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Awkward conversations fuel church plant in Phoenix

PHOENIX (BP) — When church planter Brian Bowman met Wes Sanders at Valley Life Church, the young congregation had just moved to a new location in the northern suburbs of Phoenix.

“At the time, there were only about 50 of us, so it was easy to tell he was new,” Bowman recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, really glad you are here. I’d like to get coffee with you sometime.’ Wes said, ‘I want to bring my girlfriend Tiffany next Sunday. Maybe we all can talk then.'”

Over coffee the next week, Bowman realized Wes and Tiffany were unmarried but living together.

As he shared the Gospel with them, Wes told Bowman, “I’m a Christian. I grew up in church.” When Bowman asked Tiffany if she had any questions about what she heard, she replied, “I’ve never been to church before, but from what I understand Wes thinks I’m going to hell. And you think I’m going to hell. My question is, if you think I’m going to hell and Wes thinks I’m going to hell, how come Wes and I are sleeping together?”

Bowman let an awkward silence settle in before turning to Wes and saying, “Wes, would you like to answer that question?”

Awkward conversations are the order of the day for a church planter in a place like Phoenix, said Bowman, an Oklahoma native who moved to the area with his wife Brooke in 2011 to serve with the North American Mission Board’s Send Cities initiative, which seeks to strategically move churches and individuals into 32 of the largest population centers in North America.

In the upper-middle-class context of north Phoenix, everything takes a back seat to success and pleasure. “When we talk about the idols here, it’s always Mammon and Aphrodite,” Bowman said of the biblical term for worldly wealth and the Greek goddess of pleasure. “[People] schedule and leverage everything for those two.”

A church & a gym

But while selfishness pervades the culture, few people are hostile toward Christianity, Bowman added.

“They think church is probably a good thing,” he said. “The way they see it, everybody should have a church and a gym.”

The Bowmans decided to focus on the gym, since they were starting a church. They joined a health club and started making friends. They connected with their new friends on Facebook and, after four months, posted an invitation to a barbecue at their house. The Bowmans explained they wanted to start a church. Valley Life Church launched in January 2012 in a neighborhood movie theater with about 35 people. Six months later, they began renting space on Carefree Highway.

That first Sunday, they baptized two people in a temporary baptistery on the parking lot and one young woman accepted Christ. She wanted to be baptized that day as well.

Now Valley Life Church is running about 250 in worship and has baptized a total of 68 people, with 24 so far this year. They just finished purchasing the building they meet in and are renting space to the gym the Bowmans joined when they moved to Phoenix.

A simple vision

The congregation has a simple vision: Make disciples. Plant churches.

The church’s ministry plan also is simple: Sunday worship and community groups.

“We really don’t do anything else,” Bowman said. “We have been very careful to train and deploy group leaders. The community groups do things on their own, whether it’s Habitat for Humanity, street evangelism or whatever.”

The focus on church planting begins in the new members’ class, Bowman noted.

“The church understands it’s appropriate, it’s expected and it’s something we celebrate when people leave our church to plant other churches,” he said. “We are not about being as big as we possibly can. We have scheduled in the ups and downs of sending out 40 or 50 people at a time.”

Valley Life has done that twice now. A daughter church in nearby Surprise launched in 2015 and is running 75 or more each weekend. Another group has been sent out with a planter to launch a congregation this fall in Arrowhead, another Phoenix suburb. A third church planter is interning with Valley Life and that congregation is expected to launch in about 18 months.

No one symbolizes the focus on making disciples and planting churches better than Wes and Tiffany.

Out of that awkward moment over coffee, Tiffany accepted Christ and was baptized. She and Wes stopped living together until they could marry — the first wedding Bowman conducted in the building on Carefree Highway. The couple was in the group sent out to start the Arrowhead congregation, and now they are serving as co-leaders of that congregation with the church planter.

“A church planter runs toward lostness,” Bowman said. “If you can’t deal with the awkward Wes and Tiffany conversation, you need to figure out something else. A planter’s got to be happy to get deeper into those conversations.”

Learn more about church planting and Send Phoenix efforts at www.namb.net/Phoenix.

    About the Author

  • Mark Kelly