Published May 30, 2018
FRESNO — The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection coupled with a straight-up gospel presentation and some “fun stuff” resulted this year in 324 professions of faith on Easter weekend at new Southern Baptist churches in Porterville, Oceanside and San Jose.
Thirteen people said they made Jesus their Lord and Savior at The Hills Community Church in Porterville, where Esteban Mendizabal is pastor. The church started last August.
Another six did the same at Life Point Church in Oceanside, where Mark Finnigan is pastor. That congregation started last November.
And 305 people made professions of faith at Southridge Church in San Jose, which started last January with Micaiah Irmler as pastor.
On Easter Sunday “there were 80 adults, and 120 including kids, hands-down our biggest weekend since we launched,” Mendizabal of Porterville told the CSB, adding that the 13 professions of faith all were adults. “God affirmed there was a need for this gospel, that there are people who need a relationship with Christ and are ready to jump in with both feet.”
The CSB spoke at length with each of the three pastors, hearing stories of how God has used the new churches and the pastors’ leadership in unique ways to reach their communities, specifically at Easter.
The Hills, Porterville
“We came straight to the story of Easter and said there’s still hope out there,” Mendizabal said about their Easter service. He told the congregation, “You don’t have to keep chasing the things of this world” and that “the gospel gives hope to all the people who are alive.”
The Hills Church meets in an area affected by multiple years of drought that resulted in the loss of life- and wealth-giving well-water. The new church reclaimed the building of a Southern Baptist congregation that after 50 years of ministry — 1963-2013 — withered and ultimately disbanded.
A break-in that took place at the church the day the CSB called didn’t surprise the pastor, he said.
“You can tell where they were, what they were after,” Mendizabal said. “Basically they were looking for food. There was an empty box of Fruit Loops on the floor, and they had cleaned up in the restroom. For me that just showed they went to church because they knew the church could provide something.
“We want to be known as a church for the community,” he continued. “This is a church for us who live here, for our kids, for growing healthy relationships in every area of our lives. That’s the idea we started out with.”
Though Mendizabal grew up near Fresno, and his wife Kelsey is from Porterville, the couple was pastoring in North Carolina when “some mentors just offered the idea of church planting, and the possibility of Porterville was on the table.”
The couple loaded a U-Haul and drove cross country. Their son Zion was born seven months after their arrival in Porterville. Their first Bible study was at Kelsey’s parents’ home in November 2016, with seven people attending. But by their launch last August in a rented building on the campus of First Southern Baptist Church, 100 were present.
“When I first came here and was talking with people,” Mendizabal said, “I asked, ‘If we started a church, what would you like? What’s something you’d want to see?’ The overwhelming conversation was, ‘I just don’t think the church makes a difference anymore.’
“It was sad to hear and we wanted to set ourselves apart from that.”
The church on its first Sunday gave away 100 backpacks stuffed with supplies given by a partner church, Clovis Hills Community in Clovis.
“We had been doing quite a bit of advertising via social media, flyers and signs in front of the church,” Mendizabal said. “A lot of people came to the service to see what it was about and to get backpacks. … We knew every person on the property that day heard the gospel.”
The Hills is gearing up to, by fall, be a resource center in its community, the pastor said, with clothes, hygiene packs, baby formula and non-perishable food items to give away. Backpacks will be distributed on the anniversary Sunday, and a church member has offered to provide back-to-school haircuts that day for kids.
Sunday morning worship attendance has grown to 50, despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that Mendizabal is bivocational. He works nights at a 24-hour fitness center so his days are free for ministry.
The church has visitors nearly every week, and, “Once they indicate their commitment to Jesus with raised hand in the service, they walk straight to the back of the church, where volunteers pray with them and give them a book, ‘Following Jesus’ — how to begin your prayer life, what it means to follow Christ — so walking out the door they have something to start with,” Mendizabal explained.
Two small groups help disciple members as they go through steps of Connect, Grow, Serve and Go, with “go” including the idea that there are “going to be opportunities to go outside our comfort zone.”
“We ask every week: ‘What’s your next step?’”
Proclaiming the truth of the gospel is a major emphasis at The Hills, and as a result, “45 have come to Christ in the last 10 months,” Mendizabal said. “We’ve baptized seven already.”
Life Point, Oceanside
Thirteen were baptized the Sunday after Easter at Life Point Church in Oceanside. This followed the six who made professions of faith on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and the 121 others who have done so since the church started last November.
“The gospel is proclaimed each and every Sunday, and people are given the opportunity to respond and pray,” Life Point’s planter/pastor Mark Finnigan told the CSB. “God has been faithful.”
Today, about 120 people participate in Sunday morning worship at the church, but it started six months ago with just his wife Shannon, son Trever, and daughters Christina and Heather. His experience comes from being a Harvest Crusade director and campus pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, which recently affiliated with California Southern Baptist Convention.
During his years at Harvest, Finnigan came to understand that God had called him to start a church, but didn’t know when or where.
As he was driving down Highway 76 last summer, following an inexplicable direction from God to “head toward Bonsall,” Finnigan came to Oceanside and knew, “This is the place.”
