Mike J. Santiago doesn’t necessarily advise would-be church planters to follow in his footsteps — marrying at 19 and having three children by the age of 23.
Yet at 29, Santiago is five years into the fruitful launch of Focus Church in Apex, North Carolina, where an average of 325 people worship on Sundays.
On the other hand, Santiago had the proper pedigree for a new church to be on a firm foundational footing. His grandfather, also named Mike Santiago, last year retired after he and his wife, Judy, spent 51 years — half the existence of the U.S. Assemblies of God — as missionaries to Latin America and Africa with AG World Missions. His parents, David and Dora Santiago, have been AGWM missionaries in Spain for 20 years.
Santiago, whose dad is Puerto Rican and mom is Alabaman, grew up as a missionary kid in Spain. After home schooling, he enrolled at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, at the age of 16. As he studied for a practical theology degree, Santiago became a youth pastor at 17 and married Ashton two years later.
Nearing the end of seven years of youth ministry in Florida, Santiago says the Lord spurred a desire in him to pastor an entire church, specifically in the Raleigh, North Carolina, region. After searching on Google, Santiago discovered Apex to be the fastest-growing segment of the metro area (population rose to 37,476 in 2010 compared to 4,968 in 1990.)
Mike and Ashton drove to Apex, where they didn’t know a soul, sat in a Panera restaurant, and sensed God’s confirmation as they saw numerous families with young children. The couple attended Church Multiplication Network training and a CMN Launch event. After starting in the family home with Ashton leading worship, Focus Church relocated to a Holiday Inn Express, elementary school, and finally a high school. Two trailers full of equipment must be set up and torn down every Sunday.
Apex — which continues to grow with an estimated population of 47,310 — is a typical upper- middle-class suburban community, 80 percent white and 7 percent black. However, Focus Church is one-third African-American, and Santiago has made racial diversity a priority.
“We don’t want a church that looks like Apex,” says Santiago. “We want a church that looks like heaven.”
Apex received CMN AGTrust matching funds that have been replenished. Santiago is now a CMN Launch trainer and part of the CMN field-based team.
Ashton Santiago continues to lead worship alongside Christopher McCray, whose brother Joshua has played drums at the church since July 2016. Joshua McCray, 26, says he had lost hope in what the Church stands for until connecting with Focus.
“I’ve never experienced a church like this before, with such a genuine love among the people,” McCray says. “They are so on fire to change lives for Christ.”