By Warren Bird
A happy day for Pastor Brian McMillan (just behind the word Hello, with wife Sarah beside him) and a few CenterPoint members as they celebrate a ribbon cutting ceremony at their newly renovated church home.
Conventional wisdom told Brian McMillan to plant a church anywhere but Long Island, New York—known as a graveyard for new pastors. All efforts to start a new Protestant congregation in that place seemed to fail, resulting in another ministry tombstone erected.
“’No way, no how’ it can possibly happen there in the way you’re doing it,” Brian says he was told multiple times as he launched CenterPoint Church. Even looking back today, he sees a lot of wisdom in their counsel. “I would probably share the same advice with someone today, quite frankly.”
Brian landed in New York 12 years ago with no experience or specific education as a church planter, and no financial support—just plenty of naive passion and a desire to follow God’s call.
“We didn’t really know what to do,” Brian says of himself and his then new bride Sarah. “I was 24 years old, having taken no courses on church planting. We felt God called us to start something, and our ignorance was probably working for us.”
But he did have a potential launch team. “Right before I started the church I had been working for the prior four years as a college and career pastor at a local church,” he explains. “So my launch team of 25 mostly came from people I knew through that ministry or connections of people through it. I spent our first 6 months meeting bi-weekly, teaching through our core theology, values mission and heart to make sure the team was on the same page. I would often end the message saying something like, ‘If you aren’t comfortable with this, then this probably isn’t the right church for you.'”
“Church planters are often so desperate for people that we keep someone on board, even when we should let them go. The problem when we keep them is they often start to take the church off course or slow down the progress. In a church plant, every voice is influential. I was the only person on staff for the first 5 years, we didn’t even have a secretary. So I treated my elders and key leaders as staff. When I look back I’m convinced that our high capacity volunteers and their level of ownership in our church was one of the main reasons we went from a church plant to a thriving church.”
God Moves Anyway
Miraculously—and Brian does believe it is nothing short of a miracle—God has moved against all odds to build a vibrant spiritual outpost on Long Island that today welcomes more than 800 weekly worship attendees. The wonder of it all is not lost on Brian and CenterPoint Church’s leaders.
“Looking back on it, I will always think it’s wise to go into something like this with a level of wisdom, a level of training, a level of strategy,” Brian says. “But I am still convinced that the best-laid plans of man are doomed to fail without the element of the movement of God, without the Holy Spirit at work and the faith of those willing to take a step into the unknown.”
Major Shift in Outreach Strategy
Brian admits there was very little in those early days that would be considered “best-laid plans.”
He started with the evangelism strategy he had learned growing up: sharing his faith with total strangers in public places, using a take-it-or-leave-it approach.
It didn’t work. “It was all we knew, but no one ever came to the church through it,” he reflects.
After Superstorm Sandy, people from several area churches including CenterPoint gathered to help clean homes.
Brian and his core team began to realize they were in a part of the country where people are “super skeptical” about everything—and even more cynical about people who cold-call about their faith in Christ. “They would always think we were trying to sell them something,” Brian says. “They had to see our faith in action.”
So CenterPoint’s embryo congregation shifted to a more relational evangelism, becoming more intentional about building strategic relationships. Brian didn’t want to join the Chamber of Commerce at first because it was “time consuming and something else to add to my plate,” but he joined the Chamber, and CenterPoint began to serve the community. God blessed this approach, and soon CenterPoint became the “go-to” congregation for participating in community events.
“We realized we are called to be in the world and show the love of Christ with people where they are,” he explains. “This was a huge paradigm shift us as a church.” Those connections really paid off in late 2012 when Superstorm Sandy devastated the area. The church became a rallying place for serving the greater community, having many opportunities to show the love of Christ in practical ways.
“Oh, We Should Do Sunday MORNING?”
Eventually the congregation relocated to a Jewish synagogue that they modified to serve as a church facility.
As CenterPoint began reaching people, the young church rented facilities such as Knights of Columbus or American Legion halls for its weekly services in an area saturated with traditionally religious people. On top of that, the early group was exclusively single adults and met on Sunday night—another couple of conventional no-no’s for how a church plant should work.
“We figured the people we were reaching would have hangovers on Sunday morning,” Brian says. “So who would want to go to church then?”
It wasn’t until some young married families started coming around in year four that CenterPoint added a Sunday morning service and eventually a children’s ministry. Brian knows the spin on success rate without those components in place—he heard about that one, too, before he eventually got married and started having kids.
“We finally had some families with young kids, and they would say, ‘We love the church, but a 7:30 Sunday night service doesn’t work with our kids’ sleep cycle. “That’s when we started a morning service.”
Recommending “the Competition”
Another way CenterPoint has followed the theme of “Things NOT to Do If You Want Your Church to Succeed” is to list “Recommended Churches” on its website—other strong churches in the area that spiritual seekers might consider. That strategy came from those early days when Brian was “welcomed” to the graveyard.
“There was not a lot of hope or help from other churches when we were getting started,” Brian says. “That was the loneliest time I ever experienced, and I knew that God never wanted CenterPoint alone to succeed as a church.”
So Brian and CenterPoint leaders endure more odd looks at their approach. “Everybody thinks it’s strange that we represent the ‘competition’ on our website,” Brian says. “But it’s a great check on my spirit and the church to make sure we never think it’s about us. If we start holding onto people tightly and just want to build our church, we’ve lost the call of the Kingdom of God on Long Island.”
Watching God build CenterPoint against all odds has given Brian perspective for church planters and pastors who operate in an age of super-information about picking the right location, branding and marketing the church just right, and adopting the perfect strategic action plan and growth strategies.
CenterPoint has come a long way since its volunteer staff days. As the church grew and the time demands for each position grew, Brian needed to start to hire people to fill those roles. “We now have an executive leadership team consisting of myself, an executive director of operations and an executive pastor of ministries,” he says. “I find working with a team and bouncing ideas off each other is always more productive then simply giving orders. The three of us set the direction of the church, and then the executive team passes that direction onto the other staff and high capacity volunteers. Many of these volunteers feel a calling into ministry, so we have set up a robust year-long internship program.”
“As we look to build our staff, plant churches and start new campus,” Brian dreams, “we know the best way to do this is to raise leaders from within. Pastors are not rushing to minister on Long Island, so we are raising up local individuals who get the culture and can reproduce the DNA of CenterPoint across Long Island.”
“All of that is great, and I would advise anyone to take advantage of all the help that’s available,” Brian summarizes. “But in the midst of the books and tools and resources, it still has to be about the Miraculous One. We can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s still about passionately crying out to God and the reality of the Spirit of God moving on the hearts of people.”
Pastor Brian McMillan (Below) in the church workshop, one of his favorite places because it reminds him that God is always working on something!