Megachurch outgrows Mt View home

Abundant Life Christian Fellowship seeks new space for growing 6,000-member congregation

Sunday morning is the busiest time of the week on Leghorn Avenue, when Christians from far and wide pour into every crevice of every parking lot around the big-box stores, auto shops and industrial buildings to attend Abundant Life Christian Fellowship church.

The church moved to Mountain View about four years ago, after a giving its current home, a former plastic wares factory behind Costco, a $12 million transformation that included balcony seating and huge TV monitors behind the pulpit. Today, Abundant Life holds three services every weekend, with each one attended by over a thousand people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, mostly African-American.

Few are late for the gospel music that kicks off every service. Young children are shuttled into kids' rooms, protected by a unique security system involving photo identification and bar codes (a measure to prevent kidnapping). After a professional-quality video presentation of the week's church news, pastor Paul Sheppard steps up to the pulpit.

On May 24, amid words of worship and encouragement, Sheppard told his congregation a bit of surprising news: The church has outgrown even its current location, and will soon need a larger home.

"In order to reach thousands more we're going to have to build one more time," Sheppard said. "In a few weeks the elders will assemble a church committee to search the land" for a new location.

Sheppard said some have asked him, why not "call it quits in terms of trying to reach more people? But that doesn't resonate with me at all. If there are still unsaved people in Northern California, I should not assume God is through."

Charismatic pastor

Originally a pastor in Philadelphia, Sheppard, 51, says that 20 years ago he received a call from God to come to the Bay Area and form a new church, and he answered that call. Setting up shop in Menlo Park with only 34 worshipers, Abundant Life today claims more than 6,000 members in its Mountain View location. The church is in the process of adding a fourth weekend service, which appears to be the maximum that the church can handle.

Abundant Life's recipe for growth involves a certain tolerance for diversity, both ethnic and political. For example, the church does not take political positions on issues such as gay marriage or abortion, because they can be "incredibly divisive," explained assistant pastor Tilden Fang.

Sheppard's message of tolerance and diversity is reinforced in his radio show, "Enduring Truths," which is broadcast over 500 radio stations. He recently wrote a book about improving relationships between diverse churchgoers called "Build a Bridge and Get Over it!" (His popularity is so great that he is requested for speaking engagements at Christian conferences all over the country during the week -- which is why, his assistant said, he would be too busy for an interview with the Voice.)

Sheppard's sermons are humorous and sometimes theatrical. On May 24 he talked about how being a Christian was sometimes a struggle requiring that you get up and fight when beaten down. He used boxing as a metaphor, and at one point stretched out on the stage like a knocked-out boxer for dramatic effect, riffing on what must go through a boxer's mind when he's been knocked down on cable TV.

His sermons are memorable, and quotable: "There is nothing worse to me than a weak-kneed, milquetoast man," he said, adding that "I don't let anything get me down and out."

When offering advice for finding a compatible marriage partner, Sheppard said, "If you want to live a thoroughbred life, you can't mate with a mule."

"Don't send me an e-mail," he added. "I meant exactly what I said."

Sheppard's practical lessons draw people from all sorts of backgrounds, which is why, Fang said, "It is not uncommon to find someone with a Ph.D. worshiping next to someone who just got their GED, or someone who just came out of prison," who heard Sheppard on the radio.

The next move

Sheppard says he plans to retire at 65, so he has 14 years to go. He says that "there is no success without succession," which means he is hoping someone will emerge to be the church's next leader. Much is at stake: The church has over 60 different ministries, such as drug and alcohol support groups and marriage counseling programs.

Fang said it was a possibility the church would remain in Mountain View as a "satellite" of a new, larger building leased or built somewhere else. Where exactly the church would set up its new headquarters is uncertain, but Fang noted that land is expensive in Silicon Valley.

Wherever it goes, people are sure to travel to get there. As it is now, churchgoers are drawn from around the larger Bay Area, with some coming from as far as Tracy and Vacaville. Many are from San Francisco and Oakland, and most are from Mountain View, Sunnyvale and East Palo Alto, where the church runs several outreach programs.

