Shaun Nepstad on Plateaued to 10x Church Growth


Shaun_Nepstad_podcastWelcome to this week’s episode of the unSeminary podcast. We’re so happy to have you with us today as we talk with Shaun Nepstad from Fellowship Church in Antioch, California.

Shaun is a fifth generation pastor on both sides of his family. He always wanted to become a pastor but wasn’t sure at first if he was doing it because it was the “family business,” or if it was what God wanted for him. God quickly confirmed with Shaun that it was his life’s calling, and when Shaun was 24 he felt led to plant a church. So in 2003 Fellowship Church started with just 22 people. At times Fellowship Church grew quickly and at other times plateaued, but Shaun felt like God was telling him He had more in store. Today Shaun shares with us some of the roadblocks and learnings Fellowship Church experienced over the last 13 years.

  • Breaking through with prayer. // In the early days, Shaun was doing everything on his own. He describes it as being like a one man band. It looks impressive at first—one guy playing several different instruments at once—but the more you watch, the more pitiful and overwhelming it becomes. “No one taught me how to build teams,” Shaun says. All the work quickly became too overwhelming for one person to cover on his own. At the same time growth at Fellowship Church had plateaued. Shaun didn’t know what else to do to move the church forward, so he and the church began to pray. They prayed for the services, the leadership, the community. And Shaun prayed for God to send him someone that could push the church forward if he wasn’t the person to do it. From there, God started to lead them to different ideas for strategy, community and resources to help build the church.
  • People need to be invested. // Shaun tells us the story of how he bought Krispy Kreme stock when he was younger. While he had the stock, he would check every day to see if it had grown. He was really invested in how well the stock was doing. Shaun eventually sold the stock and made a little money, but when he no longer owned the stock he wasn’t checking on how well it was doing. Why? Because he was no longer invested. Shaun says visits Krispy Kreme and enjoys their donuts, but he doesn’t care how well the company does. “I feel like a lot of people attend church that way,” Shaun says. “They enjoy it while they’re there, their kids get a coloring page, but if they’re not invested in the church by serving somewhere, they don’t care if your church grows or not.” This realization led Fellowship Church to go on a mission to discover people’s passions and help them take their next steps.
  • Find people’s passions. // Fellowship Church realized they needed a process by which people could come and get involved so they started a Growth Track. Every month they run Growth Track no matter how many people are in attendance. These classes help people identify their passions and get them connected with groups and teams so they can both find a place to belong and invest in something bigger than themselves. It was at this point Shaun notes that Fellowship Church began to see real growth because people were invested: “From that moment of us discovering people’s passions and setting them loose in their gifts: 2010 our church was 300 people…and now, last Sunday we have 3600 people at church.”

You can learn more about Fellowship Church at their website thefellowshipchurch.com and you can email them at [email protected].

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Episode Highlights

00:32 // Rich introduces Shaun Nepstad and welcomes him to the show.

00:44 // Shaun tells us his background and the background of The Fellowship Church.

03:54 // Shaun talks about how God led him to grow the church.

09:36 // Shaun talks about the importance of investing in people to help with growth.

15:39 // Shaun highlights the need for pastors to release ministry to support growth.

17:51 // Shaun introduces us to the Growth Track.

20:40 // Shaun offers his contact information.

Episode Transcript

Rich – Hey everybody, welcome to the podcast, my name’s Rich Birch. So happy that you’re with us today, I’m honored that you would take some time out in your busy week, we know you’ve got a lot going on as a church leader, we’re so happy that you would take some time.

Today we’ve got Shaun Nepstad with us from Fellowship Church in Antioch, California. Shaun, welcome to the show.

Shaun – Thanks so much for having me.

Rich – Yeah, thank you so much for being here. I’m excited to hear more of the Fellowship Church story. The Church started in 2003, so what does that make you, 12, 13 years old? With 22 people and it’s grown to over 21 hundred, which is incredible. So I’d love to hear, kind of give us that story. What got you into planting this church?

Shaun – Sure, I’m fifth generation pastor on both sides of my family.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – I’ve always wanted to do this since I was a kid. About 16 or 17 years old I really was asking God, “Am I doing this?” because this was the family business.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – And God clarified some things that said, “No, you have a legacy, but there’s also a unique calling on your life.”

