By Brian Anderson, North Phoenix Vineyard, Arizona
Every week 3.500 people find their way to one of five services at the 35-acre campus North Phoenix Vineyard. But if you had told Brian Anderson twenty years ago he’d be pastoring a church this size, he probably wouldn’t have, believed it. In fact, two years after planting the church they had grown to … 28 people. Brian was still teaching high school math and coaching baseball; his wife, Thora, was teaching high school English. The growth has been slow and steady over the past twenty years. Along the way, however, Brian and the North Phoenix Vineyard have cultivated an exceedingly healthy and hard-working church staff. How did it come about? We asked Brian to talk about their story.
I became a Christian when I was twenty-two, after a pretty life-changing experience with Jesus, coming out of a drugs-and-partying lifestyle. I met my wife, we got involved ina local church, and then an acquaintance of ours started a church called the Vineyard in Phoenix, so we went to the first meeting-and it was a paradigm shift for us. John Wimber used to say, “The Vineyard isn’t something you join; it’s something you are.” When we walked in, we felt like this was what we always wanted.
Soon after joining this church, however, it ended up folding, so about a year later we started a small group in our home with about ten other friends. My wife and I were high school teachers at the same school – she taught English, while I taught math and coached baseball. We didn’t know what was going to happen with this small group we were leading. We’d had no ministry training. Somehow, though – and to this day we still don’t know how-Bob Fulton [now International Coordinator for the Vineyard] found out about us and took us under his wing, and we started relating to him for accountability as a Vineyard group. He was there for our for phone calls and for coaching, and the church slowly began to grow.
Learning the Hard Way
Looking back now, I realize we made so many mistakes! We met as a home group for about a year, and then we went public way too soon. We hadn’t grown at all that year, but the rest of the group started to get itchy for a “real” Sunday service. So we proceeded to rent out a 10,000 square foot high school cafeteria – with all of fifteen people sitting there, huddled in a corner. Eventually we got a little 2,250 square foot place in a strip mall that we could use all the time. It had a little auditorium that sat 90 people, with three children’s ministry rooms and an office. At the point that we moved in, we had been going almost two years and had a whopping twenty-eight people. It was not a grandiose beginning.
Still, I never felt like I wanted to quit or give up. Maybe it’s just the way my personality is. For the past eighteen years since we started I’ve continually felt like “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I still feel that way today. At every stage I think, “I don’t know how to do this.” But I’m a voracious reader and learner, and I try to do learn whatever I need to in order to get to the next level. In those days we would go to every conference we could, visit other churches, and get as much advice as possible.
During those years in the strip mall we began to put more structure into place. One thing that helped us- which I would encourage planters to do – was focus on doing just a few things well, instead of trying to be an A-Z church, which is impossible when you are small. We focused on three things: our preaching, our worship band, and, our children ‘s ministry. Those three things were where we put our energy and our money in those years. Even today, if you came to our church, those are probably the top three things people would say are especially good about Vineyard North Phoenix. I ended up teaching high school for the first five years of the plant, which is probably longer than “normal.” It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford for the church to pay my salary. But I planted when I was 27 years old and we didn’t have any kids. Plus, teaching is an easier job than many others when you are planting a church. I chose to put money into facilities instead of into my salary. The fifth year of that got hard, though. We were up to about two hundred people. Working a full-time job and pastoring that many people was too stretching. So going full-time with the church felt like the right thing to do.
Relationships and Ministry
Thora and I have been very much a team in this plant. Since we didn’t have children, we were able to both be totally involved in the church. It’s not the way for everybody, but it worked well for us. She always brought a different, complementary viewpoint to whatever part of ministry we were talking about. I have big blind spots, and miss a lot that she sees, whether it has to do with facilities, worship, preaching, whatever. She is a real leader. You might not know that up front, because her demeanor is somewhat quiet. But she knows as much about ministry and how to grow and lead a church as anyone I know.
Something that helped us early on, long before we had any paid staff, was to cultivate a lay staff. One Saturday a month we’d have lay “staff meetings” for four or five hours. To be on the “staff’ you had to be overseeing a major area of the church, like children’s ministry, worship, facilities, and so forth. We would have eight or ten people in those meetings. That gave us a huge amount of buy-in, and it released responsibility, ministry, and authority to other people in the church.
I think another thing that has helped us grow over the years has been our willingness to be ruthless about evaluating everything we are doing. We ask, “How can we do this better?” We ask, ” Is there something we have been doing that’s not working anymore? If so, let’s fix it or get rid of it.” Also – and I’m not promoting this, it’s just our story – we have a long-term pastoral team, and we have always hired from within. Everybody on our pastoral team was in our church for years, serving and sacrificing, before they were ever on paid staff. It’s not that we have not looked outside our church – several times we’ve brought people in from all around the country to interview; it was just never a fit. Then we’ve gone ahead and hired from within, and the person has worked out great.
