Since planting Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Niwot, Colorado (near Denver), 23 years ago Alan Ahlgrim has seen it grow to more than 2,000 in attendance each weekend. He also started the Dutch Fork Christian Church (near Columbia, South Carolina) after his graduation from Milligan College and subsequent work at Southern Seminary. Alan met his wife of 38 years, Linda, at Milligan and all three of their children also graduated from Milligan. Now, in addition to his ministry at Rocky Mountain, Alan is serving as president of the 2007 North American Christian Convention.
Did you walk out of seminary saying, “I’m going to start new churches!”
I had no expectation of becoming a pastor, and Linda had no expectation of marrying one! I thought I would go into a counseling ministry, but found I didn’t have the patience, or the gifts, for long-term counseling. As I did my graduate work at Southern Seminary I was serving a small church in southern Indiana and discovered, to my surprise, that I was able to connect well in my preaching. People were actually interested in what I had to say and were responsive to my leadership. That was, and still is, a great surprise to me. I never expected that.
Did you feel like you were ready to start a new church?
I had never had a class on church planting, never took a seminar on church planting, never read a book on church planting. I knew nothing. I had no training or preparation for church planting. I had no training or expertise, counseling or coaching. Zero. None. It was all by the grace of God.
How did you eventually end up in Colorado?
Dale McCann (the minister at First Christian in Longmont) approached me to start a church, and I laughed at him. Linda and I had visited Colorado and we always joked that if we got a call from Colorado we would know it’s from God! (laughs) It took us five months to make a decision. I told Dale it’s a 99 percent chance we’re not coming. He said, “Until it’s 100 percent, we’ll wait.”
We moved on November 1, 1983 and spent five months in preparation and launched our ministry as a daughter church of First Christian (now LifeBridge Christian Church), a large church of 750 people. We began with a core from that congregation and the community, and First Christian had no significant loss of momentum. In short order both mother and daughter church were soon running 1,000 in attendance and now, in a community of modest size, LifeBridge and Rocky Mountain have a combined worship attendance of nearly 6,000.
The convention theme is “It’s Time.” Time for what?
Our brotherhood is stronger than ever. It’s more united than ever, more focused on our mission to exalt Jesus Christ and bring more people to him and to plant more churches for him. And it’s time. I believe that momentum is building for a marker moment at the 2007 NACC. Not many years ago we couldn’t have tackled the ‘07 theme with the same unity and urgency, creativity and credibility. Times have changed. As a fellowship we are increasingly recognized to be on the cutting edge and to be catalytic. The vision for this convention goes far beyond enjoying a great gathering, to actually energizing a great movement that we hope God will use to catapult us to the next level of kingdom impact.
Have past conventions entered into your thinking about planning this one? How?
2006 was a great year to solidify our base, but we all know we can’t just talk about unity. Unity is “on purpose.” As we talk about our purpose—our purpose to exalt Jesus Christ, bring more people to Christ, and plant more churches for Christ—that is what will further produce more excitement and result in even stronger momentum.
I’ve only got so many dollars in my convention budget. Why spend them to go to the NACC?
Unlike some other wonderful convention opportunities that we’re all aware of and many of us enjoy, the NACC is not just a “niche” convention. While the NACC, this year, will have an especially energetic and challenging theme, there will also be a variety of offerings that will appeal not just to the “ministry marines”—hard-chargers, spiritual entrepreneurs—but the NACC continues to be undergirded with a broad range of workshops and sessions that feed the head and warm the heart.
What do you anticipate as the highlight of the convention?
In addition to Jeff Walling, Rhonda Lowry, and Ken Greene (dynamic Bible teachers from the a cappella church), we have some of our most dynamic and visionary leaders on the platform. All six of the main session speakers started the church they now serve, with the exception of Bob Russell who will be bringing the closing, stirring message of challenge on the theme of “It’s Time to Celebrate.”
Will your passion for church planting be the primary driver of the convention?
Fundamentally, the same stuff that’s necessary for starting a new ministry is necessary to re-energize an established ministry. We’re talking about both starting new churches and re-energizing all other churches. What I know is that after we started so well, it resulted in new life, new energy, new excitement at the mother church. Dale McCann said at the time, “Healthy babies produce healthy mothers.”