So we served at some churches as worship pastor and a worship guy and youth and all of that, and finally my wife and I felt like we were supposed to come and start a church in this region. I was 24 years old, we had been married for just a few years and we had four girls under the age of two.

Rich – Wow.

Shaun – It’s because we’re such good planters, that’s what that’s all about.

Rich – That’s incredible.

Shaun – A two-year-old, a one-year-old and the twins were zero and we started in an elementary cafetorium.

Rich – Nice.

Shaun – Which it’s not even really a word, it’s a cafeteria with a stage, and rolled into that thing, smelling like Tater Tots and that box of used, lost and found clothes that every cafetorium has.

We started there with 22 people, actually in 2002, October 20th 2002 and grew very quickly to about 300 people or so.

Rich – Wow.

Shaun – And about three months in we actually were in the hospital with ulcerated colitis, it was a big scare, losing blood.

Rich – Wow.

Shaun – Yeah, it was not pretty man. It was a big scare because I’d been having pains since I was 13 years old, cramps in the stomach, it’s nerves, it’s a stress level. I managed all of that.

Long story short, God healed me, I haven’t had a pain in 13 years, thank God for that. But we moved, our city had this law where you had to move every year.

Rich – Really?

Shaun – Musical churches man.

Rich – Oh my goodness.

Shaun – We moved 9 times in 8 years.

Rich – Wow. Basically they wouldn’t let you use the property for longer than a year because they’re trying to rotate people through right? They want lots of different groups and they don’t want anybody to dominate it.

Shaun – We got it, I understand, but it was like, man we thought about changing our name to Church On The Move.

Rich – Yeah, wow.

Shaun – So we rotated around schools and we grew very quickly to about 300 and then just plateaued, which for some people that’s a lot of people, for other people that’s hardly any. It was just where we were. But the problem was, inside of me I felt like God had so much more for us to do and so many more people for us to reach. But what do you do when the dream that’s inside of you does not match the reality that’s in front of you?

Rich – Absolutely yeah. What did you do at that moment? Were you one service, multiple service? What did that look like? What were the weekends like at that point in your church?

Shaun – Well at that point it was a one-man band. We had two services, I was leading worship, I was taking the offering, I was doing the announcements, I was preaching and then we did it all over again.

Rich – Yeah.

Shaun – It was dumb. Like if you’ve ever seen a one-man band in your local, downtown or whatever, and he’s playing the guitar, he’s got the harmonica and the drums going.

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – It’s impressive at first glance, but the closer you look the more pitiful it is.

Rich – Yes, right.

Shaun – You’d never have that guy lead worship on a Sunday.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – That’s what I was doing.

Rich – Okay.

Shaun – Nobody in my family and I’m fifth generation pastor like I said, but nobody taught me how to build teams.

Rich – Oh interesting.

Shaun – So I was just trying to do it all myself and as a church planter you kind of do for a little, but here’s what I found. You can’t grow a church without releasing ministry.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – So we went on a mission man. We started a prayer meeting, we said, “How did the church change?” We started a weekly prayer gathering.

Rich – Very cool.

Shaun – I wish I could say it was super organized and anointed, man there was 8 of us, I was on the keyboard and we were fumbling through with the presence of God. But I just was banking on the fact that Jeremiah 33:3 says, God says, “If you call to me, I’ll answer you and I will show you great and marvelous things.”

So we just got together and started praying for the services and praying for the community and leaders and pretty soon God began to break our heart and then he gave us strategy, we came across the ARC, Association of Related Churches and then we came across some relationships that we started to build and the church began to grow.

And here’s what I’ve found, I’ve found, in my personal opinion, pastors are in one of three categories. Number one, they are in survival mode. Survival mode is like psalm 69, psalm 73, tough stuff.

Rich – Yes, waters up to my neck, yes.

Shaun – Lord, I’m about to drown.

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – That’s where we were. Nobody can focus on vision when you’re in survival mode.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – You’re just trying to survive.

Rich – Right, just get through next weekend.

Shaun – Yeah, and then there a sustaining mode, which is not much better, it’s just like you’re just trying to keep all of the plates spinning and make sure that everybody’s happy. But again, you don’t have much time to focus on vision.

