SBC Life Articles

Arizona Southern Baptists: From Big Dreams to Laser Focus

Downtown Phoenix Light Rail

Downtown Phoenix Light Rail.
© Visit Phoenix | Photo by Molly Smith.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then Arizona Southern Baptists must be closely related. From the beginning of Southern Baptist work in Arizona, innovation has been the rule of the day.

When Southern Baptist work began here in 1921, there was no association or convention to unite with, so the first Southern Baptist churches in Arizona actually became part of the Baptist Convention of New Mexico through one of its associations.

Big Dreams to Reach Arizona

Arizona Southern Baptists had to be imaginative in church planting. They not only started churches in schools and homes, but in train depots, fire stations, women’s clubs, funeral homes, and even bars.

In a two-stage beginning, the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1928 with a total of eleven churches. It was a rocky beginning. Two churches quickly withdrew to join Northern Baptists, and two more disbanded.

Nevertheless, by the end of 1929, the year of the stock market crash, there were ten churches in the new convention, reporting 1,641 members and 835 baptisms for the year.

Arizona’s population in 1928 was only 422,000. Today, we have a population of 6.9 million and are the fifth-fastest growing state in the United States. If we baptized 0.2 percent of the total population in one year, as our founding fathers did, we would have baptized more than four times as many as we are actually reporting.

Arizona Southern Baptists have had a storied history. Our founders dreamed big. We have given birth to three other state conventions and are the proud grandparents of yet one more. At one point, the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention spanned from Mexico to Canada, with churches in nine states—Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

We started with eleven churches and now number 450 churches. We were born just the year before the Great Depression began, and we were impacted by the Dust-Bowl Thirties. We have endured six wars, lived through the social revolution that began in several forms in the 1960s, and have found ourselves at the center of a national immigration crisis that no one knows how to resolve fully.

And that just describes the cultural-historical setting that surrounded us. Along with big dreams, there were nightmares no one anticipated.

From early in our history, state convention leaders sought to replicate the structure and ministries of conventions in the Deep South. In years past, the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention owned three hospitals, a university, state camp, Baptist foundation, Baptist loan fund, and a children’s home/ministry.

Today, only Arizona Baptist Children’s Services & Family Ministries maintains a relationship with Arizona Southern Baptists. The agency, which has a self-perpetuating board, receives Arizona Cooperative Program funds.

Also receiving Arizona Cooperative Program funds since its opening in 1995 is the Arizona Campus of Gateway Seminary, which has been a blessing to our churches. The seminary estimates that half of our churches have either a Gateway graduate or current student in a leadership position.

All of the other entities either no longer have Southern Baptist ties or have ceased to exist. The loss of each has a sad, complicated story of its own.


Eric Gibbs (left) baptizes a new member of Cockleburr Ethne Church, a church plant on the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation in Arizona. Photo courtesy of Baptist Press.

Laser Focus to Reach the Nations

Today, with no institutions to manage, we are laser-focused on our mission: “Working together to make disciples of all peoples in Arizona and around the world.”

When David W. Johnson became executive director-treasurer of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention in 2013, he was well aware that the convention was in decline. He immediately set about the urgent task of restoring health and vigor to the convention and its churches. He led the convention to adopt a Centennial Vision statement that calls for challenging goals to be met by 2028 when the convention celebrates its centennial.

The vision calls for one thousand churches, an increase of 550 new churches in the state convention by 2028. The vision also calls for more than one-half of the churches to be Hispanic or non-Anglo, reflecting the population. Currently, Arizona Southern Baptists have forty-nine Hispanic churches, and other congregations worship in more than twenty different languages.

The vision suggests that the one thousand churches in 2028 will have an average attendance of 150. This part of the vision would change the appearance of the convention very significantly.

A large increase in baptisms is part of the dream. The goal is for the projected one thousand churches to baptize an average of twelve persons per year per church, for a total of twelve thousand baptisms annually by 2028.

We know that we cannot fulfill the Centennial Vision on our own. Is God calling you to come over . . . and help us (Acts 16:9) by praying, partnering, and planting with us?

    About the Author

  • David W. Johnson, J. Terry Young, and Elizabeth Young