Just 50 years ago Phoenix was barely in America’s top 30 most populous cities. Today it is the nation’s sixth-largest city, and its larger metropolitan area (which includes cities like Chandler, Glendale, Scottsdale, and Tempe) has a population of nearly 5 million.
Partly due its Sun Belt warmth and Sonoran Desert sun—more sunny days annually than any other U.S. metropolitan area—the rapid growth of Arizona’s capital has resulted in a city that may be full of older retirees but is young in its identity. People come to Phoenix from all over the place for different reasons. The city is increasingly diverse in both demographics and also politics.
Though two-thirds of Phoenix residents identify as Christian, Phoenix also ranks high (#12) on Barna’s list of America’s most unchurched cities. Pastors in Phoenix face a variety of challenges in reaching this metropolitan area with the gospel, from the idols of consumerism and comfort to the challenges of politics and issues like illegal immigration.
I asked three Phoenix-area pastors—Vermon Pierre of Roosevelt Community Church, Josh Vincent of Trinity Bible Church, and Chris Gonzalez of Missio Dei Communities—to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of gospel-centered ministry in Phoenix today.
Briefly describe your churches.
Pierre: Roosevelt Community Church was planted out of Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley. In 2005, downtown Phoenix was full of empty buildings and dirt lots. People would come in for work or sports events but then immediately leave. Downtown Phoenix was often described as a ghost town after 5 p.m. Most church plants at the time were looking for up-and-coming areas with lots of new people moving in. Downtown Phoenix in 2005 didn’t fit that criteria. But we saw the potential of the area and, more importantly, we saw the need. There were few gospel-centered churches in that core. In fact, according to some studies, it was the least-churched urban core in the country. We strongly felt that even downtrodden areas like downtown Phoenix in 2005 needed a gospel witness. And so we moved forward and began Sunday morning services in a former Christian Science church building we were fortunate enough to acquire via a generous donation. We had many challenges in the first couple of years: coming close to running out of money at one point, being unable to repair a broken AC system for two years, having to scramble to find musicians for Sunday morning. But over and over again, the Lord provided the people and resources we needed at the times we needed them.
We were able to grow and slowly establish ourselves as a church, and downtown Phoenix also took a sharp upturn. A light-rail system was installed, Arizona State established a campus downtown, and new condos and restaurants soon followed. We’d thought we’d be a church ministering in a mostly depressed area. Today, we are in a growing city center projected to be the most densely populated part of the state within the next year or two. Our church, by God’s grace, well represents the growing diversity of our area: in age, race/ethnicity, education level, and economic status. We’ve been active in the local arts community through the monthly art event in downtown Phoenix called First Fridays. Early on we also became actively engaged in promoting foster care and adoption and continue to be involved through organizations like Foster Care Initiatives and AZ127.
Vincent: Bethany Bible Church planted Trinity Bible Church (TBC) on the northern edge of Phoenix in 1968. The church grew with the population of Phoenix to close to 1,000 people. As the city continued to grow and the neighborhood began to change, young families raced to the edge of the constantly expanding borders of the city for newer, larger homes. From 1998 to 2008, our church lost 50 to 100 people per year, our staff dwindled from seven full-time ministry staff to one, we struggled to meet payroll, and, theologically, our church taught Rob Bell, Joyce Meyer, and so on. TBC called me as only their third lead pastor in 2009, because I was the youngest guy to apply (I’m kind of kidding).
A number of faithful saints hoped to see God revitalize their church to reach the next generation. We made some difficult changes in the first year, like going to one service, preaching expositionally, focusing on community groups and discipleship, and changing the reading diet of our church to more gospel-centered materials. At that time, Tim Savage and Vermon Pierre invited me to help begin a TGC chapter in Phoenix. By God’s grace, and I can’t emphasize God’s grace enough, our church has become a much healthier, sweeter, gospel-centered, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, growing, evangelistic church bearing fruit locally and globally to the glory of God.
Gonzalez: We planted Missio Dei 10 years ago with missional communities. Our hope was to have a church that didn’t organize around a building or a weekly service, but rather around smaller communities committed to living their lives together and serving the city. These communities function like house churches, each with their own area of the city they are sent to bless. Our three communities gather in Peoria, Tempe, and Mesa, and each is led by a team of local pastors/elders. I am a pastor at the Tempe congregation.