And then number three is the surge mode or the growth mode, where you begin to see traction.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that we’ve been going for 13 years. In 2006, three years in, we just plateaued at 300 people, we could not break that.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – We were bouncing and it was so frustrating. I began to pray this prayer that a lot of pastors pray. “Lord, who should I bring in to take this church to where it needs to go?”

Rich – Wow, that’s humbling as a church planter. That’s very humbling, three years in, to be at that point.

Shaun – Yeah, because a lot of church planters are chomping at the bit at the beginning right? We’re all like, “Let me at them, let me at them.”

Rich – Right.

Shaun – Then you start and we’re like, “Oh God, what do I do?”

Rich – Yeah.

Shaun – So we began to go on a mission to… I was set, I was so tired of being a one-man band but, “Lord, who do I need to bring in take the church to where it needs to go?” because apparently I’d hit my lid and I actually began to accept that and be okay with that. Like, maybe I’ll just go ahead and plant church around?

Rich – Go and do another one somewhere else, 300, yeah.

Shaun – Roll them to 300 and pass them over. But it was that prayer meeting that saved our life man. Then beginning to see how to build people and there’s a phrase that we say a lot around here, it’s this: It’s not about getting a job done, it’s about getting the people done.

Rich – Very good.

Shaun – It’s not about getting the job done, it’s about getting the people done.

Rich – So true.

Shaun – We went on a mission to say, my goal is not to just get the chairs set up straight, I want to pastor the people that are here and find their gifts and set them loose from them.

Here’s what I found. The most connected people in any church are those who are serving and on any small groups.

Rich – Absolutely.

Shaun – We’d all argue that’s the truth, but the question in there lies, how do I get more people serving in small groups?

So we went on a mission with our Growth Track, adopted from Church of the Highlands, which a lot of pastors are doing now, which I think is great. We started doing that and just figuring out, “Okay, we need a process by which people can come and get involved.”

Because I remember, very early on, like a couple of years into the church, there was a couple of families that would say, “Shaun, I love the church. I love the preaching, I love the worship, but to me the church is a little cliquish.” I was like, “Ah, your mamma… don’t talk about the church like that.”

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – The Lord told me, I felt the Lord say, “Shaun, do you remember that time?” I said, “Yes,” he said, “It’s not so much that the church was cliquish, but if I come to any church and there’s not a clear pathway by which I know as a first time guest how to get involved, I can leave saying, “I love the preaching, I love the worship, but to me they were cliquish,” even though you’re not, we just haven’t done a good job of letting them know what the next step is.”

Rich – Absolutely. I mean, you want to make it obvious and simple, right? “What is this next step?” It needs to be super obvious. People have got a lot going on in their heads, it needs to be clear. What did you do, how did you kind of make that simple and obvious, make those next steps clear for people, so they weren’t wondering, “What is my next step after I’m here on a Sunday?”

Shaun – Sure. I don’t know if you know this or not, but when I was 21 years old I bought Krispy Kreme stock.

Rich – Nice.

Shaun – Nobody told me to buy Krispy Kreme stock, I just bought it. I was like, “If they ever go public, I’m buying stock.”

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – They’re amazing, I want to put my mouth under the glaze.

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – So I bought stock, threw a few thousand dollars at it. It went up, split one time, split a second time, split a third time, I mean I made some money, sold it. But while I had the stock, I was on my laptop every morning, “Is it growing? Is it growing? Is it growing?” I’m praying for Krispy Kreme stock. I’m telling friends about Krispy Kreme stock. I wanted to everybody to know about Krispy Kreme.

Rich – Yeah.

Shaun – I’d be in staff meetings, pretending I’m paying attention to the staff meetings, but really I’m checking the stock of Krispy Kreme.

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – I’d have a large portfolio, I had one stock in my portfolio and I’ll tell you this, once I sold it, I never checked the stock, because I don’t care if it grows or not.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – To be honest, my wife and I and daughter, who are now teenagers, we’ll go to Krispy Kreme occasionally, we’ll enjoy it while we there. We’ll get a dozen donuts, we’ll hang out. But at the end of the day I couldn’t care less whether it grows or not.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – I feel like there’s a lot of people that attend churches that way. They’ll come and they’ll enjoy the worship, their kids will get a coloring page, and it’s not that they hate it while they’re there, they like it while they’re there, but they’re just not invested.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – If they’re not invested in the church, by serving somewhere, they don’t care if your church grows or not. They’ll come once a month, but they’re not plugged in, they’re not serving.