Why do you think church planting has become such a hot issue in the last few years? I mean, you were a church planter before church planting was cool.
It used to be that young leaders dreamed of one day serving a larger, established church. Now, increasingly, young leaders dream of one day leading or joining a team that starts a new church. I think maybe this is a culture shift; we live in a time that’s pregnant with opportunity and challenge. It’s a time like no other. There’s an increasing sense of urgency and anticipation. There’s a realization that we must do things, not just differently than we’ve done before, but far more intentionally, in order to reach a culture that is increasingly apathetic and even antagonistic to the gospel. More of the same never brings change.
When we started, we bought 17 acres of ground, and the elders at First Christian said, “Wow, look at what the baby church is doing. If they’re doing that, maybe we’re thinking too small?” Every church needs to ask that question, “Are we thinking too small. Are our dreams big enough to match God’s?”
What makes for a healthy church plant?
A team of leaders who know they’re called of God, committed to the same vision, and determined to be vigilant in their accountability to one another and to the Lord. It’s all about calling, commitment and character. No matter how compelling your vision, it will be only as viable as the character you have to sustain it.
How about the church planter? Is there a certain profile, or makeup, you would look for in a potential successful planter?
I’m increasingly interested in the character of the primary leader. As vital as competency is in communicating publicly and privately the vision, a congruent personality is equally essential. Leaders must be God-dependent and bold visionaries. Unfortunately, some seem to mistake bravado and brazenness for godly boldness. They are pretending and presumptuous, not prayer-driven and utterly dependent upon God.
Is it always about “young families?” That seems to be the target most of the time.
I believe that the church-planting targets must respect the ministry context. If there’s going to be a new church in a gated community of retirees it would be best not to focus on children’s ministry. Or if the community context is to reach out to the 20-something crowd, a focus on family ministry would be premature. However, those who think the only reason that so many church planters are focusing on families is because it’s the “easy” road to take totally miss the mark. They don’t understand strategy.
Having a special focus is strategic—it’s kingdom strategic. The most receptive time in a person’s life is statistically documented to be prior to the age of 18. Moral and spiritual values and worldview is often set for life in childhood. Therefore, focusing on young families isn’t just about the parents, it’s about helping the parents to rear the next generation of kingdom leaders.
That’s what we’re seeking to do increasingly at Rocky Mountain. That does not mean the church doesn’t care about old guys like me. I will soon be 60 years old and I know that there’s a place for me and my contemporaries in the church. However, I know it’s not just about me. It’s my place now to bless the emerging generation, just as the older generation has blessed me.
Do you think every church should be involved in church planting in some way?
Only if they want to insure their vitality. The best thing a church can do is to be generous in investing in kingdom work beyond itself. Our congregation has been greatly blessed. One reason I believe that’s true is we have determined to invest $100,000 each year nationally and $100,000 internationally for church planting in addition to other missionary involvement. Our primary strategy for kingdom expansion is the planting of new congregations.
Can every church be involved in church planting?
It’s far more “do-able” than they will ever imagine, as we will illustrate this year at the North American. We will provide a way for clusters of churches to partner together. For example, four churches, willing to invest only $17,000 a year, would be able, together, to provide $200,000 over three years to help start a new church. That’s the message we’re getting out. Church planting isn’t just for the larger and stronger, more heavily resourced congregations. It’s for all of us. Nobody should be deprived of the privilege. Everybody is invited to the church-planting party. This is catalytic to the reinvigoration of any congregation. It’s not just about starting new churches, it’s about reinvigorating established churches. This is a time like no other.
Do you ever think about planting a church again?
I think about it all the time. The way, I believe, I’m fulfilling that is staying strong to lead Rocky Mountain and the 2007 NACC. For example, I believe I’ve done more for missions than if I had been a missionary. I didn’t feel that I was called to be a missionary, then one day I realized if I hadn’t done what I’m doing here, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing out there. I want to do the same for church planting.
So what is your ultimate anticipation of this year’s NACC?
I believe the 2007 NACC truly has the capacity, the potential, to be electric, and send a jolt through our fellowship with long-term implications. This is not just another good theme for a nice, positive, helpful experience. The 2007 NACC is a grand celebration of what God has been doing in recent years and a bold declaration that he’s not done with us yet. The best days of this brotherhood are the ones that are yet before us!
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.