Churches, like individuals, celebrate birthday milestones, and Prodigal Church in Fresno, Calif., commemorated its first birthday Sept. 24, 2018, with Sunday morning services and an evening birthday party with a combined attendance of more than 700 people.
For Prodigal, reflecting on the past and looking ahead means continuing to be a place where everyone is welcome, seeking to be a blessing to the world and pointing people to Jesus.
“Prodigal has been a place where people (who) have been hurt and burned within other religious settings have come to be healed and refreshed and re-launched into ministry anew,” lead pastor John Richardson says. “That’s been great.”
Prodigal meets in the recently-renovated, 300-seat Bullard High School Theatre.
“It’s been a great fit for us,” Richardson says. “In fact, we’d probably choose this theatre over many of the church buildings that are in our own city.”
The church added a second service last September and weekly attendance has experienced continued growth. Fourteen people were baptized in Prodigal’s first year. Today, Prodigal averages about 340 people each Sunday.
Richardson sensed a call to church planting while serving as campus pastor at Mountain View Community Church Sunnyside in Fresno. Conversations between Richardson, MVCC lead pastor Fred Leonard and Pacific District Conference (PDC) minister Gary Wall led to Richardson and 150 others from Sunnyside starting a church. Prodigal officially launched in September 2017.
Richardson acknowledges the support received from the PDC and a Multiply task force whose members include Wall, Multiply’s Chris Douglas and Mark Thompson and two Southern California pastors, including Forrest Jenan, lead pastor of Neighborhood Church in Visalia. The goal, Richardson says, is for Prodigal to move toward independence in early 2019.
Inviting others in
Creating a welcoming space begins with Prodigal’s core values, including belonging before believing.
“You belong as is, whether you believe or don’t believe, and we really think that that is transformative,” Richardson says. “We see that in the life of Jesus. In being accused of being a sinner and a friend of sinners because he spent time with them, we’ve seen those sinners become saints and make a great difference for the kingdom of God.”
To help meet the need for community, Prodigal offers eight-week small group sessions twice a year. Nearly 50 percent of the church was involved in 10 fall small groups with 10-20 people in each.
“It’s been encouraging to see new leaders step up to lead these groups as well as new and non-Christians attend them as they explore what following Jesus is all about,” Richardson says.
Also unique about Prodigal, Richardson says, is its core value of diversity, not only of socioeconomic status or race but also of opinion, seeking to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
Prodigal has established practices to which Richardson attributes the church’s growth, including placing a high priority on Sunday morning worship services, excellence in social media and outreach.
Richardson views the Sunday morning service as the church’s primary avenue for influence. The church is intentional about guest experience, children’s ministry, music and use of media.
“They say that within the first 60 seconds of someone visiting a church, they’ve already decided whether they’re going to come back or not, so we’re intentional about our directional signage, our greeters (and) our bulletins,” Richardson says. “As soon as you walk in the foyer, we’re intentional about that space. We want to be creative, and we want to be excellent at every atmosphere.”
Prodigal recently hired additional staff to accommodate its growing children’s ministry.
“From start to finish, from their check-in to the way they’re greeted to the way we respond to individual needs of each family, (children’s pastor Brittney Howard) has done an amazing job,” Richardson says. “It’s a big reason why we’re thriving and having young families, new families, come every week.”
Also adding to Sunday worship is music and media. Prodigal’s band practices twice a week, and the church uses media creatively through videos, slides and more.
A second priority of Prodigal’s is use of church website and social media. The church provides its teachings on YouTube.
“I think that the excellence in which we do social media and videos and things like that is also a way to engaging culture,” Richardson says. “We’re a video, screen culture, period. So, we want to be where people are.”
Blessing the world
A third priority in the life of the church is outreach events.
“(The) church is an organization, and maybe the only organization that lives and exists for the benefit of its nonmembers,” Richardson says. “It’s not a country club for the well, but a hospital for the sick. We’ve been intentional about doing things that give ourselves away in sacrificial love to people who aren’t a part of our church.”
Prodigal helped build an accredited Christian school, Thanthwe Christian Mission Primary School in Chiwaya Village in the southeastern African country of Malawi.
The school opened last September in an area where children had previously walked as many as 16 kilometers—nearly 10 miles—to school. More than 400 children attend. Prodigal sent an MB Mission team to Malawi in summer 2018.
Additional outreach includes buying Christmas gifts for children; supporting Breaking the Chains, a ministry that seeks to free women from sex trafficking; and partnering with a Fellowship of Christian Athletes club to host a Trunk or Treat event attended by 4,000 people.
“Prodigal Church doesn’t exist so that we get our spiritual jollies on a Sunday morning, but rather so that we can be a blessing to the world,” Richardson says. “We can be a fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant that ‘I will bless you, and you will be a blessing.’”
Challenging aspects in planting a church include being “mobile” without a central building to host events during the week, Richardson says. Setup and teardown take time and energy. But there are also joys, including providing a life-giving place where people can reconnect with and fall in love with Jesus.
Looking ahead, Richardson would like to see continued connection with Fresno Pacific University and Fresno State University. He says he would like to see more women’s and men’s ministries, an awareness of God’s heart for the poor and suffering and a greater connection with Africa.
“I’ve been in full-time vocational ministry for 16 years,” Richardson says. “Every single one of those days God has used to instill in me and in others a vision for what we now call Prodigal Church. I’m so thankful to Jesus for his faithfulness throughout this journey and his faithfulness to Prodigal. I’m so looking forward to a greater future of helping people love God and others in a greater way—we truly believe the best is yet to come.”
Janae Rempel is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Rempel is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Rempel graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She attends Hillsboro MB Church.