Published February 10, 2011
ALONG THE PHOENIX–TUCSON CORRIDOR — It’s been eight years since Southern Baptists converged on this desert southwest city for an annual meeting and Crossover outreach. At that time the nation was enjoying explosive growth and a real estate boom that promised to turn everyone’s home into their personal ATM machine.
Today greater Phoenix is struggling with a housing collapse second only to Las Vegas. Both cities were on the front end of the boom and bust, with home prices rising faster and falling further than any other place in the nation.
In a very short two-year period – between the height of the boom in 2006 and when the bubble burst in 2008 – Phoenix housing prices crashed 41 percent, according to an ABC World News broadcast on Jan. 12, 2008.
While the entire state was effected, nowhere does the rubble of that crash litter the landscape more commonly than along the stretch from Phoenix to Tucson, also known as the I-10 Corridor. This urban expanse, which extends 120 miles and has slightly more than 5.2 million residents, is the environment into which Southern Baptists will enter this summer with the Good News.
There could be no better timing, pastors say, for the annual convention meeting to be held in the Southwest than the present. But for it to be a spiritual success, volunteers – such as those from Georgia – are needed to bring their energy, enthusiasm and ministry gifts to share with those in need.
This year the Southern Baptist Convention will convene in Phoenix for its annual meeting June 12-15, preceded by a week of Crossover events that culminate on Saturday, June 11.
Boom and bust
Jerry Martin, associational missionary for Valley Rim Baptist Association, has witnessed the boom and bust during his 16 years in what is known as the Valley of the Sun. The Phoenix resident is also familiar with the resistance to the Gospel that has only grown harder.
Martin doesn’t take long to spell out three detriments to Baptist work in the area.
“First, we have to aggressively prayer walk every area before we minister because the spiritual oppression is so strong,” he says on a driving tour of the city. “Mormons control much of what happens behind the scenes and it can be very difficult to get a building permit.”
He tells of one instance where a pastor finally decided to challenge the local planning commission that had issued seven building permits to Mormon congregations while still processing his paperwork. When the commissioners saw his determination they issued the documents in short order, “but that shows you what we’re up against out here,” he explains.
To further understand how deeply entrenched the group is, the fourth Mormon Temple ever built is located in his suburban community of Mesa.
Another big detriment is the historic Catholic culture that many hide behind to avoid any discussion of spiritual matters. Simply saying “I’m Catholic” is used to shut the door to further conversation, “but if you don’t realize that and are not sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit you’ll miss a lot of witnessing opportunities,” he explains.
Lack of manpower
The third detriment is the lack of manpower.
“We are the largest evangelical denomination in Arizona but are still less than one-and-a-half-percent of the population. We’re not just outnumbered by the Mormons and Catholics but by a host of other faiths, largely pagan.
“A whole lot of people just don’t believe in anything. Rather than having a cohesive faith system they have built an eclectic mix of superstitions, psychoanalysis and New Age values,” he says. As he speaks, local psychic Fred Rawlins gives free readings to callers to a local radio station as part of a St. Valentine’s Day promotion.
The lack of manpower is especially evident in reaching multifamily housing and gated communities, including expansive manufactured housing neighborhoods.
“Louis Spears, our NAMB missionary who works in multifamily ministry, tells us that 46 percent of residents in our association – one of three in greater Phoenix – live in multifamily housing communities that are closed to door-to-door witnessing. More disturbing, only three percent of them ever leave that setting to attend church.
The Georgia Connection
Louis Heard, former youth pastor at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Tucson.
“That’s why we need to take the church to them. We have 32 manufactured housing communities and other apartments and condominiums whose property managers have invited us in to start churches. The reality, however, is that we simply don’t have the personnel to respond.”
As he ends the conversation, he adds one more fact.
“We are currently in 10 communities with what we call tactical churches but we know of about 60 we could be in if we had the manpower. We simply have more invitations to minister in those settings than we have trained volunteers to serve.”
Martin, who serves as Crossover coordinator for the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, asks Georgia Baptists to pray for their Arizona brothers and sisters to be the salt and light in every area of their lives. He follows with a request for Georgians to volunteer for June 8-11 and then, after the annual meeting June 12-15, stay around for the follow-up.
“Henry Blackaby once told me that the number one sin of the Christian community is ‘unguarded victory.’ By that he meant a lack of follow-up to disciple the new believers and to allow them to grow in the faith,” he says.
