In late 2012, during their eighth year of leading the church they planted in Mississippi, Pastor John Richardson and his wife J.D. heard God’s call to step down from leading their church. “God wasn’t saying, ‘You’re done,’ but He was saying, ‘It’s time for a new leader here,” John explains. God did not specify where or when they should move on, but He was clearly saying, “Move from where you are.”
At first, the Richardsons were confused. A third-generation pastor, John felt comfortable in his role, but he also was working up to 80 hours per week bivocationally to support his family.
So, in March 2013, after a time of prayer and fasting, John and his wife prepared to welcome a new leader to their Mississippi home church. They stayed on in support for another 18 months and helped to choose, train, and position the new leadership to move capably into the church’s new season. (The church continues to do well.)
In the following weeks, as John tells it, a new-believer neighbor asked John and J.D. to assist them in studying the Bible, and the Richardsons naturally agreed. At the same time John’s father, an active senior pastor, offered John a position on his church staff as his successor. John considered the offer with intent to accept.
While preparing to study the Bible with his neighbor, however, John read Genesis 12:1 and heard his Heavenly Father make it personal: “The Lord said, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’” John could not deny nor ignore God’s direction. He felt compelled to not only refuse his father’s offer but also disclose to his father that he and his wife would soon move out of state.
“I’d never experienced this kind of clarity and direction before in ministry,” John asserts. “I couldn’t escape the idea that He was moving us at this very specific time for a very specific reason.”
“They All Came to Us.”
In August 2015, John and J.D. moved to Wellington, Colorado, a bedroom community just 10 miles outside Fort Collins. There, God began to unfold His plan, but He didn’t do it quickly.
“We prayed for a whole year about starting a church in Wellington,” John remembers. “We didn’t tell anyone about our vision to plant. But while we were praying, people starting coming to us. Two families approached me and asked if we might disciple them. And it just continued from there.”
John and J.D. finally decided they would host a simple cookout in their backyard, inviting folks from all over to join them. The plan: To casually discuss the possibility of starting a church in Wellington and observe the interest-level. When the day of the cookout came, about 90 people showed up (“There wasn’t room in our backyard to serve them all!” John laughs as he tells it), everyone excited and supportive of a new church in their community.
So began Trailhead Church in January 2017. At first, Trailhead hosted groups in homes while the leaders established their vision and values. More than half of those attending were young adults, 20- and 30-somethings.
John says this about how their growth process began: “My wife and I have different gifts when it comes to evangelism. To use baseball terminology, she’s the ‘starting pitcher.’ She connects easily with people. She’ll get in the game with anyone. But I’m the ‘closer.’ I’m the one who can come in and seal the deal.”
Word-of-mouth invitations and what is called “lifestyle hospitality” have been very important to growth at Trailhead from the beginning. John and J.D. continue to teach the Trailhead congregation to “invite people into your family before you invite them into your faith.” In fact, Trailhead trains greeters to give their own contact information to visitors first before asking for theirs. “We’ll get the visitor’s information just a bit later. It’s more important to authentically welcome them into our world. If we love them well, they will listen.”
And people certainly are listening. Trailhead has nearly doubled its attendance and seen a remarkable number of baptisms since they opened in January 2017. Just over 200 people attend three services each weekend, and 28 were baptized last year alone — and more than half of those were young adults.
Postcards Open Doors
When the Richardsons first arrived in Wellington, there were a total of five churches within the city limits. “Wellington’s population was 6,500 in 2015, but in four years it has doubled, and it is expected to double again in the next five years,” John explains. “We weren’t looking to be a megachurch but rather to start a family of strong neighborhood churches helping to shape the culture in this town that’s growing on its own.”
John confirms that postcard mailings inviting the community to church produce the best results in getting visitors in the Trailhead door and gives his congregation the opportunity they need to implement their lifestyle evangelism.
“We started participating in the New Mover program with a cap of 50 postcards sent per month to those who move into the city,” he explains. “Lately, because of the crazy growth in Wellington, we’ve been hitting that cap every single month.”
