The Reluctant Church Planter

Mark Lee has been Lead Pastor of VantagePoint Church—a congregation of about 1,800 people in Eastvale, California—since he helped plant it 11 years ago.

But Mark almost opted out of what God was doing in Eastvale. He tried church planting before, and it did not go so great. It was not what he saw himself doing anymore. His pastor, however, had other plans.

A little over a decade ago, Mark was working in a part-time role with a church in Diamond Bar, California. “It was the largest church I’d ever been a part of,” Mark said. “It was like 400 people. It had two acres of land. It had its own building. And I thought to myself, I’m going to die here. This is the best thing I’ve ever been part of.

He had no idea what God was planning.

A Need for Church Plants

The senior pastor where Mark was serving had a vision of planting a church in a nearby community, and he wanted Mark to be part of it.

“When I first came on with a part-time salary, my pastor wanted me to start a young adult ministry and maybe help plant this new church at the same time,” Mark said. “There was no way I was going to do that.”

On the church’s 39th anniversary, the senior pastor planned to speak on the church’s past 39 years of faithfulness, and he asked Mark to speak about where God was taking the church in the future.

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Mark Lee, Lead Pastor of VantagePoint Church

“In retrospect I don’t think any senior pastor in their right mind would give that part of the message to someone else,” Mark said. “Either he was crazy or he was a mastermind. He wanted me to teach about why we needed to plant this new church.”

Mark began researching the apologetics of church planting, and over and over again he was shocked by how incredibly necessary church planting is today. He learned that most churches in North America are either in a plateau or a state of decline. He discovered that while new churches open each week, several more close down. He also realized that religious revival is happening all over the world—except for Europe and North America. During this time, he came across a quote by C. Peter Wagner: “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”

Mark had become a Christian in college, and he realized that in the 15 years he had been a Jesus follower, he had only seen a handful of people come to faith.

When the church was interviewing potential church planters, Mark felt God stirring him to put his name in the hat. He asked his pastor to help him identify where God was calling him to be, whether that meant planting this church or remaining in Diamond Bar.

“If you want me to go, I’ll go out there,” Mark said. “But if you want me to stay, I’ll stay here for the rest of my life.”

His pastor immediately told him he should plant the church.

A Place to Be

It was already decided that the new church plant would be located in what is known as Southern California’s Inland Empire, where there were not a lot of churches.

“The Inland Empire is the tenth fastest growing metropolitan community that nobody’s talking about. People are moving out to this area because it’s brand new,” Mark explained. “The houses are new. The schools are spotless. The streets are wide. There’s a park within walking distance of every home. People are looking for something that their kids can be part of.”

Mark and the team wanted parents to feel like VantagePoint Church was for their kids just as much as it was for them. But first they had to find a place to be, period.

“It was such a new community that the only place a church could meet was a school,” Mark described. But no school was available. Well, except for one. “They said they were never going to have a church in it.

So naturally, Mark made that school his singular focus. Every week he brought coffee for the secretaries, dropped off gift cards for the teachers, and asked to meet with the principal. She declined every time.

“Outreach and leadership development have really become who we are and why we exist." — @pastormlee

Then the school had an accident. A junior high student tried to jump over a tennis net, but his foot got caught in the mesh. He hit his head on the pavement, and paramedics rushed him to the hospital, where he had two brain operations.

After hearing about the incident, Mark knew his fledgling church needed to help somehow. But they did not even formally exist yet, they had no connections, and there was no such thing as GoFundMe. So Mark got creative. He printed off the Yahoo! Groups post about the accident and started walking around neighborhoods, into businesses, collecting money for the boy’s family.

I wouldn’t even give money to somebody like that,” Mark admitted. “But I ended up collecting $500 worth of cash and gift cards for this family.” Mark took the money to the school and said, “We’re a church in the area, and we just want to be a blessing to you. We want this to go to the family.”

A week or two later, the assistant principal called and asked, “Where are you meeting? Are you looking for a place? Because we’d like to have a church like you in our facility.”

