21 May, 2024

A Church-Planting Church: The Legacy and Impact of East 91st Street Christian Church


by | 1 May, 2024 | 1 comment

By Derek Dickinson 

My wife and I planted Journey Christian Church in Fairbanks, Alaska, back in 2004 with the crucial partnership of East 91 Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. I smile when I recall returning to E91 for their church planter weekend years ago. 

I was nervous; E91 is a sizable church, and I was not used to speaking to such a large audience. I shared a short update on our work in Alaska to this Midwestern congregation that invested more than $100,000 in our project. After speaking, I asked my two young sons, who had been in the audience, “Did I do OK?” My son Jack said, “Dad, you were so fat on the huge screen!” I responded defensively, “Well, the camera adds 15 pounds.” My oldest son, Joe, said, “Dad, how many cameras were on you?” Ouch. Unfortunately, my large size is apparent, no matter the camera angle. In a (somewhat) similar way, E91’s church-planting impact and legacy have been large and have added to the Restoration Movement’s tremendous growth.  


E91 was growing rapidly in the early 1980s; the parking lot filled to overflowing each weekend and it was becoming a problem. Solutions were sought. To that end, three men from E91 attended a conference that emphasized church planting at Fuller Theological Seminary. They came home excited. In 1984, the elders approved the goals of building a larger sanctuary and planting 20 churches in 20 years. According to Dr. Tom Alley (former E91 staff member), the church accomplished that church-planting goal in 17 years. David Faust, the senior pastor at that time, then promoted the goal of planting 65 new churches, and E91 has since reached that remarkable goal. As of this writing, E91 has played a key role in 75 church plants spread across North America!  


The first takeaway of this story is E91 has a bold kingdom mindset. Lost people matter to God, and lost people matter to E91. As a church, they have chosen to look beyond themselves. They have chosen to pray, give, serve, and sacrifice so that people they may never meet in this life have a better opportunity to know Jesus Christ. 

Most of the people who come to Christ through E91 plants will never attend the mother church’s campus or even know the role E91 played in establishing their faith family. An early goal was to have more people worshipping in these church plants than at E91 herself. This goal was reached after about 12 plants. 

Author Francis Chan once asked, “Shouldn’t all our decisions be based upon what is going to have the greatest impact for God’s kingdom?” E91 is a church that strives to put their resources into answering that question with a resounding yes! The financial resources E91 has invested in church planting over the years is staggering. Most of those 75 church plants received around $100,000 to get started. 

George Johnson, former executive director of the Evergreen Network church-planting organization (formerly known as the Christian Evangelistic Association), estimates that E91 invested about $2 million into planting in the Pacific Northwest alone! To become a church-planting church requires a sacrificial commitment to a greater kingdom vision. But those resources have resulted in changed lives. 

As one example, consider the 745 baptisms at Churchill Meadows Christian Church in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, from 2001 to 2016, the years that Jim Tune, the planter, served there. Churchill Meadows is an incredibly large church for Canada. In addition, E91 is willing to plant in difficult places, whether it is Mormon Utah, the Pacific Northwest, or the two most recent plants—Reunion Church, aka the “Manhattan Project,” in New York City and The House church in Ferguson, Missouri, a city with a history of racial unrest. Part of that bold mindset is knowledge that in heaven people from every tribe and nation will be together. 

Several who were at the opening of Churchill Meadows describe it as something like a United Nations meeting, there was such diversity. The planter of the church in Ferguson says that when he invited an African American neighbor to the church, she responded, “I’ve never worshipped with white people; not sure I can do that.” But after attending, she became heavily involved in the church; and beyond that, her husband—who had never gone to church with her—now attends regularly and their family fills a whole row.  


The second takeaway of this story is the sheer difficulty of church planting. Even with all the resources and assistance that E91 puts into their daughter churches, E91 lists seven of their plants as having closed. As a church planter, I can attest to the difficulty of starting a new congregation. I worked another full-time job during my first seven years with Journey. Much of that time, I worked as a crisis call counselor; so, six nights a week (midnight to 8 a.m.), I tried to persuade depressed people not to commit suicide. The only normal night’s sleep I got was overnight Saturday so I could be “fresh” to preach on Sundays. 

For our first 12 years, Journey met in the Regal Cinemas; we had to haul our equipment in and out each Sunday. That wasn’t onerous in the summer, but in minus 40-degree winter weather, it was a brutal chore. I remember many times praying, “Lord, surely there are some lost people in Maui who need my help.”  


Third, E91 values and encourages innovative church planters. E91 planters are offered resources, guidance, and support, but they are given a great deal of freedom to do the job. Planters are entrepreneurial leaders who like to experiment. Rick Grover, E91 senior pastor and a church planter in Louisiana 22 years ago, emphasizes the need to let planters explore different paths to reach new generations. 

