RIVERSIDE — Each weekend, Sandals Church attracts some 10,000 people to its eight campuses, and 7,000 more tune in to the services online.
“The vision of Sandals Church is to be real with ourselves, others and God,” said Matt Brown, lead pastor of Sandals Church. “And the only way you can be real with God is through Jesus. We unapologetically teach the gospel. Jesus is the only way, and we explain that.”
Throughout the 20 years Brown has served as lead pastor of Sandals, he has witnessed countless attendees experience radical life transformation. The church recently baptized 539 people in one weekend.
“I mean, that’s crazy,” Brown said. “We’ll do two more baptism (events) this year.”
Before starting Sandals, Brown served as a youth pastor in an older, more established congregation. But after seeing the excitement Rick Warren was generating at Saddleback Church, Brown left that position to try something new.
The adjustment was difficult at first, especially since Brown, at 26 years old, had big ideas and plenty of enthusiasm but no prior church planting experience.
“I went from a successful church with multiple staff, buildings and resources to it literally just being my wife and me and our one-year-old daughter,” he said. “I think the hardest moment was at the end of our first year. I’d been working so hard, and we only had three people come to church. But I just kept pressing through, and God has been really amazing.”
After a slow start, the church began to grow rapidly, attracting people with its modern vibe and commitment to authenticity. But the quick expansion led to a new problem: finding a facility large enough to accommodate the growing congregation.
Every time the church found a place to meet, the congregation quickly outgrew it. The church moved 13 times in the first four years before partnering with California Baptist University in Riverside, where it swelled from 500 to 3,000 attendees in a decade.
The church finally secured property of its own in 2009, but Brown knew developing satellite campuses was the only long-term solution.
Nine years later, the church owns seven properties, and its eighth campus will move into a Sandals-owned building in September.
“At first (adjusting to being a multi-campus church) was really hard,” Brown admitted. “But it’s far more economical.”
Because attendees are spread across eight locations, Brown and his ministry team have worked hard to maintain a sense of unity among church members.
“I think (unity) is a struggle in any large church,” Brown said. “The way you connect at Sandals Church is through small groups and serving on a team or in a specific ministry. That’s the connection base.”
Though some people struggle to adjust to the satellite campus model, Brown said most people who visit Sandals are spiritual seekers with no church background and zero expectations. They are simply looking for truth.
“I tell our church that God is not afraid of the truth,” Brown said. “So we can press in and ask deep questions.”
Brown does not shy away from taking a biblical stance on challenging or controversial issues.
“The number one thing I hear from skeptical Christians when they visit is that they’re expecting ‘church lite,’” Brown said. “And I think they’re pleasantly surprised that we’re pretty deep too. I think you can be both deep and wide, and that’s what we try to do.”
As Sandals continues to grow, Brown said his job is to remain faithful to the calling God gave him to reach the people of California for Christ.
“We’re not going to reach everybody, and that’s okay,” Brown said. “We’re going to reach the ones we can reach.”
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