Church planter and the lead pastor of Redeeming Hope Church
Point Magazine // September 2020
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10a, ESV).
Born just 10 1/2 months apart and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Paul and Steve Johnson came to know Jesus late in their high school years. As new believers, they immediately focused on reaching the lost by starting youth groups, seeing more than 100 of their friends come to faith. Their vision transitioned into a God-inspired dream to plant churches.
During a time when few wanted to plant churches and most efforts failed, Paul and Steve had a vision to reach people far from Jesus and build his church. Yet their passion toward a new approach, with a visionary/pioneering mindset, was not where they trace their success where others had failed. A pastor’s advice transformed their ministry.
Paul had moved to Fond du Lac — about 70 miles south of Green Bay — to start a church and, around the same time, Converge Great Lakes asked Steve to start a core group for a church plant across the state in River Falls, just a stone’s throw from Minneapolis. The pastor’s advice, which eventually become the core of Converge’s Better Together battle cry, was: Study in the morning. Call in the afternoon.
The pastor was speaking in terms of visiting church members, but Paul and Steve followed the advice differently.
“We called each other every other day to see what worked and what didn’t and to pray together and read the Bible together,” Paul said. “I believed that because we are brothers, we would get through this.
“Steve was starting church planting, and I really thought, ‘I cannot let you fail.’ And he had that same attitude toward me. When we teamed together in that way, we shared support and encouragement so frequently that our planting went exceptionally better.”
These brothers, heroically committed to each other to be used by God, faithfully devoted themselves to advancing his kingdom through the local church. Their efforts set Converge’s church planting core DNA for more than 30 years and to this day.
The trajectory of success
In the past 30 years, Converge has been at the groundswell of an exponential growth of church planting across the United States, cementing our network as a frontrunner for church planting in the west. So what happened in the 1980s to radically transform a relatively small coalition of Swedish churches into a network on the cutting edge of missionally engaged church planting which has seen tens of thousands of people come to follow Jesus? Paul and Steve Johnson happened.
“The exponential growth of church planting over the past three decades in the U.S. is a direct result of Paul and Steve Johnson,” Converge president Scott Ridout said. “The generosity of Paul and Steve that was there from the beginning allowed our church planting movement to learn from them.”
A partnership becomes a movement
Converge’s success can be traced to the late 80s and the Johnsons’ development of The Seven Systems of Church Planting. A key process, it emphasizes a radical dependence on the Holy Spirit and a recommitment of churches en masse to one another and the lost.
As the church plants of Paul and Steve began to grow, the district asked Paul to plant yet another church. He agreed on one condition: that the district commit to starting even more churches. Steve was immediately included in the initiative.
"I was about to graduate from seminary when my brother challenged me with the vision of moving 20 miles north of Fond du Lac to Oshkosh,” Steve said. “Our goal was to start 10 churches in 10 years."
After five years, they had started 17 churches. Five years after that, they had started more than 50. None failed.
During this decade of ministry, Paul and Steve worked closely together to find younger church planters. They trained them for ministry with coaching and those ever-frequent phone calls. One core value was that every church plant would be done better, and every planter would give the best of themselves to the next one.
They relentlessly asked themselves, “What can we do better?” And a team that coached and encouraged new church planters began to take shape. During this formative decade, Gary Rohrmayer, Tom Nebel, Dave Olsen and many others who have become fixtures in the Converge movement were recruited by Paul and Steve to plant churches and then pay it forward to other planters.
“We would look at another pastor and care so much about him and the people God wanted to reach through him — not trying to shape him, but rather letting God shape him,” Steve said. “Our role was to be an encouragement and a resource to get planters to reach their highest potential in Jesus.”
Paul described their attitude during the movement’s formative time as being “heroically committed and sold out to God and to one another.” Many times Paul, Steve and their leadership team would drive hours together to lend support to newer planters having difficulty with their core team.
A movement forms a system
As this movement formed, there was a need to determine what would make a successful church planter. Eventually, Converge would build what is now one of the longest-running, most influential and highly-trusted church planting assessment systems in the country. It is fair to say the first assessment looked nothing like today’s Converge Church Planting Assessment Center.
Joining Converge 32 years ago was the best ministry decision of our lives.
Paul and Steve’s first assessment was held in a Perkins restaurant in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Paul, Steve and Tom Nebel interviewed Rohrmayer now Converge MidAmerica president and executive minister, and Rohrmayer’s wife, Mary. After a long conversation, “We looked at each other and asked, right in front of Gary, if we thought they could do it,” Paul said. Just like that, Converge’s first church planting assessment was in the books.
“I remember the conversation being affirming and exciting,” Gary Rohrmayer said. “When Paul asked, ‘Well, guys, do you think they can do it?’ I had a pit in my stomach. But when they all said yes, we felt we had found a home and partners in our church planting journey.
“Joining Converge 32 years ago,” Rohrmayer said, “was the best ministry decision of our lives.”