Being a “spiritual entrepreneur” can be lonely work, and E91 has always emphasized the relational side of ministry. Many church planters in the Pacific Northwest tell stories of the care and support of Jim and Leslie Penhollow. Jim has passed away, but he served E91 for years promoting church planting in the region. 

When I spoke to longtime E91 church planters, several talked about the blessing of E91’s church-planting weekend. One weekend a year they would bring all the planters back for a few days to celebrate their accomplishments. It was inspiring to look across the massive auditorium and see banners representing all the places E91 had planted, and it was greatly encouraging when the congregation gave the planters a standing ovation. 

At other times, E91 offered retreats to refresh the planters and their wives. A current example of planter care comes from Russel Rader in New York City, who talks about David Faust’s visits. Rader says, “It’s the simple things, like David bringing our team donuts.” Small touches of kindness mean a great deal. But sometimes E91’s care for planters is astounding. Years ago, the leach field beneath our mobile home froze because of negative 50-degree temperatures. We had no place to go. E91 sent us $10,000 to help us buy a house . . . the home we still live in today.   


Fourth, E91 values partnership. Church planter Russel Rader said, “Church plants are like NASCAR, with all the partner’s stickers on the church.” I identified with this; many churches put substantial resources—some over $100,000—into our Alaskan church plant. These churches sent multiple mission teams to help us. In the early days, E91 planted alone, but the value of partnership was discovered and emphasized early on. 

E91 became a facilitator for other churches to get involved. Honestly, when a planter told other churches that E91 was involved, it heightened their chances of getting help from other congregations. A faith community that was just starting to invest in church planting often would have one of their people serve on a management team of an E91 church plant to gain experience. This provided training and a great place for relationships to grow. 

E91 has worked with multiple church-planting organizations, such as Evergreen Network, Orchard Group, and Stadia. E91 works to ensure each partnership is about more than money. For example, E91 senior pastor Rick Grover serves on the management team of the Ferguson, Missouri, church plant. E91 sent teams to help serve the community there; most recently they went and made gift baskets for teachers in a local school to help sow connection with the new church. 

Tom Alley describes taking teams to serve in the new churches on opening days and other times. These trips are important ways to connect the E91 church body to the work of church planting. Prayer initiatives have also powerfully connected the congregation to the often-distant work of starting new faith communities.  


Fifth, E91 strives to plant church-planting churches. The goal is not to plant one church but to create a church-planting movement. In Pennsylvania, when Toney Salva served with Discovery Church, they were able to take the money left to E91 by a closing church and turn it into multiple new sites and new church plants, five entities in all. 

Dave Woods of Park Chapel Christian Church created a church that has consistently supported church planting since it started in 1986 in Greenfield, Indiana. It currently is a church of 750 to 800 people. We at Journey were beneficiaries of Park Chapel’s generosity toward church planting in our early days. 

In the Pacific Northwest, E91 planted Common Ground Christian Church (Maple Valley, Washington). Common Ground partnered with E91 to plant Dallas Church (Dallas, Oregon). Later, Common Ground partnered with Dallas and Journey (my church) to plant Corvallis Church (in Oregon). Still later, Corvallis and Dallas planted The Branch Christian Church (Vancouver, Washington), which then planted Generations Church (Vancouver, Washington). E91 not only has daughter churches but granddaughter and great-granddaughter churches. My church, Journey, through its partnership with the Evergreen Network, has had a small hand in planting 30 churches in the Pacific Northwest.  


I recently baptized a young African American soldier. He connected to Journey through our volunteer prison chaplain. Upon leaving jail, the young man came to church and plugged in. Two of our older men have begun discipling him. Last Sunday, he brought his son to church for the first time. We are now looking at the possibility of generational change. He is one of many examples of a person who this side of heaven will never fully understand E91’s contribution to his salvation and new life. Heaven rejoices. Every church should think beyond itself and join the church-planting movement that E91 has so faithfully championed.  

This year, Derek Dickinson celebrates his 20th year as pastor of Journey Christian Church in Fairbanks, Alaska. 

1 Comment

  1. Christian Standard

    Bruce Webster, a disciple multiplication trainer/coach, and a kingdom expansion consultant/coach, shared this with us via email:

    “I was there. From day 1 I was part of the East 91st Street Church Planting Task Force/Ministry Team. A lot of good has been accomplished thru the E91 church planting. One of the best things was getting other large churches involved in church planting. However, with some help from “church planting experts,” we made a huge mistake that is still having a large negative impact on not only the E91 church planting but much of the other church planting in America and beyond. We, including myself, asked a very logical but wrong question. We asked what’s the best way to plant a church? We should have asked what is the best way to multiply churches? Those two questions have very different answers. Where Christianity is growing rapidly in other parts of the world, churches are rapidly multiplying. A movement in North India went from the first 8 churches planted in 1994 to a documented 80,000 churches less than ten years later. We need to learn from such movements. . . .”

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