“I never wanted to be a church planter,” Mike Hickerson said. “I always thought they were cynical twenty-somethings that just didn’t like authority.”
But in 2011, that is what God called Mike to become. He and his wife, Jodi, planted a church in Ventura, California with four of their closest friends. The church started with six people, and today more than 1,600 attend Mission Church.
While the church plant has grown fast, the intimate, authentic relationships between its leaders took years to cultivate.
“We invite people who are overlooked or undercelebrated.”—@Mike_Hickerson
“We went to college with one of the couples,” Jodi said. “We’ve known each other for longer than we’ve not known each other. This is the third state we’ve done ministry together in.”
This small, tight-knit team knew that if they weren’t careful, leading a church together could strain their friendship, and their friendship could create obstacles to their ability to lead.
“We heard horror stories about planting with your friends, so we decided to have the hard conversations beforehand,” Jodi said. “We had been peers in ministry together. None of us had ever reported to one another. So when someone becomes the boss, that changes some dynamics. We had to talk about how we were going to address conflict, how we would call each other out. Nobody was going to be a superstar where we couldn’t tell them how we felt. You have to figure out what your culture is going to be before you start.”
Who Is the Leader?
The band of church planters turned to outside expertise to explore their strengths and weaknesses as a team.
“You have to find other experts who aren’t invested relationally in you, but understand church planting, and have them tell you the truth about what they see in your team,” Mike said. “That’s how you identify the cracks that become canyons under the pressure of planting.”
Mission Church had an unusual crack in their team: they had too many strong leaders.
“In our assessment process someone told us, ‘You have five lead planters on this team. So who is your leader?’ And that was a question we hadn’t really answered yet,” Jodi said.
While they all had a sense that Mike was “in charge,” they hadn’t explicitly defined that yet, and he hadn’t officially claimed the role he was being called to.
“Leaders come in all different shapes, sizes, and giftedness,” Mike said. “But the leader has to be defined. I always thought that leaders didn’t have to say they were the leader, they just step up and lead. So part of what God had to shift in me was that it was OK for me to raise my hand and say, ‘I’m the leader.’”
But there were still other role-related challenges to figure out.
“We were all coming from a megachurch, where there were departments,” Jodi said. “A facilities team. A communications team. A graphic design team. And then there were six of us.”
You can’t have a team of one.
“So we had to have a conversation about how none of us could be above any of it,” she said. “All of us have to be willing to actually pick up the mop, clean the bathroom, write the bulletins. We had to cheer each other on and say, ‘We know this isn’t in your giftedness—thank you.’”
“Two years in, we asked ‘What do we love about our church?’ and started filling a ton of whiteboards and telling stories about what God had done,” Mike said. “Values started popping up, and one I would have never guessed when we planted was: ‘We throw great parties.’”
Mission Church had taken Luke 14 to heart and hosted extravagant events for people who don’t often have them.
“We invite people who are overlooked or under-celebrated,” Mike said. “We’d seen it at other churches, and so we started A Night to Remember. It’s a prom for students with special needs, and it’s bigger than our church. We’ll have 500 students and about 2,000 volunteers at the fairgrounds this year. It’s one of those heaven-touching-earth moments.”
That might seem like a lot for a church plant to take on, but for Mission, it was part of their DNA.
“We did our first prom here when our church was six months old,” Jodi said. “I think sometimes when you’re planting a church you think, ‘We can’t do that until year seven. Or until we’re big enough, or until we have the resources.’ But we started small. Our first year we had 60 students, and now it’s bigger than us, and we can’t hold it anymore. Don’t wait to do the things that God has placed on your heart.”
“Don’t wait to do the things that God has placed on your heart.”—@jodihickerson
Mike and Jodi believe church plants hesitate about extravagant events because the payoff isn’t always visible.
“All the parties and movie nights we have in the summer are no strings attached,” Jodi said. “A lot of times people think about events like, ‘Well how are you going to invite them to your church?’ But it takes so many positive interactions before people actually show up.”
