SBC Life Articles

A Desert in Bloom

As an associational missionary in Southeastern Arizona, Tommy Stevens knew the small town of Pirtleville needed a Southern Baptist congregation. And all it took for him to see God begin to move was to share that need with a congregation in the nearby Mexican-border city of Douglas.

Deacon Ben Stevens immediately felt called to the work, and for eight months prayed every day at sunrise and sunset, in the middle of the community and at each corner. A home Bible study quickly led to a need for a building.

"I advised him to look for a place in the community, and when he found it, to stand in the middle of it and ask God for it," Tommy Stevens said. "Ben had no more sense than to do as I suggested. Soon he called and said, 'I've found it!'"

The new pastor was so confident that he took out a personal loan for the building and a small mobile home, defying the conventional process for such things. But he eventually got his money back, and today the church has its own building built with volunteer labor.

Such stories of God at work are becoming more and more common in Cochise Baptist Association, which has grown from thirteen churches and two missions in 1997 when Tommy and Elizabeth Stevens arrived to seventeen churches and twenty-eight missions today. And the Stevenses are just happy to be along for the ride.

"It is just awesome that God allows us to be a part of what He's doing out here," said Elizabeth, who serves as ministry coordinator for the association.

"Somebody said there was no place deader than Tombstone or Cochise County before we got out here," she added, "but we can't say that it's because we're out here that all these things are happening. This is God's timing for the area. There have been people who have planted a lot of seeds and done things along the way."

Tommy and Elizabeth are among the featured missionaries for the 2003 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 2-9. Their broad-based associational ministry serves as a microcosm for many key initiatives of the North American Mission Board — with church planting as the driving force. Their story also illustrates the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering theme of Partners in Purpose, with Southern Baptists from strong churches in the Bible Belt being used by God to reach areas where Christians are a distinct minority.

The Stevenses had served churches in Tennessee, Alabama, and Louisiana since 1962, with Tommy being a minister of music for about twenty years before becoming a pastor. He also acquired a doctorate in counseling along the way, ministering in that capacity in private practice during his pastorates. But it was the combination of his ministry experience and counseling skills that prompted several friends to suggest he consider becoming a director of missions.

"I said, 'Lord, you don't have to hit me over the head. I'll do it,'" Stevens said of the role, which entails both coordinating missions efforts of churches in the same geographical area and encouraging and supporting pastors and staff.

The idea of serving in a new-work area such as Southern Arizona was not originally part of the plan, but they were obedient when Cochise Baptist Association appeared to be where God was leading.

Tombstone — a small town in the desert most famous as the site of the gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881 — was chosen for the association offices out of a desire to be centrally located geographically.

Soon after they arrived they began to see how God had uniquely equipped them for the challenge through Elizabeth's gift of hospitality. They decided a former church building would be an ideal headquarters for their home, the associational office, and living quarters for volunteers.

Help came from within the association and around the country. Volunteers renovated the main sanctuary into two bedrooms, two baths, and a large living room/dining room. The basement housed the associational offices, a conference room, and two more bedrooms.

Needs also began to be filled in ways that Liz said were further evidence God was in the work. A donated pedestal sink, carpet, a commercial oven, French doors, and even a bargain on artificial greenery for the top of kitchen cabinets were just a few of the examples God's provision.

More than 3,000 people had stayed in the house by the end of last year — many of them for seven days at a time — in round after round of volunteer missions projects.

"I thought we'd have two or three teams a year, never dreaming what God was going to do," said Liz. "This building may not have made it as a church, but it is a place of ministry."

Although mission teams usually work around the clock, the Stevenses also encourage them to do some sightseeing in historic Tombstone and the surrounding areas. The location also works well with another part of their personal ministry — opening up their home three times each year as a retreat center for a pastor and his family who need a break.

"We felt like if we could have done that when our children were young it would have been wonderful," said Elizabeth. "We have one rule. They can do no ministry. They have to be a family."

Their core ministry, however, is to the churches around them — and ultimately the communities they serve. The area is desert — rocky and desolate. And the people that live there are often there because they have opted out of the mainstream of American lifestyles, choosing isolation over community.

"People don't want a relationship, and we're going to try to get them to enter a relationship with Jesus Christ," Stevens said. "It makes it more difficult to reach them."

The region also has a following of neo-pagans and others with a mixed bag of New Age beliefs.