Trailhead also uses special mailings for services at Easter and Christmas, and sometimes they will send postcards announcing changes to their services. Often the postcard sparks a resident’s curiosity, which brings them to the church website, social media pages and, as God leads, to a service.
Not all visitors come right away, though. Some hang onto the card and show up at Trailhead weeks or even months later. John sometimes hears stories about how a visitor received an attractive invite in the mail, admired the way it looked, and stuck it on their refrigerator. Later, something happens in his/her life or they just feel the time is right, so they show up to a service saying something similar to, “I got to this card from your church two months ago, and now I’m here.”
John has plenty of stories to tell about the city residents who are slowly finding their way to Trailhead Church. He talks of one young family he describes as “outspoken atheists” only a short time ago. The husband was more candid about their beliefs (or lack thereof) than the wife.
Very soon, God brought a “world-shaking” moment to that husband: His dying father called him to his bedside, his body wracked with cancer. “One regret I have,” the father admitted to his son, “is that I don’t know if there is a God.”
As a result, “the couple started jumping into everything” that might lead to spiritual answers including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-Day Saints, but the wife couldn’t quiet the voice in her soul saying something wasn’t right.
While the couple was still attending the Mormon Church, they also began visiting at Trailhead and began asking questions about baptism, beliefs, and discipleship. They finally became regular attenders and active participants at Trailhead Church.
“We just baptized both of them recently,” John grins. “The family is an active part of the body now.”
In another story, a young man in his late 20s attended Trailhead and soon after asked to meet with John. The man grew up with an “angry atheist” mother, John explains. “He was tired of the anger and always being mad at the world.” The man told John he didn’t plan on becoming a believer but thought “the Bible might make a good moral compass.” After six months, the man was baptized at Trailhead and is now eagerly growing in Christ.
In yet another story, John speaks of an attending couple in their mid-20s with young kids. “The wife had never attended church growing up. Her father died when she was young, and her mother struggled with a difficult medical diagnosis.”
On impulse, this wife decided she should “connect with a church,” so she did some research about churches in the area and began watching Trailhead’s online services. Finally, she began to attend in person. “She recently began asking about baptism — she’s never even seen a baptism!” says John. “She heard someone speak of it in a service and had a sense that she should do it.” She did do it, in fact, and the family continues to grow spiritually and connect with the church.
Trying to Stay Out of God’s Way
John and Trailhead Church are so far from competing with other ministers and churches that, on the church website, he credits “the community of churches who have given of their time and resources to help Trailhead Church get started,” then lists the names and links to the websites of every other church in Wellington.
Even more amazing is how enthused John remains about the future of Trailhead, despite personal battles he fights every day. “I just finished six months of chemotherapy,” John says in an aside manner. “I was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2018.” As seems to be typical, John quickly gives credit to the many friends and family who support him and his wife during the tough times. “No matter what’s going on with me, God has not slowed down His work at Trailhead at all.” He affirms it with a laugh: “AT. ALL.”
The leadership at Trailhead engage other methods of outreach and marketing, including social media advertising, special services at Christmas and Easter, family events where they send an invitation to “every single home in Wellington.”
The church visibly participates in city-hosted events and parades, celebrating right alongside their Wellington neighbors every chance they get. They even have engaged a church planter-in-residence focused on strategies to start a family of Trailhead churches in Wellington, including one for the Spanish-speaking community.
Even so, Trailhead doesn’t plan to stop the direct mail and New Mover campaigns anytime soon. “We build the New Mover program and the direct mailings into our budget every year,” John says with resolution.
Speaking to John Richardson about Trailhead Church is like interviewing an exhilarated man walking off an amusement park ride. The wonder and awe of watching God move sparkles in his every word. He regards himself as a passenger on an adventure God is leading. Going forward, John and J.D. Richardson are ready for whatever God’s wild ride brings them. “This is how it’s been the whole time at Trailhead Church. It’s just fun,” says John. “We’re not doing anything special. We’re just trying to stay out of God’s way.”