Last year the city of Tempe did a Community Needs Assessment (CNA) to help identify the vulnerable populations in our city. Where are the gaps in service? Who are the people falling through the cracks? We realized our church should be asking these questions too, so our congregation invested money, prayed, and assisted throughout the CNA process. After the results came out we re-launched our missional communities around some of the gap areas determined by the CNA, including serving homebound seniors, homeless, refugees, international students, foster care, and in the high schools.
What do you think makes ministry in the Phoenix context different from similarly sized cities in other parts of the country?
Pierre: Phoenix is spread out. It’s better than it has been—there is now a vibrant urban core that many are moving into—but it is still very much a car culture. This means the people in our local churches tend to be spread out over a wide area, which can make it hard to facilitate legit community throughout the week. Phoenix also reflects the demographic changes happening in places like California. It is right on the precipice of becoming a majority-minority population. Around 41 percent of Phoenix is Latino, for example. Another dynamic here is that it often feels like most people you meet are from somewhere else. I joke that finding a native Phoenician is like finding a unicorn. So ministering to people here can involve ministering to people from a lot of different backgrounds. Related to that, Phoenix still feels like a “new” city. It is still forming its own identity.
Vincent: Phoenix represents the epitome of the Wild Wild West. Most people have moved here from somewhere else to start a new life, run from the past, pursue education, quit shoveling snow, start a new business, and so on. Everybody’s from somewhere else. We have members in our church who remember when the population of Phoenix was 60,000, but the metropolitan area now approaches 5 million people. This has only enhanced the hyper-individualized and independent nature of our city. We delight in open-carry gun laws and the right to keep a goat in our backyard. We believe tall walls and remote-control garage doors make good neighbors.
The independence of our people, combined with the vastness of our city, leaves many feeling isolated and constantly in pursuit of the evasive experience of community that satisfies that deep desire for a richer life. As a result, the rate of church-hopping in Phoenix is above average. Phoenicians also struggle with commitment. I normally tell others that in the Southeast my hardest job was getting dead people off the membership roll, whereas my hardest job in the Southwest is getting living people on the membership roll. A second challenge flows from the reality that we regularly register as one of the least biblically literate large cities in the nation alongside places like Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. When the goal is to make disciples who make disciples and train up leaders competent to handle the Word, this means you are starting from zero with a lot of people. The upshot is you rarely need to undo false presuppositions associated with cultural Christianity, like you might need to in Dallas. Most of the people we lead to Christ are coming out of atheism, Mormonism, or Catholicism.
Phoenicians struggle with commitment. In the Southeast my hardest job was getting dead people off the membership role, whereas my hardest job in the Southwest is getting living people on the membership role.
What are the most insidious idols that prove challenging for Christian discipleship in your region?
Gonzalez: Hardly anyone dared live here before air conditioning was invented, yet today it is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. The exponential growth of Phoenix over the last 30 years has made it a massive city with shallow roots. Everyone is a transplant who has come here looking for something, often for consumeristic reasons. They move because there is something they can “get” from Phoenix like affordable housing, new homes, no snow, jobs. Subsequently, their discipleship tends to be rather consumeristic. They select congregations and community based on what it offers them. This is an unfortunate reality for much of the American church today, but the idolatrous force of consumerism seems especially strong here.
Vincent: If we agree that idols represent the perversion of some good to the point of it controlling you, and that there is something beautiful about the qualities that must be held in check lest they become idols, I would say individualism, affirmation, materialism, beauty, and community. The Phoenix metropolitan includes vastly different areas as well. For instance, Scottsdale employs the most plastic surgeons per capita in the nation. So, beauty or affirmation might be more dominant there than in Peoria, where individualism or community might prove more prevalent.
People move because there is something they can ‘get’ from Phoenix like affordable housing, new homes, no snow, jobs. Subsequently, their discipleship tends to be rather consumeristic.
Are there contexts or demographics where the soil seems fertile for gospel advancement in the Phoenix area? Where do you see the most life and fruitfulness?
Vincent: We have a great opportunity with refugee communities (who often come from areas closed to the gospel) and Latinos (who are the largest minority group around our church, at 25 percent). We also have a large number of lower-income, middle-income, and single-parent families. When I arrived nine years ago, Phoenix had accepted thousands of Bhutanese refugees from a Nepalese refugee camp. In addition, the largest university in the United States, Arizona State University, and Grand Canyon University, which has exploded numerically over the last decade, along with numerous other schools, draw people from around the world—providing incalculable opportunities to reach the nations with the gospel.
Gonzalez: Over the last 20 years, the Spirit of God has been doing something unique in Phoenix by uniting the church together. There is a unity among the churches that is, unfortunately, rare in American cities. Surge Network has been a part of that, but by no means the center, the initiator, nor the totality of this work.