He started Life Point — the name had been in his mind for years — with a facebook page on which he posted daily biblical thoughts. The site quickly grew to 700 followers, and he sent out an invitation to meet him and his wife at a local Starbucks. Eight people showed up.
Undaunted, three weeks later he announced an “Open House” to talk about starting a church. He hoped for 40; 80 arrived, and 60 signed up to serve at the launch.
When Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, preached a pre-launch event to about 800 people on Nov. 5 at the QLN Center in Oceanside, Finnigan announced Life Point would be starting the following week at the same location — a commercial rental otherwise unused most Sundays.
“It’s truly amazing to see all the Lord is doing through Life Point in less than six months,” Finnigan said, “to witness so many respond to the gospel, wanting to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, and see their friends and family do the same.
“People always ask, ‘Is the church growing?’ and I tell them, ‘The people are growing, the pastor is growing; oh and yes, the church is growing too.’”
Since the launch, Life Point has started men’s, women’s and high school Bible studies, and has a “Love Does” ministry. One recent activity was distributing to the homeless nearly 100 bags filled with needed items.
In addition, more than 120 connected with the church take part in a Bible Chapter A Day read-and-respond email program for spiritual growth and accountability. Life Point also recently was approved to minister on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and to partner with base chaplains to serve military families.
Easter ministry started with a Good Friday service, and pre-service barbeque, though Finnigan said he wasn’t sure anyone would be willing to give up a Friday evening. He preached to at least 125 people about the seven statements Jesus made from the cross, and the evening concluded with a candlelit Lord’s Supper service.
The next day, 16 members met in the church parking lot, worshiped, prayed and distributed 1,500 Easter invitational doorhangers throughout the neighborhood. At 10 a.m. Easter Sunday, 170 adults plus their children gathered for worship.
“I preached ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told,’ the resurrection of Jesus,” Finnigan said. “We worshiped God, I presented the gospel, and between Good Friday and Easter, six responded. Since then, we have heard story after story of God changing the hearts of many, and have seen them have a desire to not just come to church, but to be the church.”
The following Sunday 13 were baptized in San Diego Baptist Association’s portable baptistry, set up in the church parking lot.
Southridge, San Jose
Easter started in January at Southridge Church in San Jose. That’s when the pastor spent 21 days in fasting and prayer, “asking God to make this a unique year,” Micaiah Irmler said. “I got convicted this year needed to be marked not just by prayer but prayer and fasting.”
Irmler, whose father was an Independent Baptist church planter in the Fresno area, and his wife Jane in January 2014 invested $12,000 of personal credit card debt in a San Jose-area church plant that led to a merger that didn’t work out. The couple and their three young children regrouped, prayed for three months, and started over with Southridge in January 2017. They had connected last fall with Southern Baptists.
“God called us to reach lost people,” Irmler said. “That led us to the SBC. They realized what we were doing, contextualizing the gospel for our area. This is not a post-Christian area — it’s a non-Christian area. The question for us was, ‘How can we reach lost people here?’
“I don’t care how big our church gets,” Irmler said. “I just want us to see people saved. Once we had that conversation (with church members), that changed everything for them. I wanted them to get ready to reach their friends and coworkers.”
To illustrate the “be prepared for what God is going to do” lesson he was teaching, Irmler made a point of having Bibles ready for new Christians, and a baptismal pool ready for them to show their new life in Christ.
By January, 143 people had made professions of faith at Southridge, and 250 were attending their services at a local senior citizens center.
During his 21 days of prayer and fasting, Irmler identified some goals for 2018: for the church to average 500 each week and add a third service by summer; be in its own building by December, with $500,000 for renovations; 1,000 people worshiping at Easter; and 286 professions of faith for the year, double the number from 2017.
The pastor had a refrigerator magnet made with the goals on it, distributed them to the congregation, and asked them to pray. In March, the church went into seven, 24-hour days of prayer, asking God to bless the upcoming Easter event, which was to include Easter eggs with candy or a toy inside, dropped from a hot-air balloon at a local high school.
Those who attended the Easter service received a ticket to participate in the Easter Egg Drop, which was promoted on the Eventbrite website and a rock radio station, and word spread to local news stations.
“We were all kind-of surprised,” Irmler said, as about 3,000 people crowded into the high school’s theater and adjoining rooms and hallways for Easter worship. “It was a pretty cool thing to see that many people willing to sit through a service and hear the gospel.
“My plan was to preach a message specifically designed to see people saved,” the pastor continued. “The rest was up to God.”
In addition to the “bunny” in the hot air balloon, dropping about 30,000 eggs for groups like special needs, 0-4, 5-8 and 9-10-year-olds, there were face-painting, bounce-houses, pony rides, refreshments, a photo booth and live bunnies to cuddle.
With 127 volunteers on hand between
5 a.m. and 3 p.m., the event lasted from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with each age-graded egg drop following each of three worship services.
By day’s end, 305 had made professions of faith in Christ, after hearing why Jesus traded His life for traitors.
“I preach to sinners; that’s my target audience — Christians and non-Christians,” Irmler said. “Jesus is going to decide who attends. … And now we’re celebrating the stories of the individuals we know whose lives were changed this Easter.”