John Van Pay: The Simplicity of America’s Fastest-Growing Church—Part 2

“The simplicity of our model trusts that kingdom work happens best when our small groups are unleashed and not managed.”

In part 1 of the interview, shares how an introvert with a fear of public speaking eventually became the pastor of America’s fastest-growing church.

How did a relational emphasis focus Gateway Fellowship Church practically?

In the church, we have a tendency to idolize things that produce growth and neglect the things that seem to choke it out. It takes a lot of time to love someone. It’s very messy. Some people bite back and there is conflict. You have to say, I’m not going to quit on people. Eventually, if you can stay the course, you see the lives of people change and that changes everything in the church.

Tell me a story that demonstrates the power you are seeing in your church.

I don’t have to look far. I will tell you the story of my daughter, Emma. She is the middle child of our three kids. Any large group made her sick to her stomach. She’d rather be alone in her room. It became a stronghold and paralyzed her. For three years, Caroline led a small group my Emma was in. Caroline had been raped as a teenager, healed by God and has a burden for students. She loved my child unconditionally. Last year, we had to force Emma to go to a youth camp with 600 people. We got a call from the nurse at camp saying that she was throwing up. The next summer, with Caroline’s encouragement and support, our daughter returned to the camp, even though she feared the dread and embarrassment would repeat. I got a call from camp and I heard the voices of Caroline and Emma. They joyfully told me that Emma had been healed of the stronghold of fear, and even given a testimony in front of hundreds of people. It is a powerful story of what happens when somebody loves another and supernatural breakthroughs occur.

It reminds me of Jesus telling the parable about hidden treasure.

In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” If we love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind, then the experience of his love flows from our lives to our neighbors. That’s what it means to go and make disciples. As a result of that, I give up my rights to do my own thing, have my own preferences, or go my own way. It understands God’s kingdom as more valuable than my own kingdom.

Tell me about your strategy.

The mission of the church is relational. Our strategy is: Be invited. Belong to a small group. Believe and be baptized. Become a volunteer. Be trained. Be sent.

What surprises me about this list is that “belong to a small group” comes second.

Traditionally, admission to small group is you believe, behave and then you can join. When you see faith authentically lived out, you see people have all sorts of blips on the screen—divorce, addiction and all kinds of issues. But when people can be there for each other through difficult times and real life, nothing speaks louder of the love of God to a believer or unbeliever.

From Outreach Magazine  Why Obeying God's Will Is Better Than Trying to Discover It

You often refer to your church as “simple.” What do you mean by that?

For us, right from the start, we wanted to keep it simple and not do a lot of programs or events that would compete with small groups or the worship service. The focus is on relationships—loving God and loving others.

When a church places so much emphasis on small groups, how do you train your leaders?

Paul teaches Timothy to “entrust the gospel” to faithful people. That’s what we celebrate as a church; it’s the vision. You want small-group leaders to be called and have the blessing before they are sent out. We teach our small-group leaders how to identify and train leaders. Sometimes, those relationships take nine months, sometimes three years. We never announce our small-group leaders’ training and have people sign up. We take about 75 people at a time to our retreat after listening to staff, small-group leaders and head coaches. We do that twice a year for several weeks. It’s the base camp we do, a retreat for relational and intense training. We want to equip and mentor and then send them into their communities to start small groups. We see our small-group leaders as church planters, as shepherds of their flock and givers of pastoral care. They take their responsibility seriously. It’s sustainable, reproducible and simple. It’s the strength of our church.

If your church is laser-focused on discipleship, doesn’t evangelism suffer?

We trust our small-group leaders to know their assignment, not just to have a small group of people dependent on them. They are to equip, grow and get people to become viral. Discipleship and evangelism go together. Spiritual formation is loving people by seeing them as Christ does, created in God’s image. What we desire for our own children, we should desire for everybody. Once we realize what God has done for us, we should be going out to make disciples. When we see life transformation, that’s the goal; when people buy in to that, church becomes more than a holy huddle, or sharing storiesz or being pumped up with pride. It’s not the result of technique or program but a multidimensional movement—upward, inward and outward. It’s dangerous and messy, but very exciting.

Outreach happens in the context of small group, then?

The simplicity of our model trusts that kingdom work happens best when our small groups are unleashed and not managed. Our mission is to our city and world. We’ve said we want to start 100 churches in our city in the next 10 years. We have this small-group mantra that every Christ follower should be healthy in their love for the Lord and love for their neighbor. The outward expression usually begins as a burden within the group. For example, one group had a burden for orphans. They began to take them in and adopt them through different families. There are 50 orphans now fostered or adopted through our church and it started as a burden of one small group.

From Outreach Magazine  Lee Strobel: What's Trending in Apologetics Today?

So how does a small group develop a burden?

We consistently tell stories of small groups who are reaching out. It’s very important to celebrate through stories because stories inspire, encourage and give options to other small groups. We ask our small groups to pray and to find and choose from a lot of different needs. Every small group is unique with the need they are meeting. It’s amazing the variety of different outward expressions.

Can you give me some examples?

There is a ministry in our city called Teen Challenge on the south side of San Antonio. It’s for people who struggle with substance abuse. We have embraced this ministry. The director has made our church her home. There are a number of small groups who will go do clean up or construction, but relationally they’ve connected with people in our city who were rock-bottom. Another expression is to prisons. A couple small groups have partnered to get Bibles into prisons and a couple of others have helped with recovery groups. There is now an entry point into the prison, so next year we hope to start a church behind bars.

Does it surprise you that your church has grown so fast?

It doesn’t surprise me at all. When we moved into our church home, I felt like God wouldn’t add to our numbers unless we taught people to disciple. This last year and a half of growth has felt a bit like fish in the boat and we needed more people to filet them, be fishers of men. There’s a sense of urgency now and momentum.

Is it true you begin every staff meeting singing Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration”?

Yes, I will have to say that’s true. Before I started the church, I got to be in a room with Rick Warren [senior pastor of Saddleback Church]. I asked him, “What is one piece of advice you have for church planters?” He said, “Celebrate every first thing—the first salvation, the first diaper, the first baptism.” Every meeting starts by celebrating. We’re clapping and cheering in our worship services, a new volunteer, and every new small group. It’s a powerful way to give God glory for what he’s doing in our church.

Read more about the 2016 Outreach 100 »