A Match Made in Heaven, Decades Ago
It’s not often that God’s grand design for a ministry is witnessed, at least in part, unfolding before your eyes. But for two North Carolina Assemblies of God churches, God’s plan and timing was nothing short of miraculous.
But it didn’t seem to start out that way. In fact, it got pretty “scary” as Focus Church and Radiant Church, two AG churches about a 25-minute drive apart, were facing serious crisis situations.
Radiant Church in Raleigh, once one of the fastest growing churches in the nation, was struggling. At one time the home of a growing congregation that approached 1,200, its sprawling 66-acre campus and ministry buildings started to echo in their emptiness as attendance had dwindled to well under 200. And then its pastor announced he was returning to his home state of Texas to take a pastorate there. Pastoral searches often take six months to a year to complete, the unspoken question: Did Radiant have six months to a year to give?
Mike Santiago and his wife, Ashton, had planted Focus Church in Apex about six years ago. The new church was a success, growing quickly and steadily over the years, with weekly services often seeing 350 to 400 people gathering in their high school theater home. But as Radiant Church’s challenges were years in the making, Focus Church’s crisis was full blown in just weeks.
“The school hired a new theater director and she didn’t want a church meeting in her theater,” Santiago says. “We were given two weeks to find a new home.”
The problem was, Apex had few options. Santiago and a friend of his drove throughout the area, calling any place that appeared to possibly have space the church could meet in — hotel conference rooms, community centers, ballet studios, gymnastic centers. Nothing. Finally, a country club gave them a home for three Sundays . . . and then asked them to leave as golfers couldn’t find parking spaces on Sunday mornings.
“About a month after we lost our high school home, we found ourselves meeting at 5 p.m. on Saturdays in a Baptist church on a temporary basis,” Santiago says. “By midway through August our attendance had dropped to 178. We met with our leadership team and we faced the reality that without a home, we would struggle to survive as a church.”
Two churches. Two very uncertain futures.
But this is where the tale of two churches in crisis takes a turn. Radiant’s pastor’s last Sunday was June 25. Coincidentally, the newly homeless Focus Church’s last Sunday in the high school was June 25. Radiant desperately needed a proven pastor; Focus desperately needed a permanent home.
On Aug. 20, Santiago preached in the morning service at Radiant Church as a candidate pastor, by that evening, the two churches had become one! It was nothing short of a miracle, as anyone in ministry knows, things like this don’t happen this easily or quickly unless God is involved.
But that’s the “condensed” version of the miraculous merging of two churches. In reality, this miracle was decades in the making.
A closer inspection finds that it was Jim Kelly, the North Carolina District Council Church Planting director, who convinced Santiago to originally plant a church in Apex. It was also upon Kelly’s strong recommendation as Church Planting director and an excellent interview with Santiago that Radiant Church agreed to co-sign for Focus Church’s $30,000 Matching Funds (start-up funds for new church plants) through Church Multiplication Network and AGTrust six years ago.
In still more “notes of interest,” Kelly was one of the founding ministers of Radiant Church in 1984, which he later pastored from 1999-2010, before becoming the Church Planting director for the district.
“Mike is, in many ways, a Timothy — his grandparents are AG missionaries, his parents are missionaries — he’s a third generation, 30-year-old AG kid with the ministry depth of a 50-year-old,” Kelly observes. “Mike and I are close. I knew they were without a building and then I learned Radiant was without a pastor, so I met with (District) Superintendent Rick Ross and then Rick met with the board of the church.”
Ross, who agreed with Kelly that Santiago would be the right person to bring the two churches together, presented the idea of Santiago being a candidate pastor for the church to the board, explaining although Santiago was young, he was gifted. The board agreed. Santiago preached. The congregation and board loved him. By the evening, the two churches had become one.
The merging required some sacrifice from both congregations — Radiant Church gave up its name to become Focus Church, and the original congregation of Focus Church now has to drive to another community to attend church (albeit a $11 million campus that’s 80 percent paid off).
Yet what sticks out to Santiago is how God had everything worked out far, far in advance: Roughly, Kelly recruited Santiago to not only plant a church, but unknown to anyone at the time, to ultimately save the church Kelly had helped plant decades before.
“Since Mike became pastor in September, he has implemented some great things, working to refurbish many of the buildings,” Kelly says. “Most of the work has been ‘elbow grease,’ but it hasn’t just been the young people from Apex, but also a lot of the old timers who’ve been there 20-plus years — they love Mike’s passion and love his vision and they see the church is starting to grow again.”
Santiago credits God for orchestrating such an “impossible” course of events, recounting how over the past several months God has made himself evident — people have been healed, more than two dozen have been baptized in water, and others have been baptized in the Spirit. “Things are happening,” he says. “It’s a wave of the Spirit!”
As for Kelly, he likes what he sees so much at his former church that now he and his wife, Janet, have made Focus Church their home church . . . once again.