Across the sprawling metroplex, Central Association Director of Missions Bruce Ford shares another dimension of life in the Valley. He relates a conversation with his 14-year-old daughter that illustrates the lack of biblical knowledge among most of her classmates – and, indirectly, of their parents.
“We were talking about a school play called ‘The Children of Eden,’ which is loosely based on the Book of Genesis; Act 1 shares the story of Adam and Eve while Act II deals with Noah and the flood. It’s not meant to be serious doctrine but lighthearted entertainment along the vein of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’
“While we talked she mentioned that most of her classmates had no idea who Adam and Eve were and didn’t know anything about Noah. They thought the storyline was just made up for the play and was the funniest thing they had ever heard. They had absolutely no concept that it was based on the Bible, or even what the Bible is.”
A stranger to Arizona might find that perplexing. Ford takes a minute to relate the cultural history of the area into which Southern Baptist messengers will enter in just four short months.
He explains that two generations ago in the great western migration, adults pulled up roots from other “more churched” parts of the country and relocated to Arizona and surrounding states. One of the things they left behind was any connection to Christianity. There were few churches in the Far Country and they didn’t see any reason to begin new ones, so they raised their children without going to church. In turn, their grandchildren never saw their parents show any interest in church or discuss spiritual matters.
Now 60 or more years later, there is an entire generation entering adulthood with no biblical understanding. Ford sums up today’s predicament in two brief, non-judgmental yet matter-of-fact sentences.
“Phoenix is very unchurched, very unchristian, and very pagan. We are about as close as you can get to living in a pre-Christian era.”
He then pauses briefly, gathers his thoughts, and adds, “Pagan would really not be an unfair description.”
About 50 miles south, the once-exploding bedroom community of Casa Grande is struggling to cope with the collapse of the once robust economy.
Pinal County Cowboy Church, founded just four years ago by Morris Pruit, is working to meet people where they are in life. He readily admits it’s not easy.
At 72, Pruit has had plenty of experience planting churches as a pastor in the United States and as an International Mission Board missionary in Togo, West Africa. But Arizona is not like pastoring in Texas or other states where he’s served.
“It’s tough, really tough to reach people here. From Phoenix south to Tucson, it’s like an evil spirit hovering over the area. I won’t mince words and say it’s easy because it’s not. You sometimes have to ask yourself how long do you plan to pound the rock before it breaks open? It takes a long time to reach people in this culture.
But, he says, the work is rewarding.
The Georgia Connection
Gwen Austin, former longtime member of First Baptist Church of Jonesboro, is serving as Woman’s Missionary Union director for Arizona. She is a member of Green Valley Baptist Church near Tucson.
“Many come to our church out of curiosity. If they come and have a good experience they will tell their friends and they, in turn, will visit. That’s the best way I’ve ever found to grow a church – through word of mouth. If someone has a positive worship experience they will tell their friends.”
Pruit’s son Tim, who serves as director of missions for Gila Valley Baptist Association, says volunteers are needed to help bring Christ to residents of Casa Grande. The association is planning a variety of outreach opportunities such as renting the community swimming pool and offering free admission to area residents.
A little further south, about 60 miles down the road, ministers in Tucson have the same request of Georgia Baptists – “come walk with us.”
Gary Marquez, pastor of North Swan Baptist Church in Tucson and evangelism chair for Catalina Baptist Association, paints as clear a picture as anyone for the need for Georgians to partner with them this June.
“If you’re looking for a mission field that is on the front line of battle, this is where you need to be. If you want to be on the cutting edge of reaching people for Christ, we need you to be out here with us.
“Some of us have been in the battle for a long time and we’re worn out, torn down and beat up; if we all don’t stand up and take advantage of this opportunity, a year from now we’re just going to be a year older with nothing to show for it.
“I’ve been here for 23 years and was here 20 years ago during the wonderful Here’s Hope emphasis. This is by far the biggest outreach and the greatest opportunity we’ve ever seen. We need your help.”
Former Georgia Baptist Louis Heard, who previously served as youth pastor at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Atlanta, is considering hosting an antique car show to draw attention. He says his church, Emmanuel Baptist Church, is located on the main thoroughfare in Tucson and would have good visibility for the event.
“We could use volunteers to help us distribute water bottles, staff a refreshments booth, generally befriend visitors, and give free oil changes for single mothers and widows. We would love to have Georgians partner with us for the day.”
At First Southern Baptist Church in Tucson, former Georgia Baptist evangelism staff member Randy Mullinax is planning on his congregation having a substantial impact on the University of Arizona campus, a mere two blocks from the church.