"The occult is very strong here," Stevens said. "One of our pastors went into a restroom and saw a sign that said, 'Fight evil, kill a Baptist.' And that's been a lot of the attitude sometimes. And yet there are a lot of people who are open to the gospel."

Soon after he arrived, Stevens' passion for church planting became apparent as he began to identify sites for future churches — as well as sharing the needs with the existing churches. It wasn't long before his passion became contagious within the association.

"When the churches discovered the opportunities that were here they did not say 'no' to the Lord," he said. "They got excited, and pretty soon I had churches starting missions on their own, and saying, 'We started such and such mission, can you help us?'"

One of the primary areas of growth has been on the Mexican border, where church planting and ministry by Cochise Association churches have spurred development of a new border ministry involving three Arizona associations, the Arizona Baptist Conventions, the International Mission Board, and the Mexican National Baptist Convention.

Stevens has helped Jorge Herrera, pastor of Iglesia Bautista del Sur Amistad in Douglas, develop a ministry in the cross-border town of Agua Prieta that feeds 1,000 children each day through seven new mission congregations. Amistad and their sister congregation, Sunnyside, have started five additional missions in Douglas.

The association has also helped First Baptist Church of Agua Prieta start ten missions. Similar church planting efforts are under way in Naco, Mexico, where the association partners in an orphanage ministry.

Other new churches are reaching isolated communities of Anglos in the area. In the small community of Dragoon, for instance, a committed church planter and a faithful group of believers have built a Southern Baptist congregation where none existed before. Volunteers from the University of Arizona and across the country have helped them both with outreach efforts and construction of a building.

Tommy Stevens' role, again, is to help plan strategy and gather the resources necessary to make it happen. He is also able to put his counseling skills to use in serving as an encourager and cheerleader for the pastors facing daily struggles on the front lines.

"He gives you that shot of adrenaline that you need to come back out and get into ministry," said Mark Stevens, the pastor of the Dragoon congregation.

Many of the gains in the association have come as a direct result of Southern Baptist partnership, both in financial resources and in the volunteer groups that have come to help — whether through building a church, conducting a group of vacation Bible schools, or knocking on doors sharing Christ. One team, using the FAITH evangelism strategy, led 300 people in one week to faith in Christ.

"Before they came, Mision Cosina Primera in Agua Prieta just had a handful of people in Bible study," he said. "After they left, as Luis Aguilar and his wife began to disciple people, that congregation just blossomed. They have forty adults and 210 children attending services there now."

In their own town of Tombstone, the Stevenses home/associational office is strategically located near the start of the parade for the annual "Helldorado" festival celebrating Tombstone's infamous past. With a donated water trough for the horses, bottled water for the humans, and entertainment from a youth group on the front porch, association volunteers are able to present the gospel to many of the participants.

Along with the ministry successes have come some challenges, but again the Stevenses are quick to point out how the Lord has been consistent in meeting their needs. The long distance from their family, for instance, has been alleviated by air travel made possible by their son's job with a major airline.

And in the most recent crisis, Elizabeth early last year was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent multiple surgeries and intensive treatment, struggling with both the long-term concerns for her family and the short-term limitations on her own ministry efforts. But she has maintained a positive outlook, confident that the God that she has seen at work so consistently remains sovereign.

"We don't ever have time to get bored or find anything dull," she said. "It's just one of the most rewarding jobs we've ever had."



Annie Armstrong's Passion For Missions Serves As Inspiration For Generations

Few Southern Baptists alive today would have personally known Annie Armstrong, who lived from 1850 to 1933.

She dedicated her life to missions awareness and service. Helping to found Woman's Missionary Union, she served as first corresponding secretary of the organization and is well known for her "corresponding." In 1893 alone, she wrote 17,719 letters. Each was carefully written and conveyed then what still must be conveyed today — share the gospel at all costs, support those who do so, and do so yourself.

Her strong advocacy for missionaries and her example of making Christ known to all makes her worthy of having the annual North American missions offering named in her honor.

Through support of the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, Southern Baptists join together with thousands of missionaries who are sharing the gospel and starting new churches throughout the United States, Canada, and U.S. territories.



Annie Armstrong Easter Offering
Week of Prayer for North American Missions

March 2-9, 2003

National Goal: $53,000,000


    About the Author

  • James Dotson