“I didn’t go into the ministry to be a megachurch pastor. I went into the ministry to do something mega for God.”
You spent your twenties as a bivocational entrepreneur in the landscape industry and a pastor in the church in which you were saved. Then you made a big change.
My pastor asked me to start a church in San Diego. I had never been in San Diego before. I had no interest in being a full-time pastor. But I knew I loved people.
So I said, “I’ll do it.” When I was 31 years old, I sold my landscape company—I had 30 employees—I sold my home. I did a demographic report of California. Chula Vista [adjacent to San Diego] was one of the fastest-growing areas in America.
Sunday morning, the Holy Spirit woke me up at 5 o’clock and told me get out of the hotel and go pray over the city. I found a city employee and asked if there was a place where I could go and look out over the city. He said, “There’s this park next to Hillcrest Elementary. If you walk up the hill you’ll see the whole city.”
Six o’clock, I arrive at this park. I had my Walkman—remember Walkman?—my video camera and my Bible. As I walked up the hill, I see these two guys at the top. They have shaved heads, big white, long T-shirts, black Dickies pants. So I said, “These are gang members. They’re doing an all-nighter. They partied all night.” I said, “I can’t go up there, they’ll jump me.” So I turned around and started back to my car.
You could recognize gang members because you’d been one.
And in Santa Barbara during this time, my pastor had been doing a series called “Overcoming the Fears That Hold You Back.” So the Holy Spirit said, “How can you preach on fear and be afraid?” So I turn around, and I walk up the hill. And I’m reading Isaiah 43. “Fear not for I am with you. Be not dismayed for I am your God. I will appoint you with my righteous hand.” And I’m reading it out loud, because I figure, if these guys jump me, at least they’ll know they’re jumping a Christian. It’s that real.
As I get to the edge of the hill I can see these two guys. And they’re standing, with their arms outstretched, and they’re praying. So 20 feet back from them, I get on my knees. And God touched me and said, “From this mountain I call you to lead your city and plant Cornerstone Church here. And I will bring people to you from the north, the south, the east and from the west.”
And when I got up, those two gentlemen weren’t there. Today I still believe they were angels.
I go back to the hotel—and remember I am a successful Santa Barbara entrepreneur. [I was making] more money than the average person makes today, at 30. And I tell my wife, “We’re leaving Santa Barbara and we’re moving here.” My wife is four months pregnant. She said, “Let’s go.”
[The ranks of Latino evangelicals in America are growing. According to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference [NHCLC], there are 16 million Hispanic/Latino evangelical Christians in the United States, and it estimates that by the middle of the century they’ll form the majority of American evangelicals.]
The region you targeted is predominantly Hispanic. Did you launch a church to appeal to that demographic?
We never saw it that way. I never started a Hispanic church; we started a multicultural church. Actually, we don’t believe in multicultural—we don’t think that’s biblical—we’re a multiethnic church with one culture, which is the kingdom of Christ. And because I live in Chula Vista and San Diego, which is predominantly Hispanic, it affects the community. I had to learn that.
We had 150 people in the church and I was frustrated because we weren’t growing. I went back up to the “mountain” to pray, and God said, “You need to stop being the pastor you want to be, and starting being the pastor the community needs you to be.”
A pastor who reaches every ethnicity. A pastor who looks at the pain in the people and ministers to the pain that’s prevalent in the community. This is what he said to me: “If you want to revolutionize people you must understand the pain of the people you have been called to liberate.”
That changed my ministerial philosophy. He said, “Don’t look at ethnic groups; look at pain.” That’s when my preaching changed. That’s when I started preaching to a broader audience. That’s when I started preaching to marriage and family and issues in the community, and not just a singular message. The gospel became broader.
Cornerstone Church opened its doors in 1998, welcoming 60 people into a school cafeteria. Six years later, you purchased and renovated a movie theater in neighboring National City. Did you seek to create a megachurch?
I didn’t start out to be a megachurch pastor. I started with a mission—to turn the hearts of youth and families to God and to each other, to develop people’s God-given potential in order for them to win in every area of their life, to advance the kingdom of God first throughout our circles of influence, and then to the nations abroad.
That is what allowed us to become a megachurch. I didn’t go into the ministry to be a megachurch pastor. I went into the ministry to do something mega for God. And the mission of our church is what always has driven our church and caused it to go further than what we could ever have dreamed.
Hurting humanity needs hope. The power of the gospel is the answer to hurting humanity. That’s when I realized that our church is not just an answer to the high-rise but to the homeless. Not just to the up-and-outer but to the down-and-outer and the in-betweener.
The social-economic condition of the person does not reveal the heart condition of the person. And that’s when my heart revolution message became real to me. Because I realized, in America we spend millions of dollars educating people’s minds but very little on empowering their hearts. The number one cause of death in America is heart disease, and the number one cause of death of families, death of marriages, death of businesses and even the death of church is spiritual heart disease. And that’s when God put the message in me and said, “Sergio, you will be called to be a heart revolutionary.” It was always my mission, but it has now become my mandate.