Apostle Paul, Ninja Turtles inspire Converge church planter
Pastor & writer
Church planting & multiplication
Dry grasslands surround Madera Ranchos, an unincorporated community north of Fresno. This land, in almost the geographical center of California, stretches out flat.
Madera Ranchos translates from Spanish as lumber ranches. Here, in the middle of the state’s bounty and beauty, the California Lumber Company did good business in the late 1800s. Today, though, those old trees have been gone a long time.
A few decades ago, many moved away from Fresno to have some space for life. The undeveloped land and wide-open spaces to the north made development pretty easy. Now though, a new crowd is moving there, adding a contemporary layer to the land’s history. Madera Ranchos expects about 6,000 homes to be built soon, many for young families.
Two years ago, Joshua Dolarian and his wife Lauren ― the two heads of a young family with two kids under four ― led ministry at North Point Church in Fresno. In their hearts, God gradually developed an eager spirit to serve him through a new church. But deciding where and who to help stimulated deep reflection.
“Fresno is kind of like the Bible belt of California. There’s a lot of churches,” Joshua Dolarian said. “Should we plant a church where there’s already a bunch of churches?”
Their hearts soon confirmed Madera Ranchos was a community that lined up with their identity and ministry desires.
“There’s a lot of people and there’s not a lot of churches,” Dolarian said. “I just really wanted to be in a spot where there weren’t a lot of churches because I want to reach unreached people.”
What does life in the middle of California look like?
Some of the people of Madera Ranchos have a lot of fear and isolation. Many people, Dolarian said, fear leaving the house to engage in community with other people.
Like many communities, opinions are divided about COVID-19. Some people don’t believe in the COVID-19 vaccine and, on the other hand, there are people who strongly support the vaccines and pandemic restrictions. Plus, there is a group who have lived in Madera Ranchos for a long time. Some feel uncomfortable about massive numbers of new residents.
“We’re just living right now. We’re not thriving,” Dolarian said.
“A lot of the people who have come to our church don’t have a church home,” he said.
The church’s mission responds to the survival mindset and isolation forged in the pandemic’s early days. The church is focused on starting small groups, especially for children, so that people have a sense of fellowship and community.
Thrive Church has a unique emphasis
In the center of California, Thrive Church recognizes the troubles people and families have. The suburban communities around Madera Ranchos have high rates of pharmaceutical abuse, Dolarian said. That risk to the community’s vitality plus concerning mental health needs shaped the church’s ministry mission.
Lauren Dolarian is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Part of the ministry they hope to offer is creating a church that destigmatizes mental health. Living, giving and growing are the terms Dolarian offers people as a path to wholeness.
They live in wholeness when their fellowship with others is vibrant. Next, people have a chance to give by incorporating evangelism and discipleship into their way of life. Lastly, they grow in health by serving others and worshiping God.
Thrive Church had its first service September 26 at the local high school. Before that, the launch team utilized Zoom, gathered in Dolarian’s backyard and at a martial arts dojo.
“I want to see people thrive, not only with God, but with other people as well,” he said. “We want to address people’s needs ― body, mind and spirit. People are born with a body, mind and spirit and I want to address all those needs.”
Purpose in life isn’t guaranteed or easy
In his youth, Dolarian said, he was pretty lost in life and felt like his days didn’t have a purpose.
“I was just searching for something,” he said. “It was a really hard time in my life, and I felt like, if there was a God, I didn’t really like him.”
Dolarian has trained for years at the dojo where Thrive Church’s launch team met. The martial arts instructor helped Dolarian come to faith in Christ.
“My spiritual heroes were the Ninja Turtles,” he joked.
Even so, one of Dolarian’s best friends was leading a Bible study. When he went, the Lord became real.
“It was this overwhelming sense [at a Bible study] that God was real and I want to give my life to him,” he said. “I never said a prayer. I just knew in that moment that he was real.”
Moreover, the martial arts instructor from Dolarian’s dojo keeps investing in Dolarian’s faith. The two have had many gospel conversations and now the instructor attends Thrive Church. Plus, he let the church use the space for free when they needed somewhere for the core team to meet.
Ministry has been Dolarian’s only career. Following the Lord into full-time Christian service came as naturally as the internal awareness of God’s existence. Dolarian had a personal desire in his heart and he knew it was enough.
“I don’t really remember the exact timeline,” he said. “I want to tell everybody I know about I Jesus. I knew that I wanted to be a pastor within weeks or days. I just knew that I was supposed to do it.”
One man’s baptism, one woman’s family
Thrive Church uses a four-step new members class. So far, 25 people have gone through at least one phase of the process. Baptism is encouraged for new members.
During the first new members class, a 76-year-old man wanted to join the church. The man said yes when invited to follow Christ in baptism. It was a work of God; Dolarian baptized the man before Thrive Church even had its grand opening.
North Point’s pastor, Steve Williams, is also Dolarian’s father-in-law.
Even with a church planter as a father-in-law, Dolarian’s call to starting a new church wasn’t a foregone conclusion. And with 10 years in vocational church ministry, the man in his 30s wasn’t sure how God would orchestrate circumstances.
“I didn’t know how that would work out,” he said.
But the Dolarians went through Converge’s Church Planting Assessment Center and were approved. Williams continues to encourage and support Dolarian in the church planting adventure.
The passion of Paul, the hope of Christ
The lumber trees of Madera Ranchos are gone, and the economy has completely changed. But a community in transition and trouble has the same hope the apostle Paul shared in Mediterranean towns and cities.
Paul’s boldness for starting churches and love for those who don’t know Christ enflames Dolarian’s passion. He feels a spiritual closeness to Paul when reading the apostle’s letters to the churches.
“I’ve always had a desire to go where no one else has gone and reach people that no one else has reached,” Dolarian said.
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.