "We have begun not just a church-planter training program, but a church-planting movement."

The variety of churches and target groups reflects the cultural diversity and demographics of the West -- a house church reaching runaway teenagers in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, one that reaches the homeless in the Los Angeles area, some that reach Koreans and Hispanics born in the United States and several churches that reach out to people of all races.

"We want our students to see models other than what they know or even plant because they can learn from other models, and in their lifetimes they may start churches of other models," Williams said. "If at seminary they only learn about one kind of church, they're less likely to do that."

While a student at Golden Gate, Joel Stephens began planting a church in Las Vegas reaching out to rodeo fans, cowboys and country music fans. After spending a summer doing groundwork there, he commuted to Las Vegas from San Francisco during his last year at seminary on weekends to start the church.

"The core group spent time learning how to worship together in a way that was relevant to the vision of the church -- reaching Las Vegas country-western style," said Stephens, a former rodeo cowboy himself. "Sam helped with staying power. I thought it'd be easy to start a church, but it definitely wasn't. It's hard to spread a vision and get people to commit to it sometimes."

And much of the work is unglamorous and in the background, said Steve Tiebout, minister of New Hope Community Church, which Simpson and Maroney helped start. "I've never had to do so many details in my life," he said. "It drove me up the wall. I can honestly say we couldn't have done it without Adam and Eric. Adam put the sound system together, led prayer walks and planned worship times. Eric helped us look for a location, purchased equipment and set up the church financially. Both did lots of follow-up as well."

The church-planting vision is spreading to Golden Gate's regional campuses, especially the Brea campus in Los Angeles, Williams noted. Nine of the 17 churches started out of this program originated with Brea students. "More students start churches while they're in seminary there than here because they're already in ministry or have a second career," he said. "They are part time, so they're in seminary longer."

Though the churches planted through the program are spread across the West, Williams said he hopes the program especially transforms the San Francisco Bay Area. "We have the resources to start hundreds of churches over the next few years," he said. "Every student who comes through can leave a legacy behind because they helped start a church. The stronger the start, the stronger the church, and seminary students are the resources needed to start strong churches."

Maroney saw firsthand how large the need is in San Francisco for new churches after witnessing a Satanic cremation service two summers ago while scouting out a location for the Bridge. "I thought I was walking through smoke, but some people were hanging out at the overlook of this hill, and I realized I was walking through someone's ashes," he said. "Everyone else looked normal, but there were three people all dressed in black in Gothic-style clothing. They had chosen a priest from Satan's church instead of the true church to handle the formalities. This showed me why I was doing what I was doing, and it kept me going when I got burned out."

Linda Bergquist, a church-planting strategist for the North American Mission Board based in the Bay Area, has helped some students with projects. "Whenever I visited San Francisco, my heart cried for this city," she said. "We could have lived in other cities, but I felt called of God to become part of this city, to learn it and to minister to it by starting churches that were right for San Francisco."

Therefore, Williams wants the students to see planting a church as primarily a spiritual project. Grant Teagarden and Bill Budd, two divinity students graduating in May, are seeking to plant a church in Santa Clara, Calif., in the heart of the high-tech Silicon Valley. "In the pre-start phase, they enlisted prayer teams and sent out prayer letters," Williams said. "They have walked every street in the area and prayed. While we use some strategies and principles, we're starting churches as purely spiritual enterprises, and we should approach them that way."

Church planters like Matt Brown, a student at the seminary's Southern California campus in Brea, locked into the idea of making a church plant culturally relevant to the community it is trying to reach. "The gospel is supposed to fit into any culture if we're obedient," said the pastor of the Sandals Church, a Southern Baptist church reaching out to Generation X in Riverside, Calif. "If we're preaching Christ, we need to get the message to every generation."

Linda Bergquist said a seeker-sensitive church like The Bridge aims to be culturally relevant to the surrounding community. "A Four-Spiritual-Law approach is systematic, but a relational approach -- meeting people where they are -- is more systemic," she said. "To reach those with a postmodern mind-set, we also need to express the gospel through relationships, the arts and ministry. Seekers want spiritual solutions -- not just practical advice like they got in the '80s. So we are sensitive to the spiritual seekers in our midst who want to see God."

Another central teaching to the church-planting methods at Golden Gate is the need to have a core team of supporters. "Before, I felt like I had to do it all myself," Brown said. "Now I just do the preaching and discipling. Other people do everything else, and I don't have to do it."

Part of this team would be a sponsoring church. "It's like having children," Williams said. "The biggest need of a church is not so much financial, but social and spiritual. Some from the sponsoring church may help start it."

Steve Tiebout said Williams' church, BayMarin, and Crossroads Community Church in Fremont, Calif., helped start his church in Redwood City. Crossroads was less than a year old at the time. "BayMarin gave us a worship team and children's workers," he said. "They also helped us network in the community and gave us finances for our sound system and a mailout to the homes in the area. Crossroads gave us 10 workers for the first month."

Many of the church planters said Williams' experience has proven the program's success. "He has tried it and proven it," said Joel Stephens. "Sam is a preacher, and when he teaches, he brings in illustrations and life experiences. He shows I'm not alone. Often pastors hang their heads low because there is little support or leadership right beside you."

Grant Teagarden said Williams and Bergquist work with him as an individual to coordinate resources. "Sam took the initiative for us to meet and gathered opportunities to meet others," he said. "He got us to meet with other church planters."

Williams said the church-planting internship program is simply on its way up. "I'm encouraged to see what's already happened, especially considering the discouragement many say people experience in the Bay Area when it comes to churches," he said. "If students can help start a church here, they can start a church anywhere."

Download Story