A Bold Experiment

The Church Growth Movement in Central California Classis

Not so long ago, the people of Central California Classis would have had a hard time imagining the tremendous spiritual and church growth that’s taking place there today.

In 1996, only four of the 12 churches in the classis had more than 150 people attending worship.[*] Of these four, two had faced deep struggles: Christ Community had to let all five ministers go in a classis intervention; Tulare Community had a minister resign from the pulpit on a Sunday morning.

The classis was struggling, felt isolated from the wider church, and had seen only one church planted in 16 years. There were just three non-Anglo congregations (one African-American and two Asian) in the classis, which includes the cities of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Fresno and stretches south to Bakersfield, with lots of multicultural communities of 5,000 to 200,000 people in between.

Broken in spirit, the classis held a prayer retreat where leaders cried to the Lord for help. Several younger leaders began to form a bold vision for classis renewal and kingdom growth through a church planting movement.

To this end, the classis challenged its four largest congregations to be “bright light” churches. They would plant at least one new church every seven years, and every new church would commit to plant additional churches. The classis could then double the number of multiplying churches from four to eight by 2005, to 16 by 2012, and to 32 by 2020.

Tulare Community Church (TCC), one of the churches called to be a bright light, installed Tim Vink as senior pastor in June 1996, with a mandate to help TCC become a church-planting church. The 25-year-old congregation had about 350 people attending worship, was largely white, and had never planted a church.

With Vink’s leadership, TCC planted 10 new, multiracial churches in seven years. And even though nearly one hundred TCC adults and children left in 1998 to begin TCC’s second church plant (Sunrise Community Church, intended to start a Hispanic planting movement), Tulare Community had more than 550 people attending worship by the end of 2008.

By 2012, TCC had been directly involved in planting 28 new churches. A dedicated church planting team and a full-time church planting leader on staff have accelerated the quality and quantity of growth. TCC’s annual budget for church planting now exceeds $250,000 a year, most of which is raised through the church’s Pentecost and Thanksgiving offerings. The church’s total budget has increased four-fold, from $416,000 in pre-planting days to more than $1.7 million in 2012.

TCC also has been instrumental in planting the way into a multiracial future for Central California Classis. And in 2000 TCC leaders were early innovators of what has become the RCA’s commissioned pastor track to ministry leadership.

It hasn’t all been a bed of roses. Along the way TCC and its leaders have taken prayer-inducing risks and experienced many trials, disappointments, and setbacks. But overall there’s been an adventurous environment and rapid change. About 80 percent of the new churches planted have grown and prospered, several are now planting other churches, and hundreds of new believers have been baptized. By 2012, more than two thousand people were attending worship at TCC “daughter” and “granddaughter” churches, and the exponential planting momentum continues to increase every year.

More results of the bold experiment:

Christ Community Church, which is located near Sacramento and is another bright light church, planted two churches in seven years and had grown from 753 to 1,126 attending worship by 2012. Total income has increased from $988,000 to $2.28 million.

Church of the Chimes in San Jose planted The Journey by sending a key youth pastor and other members to form the core group. They also have helped plant other churches. By 2000 worship attendance had grown from 532 to 775.

Calvary Reformed Church in Ripon helped plant a church in Lathrop, though this was primarily the work of a commissioned pastor from the church.

The Classis of Central California has changed dramatically.

  • An attitude of hope and expectancy and a spirit of learning and humility prevail in the classis, with lots of close working relationships.
  • A dozen Hispanic churches exist now; there were none in 1997. Other Asian and African-American churches have been pioneered.
  • An abundance of effective, mission-minded leaders (elders and ministers) are members of the classis. Accountability for sound doctrine and godly behavior is upheld in the classis.
  • Teams support the revitalization of existing churches. Nearly all of the church plants continue to grow, while only about half of the established churches are growing consistently.
  • Four of the nine largest churches in the classis (Cornerstone, Sunrise, The Journey, and Oak Hills) are some of the newest as well.
  • From 1995 to 1997, 35 to 64 adult baptisms occurred annually. From 2009 to 2011, adult baptisms ranged from 121 to 221 annually.
  • Central California Classis’s assessment is 3.37 percent of church income. Church plants give 1, 2 and 3.37 percent of their total income in years one, two, and three respectively. Annual assessments contributed to the larger RCA ministry from newly organized churches and new church plants now total over $100,000 a year and are growing by about $20,000 a year. Total congregational giving for ministry in their communities and global mission by the 31 churches started since 1997 is more than $3.25 million a year.
  • Central California Classis has itself birthed a new classis, City Classis, which has planted churches where more than 3,000 people gather to worship each week, and which has more than a dozen new church plants on the way in urban centers across the U.S.


[*] Tulare Community (350), Church of the Chimes in San Jose (384), Calvary in Ripon (525), and Christ Community in Carmichael (717).