For Mission Church, throwing great parties is a long-term strategy, and they aren’t focusing on the short-term wins.
“At some point, tragedy hits people’s lives or they feel a need to look for God, and they’re like, ‘What about that one church that did those free movie nights?’ That’s the five-year payoff,” Jodi said. “You’re creating positive associations by doing things for people without ever asking them for anything.”
Mike believes this shift is absolutely vital for small churches that want to grow.
“If I could say one thing to the next generation of church planters, it’s this: play the long game.”
Mission Church doesn’t just have a local reputation for throwing great parties though. Over the years they’ve become known for the big and small ways they serve the people of Ventura every day.
“We can’t do everything, but we can do something,” Jodi said. “That’s always been part of our culture, and it’s up front every week. We give away $1 for everyone in attendance to a family in need, and we tell those stories every week.”
It would be easy for a church to be overwhelmed by the needs in their community, but Mission keeps focused on the tangible things they can help with. They don’t make assumptions or guess what might help—they ask, partnering with local humanitarian organizations when possible. And like the parties, this too is a long-term strategy.
“We might collect toilet paper one month, or toys, or this, or that, and then we donate it,” Jodi said. “NA and AA recovery groups meet in our building every day of the week right now because we said, ‘Yes, you can meet here.’”
This word—yes—has gradually changed the way Ventura’s largely secular community sees Mission Church.
“It’s a muscle of saying yes to what your community needs,” Jodi said. “And then when tragedy happens—and it has happened—they are waiting to see what you’re going to do to help.”
The exercise of asking how to help and saying yes put Mission in a unique position a few months ago.
A Shelter in the Wildfires
In December Ventura experienced the largest wildfire ever recorded in California. Flames ate their way through more than 280,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings.
“An hour and a half after the wildfires started in Ventura, we opened as a shelter for people who were being evacuated,” Mike said. “But the only way we could do that is because we were used to saying yes as a winter shelter for our homeless friends. So we already had our facility equipped, and we had leaders in place to become a shelter on a moment’s notice. Small yesses way back in the day allowed us to say a big yes when our community needed us.”
During the almost month-long scourge, Mission Church sheltered over 900 families and had thousands of volunteers. They provided supplies for firefighters and worked with the city to help meet the biggest needs.
“We decided from the beginning that we wanted to be a place where our city would say, ‘I may not believe what they believe, but when I need help, I’m going to Mission Church. Because they will help,’” Mike said. “So we’ve been saying that for a long time, and when the fires came we got to do that in a big public way.”
New Building—New Chapter
“We’ve been in a movie theater since the beginning,” Jodi said. “The theater was operating when we moved in, but then they moved, and the building was going to be boarded up.”
Thankfully Mission Church managed to stay in the theater and lease the building 24/7.
“But that lease ran out this last year, so it was just God’s timing for us to find something else and buy,” Jodi said.
While it had become clear Mission Church needed to make a big purchase, they didn’t want the process of buying a building to shift their focus. They couldn’t afford to let raising money cause them to lose sight of who they are as a church.
“We didn’t want to just give to ‘a thing,’” Mike said. “I didn’t want to do a campaign for a building. We wanted to help people learn to give from a place of belief, generosity, and sacrifice. And then we wanted to make sure that we were doing it for a reason. And that reason is for the people who aren’t here yet—our friends and neighbors who need Jesus and the hope that only He can give.”
With the help of CDF Capital, Mission Church is scheduled to move into their new building later this year. As Mike, Jodi, and their team look to their future in Ventura, they envision more of the transformational work God has already been doing.
“What I would love to see is a ton of addictions broken. Lives turned around. Marriages restored,” Mike said. “As a church, I want to be a place that people want to come be a part of and then go and create this kind of environment in other places around the world.”
Church plants like Mission don’t just grow—they multiply. And it won’t be long before Mission Church does just that.
Helping You on Your Mission
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