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3 people like this
Posted by Seer
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jun 19, 2009 at 4:05 pm

It's incredible to think that people would drive all the way from Vacaville or Tracy to go to church, when the truth is that everyone has their own direct line to God right inside themselves. No need to go sit in a building and listen to what someone else thinks God is saying when all you have to do is listen. Aren't we all worthy of God talking to us?

3 people like this
Posted by agreed
a resident of another community
on Jun 19, 2009 at 4:19 pm

I agree with you Seer.

I hope the church moves out to Gilroy or Morgan Hill. The traffic after church lets out is horrible. They did not plan properly and all the neighbors are suffering.

3 people like this
Posted by tommygee
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jun 19, 2009 at 4:49 pm

I attended this church once, with the intent to go back every week. However the memory of the entire church body in attendance singing at the service made me cover my ears. Yes the singing was very beautiful, but it was deafening for sure.
Hey there are people who attend church in South San Jose, and they live in Mountain View. So it really isn't strange that people living way out in Vacaville---20 miles from Sacramento---or even Tracy---come here to Mtn. View to attend church services.
And yes, one time I had the misfortune of driving in the area when a service let out. The number of cars was astonishing, and the backup on San Antonio Rd. was awful.

3 people like this
Posted by karen McAdams
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 19, 2009 at 6:20 pm

I think Mars would be a good location for their new church,

4 people like this
Posted by Lee
a resident of Martens-Carmelita
on Jun 19, 2009 at 6:21 pm

And I suppose your Gods are telling you it's right to criticize how other people practice their religion. You all need to go to Church.

3 people like this
Posted by Bill L
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jun 19, 2009 at 8:06 pm

The lack of planning for parking and traffic may or may not be the fault of this specific church, but Christian activists pushed a bill through the legislature a few years ago exempting them from local zoning and planning ordinances. This was to allow them to use cheaper buildings in industrial areas that were not zoned for large public gatherings. They got a law passed giving them the special right to ignore zoning rules, including those for parking and traffic planning, and safety rules limiting large public gatherings in areas zoned industrial. These rules exist to protect the public by isolating areas where hazardous materials are used, so that if a spill or accident occurs it will endanger the fewest possible number of people.

One can only imagine what the reaction of the churchgoers will be if there is a toxic spill next to one of the numerous churches that have been built in industrial areas, and parishioners are sickened, or worse. Let us hope no such disaster ever occurs, despite the inherent risk. But if one does, I can predict with certainty the religious community's response will NOT be "How foolish of us ever to have ignored reasonable safety regulations in order to save a few pennies".

3 people like this
Posted by Cathy R
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jun 20, 2009 at 6:52 am

This church is filling a great need, reaching out to hurting people. The pastor has a great sense of humor as well.

They also have a radio ministry on AM 1100 at 2:30 p.m. weekdays. Very practical advice for daily living.

3 people like this
Posted by Matt
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jun 20, 2009 at 11:44 am

If people are coming into Mountain View and using our city resources and causing congestion, this church should be paying more taxes, not less.

[Portion removed due to disrespectful comment]

3 people like this
Posted by USA
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 20, 2009 at 2:18 pm

USA is a registered user.

Why is it that those who decry hate speech are usually the ones to write such nasty comments? Matt & others, if you don't like it just don't go. Better yet, go. You may find that your prejudices and anger are unfounded.

I have not been to their services, but it looks like they must be doing something right.

For the largely African-American members, I am sure that the positive messages of hope, self-worth, and faith are welcome departure from the messages of violence, drugs, and despair that all too often pervade African-American communities.

3 people like this
Posted by Ellen
a resident of North Whisman
on Jun 21, 2009 at 4:36 pm

I'm disappointed with the sarcastic and intolerant tone of some of the previous comments. I usually find online discussions for the Mountain View Voice to be more balanced and open minded (especially compared to other local papers).

From what I hear from people I know that go to this church, it provides a lot of great resources to people in our community and surrounding areas. (Support groups, counseling, etc.) I agree that their popularity shows that they must be doing something right.

Plus, with all the traffic going in and out, I'm sure it also attracts a lot of business for our community because people need to eat after church!

