SUN VALLEY, Nevada (BP) – First Baptist Church of Sun Valley needs help.
In everything but its Cooperative Program giving, that is. The church has a long-standing commitment to allocating 10 percent of undesignated giving to missions through the Cooperative Program, the way Southern Baptists work together to advance God’s kingdom across the United States and throughout the world.
“Supporting the Cooperative Program was a prerequisite of mine before becoming the pastor, I told the church,” Larry Whitney told Baptist Press. He’s been pastor of First Baptist Sun Valley since 2001. It’s his first pastorate. “Of course, God had the final word and apparently it was His will.
“Being a small church made up mostly of seniors, I felt we needed a way to reach people for Christ. The Cooperative Program does what we can’t as a small church.
“I believe give what you can, but give sacrificially and from the heart. God gives us everything we’ve got. We are a small church, but we are a giving church. We need to help as much as we can, even though we’re small.”
First Baptist Sun Valley, started in 1958, is in an unincorporated but “census-designated” area three miles north of Reno and 15 miles east of the California state line. The area is known as one of the largest trailer (mobile home) parks in the nation.
In 1938, the federal government began giving five acres north of Reno to people who would establish a permanent residence, and mobile homes qualified, said the Bureau of Land Management. In time, those 5-acre tracts were sold and subdivided, multiplying the number of what then were called “trailer houses.”
The Sun Valley community still today has a reputation in Reno for illegal drugs, violence and poverty, but census statistics say only about 12 percent of homes are low-income. However, the transient, privacy-seeking community has been a hard place to grow a church, Whitney said.
He would like long-term volunteers familiar with community ministry to add to what’s already being done in Sun Valley. The church’s ministry is limited by the age and health of the congregation.
“I’ve baptized over 80 people since I’ve been here,” Whitney said. “Many have moved on.”
The Sun Valley area remains 95 percent unchurched, the pastor said.
“If you are missions-oriented, come to Sun Valley,” Whitney said. “You don’t need a passport and we could use your help. We need volunteers able to spread the Gospel and build relationships with the people here.”
While the youngest person attending services is three months old, most are in their 60s and 70s. Whitney, 82, is the oldest man in the church, though three women in the church are in their 90s and one is nearing 100.
At least four members have cancer: the pastor, his wife who leads the music and plays the organ, a longtime “faithful bondservant” deacon and a member baptized just two years ago.
“I could not get along without my wife,” Whitney said, “as our 64 years of marriage proves. I believe God used those of us at Sun Valley church to show you can still serve, regardless of age and affliction. It just takes faith and a lot of belief. God has blessed us, I’ll tell you that.”
About 40 people attend Sunday services at Sun Valley Baptist. Pre-COVID, there were 56. The church baptized three people last year, and 34 in the last decade.
Members pass out flyers in the community, inviting people to church-sponsored events, such as the recent Easter Fun Day.
Prayer is a major component of First Baptist Sun Valley’s local ministry. In addition to Wednesday evening prayers, there’s a community prayer breakfast the fourth Saturday of each month.
The church’s only internet access, on the pastor’s cell phone, is used as a collection point for prayer and praises.
“I push prayer so hard in our church,” Whitney said. “Prayer is a charge from our Lord. To me, prayer is a blessing, a time when we can talk to our Lord and marvel at His attention and answers.”
A stint in the Air Force in the 1950s connected the Mormon-reared Whitney with his first taste of true Christianity, and gave him a trade: refrigeration. He parlayed that training into a successful, two-state refrigeration installation business, until he heard what he determined was God’s voice: “I have more than this for you.”
Whitney started preaching at the Salvation Army and Reno/Sparks Rescue Mission, accompanied by his wife Sharon, who played the accordion and led music groups. The couple also ministered at area hospitals, rest homes and rehabilitative care centers.
It was when Whitney was ministering at the Seniors National Finals Rodeo in Reno that he connected with First Baptist Sun Valley. He needed volunteers to help him, but none from the church he was attending was available, so he went to an evening service at Sun Valley. There he found volunteers and a new church home.
When the pastor left First Baptist Sun Valley, Whitney was called as interim and six months later, pastor. His ranching and rodeo background meshed well with Sun Valley’s working-class community.
“I’m a real person, born into sin,” the pastor said. “Saved by the grace of God.
“Most would tend to say we are a back-woodsy type church,” Whitney continued. “We sing out of the Baptist Hymnal and the Bible is preached and taught verse by verse. No online services.”
While outreach – except through the Cooperative Program – is minimal, when the congregation in 2018 learned of the urban firestorm that decimated 95 percent of Paradise, Calif., 165 miles away, it raised $1,000 to help with relief efforts there.
This year on the Saturday before Easter, the church provided a “He is Risen” Easter event that drew more than 100 area residents.
“We’re blessed to be here,” Whitney said, including his wife in his statement. “We just aren’t doing our job reaching this community. We need help. I am glad God is not going to judge us on our success but our faithfulness.”