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  • Samuel Parkinson

Risk, Donuts, and Thriving Churches: How God is Growing His Church Unexpectedly in Denver

“We are ruthlessly biblical, to the point that it may look crazy and unwise. But I’d rather risk everything and take a shot in faith for the glory of God than do nothing and play it safe.” This is what Mark Hallock has to say about the network of churches he helped start in the Denver area, Calvary Family of Churches. I recently had the opportunity to interview Hallock, and what I was immediately struck by was his obvious passion for the work of the ministry; it’s difficult to underestimate how animated (and animating, I might add) this Denver-based pastor gets when talking about the work that God is doing in the “donut” of Denver.

Oh, you’ve never heard of the “donut?” Don’t worry, neither had I before I spoke with Mark.

The “donut” is essentially a ring of the most unattractive parts of Denver; it’s the unsexy, uncool side of the city. The center inside the “donut” oozes with downtown coolness, and the outside of the “donut” are endless fields of white picket fences and perfectly manicured, suburban green lawns. As a visitor in Denver, you probably wouldn’t even notice the “donut,” even though roughly 70% of Denver’s population lives in it. “Usually,” said Hallock, as he described the layout of the city he loves, “the only reason for being in the donut (unless you live there) is to get through the donut, to get to the cool part of the city.” So who’s in the donut? Basically, everyone who has been pushed out of the urban core due to gentrification,[1] and everyone who can’t afford to live in the upper-middle class suburbs surrounding Denver. In other words, the “donut” is where Denver’s population of lower income whites, African Americans, and Hispanics live. And for Hallock, this “unsexy” and “uncool” part of Denver is a paradise; a field that is brimming with opportunity for harvest. “We can’t just reach white hipsters, and we can’t just reach white suburbanites,” said Hallock with stirring zeal, as if motivating an army on the precipice of a battle, “we need to reach the lower-class white, and African American, and Hispanic population in Denver as well.”

An Ecclesiastical Anomaly

Reaching the diverse population of the “donut” is exactly what Hallock and his fellow pastors in the Calvary Family are doing. This “family” is a little bit of an anomaly when it comes to church structure. You may be tempted to call it a “campus-church” model, but that would be a mistake; the elders at each Calvary location are autonomously responsible for shepherding their own people and are not subject to a “mother” campus of any kind. It would also be a mistake to equate it with a cooperative program like the Southern Baptist Convention, or a worldwide network like the Acts 29 Network, but that would also be a mistake (partly because all of the churches in the Calvary Family belong to both of these broader organizations).

The Calvary Family is something else entirely. “When we’re at our best as Baptists, we’re radically cooperative.” Hallock explains, “So [the Calvary Family] wants to share a lot of things: we share a name, we share doctrinal convictions, we share a philosophy of ministry, we share resources—but in no way is there any kind of authoritative leader or structure that would inhibit a congregation from being its own autonomous entity.”

Hallock and his team of leaders are radically committed to a model that links churches together in a truly harmonious, mutually upbuilding way, while simultaneously protecting the movement from ever orbiting around a personality. “If you want to have a platform for yourself, our model is not for you.”

Hallock explains, “We exist to make Jesus famous, and our structure won’t allow for you to make yourself famous.” He then summarizes, “So we want to take the best of radical cooperation—which is the best part of multi-cite structures—and the best of the local, autonomous, Baptist mindset. We wanted to start something that will long outlive us, and we felt like in order to do that, the autonomous element had to be strong.” With ten churches planted and replanted in the Calvary Family since 2013, it’s evident that this model is clearly working for them—and, if you would grant me some journalistic transparency, I think this is a model that campus-model churches need to seriously consider if they want their congregations to outlive a couple of short generations.

Humble Beginnings

How does such a glorious story begin? Humbly, that’s how. The very first church in this family started as an ordinary, slow-going church revitalization in 2009. Hallock accepted the pastorate of historical Calvary Baptist Church in Englewood, CO after a thirteen-year incubation period in which God stirred his heart within the context of youth ministry. “I had basically been serving in that silo model that essentially says, ‘Let’s build a big “youth church” within the church,’ and after doing that for some time, I began to ask, are we even making disciples? What are we doing here? And what’s the role of parents, really, in the discipleship-making process? It’s one to thing to say that parents are the primary disciplers of their kids, but it’s another thing entirely for that belief to function practically in ministry.” As his theological conviction in the area of youth ministry developed, Hallock came to realize that his new philosophy of ministry could not square up with his own status quo of being the “youth guy” in a big church. Thus, subterranean plates that would eventually bring Hallock to Calvary began to shift.

