The Ironman triathlon, a grueling test of physical and mental stamina, demands an enormous amount of training, endurance, and knowing the course.
John Van Pay, a finisher of a 2007 Ironman competition, has used triathlete-training ideas launching Gateway Fellowship Church in San Antonio. High-energy prayer, learning the territory, persevering faith, and scaling his own wall of doubt have helped Van Pay plant the fastest-growing church in the United States, as determined by Outreach magazine.
Gateway’s multiethnic congregation soared from 812 in March 2015 to 2,332 in March 2016, a 187 percent gain. Current attendance at the five weekend services hovers close to 3,000.
Gateway started with Van Pay and his wife, Stephanie, meeting in their living room with six friends on Labor Day 2007. They prayed and strategized about launching a church in the needy northwest area of San Antonio. They taped sheets of butcher paper on the wall listing a relational network of 1,200 names of neighbors and friends to invite to the grand opening service. They prayed for each name and befriended others at gas stations and in fast food restaurants.
“I will never forget how we started,” Van Pay says. “God does not despise small beginnings.”
The first service in a rented elementary school cafeteria in February 2009 drew 283 people and featured 28 salvation decisions for Christ. Bumps in the road occurred during the early days of the church. Attendance and offerings dwindled, and the church lost its meeting space when the school district declined to renew its rental contract with Gateway. The setbacks forced the Van Pays to drain their savings and seek second jobs in the marketplace.
Van Pay hunkered down under an oak tree in the woods, gathering encouragement and direction from the Gospel of John. For six months he focused on the simple truth of discipleship, which happens through building relationships.
“Jesus spent three years pouring his life into his 12 disciples,” he says. “This Eastern and relational approach is more rewarding than a Western classroom approach where individuals learn by filling in the blanks.”
From that experience, Van Pay organized a discipleship model stressing small group settings. An army of volunteers and eight full-time staff help train and lead 85 small groups that involve half of Gateway’s attendees. Groups, averaging 13 adults plus a dozen children, meet primarily in homes. Participants study fundamentals of the faith, but also address individual needs.
Lindsay Barnett, a church attendee since 2012, leads a group of women and their children.
“We study the Bible and are growing in faith together,” she says. “Several friends, who did not have a personal relationship with Christ before, have come to know him as their Savior and have been baptized.” Her own father accepted Christ as Savior two months ago at a Gateway service and joined another home group.
From its beginning, the church has received vital financial help. Partnering with the Church Multiplication Network, Gateway Fellowship in 2008 became among the first recipients in the Fellowship to be financed by AGTrust with its new $30,000 matching fund program for church plants. In 2012, Hobby Lobby Stores donated a $2.4 million, 11.5-acre property for Gateway’s 700-seat ministry center, completed in 2015.
In the past 16 months, 1,950 people have made salvation commitments to Christ and there have been 512 water baptisms. Gateway’s future includes a larger 1,700-seat sanctuary, expected to be completed in 2018, as well as launching Finishers next year, a new nonprofit arm to train church planters. The Van Pays now serve on the CMN lead team.
“The kingdom of God needs to advance through discipleship,” Van Pay says.