How far is it?
Delta and AirTran compete on the non-stop route with current fares of $375 plus baggage fees. The 1,587-mile flight – as the crow flies – takes 4 hours and 18 minutes.
Randy Mullinax, former evangelism staff member at the Georgia Baptist Convention who now serves as pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Tucson, says his drive to Tucson – two hours south of Phoenix – took about 21 hours. Google Maps says the 1,806 miles to Phoenix via I-40 or 1,846 miles via I-20 requires one day and six hours. Mullinax said he and his 26-year-old daughter spent the night “somewhere in Texas,” driving 12 hours one day and nine the next, stopping only for gas and fast food.
Born and raised in Quitman, Mullinax served as a pastor in the Midwest before stints as a bivocational pastor of a small church in Valdosta and interim pastor at Dixie Baptist Church. He says serving in the West is a completely different cultural experience from what many Georgia Baptists are used to experiencing.
“Arizona was largely settled by Catholic missionaries coming up from Mexico and by Mormon families commissioned by Brigham Young in Utah and sent south to colonize the state. If Southern Baptists and all evangelical groups are only 2 percent or less of the state’s population, that would mean there are 980,000 unsaved people in the Tucson metro area.”
Mullinax and his staff are beefing up their outreach on the University of Arizona campus, with its 38,000-member student body just two blocks away. Of that number, 18,000 students reside on campus.
“If anything, the spiritual seeking among Tucson residents would be along the line of New Age thought. Mainline denominations are certainly not growing.”
That reality is affirmed by Rob Gaschler, who serves as pastor to college, young adults, and discipleship making at First Tucson.
“There is a pretty cold reception to a Gospel presentation out here, especially in the college setting. Some of the students I have given a Bible to have so little understanding of Christianity that they refer to it as “that book you gave me.’
“They have no sense of their lostness or of a spiritual dimension to life.”
Mullinax says the best way to reach Tucson is not through “cold calls” or door-to-door witnessing but by discipling believers to reach their friends. One-on-one relationships prove most effective. That’s why the association is planning a variety of community events to develop relationships on which to base follow-up visits.
Those events include water-themed block parties, Scripture distribution, prayer walking, and water bottle distribution because of the dry desert air.
“We are counting on Georgia Baptists coming to help us. Those in our church need to realize there are fellow believers in the Bible Belt who want to partner with us in outreach. It will be beneficial to us as well as to the volunteers, who will receive a blessing.
Arizona Woman’s Missionary Union Director and former Georgia Baptist Gwen Austin seconds that observation. Austin, formerly a longtime member of First Baptist Church of Jonesboro, said “Regardless of your gift in ministry, God can use you in Arizona this summer. Please come walk alongside us as we reach this area for Christ.”
Greater Phoenix CVB
21 years of Crossover
Southern Baptists have been reaching out to the lost in each annual meeting’s location for the past 21 summers. Here’s a look at how the evangelistic effort has fared over the past two decades.
Source: North American Mission Board, based on published news accounts.
Saguaro (sah-wah-ro) cacti (plural of cactus) grow to amazing heights. They are found only in the Sonoran Desert, primarily in California, southern Arizona, and Mexico.
Take this quiz to see how much you know about this plant which has come to symbolize the Old West.
1. The arms of a saguaro usually begin to grow after a plant has reached which height and age?
A. 5 feet and 25 years old
B. 10 feet and 50 years old
C. 15 feet and 75 years old
2. The average saguaro has how many arms and grows to what height?
A. 3 arms and 15 feet.
B. 4 arms and 20 feet.
C. 5 arms and 30 feet
3. The biggest saguaros are about how old and have how many arms?
A. 100 years old and 40 arms.
B. 200 years old and 50 arms.
C. 300 years old and 60 arms.
4. A desert dweller, the average mature saguaro will hold how much water and has a tap root of what depth?
A. One-half ton and a 10-foot tap root.
B. Three-quarter ton and a 5-foot tap root.
C. One ton and a three-foot tap root.
Answers: 1C; 2A; 3B; 4C.
Locals don’t call Phoenix the Valley of the Sun for nothing. It averages 89 days a year with temperatures more than 100 degrees. While the average June temperature is 103 (July is 105), the hottest on record was 122 recorded in 1990. But as former Georgian Randy Mullinax of First Southern Baptist Church of Tucson explains about the Arizona heat, “It’s a dry heat. When it’s 105-110 out here it feels closer to 90 in Georgia because of the humidity.”
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