This incubation period also consisted of becoming disinterested in make-a-name-for-your-self mega-churchism on account of one colossal pastor scandal after another. In contrast to the embarrassing example he received from face-planting celebrity pastors, Hallock wanted a modest pastorate, “The idea of simply and faithfully pastoring a group of people to live out the Christian life in their own community was so captivating to me.” In other words, Hallock wanted to be able to honestly confess to his Lord, “I am an unworthy servant, I have only done what was my duty.” (Luke 17:10)

These two philosophical developments, along with an increasingly heavy burden for the beautifully diverse and overlooked lost population in the unwanted pockets of Denver, conspired together to compel Hallock to uproot himself and pastor a dying church in Englewood. “It was a huge leap of faith,” Hallock recalled, “because we didn’t have any money, but we wanted to trust the Lord—we didn’t want to waste our lives.”

Calvary was a traditional revitalization, as opposed to a replant (in other words, the church didn’t hire Hallock to “start over,” it hired him to nurse it back to health). “In a sense,” Hallock explained, “you’re going into a church that is sick or dying, but they don’t quite know how sick they are. So there’s always land-mines when you change.” One such “land-mine” is unrealistic and arbitrary expectations. For example, Hallock explained how his ministerial credentials were unforgivably suspect for some of his early congregants, “For years, I couldn’t figure out why one older couple in the church just didn’t like me, and I discovered that it was because I didn’t get my MDiv at a Southern Baptist Seminary; they viewed me as an outsider.”

Another “land-mine” Hallock faced was the all too familiar stubbornness that accompanies any suggestion to alter the ministerial status quo. Hallock elaborates, “Some of our members were still stuck in the 1950s SBC mindset that says, ‘We just need to build a stronger Sunday School program!’ so we had to instruct them, ‘That’s all well and good, but if the people in our community don’t realize that we’re crazy about them, they won’t come through our front doors.’” According to Hallock, he was very fortunate in the sense that most of his congregation actually wanted to be led, but many of these unavoidable difficulties of revitalizing a declining church confronted him nonetheless.

All that to say, Hallock confirms that revitalizations require patience when change is concerned. However, this wasn’t truly a problem for Hallock, because for him, change was always and only a means to the end of loving shepherding people. In the most refreshing word I’ve heard on the topic of change in church ministry, Hallock commented, “If your heart is such that, what you’re most passionate about is not changing anything, but rather shepherding souls, then you won’t feel a rush, you won’t feel antsy, you’ll feel like you’re doing what God made you to do.” He then added, “And I would say to pastors and aspiring pastors: if that isn’t your passion—shepherding souls, preaching the Word—then who cares about changing anything, because you won’t change anything in a way that’s honoring to the Lord or healthy for the congregation.”

What has happened since Hallock’s arrival in 2009 can only be described as God’s miraculous kindness. In addition to the family of ten gospel-rich, thriving churches that have come about from this congregation, Calvary Englewood has become a robustly diverse body of believers. “If you came to Calvary on a Sunday morning,” says Hallock, “you’d see a lot of cool tattoos, and a lot of uncool tattoos.” In other words, you’d see a lot of tattoos that costed hundreds of dollars from professional artists, and a lot of tattoos that likely costed a packet of cigarettes from a fellow convict serving his time. The term “diversity” also applies to more categories than “tattoo quality” at Calvary, there’s also a broad range of age, income level, ethnicity, and level of education. For example, if you were to introduce yourself to any given church member at Calvary, there’s a serious chance you’d be shaking the hand of a person who has a PhD, and there’s just as serious of a chance you’d shaking the hand of a person who never went to high school. “It doesn’t really make sense,” said Hallock as he meditated on the enigma that is his church, “but I think when you’re gospel-centered, that’s just what the Lord does over time; God brings all kinds of people together.”

Additionally, the Calvary Family of Churches is fully committed to the idea of churches planting churches, and church leaders training church leaders. This commitment is manifested in their residency programs which are specifically structured to train up church planters, church revitalizers/replanters, and worship leaders. Many of the current pastors in the Calvary Family of Churches are products of these programs, and are thus testaments to their legitimacy and quality.

Less Is More, Simple Is Sound

So how does Calvary strategize for missional engagement, both globally and locally? You might be shocked by how un-shocking their approach is. “Our philosophy is to invest for more,” Hallock begins, “we want to invest in a couple of places and go deep, rather than barely getting involved with a ton of different ministries.” Obviously, those investments will vary from church to church, since they belong to their own unique areas. For Calvary Englewood, the two places for global missions are Swaziland—which is where they partner with a couple of missionaries, to which they send groups regularly—and Naco Arizona—which is just on border of Mexico, and thus serves as a good introduction to families who are unfamiliar with missional outreach to different cultures. On a local level, community groups serve as the hands and feet of structured outreach; once a month, groups will do some sort of community service (this can be anything from volunteering to help the local school district to going door to door offering replacement batteries for locals’ smoke alarms).