So what we did was we went on a mission to find people’s passions, because Ephesians 2:10 is very clear, “Where God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for you to do.” That means that there was never a time where God was like, “What are we going to do with him? Hey David come quick, we’ve got to find something for her to do.”

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – You weren’t expected [Inaudible 00:11:36].

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – So if you want to find out what you’re supposed to be doing, just look at you, like your gifts, your talents will reveal your calling and destiny.

So this Growth Track, which by the way, we do every month. The first Sunday of the month is step one. Second Sunday of the month, step two. It doesn’t matter if it’s Easter, Father’s Day, any of that stuff. And I don’t care how many people are in it. We started it at first and it was like 20 people, then 15, then 25 and then 5 and 2. A couple of times one person showed up and nobody showed and our staff was like, “Oh man, what a waste of time,” and I said, “No, don’t you ever say that.”

Rich – Oh right, exactly.

Shaun – I put it on the calendar and when’s the next time I can spend an hour with this person? If I can spend an hour with one person, I could sell our church. I can get [Inaudible 00:12:30].

So we started doing that and every week man, we started to build our Dream Team, what we call our Dream Team. We don’t use volunteers, we call them Dream Teamers. We’ll fine you two months tithe if you use the word volunteer, because it’s drudgery man, people serving just because there is a need.

I’ll tell you what, from that moment of us discovering people’s passions and setting them loose in their gifts, 2010 our church was 300 people, 2011 we were 500 people. 2012 it grew to 800. 2013, 1100. The next year 1600 and last year 2100 and now, last Sunday we have 3600 people at church.

Rich – That’s amazing.

Shaun – In our brand new building, 4300 square feet, a thousand seats.

So we grew to 2000 people with only three fulltime staff.

Rich – Wow, that’s amazing.

Shaun – And it’s because we have one and two people serving at our church. One guy was talking at a round table and one guy raises his hands like, “Man, I can’t grow our church because we only have 200 people and I can’t afford to hire staff.” And they’re like, “I’m going to let Shaun answer this question.”

Rich – “We’ll let him take that one.”

Shaun – My thought really is this, maybe it’s not the best way to do it, but don’t let that be an excuse not to grow. Find people’s passions, sit down with them, discover their gifts and then not just because they tell you they have the gifts. It’s not like the American Idol thing or who can’t sing for anything and then gets mad at Simon Cowell for telling them the truth. It’s like, “Well my friends say I can sing.” All of us at home are like, “Your friends don’t love you.”

Rich – Yeah exactly, they’re not being clear, yeah.

Shaun – But your gifts make room for you and your gifts will be recognized. That’s where pastoring comes and I love the name of your movement, unSeminary, it’s everything that you wish they would have taught you, because nobody teaches you how to build teams.

Rich – No absolutely, it’s very true.

Shaun – And that’s our primary role; Ephesians 4, it’s not ministry.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – I’m not even a minister really, I’m just a facilitator—pastor, preacher, prophet, evangelist—our role is to prepare God’s people for the works of ministry.

Rich – So good.

Shaun – If that’s true we need a very clear system by which we can let people know their very next step.

Rich – Yeah, I don’t want people to miss that. I know there’s church planters and there’s folks that are leading out in their church and they sense, somewhere to where you were in 2009, 2010, “You know, I think the Lord’s calling us to do something more.”

Get inside the head there of a leader, because I think there are a lot of leaders, they’re somewhere between don’t want to relinquish ministry and then have a fear about doing that. There’s this internal like, “I just want to hold onto it all.” Speak to that leader who’s thinking that way today.

Shaun – That’s a great, great statement, because you are where you are because you’re a great leader and the reason we don’t want to release the reigns is because we know we can probably do it better than most people in the church. The only problem is, that’s not what you’re called to do.

We have another saying around here and it’s this: Assume the best in people and let them prove you wrong.

Rich – That’s good.

Shaun – We walk around with like the gift of suspicion and then nobody’s good enough, nobody’s qualified enough.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – Listen, there was a time when you weren’t good enough.

Rich – Yeah, very true.

