How can two churches on opposite sides of the river in a popular recreation area present the gospel to the multitudes that vacation there each year? That question brought members of Parker First Southern and Big River Baptist churches together over fried catfish and pot-luck dishes at a recreation area on the California side of the Colorado River. They met to fellowship and discuss ways they could partner to evangelize the unchurched seasonal "snowbirds" who come their way.
Tommy Thomas, their associational missionary, helped coordinate the meeting last fall. He led in a few songs with his guitar after dinner and laid out some of the possibilities. A "river pastor" might be successful in an area where previous efforts to start a traditional church had been unsuccessful. Special events and concerts could provide opportunities for evangelism, and ministry teams from the churches could work to implement the efforts. Other ideas surfaced as members became excited about the possibilities, and joint ministry came one step closer to fruition.
For Thomas, the meeting was typical of his efforts in helping coordinate missions efforts of the eighteen churches in the River Valley Baptist Association, which includes more than 2,000 square miles of western Arizona stretching from Lake Mead in the north to Quartzite in the south.
It also was typical of the role Southern Baptists play in reaching our home continent with the gospel. Without the funding Thomas receives as a missionary of the North American Mission Board, River Valley association could probably support only a part-time director of missions with limited resources to devote to starting churches and coordinating innovative new missions projects. In fact, Big River and the other two new churches Thomas has led in starting over the past four years probably would not exist.
"There wouldn't be any way they could do the things they could do (with a full-time missionary), because the area is so spread out and the missionary has to put in so many miles to work with the resort areas and start the new churches," said Thomas, one of the missionaries featured in the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 1-8.
Thomas, like many directors of missions, came to his ministry out of the pastorate. A native of Arizona with a great love for the beauty of the desert, he acknowledged a call to the ministry while in college and served as pastor of two churches in Arizona after seminary.
In 1993, Thomas and his wife, Laura, brought their three children to the River Valley Association. His office is now in Kingman, but most of his time is spent on the road — driving about 3,000 miles a month between cities and towns that dot the vast expanses of desert.
"I always wanted to be a missionary out on the field doing a lot of church-starting," Thomas said of his decision to leave the local church pastorate.
The most exciting part of the work, he said, is "being part of something from the ground up, being part of a church and seeing God put the body together."
Tourism and recreation along the Colorado River drive the area's economy, and within that environment Thomas tries to help churches make an impact.
The day after the fellowship meeting in Parker, Thomas traveled to Bullhead City about sixty miles to the north to talk strategy with Marvin Denison, pastor of Sunridge Baptist Church. Thomas helped three local churches start the mission about two years ago. In Bullhead City, it is not the river that drives the tourism so much as the town a few hundred feet on the other side — Laughlin, Nev., a casino gambling mecca with all the glitz and glamour of a mini-Las Vegas.
Denison — who, like many mission pastors receives support from NAMB — tells of his efforts to minister effectively in an environment in which even many of the church members are dependent on the casinos for their livelihood. Some see their workplace as an opportunity for being light in the darkness, but in other cases Denison sees people led to faith in Christ and discipled to the point that they are convicted to find other employment. A high turnover rate in membership is a natural consequence. The church has found success with a strategy of encouraging relationships in the community that lead to opportunities for witness.
Thomas has hopes of eventually seeing churches in Bullhead City make even more of an impact in a community built on the moral quicksand of gambling.
"We're really praying for God to raise up a church that would target the casino community," Thomas said. "At the church we would have different services at different times of the week, and at the casinos we could maybe have worship services for the workers, or a gambling support group."
To the north, the resort community around Lake Mead serves as the home for Meadview Baptist Church, another of the mission congregations with its own particular culture and set of needs. In this case, it is a community of mostly retired people, with a few younger couples, isolated from the rest of civilization by many miles of desert.
At Meadview and with the other church starts, Thomas said the interest of local Christians served as the impetus for planting a church.
"We really haven't gone anywhere to try to start something for God," he said. "We're really sensitive to try to join with God where He is already working and speaking to people's hearts. … It's a good principle for missions work, I think."
There also are other resort ministry opportunities made possible by the association's location.
Each January, the town of Quartzite becomes the temporary home for approximately two million RV dwellers who converge for an annual gem show. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate the power of cooperative missions as the Arizona State Missions Board, River Valley Association, and Arizona Baptist Senior Life Ministries join together to support the 150-member Quartzite Baptist Church in sharing the gospel with the crowds. This year the event includes an evangelistic crusade, free food prepared by a Tennessee Baptist Convention Disaster Relief unit, and a variety of related ministries.
The association helped make possible a massive BeachReach effort last year on the beaches of Lake Havasu on the Colorado River, in which about 120 college students spent their spring break ministering to and sharing their faith with peers.
New opportunities continue to emerge. On the same day Thomas visited with the pastor in Bullhead City, he met with the manager of a truck stop just west of Kingman to confirm plans for a new chapel ministry at the site. Organized in conjunction with the nondenominational Truck Stop Ministries Inc., the effort currently involves a group of laymen who alternate leading Sunday morning chapel services in the truck stop's movie room. The ministry potentially could be expanded to include an increased presence through a mobile chapel on site, providing a base for worship and counseling.
"There are about a million truckers in the country, and it's just a big, big ministry opportunity," said Thomas, who noted the truck stop at any one time might have 300 trucks in its parking lot. "There are people who are separated from their families, have a lot of marriage and family problems. They really respond to something where there's a ministry that cares about their needs."
The same community of Cedar Hills is also being targeted for a new church in about two years, and groundwork is already being laid through an after-school club for kids in cooperation with Child Evangelism Fellowship. Thomas stresses the value in networking with other evangelical Christian groups such as these to further leverage Southern Baptists' own cooperative efforts.
Another key part of the job for Thomas and other directors of missions is lending support to pastors and their families, offering a listening ear or advice to those who may not feel comfortable sharing deep concerns with their own congregations. For many, it is extreme culture shock as they encounter the isolation of living in a small desert town, in an environment where grass lawns are a luxury and the landscape is often an endless brown.
They also face an environment common to many new work areas outside the Bible belt: Christians are relatively scarce here, and Southern Baptists are even more scarce. But for missionaries like Tommy Thomas, that is all part of the challenge.
"You've got to really work hard to get anything done here," he said. "I guess it's challenging everywhere, but certainly in this area the church is just not the center of the community. And you really have to find ways to relate to people and meet their needs."