3 people like this
Posted by Read 2Timothy4v1-6
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jun 25, 2009 at 9:34 am

If this church purposely avoids topics like gay marriage and abortion, then they are wrong. How can can someone call himself a man of God and say nothing about the innocent being massacred by the millions every day?

3 people like this
Posted by ALCF Member
a resident of North Whisman
on Jun 25, 2009 at 9:40 am

Yes, Ellen, the church does bring a lot of business to Mountain View. The new shopping center at Charleston has many shoppers coming straight from church or about to go to church on Saturdays and Sundays. The church staff also try to let the local restaurants know when there will be a large event, so that the establishments can staff accordingly.

As for the negative comments, that will happen. Many people, christians and others, have benefitted from services provided by the church. And yes, God desires and tries to talk with each of us everyday. The purpose of attending a church on a regular basis (any healthy, well-balanced church, not just ALCF) is to receive instruction in reading and understanding the Bible and growing into deeper relationship with God, so that you can hear and recognize His voice better, not because you can't talk to Him during the rest of the week.

I recognize the traffic and parking problem caused by the services over the weekend, and I appreciate the patience of those inconvenienced by it. Please understand that the church is providing a wonderful and life-changing service to the people who attend every weekend.

3 people like this
Posted by Truth
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jun 25, 2009 at 9:53 am

"popularity shows that they must be doing something right." No offense but that's not what Jesus said. Sadly, that's what many churches go by. They measure success by numbers.

"Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way." Luke 6:26

3 people like this
Posted by Jody
a resident of another community
on Jun 25, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Simply amazing what foolishness comes out of us when we do not allow the discernment of the Holy Spirit to help us with our judgment. When individuals try to sound like a deep thinker and an intellectual, foolishness is always the result. Either the author is trying to discredit Paul Sheppard, or he is just trying to impress us with his incredible insight. The foolish will buy into his point of view and the others will continue to ask for God's leading in just finding a good church to attend. Pastor Sheppard is such a blessing and i thank God for how he has encouraged me to continue to look to the Lord and His Word in all matters that we all face. Paul Sheppard is no prophet that the members blindly follow, his ministry is not based on "theatrics" or entertaining people, or sugar coating the gospel. He just has a common sense approach who just happens to have a wonderful personality and many appreciate how he boldly is unapologetic about the authority of the Word of God.

3 people like this
Posted by Carlos
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jun 25, 2009 at 6:23 pm

A good church to attend would be one where the pastor is not afraid of speaking the Truth in regards to what the bible is clear on. The Bible is very clear about murder, and the definition of marriage.

3 people like this
Posted by weee
a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2009 at 8:22 am

Karen McAdams... you're awesome. I totally agree =)

3 people like this
Posted by JC
a resident of Whisman Station
on Jun 27, 2009 at 6:26 pm

2Tim & Carlos,

I could be wrong, as I haven't been to church in a while, but Jesus was also pretty clear about how He felt about Pharisees. I hope you enjoy bathing in the sweet honey of your self-righteousness. It's people like you that made me quit going to church because I couldn't stand people using the word of God so destructively. When did Christians decide that judgment should triumph over grace?

3 people like this
Posted by Tom
a resident of another community
on Jun 27, 2009 at 11:30 pm

"the church does not take political positions on issues such as gay marriage or abortion, because they can be "incredibly divisive," explained assistant pastor Tilden Fang."

Key phrase "THE CHURCH DOES NOT TAKE POLITICAL POSITIONS", not to be confused with "BIBLICAL POSITIONS" I have listened to their radio ministry when the these issues were discussed. They very much so side with the bible.

3 people like this
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2009 at 3:58 am

I hope Mountain View can find a way for this church to remain, as i grew up here, we had all sorts of places to Worship, it is needed in peoples lives.

3 people like this
Posted by carlos to JC
a resident of Castro City
on Jul 27, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Pastor Shepherd should bring clarity to what this article leads the readers to believe. There are so many seeker sensitive churches out there that its nauseating. Too many churches are afraid to offend people by preaching the full counsel of God.
If you go there, I'd ask him if he was aware of the article. I would think he is. If I didn't have a church this article would be a red flag for me. Just my honest opinion.
And by the way, a political position and biblical one can't really be separated. What you read in the Bible and what you know is right should influence you at the ballot box. Supporting a man who supports abortion and gay marriage is wrong.