Another helpful tool for missional outreach is what Hallock simply identifies as “I3”—the three “I”s stand for Invest, Invite, and Introduce. Hallock and his fellow leaders challenge the individuals in their congregation to continually have a few people—we’re talking, actual names and faces—that they’re regularly investing in. They are also encouraged to invite these individuals to anything and everything members are involved in at Calvary. “Everything we’re doing is an on-ramp.” Hallock explains, “If you have someone who doesn’t want to come to church, but they’re willing to come to your community group, do it.” And lastly, by “Introduce” Hallock is referring to full-fledged evangelism—as in, let me introduce you to my friend, Jesus.

The wisdom behind a tool as simple as “I3” is evidenced by the fruit that Calvary has enjoyed in the past eight years. Granted, Calvary offers supplementary equipping through things like “Calvary Institute” (which is essentially formal biblical, theological, and practical classes—which particularly aid members in developing the ability to engage in that third “I,” introduce), but what we’re talking about here is essentially just good ‘ol fashioned biblical hospitality.

As we discussed their missional strategies at Calvary, it became apparent to me that Hallock is a believer of rejecting the binary of “evangelism or discipleship.” At Calvary, one of the tools for evangelism can be understood as “public discipleship;” it’s the invitation to the unbeliever to “come and see.” I think there’s something valuable to learn from Hallock and his fellow leaders at Calvary on this issue. Jesus told his disciples, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) So according to Jesus, one of the most powerful witnesses Christians have for the lost world is their love for one another. If this is the case, shouldn’t we be asking where our love for one another is most evident (i.e., community groups, corporate gatherings, shared meals in homes, etc.) and subsequently inviting our lost friends and family to come so they can watch us in action? “Watch this,” we ought to say, “watch how we love one another. Watch how we point one another to Christ. Watch how we challenge sin in one another’s lives. Watch how we hold forth the gospel as our only hope.” The blending of these two activities—disciple and evangelism, worship and mission—yields glorious opportunities for gospel advancement. When we drive a wedge between these two halves of the Christian life, we either fall into the ditch of the Attractional Church model—which says to the unbeliever, “our gathering is for you, and only you”—or the ditch of the ingrown navel gazing church model—which amounts to isolationism; i.e., disobedience to the Great Commission.

In contrast to these two ditches, Calvary seems to have struck a healthy balance of not pandering to non-believers in activities that exist for the edification of the Church (worship, preaching, prayer, etc.), while simultaneously fostering a posture of missional engagement that still manifests itself in such activities. For example, “Every week when we take the Lord’s Supper,” says Hallock, “we have two prayers up on the screen: one is for believers to pray before taking the Lord’s Supper, and the other is for non-believers to read and pray as they consider Jesus while the Christians take the Lord’s Supper. In this way we want to acknowledge their presence and create a safe place for them to consider the gospel and its implications.” Similarly, at Emmaus, before taking the Lord’s Supper, we always extend the invitation to any unbelievers who may happen to be present, “We are glad you are here, and we invite you not to take this bread and juice. It’s not magical, and if you don’t believe the gospel, sharing in this meal would amount to dead religion. Instead, we invite you to take Jesus.”

“This Is the Lord’s Church”

As our interview came to a close, I asked Mark what word of encouragement he would like to give to fellow pastors. His answer was unsurprising and beautiful: “Know that this is the Lord’s Church, and sanctification happens slowly over time—in individuals’ lives and also in a congregation’s. So enjoy the journey! Love the heck out of people, preach the Bible, stick to the ordinary means that God has used to grow his church. And don’t apologize for those means,” he added, “in fact, lean in hard to them.” Such a fundamental biblical truth as “this is the Lord’s Church” may be basic and plainly recognizable from even the most rudimentary glance at Scripture (Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:18, Hebrews 13:20, 1 Peter 2:25, Matthew 16:16), but the implications for ministry are profound. “If you simply want to see a group of people gathered, maybe pragmatism will work.” Hallock elaborates, “But if you want to see people saved, you have to lead with theological conviction; do the simple things, and do them week in and week out over time.”

In other words, if we as pastors and future pastors truly believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, and that he will build Her, then stubbornly insisted simple faithfulness to his divinely-designated ordinary means of ministry will follow. The impracticality of preaching in a “conversation culture,” or prophetically decrying sin in a “tolerant society,” or declaring objective truth in a “post-truth” age won’t make a lick of difference for the pastor who is convinced that God gives the growth. “Know that this is the Lord’s Church,” says Mark Hallock. May we hear these words well, and may we—like Mark and his fellow leaders at Calvary—be willing to sacrifice our name at the foot of the cross as we faithfully plant, water, and wait for God to give the growth.


[1] If you’re unfamiliar with the term “gentrification,” it basically refers to young affluent professionals coming into a poor urban area, and “helping” it by renovating all of its old properties. The problem is that in the process, the newly renovated businesses raise the property value of the area so high that it becomes impossible for lower-income families to stay there, so they are misplaced—i.e., “donuts” are formed.

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