Often we’ve discovered people whose ability to do a certain job was hidden-it only became fully apparent after we hired them. But they already had our values, priorities, practices, etc. We knew what we were getting in terms of character and commitment, and then they have surprised me time after time with how much more there is to them. But all of our pastoral hires have been incredible learners, willing to go wherever, do whatever, read whatever. They were that way in their secular jobs, and they come with great work habits. I’ve known them for years, and I’ve seen how they relate and how godly they are. Integrity and character is much more important than the actual skills to do the particular job. A lot of skills you can teach people, but when you are an adult, if there are integrity or character issues, it is a losing battle.
Looking for the Right Things
As a recent example. our youth pastor had quit a few years ago, and I didn’t see anybody in our church who could do the job, because I had some assumptions about what a youth pastor looked like – a younger person, lots of energy, charismatic, pied-piper of youth, that sort of thing. We brought all these folks in from all over the country to interview for the job. But I just didn’t feel a release from God to hire any of them. Then, because his kids were in the youth group and he was working with the youth as a volunteer, I asked one of our founding members, Craig Beyer, who was close to forty at the time, to just “watch over” the youth for a couple of months. He’s not real charismatic, he’s not twenty-five years old, he’s not this “pied· piper” of youth – but he’s raised four great kids, he has a stable marriage, and the youth were looking for that kind of stability. We interviewed a bunch of people and finally our staff told me, “You need to hire Craig. He’s the guy.” I was greatly hesitant; he and his wife are among our best friends, and I didn’t want our friendship to be jeopardized in any way. But after praying, we felt this was right. Well, our youth ministry went from 50 to over 300. He’s unbelievable! He’s not your typical up-front guy. But he’s solid.
Of course, I realize we may not always be able to hire from within as we continue to grow, been able to do it so far. We now have nine pastors and a business manager who functions pastorally as well, and about fifty people on paid staff.
If you were to look at my staff, including myself, we are very ordinary. We are not special people – not people you would pick out of a crowd and think, “Wow, they are really qualified.” We sit around at staff meetings and feel amazed to be getting to do this. This may not be a Christian term, but we really do feel lucky.
Our biggest season of change came in 1996 when we became much more intentional about being evangelistic. We had not focused that much on evangelism for the first ten years of the church. We attempted to, and had our fair share of people coming to Christ, but it would have been one of the “low staves” on the NCD barrel. Through a series of things that all added up to God’s leading, we realized we needed to be much more intentional about evangelism. So we changed our services a little bit We were also growing quite a lot at that time and had to add multiple services, and when you add multiple services you have to cut out some things. Our worship time got chopped back a few minutes. We couldn’t have as much directed ministry time after each service as we had done when we had just one service. Then we became more attentive to the language that we used on the weekends, knowing that there would be nonChristians there. We’ve never geared our services toward the unchurched, then or now. But we are now attentive to the fact that we have guests, and we try to make everything as easy to understand as we can. For me, that just seems like common courtesy.
When that shift happened, some of the people on the more “charismatic” end of the continuum in our church became uncomfortable. About the same time, we started a membership class. We’d been going for about twelve years, and we’d always gone with John Wimber’s idea that you vote with your feet; If you’re here, you’re a member, and if you’re not, you’re not. All we had was a phone list, and for various reasons we realized that this was not going to work long term. One reason for the change was that people could get on our “membership phone list” without ever being a Christian. That was not a good thing. I got to thinking, “We need to let people know right up front not only what we are, but what we aren’t, so they don’t waste a year trying to figure it out.”
When you make changes like that in a church, the folks who came aboard earlier didn’t sign up for that, and I didn’t blame them if they wanted to leave. But it hurt. I didn’t want them to leave. But I understood. Nevertheless, membership class is one of the best things we’ve ever done. I am so glad we do it You let people know what you are expecting of them if they want to be a part of your church family as a member. It’s a really great funnel to get people more involved in the church. Without it, everything was so nebulous and it was really hard to tell who was getting involved and who wasn’t.
Growing With the Church
If a church is going to grow, the senior pastor has to change and grow immensely. When you start, you are doing all the baptisms and baby dedications, casting out all the demons, visiting the people in the hospital, all of that. Obviously. you are also trying to equip others to do those things. As you grow, you have to keep stepping further back and ministering through other people. That is a really hard thing for most pastors to do, especially if you have a pastor’s heart. Not all pastors have the spiritual gift of pastoring, but I do – I love pastoring – so it was really hard for me to step back and allow others to minister to the people. I think that’s one reason why a lot of churches never break through certain growth barriers.
To make the transition, you have to learn a whole bunch of new skills. How do you learn them? Where do you go? It’s different for different people. I learn best from people who are a little ahead of me, so I would call guys in the Vineyard who I knew were ahead of us and pepper them with questions. Sometimes I would go and observe their churches. But you also have to start by counting the cost and decide if you even want to make the transition. You have to decide if it’s worth it. Thora and I believe it is, because we believe that God wants us to reach as many people for Christ in our community as we possibly can, and whatever it takes, we want to do it.