3 people like this
Posted by Obama 4 Ever
a resident of The Crossings
on Aug 2, 2009 at 12:44 am

I like this church. They don't preach at people, talk down to people or try to lecture people. Who wants to attend a church that lectures the people?

Ive been going for years. I know several gay friends who attend every week. They arent turned off from this church at all and they know that pastor is a wonderful and inspiring man.

Bible thumping, right wing fanatics probably wont like this church because they want to attend a church where people think that there is such a thing as absolute truth. They think that the bible and the words of Jesus needs to be followed verbatim. Well, at least one church in the Silicon Valley isnt so judgmental.

Thank you Pastor Paul for not judging people or lecturing us about some person;s or some holy book's definition of sin. If he talked down to people because of sexual orientation or abortion, half of the congregation would leave.

3 people like this
Posted by Bobby
a resident of Whisman Station
on Aug 27, 2009 at 10:28 am

"Thank you Pastor Paul for not judging people or lecturing us about some person;s or some holy book's definition of sin. If he talked down to people because of sexual orientation or abortion, half of the congregation would leave."

Then the church would be better off without that half. God has no interest in collecting a large mass of lukewarm's

3 people like this
Posted by Jose A. matos
a resident of another community
on Dec 23, 2009 at 10:17 pm

As we read this comments that are being posted by fellow believers in Christ Jesus.We must not forget that satan and his disciples are at it at work they don't give up.Let us not be fooled and fall in satans traps we are here to support a brother and a family in Jesus.satan is defeated and 6,000 ++++plus souls are saved today thanking our Lord first and Pastor Paul Shephard."Aleluya al que VIVE para siempre Cristo Jesus"

3 people like this
Posted by gino c
a resident of another community
on Dec 26, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Im sure that the crowds that Jesus drew were also objectional to some folks.

3 people like this
Posted by ridwanzero
a resident of Jackson Park
on Dec 31, 2009 at 3:55 am

By that I mean latching on to this or that latest, most innovative idea that some self styled money making guru has put out in the hope it’ll go viral and make them a lot of money off the backs of all the headless chickens who will follow them blindly down a blind alley. Its a shame but a truism nonetheless that people will follow where someone they see as an expert leads. Even if they lead them to certain disaster, which is what most of the gurus tend to do to their flocks.
The trick is to recognize a shadow when you see it!

3 people like this
Posted by Anau Hafoka
a resident of another community
on Jan 6, 2010 at 11:03 pm

There are some hateful comments posted here. Why the animosity? This church houses ministries that serve the homeless, those recovering, those who seek work, and so much more. How can you say hateful things about it? You make comments about loud music. When you go to a concert, do you complain of loud music? It's your preference, but for those making hateful comments, that is sad.

3 people like this
Posted by ALCF Member 5 yrs
a resident of another community
on Jan 18, 2010 at 11:07 am

Reading some of these comments - I'm not sure which church some of you are referring to.

Paul Sheppard is a man, a messenger of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the truth of the Bible. That is ALL.

The churh is not predominately African-American any more.

ALCF is fundamentalist - abortion is murder and homosexual behavior is an abomination, heterosexual sex outside marrige is forbidden, marriage is a covenant relationship between a man and a woman - period.

What ALCF and its elders does preach is LOVE.
You can not reach people with the truth about the Love of God if you are making them feel guilty about anything that can't be undone. You reach people by teaching acceptance, forgiveness and repentance.

As for the music - it varies and one would know that if they attended more than once. From praise and worship, to traditional gospel, to contemporary Christian and classical.

The impact on the business community would be significant if the thousands of people who attend the services there were to stop their patronage.

Traffic - Mt View police used to help direct traffic after services on Sunday. I don't know what happened to that. I attend the 7PM Saturday service so I don't have to deal with it. It is what it is. For those residents in the neighborhood, thank you for your tolerance. One suggestion - if you're going south on 101, hop on at Old Middlefield. Northbound - I feel your pain.

May you find youself the recipient of God's favor in 2010.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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