By Lisa Kooiman
SANGER—What is the value of a life? For pastor Jacob Zailian and wife, Francine, this is something that stays at the forefront of their minds, hearts and the ministry at Set Free Sanger.
The couple ministers to many in the community facing drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness and criminal behavior, or any combination. They admit that COVID-19 has compounded the issues in their community near Fresno. The Zailians are fighting back with God’s Word and His redemptive plan.
Set Free Congregations/Ministry
The Zailians launched the Sanger congregation in 2019 and celebrated the church’s third anniversary on May 1. Set Free churches originated in the 80’s to focus on being a haven for bikers, black sheep and recovering drug addicts seeking to be “set-free” from the challenges of life. However, all are welcome to attend and worship.
Zailian uses his life as a testimony and ministry tool to reach others. In his early years, Jacob experienced the death of his father which led to a life of drug use and crime. Through the intervention of God’s love and bigger plan for his life, Jacob committed to serving the Lord. The couple shares a similar familiarity in having family members and friends who lead lifestyles like those to whom they minister.
They operate a recovery program serving 32 disciples. They developed a daily living program which focuses on studying the Bible and includes house chores, healthy living practices for both the mind and body and skills to find work opportunities.
Early in the development of Set Free Sanger, Francine completed programs to offer drug rehabilitation counseling for those they lead through recovery.
Zailian also has plans to open a Set Free Ranch in the Sanger area. “The ideal ranch property would be close enough to drive into town to attend church and shop for daily living supplies, but far enough away to not want to walk back into town,” he elaborated. They currently are looking for property that makes sense logistically and financially, they welcome partners looking to invest in a worthwhile cause such as the ranch.
There never seems to be a minute of down time at Set Free Sanger which provides three nutritious meals daily for those in need. Hope for Sanger, a local shelter, has become another extension of the church by sharing the gospel with residents and inviting them to stop by the church throughout the day for a healthy meal or snack.
“Food draws people in. We use that to help spread the gospel message” Zailian shared.
The Zailians use creative, out-of-the-box thinking to look for all ways to make a connection with others. They have a “farmers market” in their home driveway and use it as a witnessing tool with those that stop by.
Francine tends to shy away from cookie-cutter approaches to evangelism and considers more creative methods to reach the families and those needing the Lord. At Christmas she developed “Adopt a Disciple,” to provide personal care items for their disciples. “Names were hung on a Christmas tree, and you simply selected a name off the tree to help that person,” she explained.
For Easter, Francine focused on the families in need by filling Easter baskets with food and personal care items. The baskets were then distributed to families in need attending the church.
The Sanger Community
Sanger is a relatable community to many small, isolated Central California cities whose population identifies as middle to lower class, blue collar, agricultural workers. The U.S. Bureau of Statistics reports that more than 80 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino.
Nestled in old downtown, Set Free Sanger is housed in what once was a dance studio. Upon walking in, the contemporary decor presents a welcoming atmosphere characteristic of a more urban lifestyle that translates well to a demographic that may find the “stereotypical church environment” intimidating.
During the Covid-19 pandemic when churches were not permitted to meet indoors, Zailian led worship in Sanger’s downtown park. The church averages about 120 people in attendance between the two services they offer Sundays. On Easter Sunday 2022, 150 attended.
Jacob said an elderly father visiting from Oklahoma wanted to find a church for his daughter and son-in-law to attend on Easter. The father required help, so his daughter looked up churches on her phone. When she Set Free Sanger, the father responded by saying, “No Way!” The father wanted to check it out to see if the church was really a Set Free congregation since he had been part of a similar church in the 80s in Anaheim. Jacob reported the father “loved it.’’
Partnerships are important
Kirk Overstreet, who serves as a North American Mission Board church planting catalyst in California and as a Set Free catalyst nationally, has collaborated very closely with Zailian to develop Set Free Sanger. ‘‘Set Free Churches are soul- winning, disciple-making churches. We help support the Zailian’s financially as the community they reach lives below the poverty line.”
He continued, “They go after the overlooked and marginalized. They are effective and see hundreds make Jesus their Lord and Savior. They go beyond to meet the needs of the poor, homeless, and addictive. Set Free Sanger also serves our SBC family of churches across the nation. They volunteer during disasters, serve at our events, and take in those referred to them to enter their men’s and women’s discipleship program.”
In all the ways this couple serves the Lord, Jacob finds the time to also serve as a California Southern Baptist Convention Count the Cost Champion. Count the Cost is a process that helps pastors and church staff members develop measurable monthly goals in vital areas of ministry necessary for increasing and maintaining church health. As a Champion, he can further the ministry of the CSBC Church Revitalization Team by supporting churches involved in Count the Cost and serving as a consultant to those interested in the process.
When the church started, Francine was fearful that people failed to recognize the true potential her husband held for the vision God had given him. And she experienced uncertainty related to family finances. “God worked on me and made me see that if even just one person is saved, one person’s life is changed then it is all worth it.”
The legacy Zailian envisions for Set Free Sanger and the disciples they make there is consistency. “In everything that I have done, the education I have gone through, what went into building this church, I saw visions of others fizzle out. But I came through, I was there every time, and I didn’t give up. I have God’s conviction strengthening me and propelling me forward. My legacy will be consistency.”
The Zailians believe their calling is to introduce Jesus people to Jesus in any way they can. Although there still are plans for expanding the ministries at Set Free Sanger, Jacob doesn’t discount the possibility of starting another Set Free church in the Central Valley, possibly in Selma.