As gas prices continue to climb, missionaries are finding creative ways
to plant churches closer to home
By Joe Westbury
The scent of fresh-cooked bacon and eggs is the scent of ministry to Louis
Spears. As the church planting strategist for Valley Rim Association in
Phoenix, Louis is always looking for ways to reach the unchurched.
Through block parties, poolside socials or Saturday morning breakfasts,
Louis finds a way to build bridges into the hundreds of multifamily complexes
that continue to spring up in the Valley of the Sun.
Louis is one of three NAMB missionaries serving in the greater Phoenix area.
While each serves a slightly different demographic, each struggles with
pioneering creative ways of making Christianity relevant to the unchurched.
And that is why, on a Saturday morning at the Stone Oaks apartment complex,
he is breaking eggs to be scrambled while others of his team are busy frying
bacon, making coffee, and cutting up fruit.
By sponsoring a free breakfast he helps the apartment manager build a sense
of community. And when residents show up for the free meal, he and his team are
able to share who they are and offer invitations to join them for a worship
service in the complex.
It’s all about building relationships, he says, and then using those
relationships to start a church.
Breaking into their world
Phoenix is one of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas and now
ranks number five in a national ranking.
“Phoenix is a popular place to live because the employment market is so
strong,” he says while working in the kitchen.
“Every time there’s a ‘quake, fire, or mudslide in California, we pick up
more residents. They can sell their house there and pay cash for a residence
here and have a much better quality of life,” he explains.
Many of those new residents end up in multihousing complexes. And that
high-density living means even more people hiding from the world behind walls
and gated communities. Traditional outreach methods such as door-to-door
visitation don’t work.
It’s a challenge that Louis and his growing network of house churches are
willing to tackle.
“When the people in the Old Testament, in the story of David and Goliath,
saw the giant they said ‘He’s too big to kill.’ But David said ‘He’s too big to
miss.’ That’s how we see the challenge of reaching Phoenix with the gospel,” he
“As a society we relate well where we work and play but don’t relate very
well where we live. We pull into our garages and never come out to get to know
our neighbors. It’s a very segmented, very private world,” Louis says.
But the Oklahoma native is able to see the silver lining behind that dark
cloud and an even bigger obstacle—escalating prices at the gas pump.
Challenges spark creativity
Where some see hardship and inconvenience in rising fuel prices, Louis sees
opportunity. That’s the creative spirit needed to reach a highly mobile society
that values individual freedom over the collective good.
While Louis has nothing against individual freedom, he does see some
benefits for church planting in escalating gas prices.
“The biggest problem we have is a lack community. People don’t know their
neighbors. When they’re surrounded by anonymous faces, they aren’t interested
in socializing with them, much less worshipping with them,” he explains.
That why, in an era of historically cheap gas, individuals never thought
twice about driving 15 or 20 miles to attend church and pass eight or nine on
“I believe high gas prices are the blessing in disguise we have been praying
for. As we lead new believers to Christ, we are clustering them in house
churches right where they live.
Using teams to build community
Louis works through an organization named Apartment Life, an outgrowth of
Mission Arlington in Texas, to place teams in apartments to build a sense of
community. The CARES Team, as they are known, consists of a married couple,
family, or two single adults who move into a complex and work with management
to assist them in building community and serving residents. The teams receive a
free apartment and commit about 10 hours a week per team member to the
As unpaid staff they welcome new residents, plan social functions, and care
for residents in times of need. And in the process they uncover spiritual needs
that can be met by being involved in a Christian fellowship within the housing
“The apartment managers love the concept and are for anything that helps
build a sense of community, because they have less turnover and their profits
go up. I have yet to have a manager tell me they don’t want us in their
complex, once I explain how we can help them create a better living
environment,” he says.
By reaching out to the unchurched on their own turf, and worshiping with
them within that same familiar setting such as in a community center or in an
apartment, Louis says the CARES Team can have just as effective a ministry as a
church on the corner.
“We have everything we need for no cost whatsoever,” he explains. “The
apartments provide us with a beautifully furnished community room that can seat
a hundred or more, a swimming pool for aerobics or other social events, tennis
courts for socials. Even the community room has a small kitchen we can use as
needed. Few churches have those amenities but we have all of them at our
disposal,” he explains.
Starting churches close to home
While Louis relates to 51 churches and missions in the association, he works
closely with the five house churches he’s helped birth in local apartments.
Both the state convention and association have recognized the fellowships as
house churches because they have met five primary requirements: they have a
male pastor, an outreach strategy, have engaged in communion, baptized new
believers, and regularly give to missions. The five congregations are stitched
together in a cluster called the Lighthouse Network.
And that brings Louis back to gas prices.
“With fuel costs going nowhere but up, I’m praying that people will remain
in their neighborhoods simply because they can’t afford to go cruising. And
when they remain home I’m praying they’ll be more open to becoming involved in
their community and more open to visiting a church in their complex.
“Phoenix is no different from the rest of North America. We need
relationships in society where we live and socialize at the end of the day and
“I’m trying to help people see the value of saving gas and staying closer to
home and getting to know their neighbors. And as they begin to slow down and
get to know their community a little better, we plan to be there to share the
gospel and invite them to church just a few steps from where they live.”
Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index in
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC