By Glen Elliott
Pantano Christian Church exists in a city and region that is facing huge challenges. Over this past spring, there were four reports that captured my attention. We did not fare well in any of these reports. According to Barna Group research, Tucson, Arizona, is the 17th least Bible-minded city, the 11th most unchurched city, and the 12th most post-Christian city. Finally, we are the sixth-poorest city in the nation. We have a community that is far from God and struggling, and that is not OK with God. It must not be OK with the church either.
How do we face these facts? Should we become discouraged? Not at all! But we are challenged! The “bad news” reinforces the vision God has given us. God is calling our church to be a catalyst to bring his influence and blessing to southern Arizona. We are to be the good news and bring the good news. We see this as a field that is truly white unto harvest.
Our elders, staff, and congregation have celebrated and embraced a dream of seeing authentic, healthy communities of Jesus followers or churches throughout our city and southern Arizona. We see these churches as existing primarily to bring God’s influence and blessing to their immediate neighbors. We see these churches as giving so much back that they become an indispensable part of the community. These churches disciple people to follow Jesus, help start and support the social agencies that serve people, engage to make their schools better, and make their communities good and desirable places to live. These churches will populate Heaven for eternity. This dream is already becoming reality.
Start with “Why?”
Simon Sinek talks about the “golden circle” in his book Start with the Why. It looks like a three-circle target. The center circle is the why. The why is what moves us to make a difference. The why is our purpose and compulsion. Our why is that southern Arizona (and probably your area as well) needs to be transformed by the power and influence of God. It is only as people follow Jesus that they will experience true and lasting blessing. It is a life-and-death matter, both now and for eternity.
The middle circle in the “golden circle” is the how. How will folks experience God and his blessing? Through the local church! Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church has consistently and correctly declared that the church is the hope of the world. Our government and school leaders cannot bring about all the needed change without the church. The church is the hope for our community.
How will we see lives, families, and neighborhoods transformed? The how is church planting. The how is starting healthy, life-giving churches that continually multiply themselves. A healthy church in every neighborhood will make a difference!
The what is the outer ring of the “golden circle.” The what are healthy, life-giving churches—their people and their programs. We have defined such a church as one that fulfills what we call our four ends.
This kind of church helps people follow Jesus well. It reaches people who are not connected to God or a church community. It helps the neighborhoods it serves experience transformation, becoming desirable places to live. And finally, it multiplies itself by starting more churches.
The Churches We’ve Launched
In partnership with Stadia, we launched our first church in 2006. Vail Christian Church meets in a high school eight miles south of our East Tucson campus. It is a healthy church averaging more than 600. It just purchased property and has a vision for church planting.
In 2007 a group of folks in the third-largest city in southern Arizona approached us and asked us to help them start a church. The group had heard of our vision and values and wanted to be a Pantano campus. They shared our why. In 2008 we launched our Sierra Vista campus in partnership with Stadia. It was an intentional effort to make a difference in a declining area of Sierra Vista known as the West End. In 2012 we were able to purchase and renovate a church building in the heart of the area of greatest need.
In 2007 we started a venue called Elements on our East Tucson campus that targeted twentysomethings and thirtysomethings. It grew and embraced a vision to be launched as a church in midtown Tucson. Most of the thriving churches are located on the edges of our city. The midtown needed a healthy, life-giving church.
Another church in town agreed to partner with us in this launch of what is being called Elements City Church. Casas Church is connected to the Southern Baptist Convention. Casas Church believed in the need for a midtown church and trusted our experience and ability in church planting. Casas provided a teaching pastor, members, and finances and asked us to lead the launch. It is unheard of in our town for two churches from differing backgrounds to join together to plant a church.
Elements City Church, in partnership with Casas Church and Stadia, was to be launched this summer (a property lease was being finalized).
We are forming a launch team that will start a bilingual church. We already have an invitation from the principal of a school in the southern part of our city where we have served for years. The church planters will go through assessment this fall, and Lord willing, we will launch in 2014.
We are in discussion with members of a city council in another city in southern Arizona that wants us to start a church. The rural town has little to serve its younger population. The city leaders want us to create a church and community center that will especially cater to younger folks. We are exploring the options for such a church plant.
How does a church like Pantano, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, bring life to the communities around it? How does a church get to the place where church planting is a central part of its DNA? It started with a clear vision, and is propelled by that same vision.
That vision has forced us to adjust our staffing and funding. Recently, as lead pastor, I reorganized our leadership team to ensure I have a pastor on staff whose mission is guiding us to raise up and develop church planters. This is how we will perpetually plant healthy, life-giving churches that multiply.
We have redeveloped our budget to ensure we have funds that will support our efforts. Church planting has been a focus of our prayer effort. It is no surprise God keeps opening doors!
How do you change the world? For us the answer is clear and straightforward: plant healthy, life-giving churches in every community.
Glen Elliott serves as lead pastor with Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona. He and his family came to Tucson 15 years ago after they completed pioneering missionary work in Ukraine.