“I still remember the place I was standing, the time of day, the temperature in the room—everything like that,” Mark said. “I just had this feeling that God was with us.”

Once that school door opened, VantagePoint Church was born.

A Big Church that Feels Small

Over the last ten years, VantagePoint Church has grown by about 150-200 people per year. This relatively young church plant in a largely unchurched area has swelled to 1,800 people in just over a decade. But Mark and his team do not pay much attention to numbers.

“Within the past few years, we’ve been making a transition from survival to significance. In the beginning stages of any organization, numbers are extremely important. I think churches should talk a lot about nickels and noses—attendance and finances—in the beginning.”

But a few years after VantagePoint Church launched, they realized: they did not exist to fill seats and raise money. They started to transition away from the usual survival metrics and think more about their significance.

“Outreach and leadership development have really become who we are and why we exist. We don’t even post attendance numbers on staff pages anymore.”

After visiting VantagePoint Church and getting to know Mark and his team, Brad Dupray, Senior Vice President, Ministry Development at CDF, remarked that VPC is a large church that feels like a small church. That is no accident. The leadership team has taken intentional steps to ensure that their space feels personal and intimate.

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Pastor Lee baptizing a member of VantagePoint

“We try to provide enough service options where things aren’t at 80-90% capacity,” Mark said. “We have services that are half full, and it’s amazing to me how people absolutely love it. It feels more intimate when the room is smaller and there are less people in the room. So that’s one of the things we’ve done to try and make things more intimate. But we’ve also tried to make sure that the ‘celebrities’ act more like servants.”

Mark greets people before and after the service, and the worship team mingles with the congregation instead of clumping together for donuts and coffee. People can email Mark directly, and he replies himself and schedules his own appointments. When he is not preaching, Mark opens his home to the team of leaders VantagePoint is developing.

Anyone who talks to Mark can immediately tell he is a relational person. That is one of the things that quickly made VantagePoint such a great partner for CDF Capital.

Not a Typical Relationship

“Our relationship with CDF is new, but I would say it’s going great, especially as I’ve developed a more personal relationship with Brad Dupray,” Mark said. “He’s come into our church and I’ve gotten to know him well. He came to my house for Thanksgiving, for goodness sake! That is not a typical relationship you have with a lender.”

Mark and his team had been looking for a lender so they could create that building with a personal and intimate feel. Mark discussed the matter with some people at a church planting meeting. Those people happened to work for Stadia (where Mark has since become a church planting coach and head of their Inland Empire Church Planting Movement), and they quickly recommended CDF Capital.

“CDF Capital is one of the biggest players in the church lending market,” Mark said. “As we were looking into a construction loan, we were talking to the lender that gave us the land loan, and that’s when someone from Stadia told us about CDF.”

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VantagePoint worship service

Church plants are in a uniquely challenging position when it comes to lenders. Even if they have momentum, lenders are less willing to lend the capital church plants need to keep growing, because they do not have the historical data or reputation of an older church.

“I think any church dealing with their first building is going to need an aggressive lender that’s Kingdom-minded,” Mark said. “We needed that with CDF, and sure enough we ended up getting the loan.”

Plus with CDF, Mark knows VantagePoint Church is getting more than a transaction: they are building a relationship with an organization that cares about the transformation God is doing in their community through them.

Or as Mark puts it: “We have each other’s best interest in mind.”

Church plants are in a uniquely challenging position when it comes to lenders. Even if they have momentum, lenders are less willing to lend the capital church plants need to keep growing, because they do not have the historical data or reputation of an older church.

“I think any church dealing with their first building is going to need an aggressive lender that’s Kingdom-minded,” Mark said. “We needed that with CDF, and sure enough we ended up getting the loan.”

Plus with CDF, Mark knows VantagePoint Church is getting more than a transaction: they are building a relationship with an organization that cares about the transformation God is doing in their community through them.

Or as Mark puts it: “We have each other’s best interest in mind.”

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