What are the most pressing mercy and justice issues in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and how have you seen churches effectively address these issues?
Vincent: Issues related to immigration are especially pressing for our city and state, including issues like DACA. Children in need of adoption or foster care have presented another critical issue in our state. Most Phoenicians have friends and/or family members who are deeply affected by our nation’s immigration policies. Homelessness is another critical issue: 1 in 184 Arizonans is homeless, and 61 percent of them live in Maricopa County, where we live. Along with homelessness, our area faces a huge drug epidemic.
Churches have responded to these issues in various ways. Dennae Pierre, who currently serves as the director of Surge, and her husband, Vermon, have been major advocates of adoption and foster care, rallying other churches to encourage their members to adopt. Dennae has also helped create policies for larger churches to fund and promote adoption and foster care. Our church feeds the poor once a month and provides them with fresh groceries. Liz Beck of Sovereign Grace Church in Gilbert, Arizona, began a gospel-centered ministry aimed at people struggling with addictions. Our church began a chapter a couple of years ago, and many other churches throughout Arizona now have chapters as well. We have seen many saved out of addictions through this ministry who are now also vibrant members of local churches in our area.
Pierre: Some of the most pressing justice issues in Phoenix are: how people treat the immigrant (both legal and undocumented), how law enforcement treats minority groups, how we care for and advocate for the poor, and abortion. Churches in our area have taught on treating all people as image-bearers and have also worked together to advocate for immigration reform. (Adam Estle of the National Immigration Forum has been a key leader in that locally.) I know of some who have worked on various initiatives to build positive relationships between law enforcement and local communities. I personally have had minority policemen come and speak to different minorities in my home about what they do. Churches have also teamed up together to work against inequities in the payday loan system (this particular initiative was facilitated by the Surge Network). Other churches have partnered together with organizations like Voices for the Voiceless and ProGrace as ways to better engage the issue of abortion.
In these intensely partisan, politically charged days, how have you navigated issues like race, justice, and sexuality in your congregation?
Gonzalez: We have navigated the highly charged issues of the day in our congregation by being hyper-vigilant to disciple our people in the biblical story. We’ve found that when you place the issues within the biblical story, they become less abstract and black and white. They become living issues about real people, our neighbors on the margins of society in Phoenix, and we find our place in that story with a role to play.
Vincent: We’ve preached expositionally and addressed issues head-on as they have arisen. We have also held special equipping classes to train lay leaders in how to think through these issues and serve others. We have held conferences for local pastors and their churches through TGC Arizona, with folks like Sam Allberry, Thabiti Anyabwile, Vermon Pierre, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Russell Moore, Don Carson, and others to help us think through these issues. We also regularly recommend, give away, and sell books on these issues to help expose our people to helpful voices on these topics.
Pierre: It’s not been easy. In a church as diverse as ours, people come from many different perspectives. And it has led to some leaving our church, most especially in the wake of the 2016 election. In some cases it was because they were unsettled by some of the big differences between people in our church on political issues and racial issues (it was as if the church were too diverse for them). Others left because they were offended by the specific positions some held on certain political and racial issues. Some left because they felt the church wasn’t doing enough to confront current issues, while others left because they felt the church was doing too much, on the border of “abandoning the gospel” for the sake of social justice.
We are still learning how to navigate through this in our church. We have talked recently about how we don’t want to settle for a superficial unity, one that either papers over differences or forces everyone into a certain cultural expression. We want to work at the more difficult unity, one united around the gospel but aware that this is a unity that has to be constantly worked on and worked out. It is a unity that believes the gospel is strong enough to deal openly and directly with issues like race, justice, and sexuality. It is a unity that is strong enough and has space enough to allow people to express their differences in these areas and wrestle with one another over these differences.
We want to work at the more difficult unity . . . a unity that believes the gospel is strong enough to deal openly and directly with issues like race, justice, and sexuality.
We have hosted a number of forums and panel discussions in our church where we have discussed things like race, illegal immigration, homosexuality, and the #MeToo movement. In the wake of the election we held several dinners at the homes of the elders, where space was given for people to express how they felt and also where we prayed together. At different points over the last few years I’ve also given small talks before the sermon where I’ve addressed recent events that we felt warranted comment (like a police shooting). Several months ago I led my elder team through a discussion of the important book Divided by Faith. In the future we plan to do more forums along with creating some short “explainer” videos and podcasts on these issues.
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