Paul and Steve began flying across the country to meet with Converge pastors and potential planters. They were coaching, encouraging, praying and catalyzing a movement that reverberated from the Midwest across the United States.
“God multiplied that vision to plant 10 churches 100 times with Converge,” Steve said. “It was a season of no egos and a deep desire to prepare better for the next church plant than any previous church plants.
“It’s amazing what God can do with whatever he is offered. We didn’t have a plan. We weren’t highly skilled. But we offered who we were, and one person after another committed to this vision [of planting] and sacrificed greatly in order to build what Converge has become.”
As experience was shared across a dynamic team of brothers and sisters relentlessly committed to one another, seven key factors began to emerge because of 10 years of asking, “What can we do better?” These seven factors are what Converge now calls the Seven Systems of Converge Church Planting, and have permeated the entire organization:
A spiritually dynamic movement
“Working together with each Converge district inspired us to develop these seven systems as we would live them out together with church planters across the country,” Paul said.
In 1989, at a meeting of all Converge district executive ministers in Houston, the group adopted the philosophy God formed in Paul and Steve, unifying individual districts under one system of church planting and one methodology to assess all future church planters.
“God brought unity through great leaders in Converge that allowed my brother and me, along with many others, to infect Converge with the same vision it has today,” Steve said.
It’s amazing what God can do with whatever he is offered. We didn’t have a plan. We weren’t highly skilled. But we offered who we were, and one person after another committed to this vision [of planting] and sacrificed greatly in order to build what Converge has become.
A system has a heartbeat
Catalyzing on a national level was deeply rooted in a commitment to intimacy with Jesus. Paul said that they were at their best “when we could emphasize piety and keeping in step with the Spirit. We would go into a city and ask, ‘What is the Spirit doing?’ and then seek to do those things.”
And so, at the core of the seven systems is the first and primary metric: a spiritually dynamic movement. And in alignment with spiritual piety and intimacy with Jesus, is the heartbeat of the seven systems that flowed out of Paul and Steve's lives: healthy marriages and deep character.
Healthy Marriage: The story of Paul and Steve would be woefully incomplete if we did not include their wives, Darla and Lynne. It was Darla who first discipled Paul immediately before and after he came to faith.
“Darla challenged me to read the Bible,” Paul said. “I had become agnostic, but started to read the Bible. It began to come together, and things began to make sense. It was Darla who spurred me on to know and follow Jesus.”
Together they worked tirelessly throughout the years to co-labor and see hundreds follow Jesus.
Lynne was equally involved at every stage of Steve's ministry as a co-laborer and co-partner. She provided a razor-sharp intellect to go along with a fiercely discerning sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, all coupled with a gentle love that enhanced and multiplied Steve's ministry.
Both brothers attribute their long-lasting church planting impact to their wives’ faithfulness in following Jesus and in working together.
Deep Character: Along with a commitment to marital health was character deeply formed around the person and work of Jesus. Paul’s and Steve’s personal time with the Lord, shared together as they talked over the phone in those early years, laid the basis for all their future ministry and church planting.
“Our goal was to be spiritually alive with God so all ministry flows out of an overflow of our relationship with God,” Paul said.
These factors coalesce in the key spiritual dynamic of dependence on God, the heartbeat of Converge's movement. This is why spouses and spiritual character are so emphasized — from recruitment, to assessment, to coaching across the entire church planting movement. Without this, we only have a system. But with this, we have a movement rooted in intimacy with Christ, intimacy with our spouses and formed character through which lasting ministry is birthed.
The snowball continuing
“We were like a packed snowball at the top of a hill and simply asked God to give us a shove,” Steve said about the brothers’ role in sparking this church planting movement.
Converge’s church planting strategy was founded on confidence in the power of the gospel and that Jesus is head of his Church. Paul and Steve were young church planters in their early 20s, knowing only that the gospel can and will change lives and that Jesus will build his church. That was all that mattered.
But they caution us.
“There is a danger in putting our confidence in strategies and systems above putting our confidence in Jesus and the gospel,” Paul said.
All of the systems must be centered and formed around a deep dependence on Christ that advances the vision of his church.
If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you want to do for God?
Unity around these systems “is never just for unity's sake,” Ridout said. “It is always about being on mission so that the world may know Jesus.”
Converge needs people who do not just want to see a church start. It needs people committed to seeing a gospel movement in which people follow Jesus and then lead other people to follow Jesus. If we want to continue to see a viral church planting movement, it will not be by technique, but an immense amount of sacrifice and commitment to Jesus and one another.
The seven systems of church planting are a way to channel this commitment to spiritual dynamics and a heart of sacrificial service. The systems work because of the power of God at work in people committed to serving one another and the cause of Christ.
As we steward this snowball movement through assessment centers, recruitment, deployment of church planters and careful coaching around spiritual dynamics, we are left with a question Steve says we should ask ourselves as we consider planting 312 churches that will impact more than 62,000 lives over the next five years:
“If you knew you couldn't fail, what would you want to do for God?”