Shaun – Many of us are still not good enough or qualified enough, but somebody took a risk on us and I would say, there are going to be some people that burn you, but it’s worth the risk.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – I mean, we have over a thousand people on our Dream Team, we just shot up by another thousand with this new building, but before that, two weeks ago, we were one person and two were serving at the church. Do you know what that does to the person? They come alive.

Rich – Absolutely.

Shaun – I’m not trying to build a church of attenders, I’m trying to build a church of people that are serving their passions, they’re in small groups, they’re in relationship. That to me represents success, not because we have a crowd on a Sunday. So you’ve got to be willing to release ministry, you cannot grow a church without releasing it because they don’t take ownership and the guy that’s holding the front door, he’s going to invite all of his friends to church because he wants this place to grow.

Rich – Yes very true. Well that’s a good word Shaun, I really appreciate that. There are a lot of leaders who are, they may stumble with this.

The other piece I want to pull out, that I don’t want people to miss is, your commitment to staying on top of the Growth Track. I think there are people that try similar things, they try but they say like, “We’re going to do it once every six months,” or they’re like, “We do that every fall.” How much do you think, kind of staying on top of it and keeping on top of that treadmill has helped you integrate people, see people take steps in their relationship with Jesus?

Shaun – That’s a great question. Again, because we hate preaching to empty seat, we start feeling like if a Growth Track has 10 people it’s a failure. When’s the next time you’re going to be able to sit down with these 10 people and plug them in?

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – Like Jesus had 12 people, was that a failure? None of us would say that’s a failure.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – I think personally, it needs to be on the schedule and happen every month, because some of the churches we talk to was like, “Hey, when your membership class?” “How about every six months.” “So that means, if I come to your church and I miss that, it’s a year before I could join the church?”

Rich – That’s so true.

Shaun – Or some people would say, “Well we just kind of look around and whenever we think we have enough people we’re like, yeah we should do a class.”

Rich – Yeah not good.

Shaun – Good luck with me trying to stay for that.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – Here’s my thought. Think about the last commercial building you walked into. Imagine if there was no front door, so you just walked up, there was windows everywhere. You’re looking through like, “How do we get in here?” There was a back door but they didn’t tell you about it. Good luck with trying to have people stay there.

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – Most people would leave, a few might wonder around and find the back door but very, very few.

Rich – Yes.

Shaun – We all walk through the front door because it’s clearly marked, there’s a sign, there’s people greeting you when you walk in. I feel like that’s how a lot of the churches are.

Rich – Right.

Shaun – A lot of churches don’t have a front door, it’s like, “We’ve got a back door somewhere around here, and if you stick around for six months to a year, we might let you in, but the chances of that happening are so slim.

Rich – Yeah absolutely.

Shaun – We want the fish to be clean before we catch them and it’s just not how it happens.

Rich – Right absolutely.

Shaun – Ministry is messy man, so you’ve got to have a way that the door is clearly marked. So what we say at the end of every sermon, every service, every week is, “Hey let’s clap our hands for those who have made a decision to follow Christ today. Take your connection card out, check the box that corresponds with the decision you made; give my life to Christ and renew my life to Christ. Here’s four steps you need to take, number one, join a church. Your next opportunity is the first Sunday of next month. Go through the Growth Track, discover your gifts and what makes you unique and then we’re going to put you on a team so that you can come alive because you can’t fulfil purpose along. Get on our Dream Team and then get on a small group, because nobody should do life alone. Get water baptized.”

We tell them this every week, so they’re not guessing. No matter where they are, everybody knows the next step.

Rich – Absolutely, very cool. Well Shaun this has been a great interview today, I’ve really enjoyed jumping in, chatting with you a little bit. Is there anything else you want to say, and then if people want to get in touch with your or Fellowship Church, how can they do that?

Shaun – Yeah, you can just email. Our website is thefellowshipchurch.com and you can email us at [email protected] and just make a notation from this interview. But anything we can do to help man, my heart just really is for churches that feel stuck, because we were there and with all the temptation to want to quit, I just want to let you know that your best days are still ahead of you. It may not look like it, but this is where faith comes in. So man, if there’s anything we can do to help, let us know.

Rich – Very cool. Shaun thanks so much for being on the show today.

Shaun – Thanks.


  1. Where did Shaun get his theological training? Did he actually graduate from a seminary? Which Christian denomination is he & the church a part of, What is the accountability structure or is this whole thing revolve around Shaun?

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.