Published on 5/7/2013
By Warren Bird
The Heritage Square campus in Golden, CO, was once an old, rundown amusement park that now hosts thousands of people in more than four services each week.
Instead of sinking huge dollar amounts into a new facility for their rapidly expanding church, Shawn Johnson and his leadership team bucked conventional wisdom and battled their own egos to turn two unusual sites into what became, somewhat to their surprise, launching pads for even faster growth.
“There aren’t many people who can say they meet in a creepy theme park and a rundown dinner theater—but that’s us,” Shawn says of the Denver-metro-based Red Rocks Church. “We’re even looking for a third junky place no one else would want so we can reach even more people.”
As a church of 3,000 attenders in 2011, which had started with 6 people just 6 years previously, Shawn and his team were heading full-steam into planning a building project. “We were out of chairs, we were doing multiple services,” Shawn says. “Isn’t that what you do when you have lots of people and you’re out of room—raise millions of dollars and build a new facility?”
A Little Help from His Friends
Shawn posed his plan to the 35 senior leaders who were part of a Leadership Network-facilitated Rapid Growth Churches Leadership Community; and to a person, they advised him to find another way.
Volunteers from the church’s sports ministry help with an outreach sports day at the Denver Housing Authority.
“All of them owned property,” says Shawn. “But all of those pastors said unanimously, ‘If we could go back in time and put ourselves in your position, we would not commission a multi-million dollar building and put ourselves in that kind of debt.’
“They told us we didn’t need a new building to reach more people. Instead they urged me, ‘Go find another creepy facility, use that and stay cheap.’ ” (Hear Shawn tell the story himself here)
Easy for those pastors to say—they already had their facilities and the prestige that comes with them.
“We decided that a lot of our desire for a giant building was because that’s what our peers do,” Shawn admits. “It’s hard to go to pastor’s conference in someone’s brand new building, and have to admit, ‘Actually, our church meets in the back of a theme park.’ Big buildings usually represent success in ministry.”
Priority One: “Making Heaven More Crowded”
But when Shawn and the other directors at the church weighed the time and energy it would take to raise roughly $15 million for the facility Red Rocks would need—and when they weighed the focus it might take away from their mission of “making heaven more crowded”—the decision was clear.
“We came back to the church and told them we’re not going to raise millions of dollars, we’re not going to build a building and we’ll probably never have marble floors,” Shawn says. “We’re going to stay in this barn at the back of this theme park, and we’re going to stay relatively debt-free. We’re going to keep finding cheap ways to open up more seats and reach more people for Jesus.”
Pastor Chad Bruegman in Haiti with children from the Compassion International Project.
And reach people they have. Red Rocks has more than doubled in size since moving into a second-campus facility in another part of the Denver metro area in 2012.
Red Rocks implemented a video venue model in which its two campuses are treated equally by offering all of the same ministries and services—versus a central hub with full-blown ministries, and smaller satellite locations with limited services.
“We were skeptical that the multi-site video venue concept was going to work for us,” Shawn says. “Although lots of people were doing it with success, we didn’t know anybody who was doing it with success in Denver.”
Freedom to Move Without Debt
Red Rocks has not only experienced off-the-charts growth, but because the church hasn’t been saddled with building debt, it has been able to funnel large sums of money into its massive sports ministries locally where more than 2,000 people participate. It has also been able to fund community service such as ministries to kids with Down Syndrome and at-risk schools.
The sports ministry put on a fitness program at a local gym for their friends with Down Syndrome.
Globally, Red Rocks allocated money to put a family on the ground in a South African squatter’s camp in order to feed widows and orphans every day for three years. The church also plans to build safe houses in New Delhi, India, as well as a café in Haiti that would feed hundreds of children a day.
“The great news is we have what we need to do those kinds of things because we don’t spend a bunch of money on a mortgage,” Shawn says. “That has freed us up to make ministry decisions that go above and beyond how we’re going to pay the bills this month.”
“Creepy” Is Part of the Draw
Shawn, a former addict who had vowed “never to walk into a church,” believes the uniqueness of Red Rocks’ locations have contributed to the church’s growth.
“That’s another one of those things that God knew what He was doing a lot more than we ever did, and it worked out in ways we never could have imagined,” Shawn says. “When we started in that gross building, we thought ‘the second we get money, we are leaving this creepy theme park.’
Lead Pastor Shawn Johnson with an orphan in Freedom Park, South Africa.
“But some people appreciate being able to worship God in something that doesn’t look like a traditional church building. We started out in facilities we sort of hated and were embarrassed by. But they’ve turned into one of the biggest reasons people will come check out the church.”