[SLIDESHOW=39560]PHOENIX (BP) — As Southern Baptists turn their eyes to Phoenix and Super Bowl XLIX this weekend, local Southern Baptists say they’ll encounter a city in desperate need of new evangelistic churches.
According to the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research, evangelicals make up only 12.6 percent of the population of the Send North America: Phoenix region. The metro area also has only one Southern Baptist church for every 19,338 people.
But in the last few years an influx of Southern Baptist church planters has begun to turn those numbers around.
When planter Jason Griffin arrived with his family of six in Phoenix in 2012, he didn’t relocate for the nice weather or the long list of leisure activities. Underneath all the fun and sun, the Griffins found a community named Surprise that needed the Gospel.
“There have been a lot of people who have tried to plant here,” said Griffin, who was sent by First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga. “For whatever reason — whether it was never gaining traction or losing their support — this became like a graveyard for church plants.”
Griffin estimates that 95 percent of Surprise residents are not connected to evangelical churches.
Griffin himself started slow. Nobody showed up for the first Bible study he launched in his home a few months after his arrival. But after starting weekly worship services in January 2013, Griffin has seen Freedom Valley Church grow to an average of 120 in attendance most weeks.
“We’ve seen 15 people come to faith in Christ,” Griffin said. “I’ll tell you, the amount of work to see those 15 people come to Christ is incredible. It takes consistent relationship building, talking about the Gospel and living out the Gospel.”
Phoenix is one of 32 Send North America cities that have become a church planting focus since NAMB launched the strategy at the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix. Super Bowl XLIX will be played in Glendale, which is about 30 minutes outside Phoenix. The sixth-largest city in the United States, metro Phoenix counts nearly 5.4 million people.
Monty Patton (@Phxokie), NAMB’s Send City missionary for Phoenix, said the city’s famous good weather can be a hindrance to church planting efforts.
“One of the blessings of our area is our climate, but it’s also one of our greatest hindrances,” said Patton, who planted Mountain Ridge Community Church in Glendale in 1996. “Everybody is outside. We’re a very outdoor city and we’re very active. It’s a barrier. They do everything outside. Kids are playing softball or soccer 12 months a year. It never stops.”
To push back lostness in Phoenix, Patton said local churches will need the help and partnership of congregations elsewhere. Because the area has relatively few evangelical churches and even fewer Southern Baptist congregations, church planters in particular need to know they have the support of other churches.
“For our planters to know that they have people all over the country praying for them and adopting them as their own, that’s huge. Plus, it shows the community we’re a bigger family,” Patton said. “It shows the community that the church isn’t just an independent entity, but it’s an interdependent one.”
Patton said God has provided a great crop of church planters to the area in recent years, yet the city needs more.
“We are at a crossroads of opportunity,” Patton said. “The whole world is looking to Phoenix for the Super Bowl. Phoenix is a great city with a lot of opportunities. If we take advantage of the opportunity the Father has so graciously given us, we could really make a big impact. But if we miss this and don’t get the support — the prayer support in particular — and the teams and the planters, we’re going to miss a whole new generation in this city.”
Griffin said the challenge of reaching Phoenix stirs him to plead to God for the salvation of his city and new friends.
“I’m in it for the long haul,” Griffin said. “I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll get a job — whatever it takes — because my passion is to reach this city for Christ.”
For more information about getting involved in Send North America: Phoenix, visit namb.net/phoenix. For a short video from Patton about the opportunity to pray for the city during the Super Bowl, visit youtube.com/watch?v=x0DU68INByE.