By Glen Elliott
Do you believe your city, town, region, barrio, or district can change? Do you believe your church can be a catalyst to bring about true community transformation? Do you see your church joining other churches, social agencies, and governmental entities to make a real difference? Will the prayer Jesus asked his disciples to pray become a reality where you live, “Your kingdom come, your will be done in (insert your city name here) as it is in heaven”?
At one time, I had my doubts. The challenges and needs seemed overwhelming. I had so little time and energy. The resources of my church seemed like a drop in the bucket compared to the needs of a whole city! I was just trying to be honest and realistic. But I’ve learned something new and experienced something wonderful about how God can bring change, especially in places where change is so desperately needed.
I’ve been at my church for 15 years. When I arrived, I heard a question that really undid me. I don’t know who asked it, but it became a brain worm that wouldn’t go away. “If your church ceased to exist, would anyone miss you?”
The question was unsettling because I was pretty sure my church wouldn’t have been missed by my city, but only by those already attending. We were a good church, but I didn’t see us as essential to the neighborhood or city. I didn’t see that we were adding real life to it.
I believe God cares about the city. He cared about Nineveh: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). He cared not just for the people of Nineveh, but also the animals.
He cares about my city, Tucson, Arizona. He cares about your city. God intends the church to make a difference in the city, town, or place where she exists. God will use the church to advance his kingdom on earth.
Great leaders face their reality, and this was our spiritual reality in Tucson: over the years, churches and church leaders rarely cooperated, got along, liked each other, or even knew each other. It was worse than mere competition. There was fierce independence and disconnectedness.
Tucson is listed as the 19-least-Bible-minded city out of 100 metro areas. It is the 11th-most unchurched city (some say higher). It is listed as the 12th-most post-Christian city (most the other cities are in the Northeast or Northwest in these first three categories). Finally we are the sixth poorest metro area in the nation. Most of our school districts are underperforming and have terrible reputations.
I could list many more challenges. All of this left me discouraged and overwhelmed when I considered any real change that might take place.
Rejecting the Status Quo
But something changed. And change began with a few church leaders who refused to accept the status quo, and who were unwilling to let our city go to Hell. These godly leaders were not content with the state of our city.
We formed what is now known as 4Tucson (www.4tucson.com), which serves to bring together Christians from all walks of life, and churches from different denominations and various faith-based interests, to connect with the various aspects of the city. 4Tucson has 12 domains where followers of Jesus join with other churches, agencies, or groups to find ways to make a difference. The 12 domains that make up 4Tucson can be found in the 4Tucson Domain Wheel on this page.
The greatest driver of change probably was the first pastor’s prayer summit in spring 2009. At that summit, about 20 pastors from different denominations and ethnic backgrounds prayed for our city.
Pastors started to get to know each other. Trust grew. The prayer summits grew. A one-day prayer event in the fall has been added. There have been efforts by Hispanic, African-American, and Anglo pastors to get together to understand each other, the spiritual context of their churches, and needs in their neighborhoods. Unity for the sake of mission is breaking down the isolation.
As lead pastor of my church, I decided it was time to break down the walls between churches by starting three “Pastors in Covenant” groups. Each group consists of four or five pastors. Two of these groups are with pastors who minister near my church building. We meet once a month for lunch. We share our lives, get help when we need it, and pray for each other. We have become true friends, and our churches are now partnering to make a difference in our shared neighborhoods.
The other group brings together pastors of the largest Evangelical churches in our city. We too needed to become friends. As a direct result, my church partnered with another influential congregation to launch a new church in a midtown area. Because of the trust formed, this church, which is from a different denominational background, provided (and financially supported) a key staff member while asking my church to provide the leadership for the launch.
That is the first time such a thing has ever happened in Tucson. The walls of separation and mistrust are coming down. Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 is becoming a reality.
4Tucson has been able to get people engaged in our schools, government, social agencies, and elsewhere. Partnerships are forming. Projects are being implemented. People are engaging.
In Just One Year . . .
Here’s a glimpse of what has happened in just the last year or so.
• My church, Pantano Christian, serves as a satellite location for the annual Global Leadership Summit of the Willow Creek Association. We invited 4Tucson to join as a partner, and we intentionally invited key administrators from all the area school districts.
During a planned lunch with the education domain, these leaders started to get a vision of a partnership with faith-based groups. Today, each school district is promoting pastor appreciation events and hosting monthly prayer meetings with faith-based leaders.
• About 80 schools have been adopted and formed partnerships with churches. Because of the partnerships, several of those schools have gone from failing grades—as determined by the Arizona Department of Education—to letter grades of “A” and “B.”
There is no longer a question of church and state separation. The school superintendents want churches involved to provide mentoring, after-school programs, parenting, marriage, and financial classes for the parents of students, support and appreciation for the school staff, and help in improving the facilities. As one superintendent said, “We can’t succeed without the partnership of the church and faith-based community!”
• My church has a church planting strategy. In January and February, we launched two campuses in schools that are in some of the most distressed areas of our city. Both of those campuses have formed profound partnerships with the schools and are investing in the needs of the community.
My church’s vision is to be a catalyst to bring God’s blessing and influence to southern Arizona. We see that happening primarily through church planting and community transformation.
This calling is so vital that we have a full-time pastor on staff to oversee it.
• Tucson’s mayor has noticed what is happening through the church-school partnerships; at a breakfast with the 4Tucson government domain, he said, “We need your help. We can’t solve all the problems of our city.”
In our state, Child Protective Services (CPS) is under fire for revelations it failed to protect kids and provide a safe place for them. The county’s CPS director heard about the partnerships churches have with schools. She asked if the church in Tucson would join it in caring for the children under CPS care, and also assist the overworked and stressed staff. She admitted things were in bad shape and that government programs could not provide the gracious care and warm environment that a church could. She asked for chaplains, safe friendly places where traumatized families could go, food for children who are taken on short notice, encouragement to the staff, and any other practical support.
I could fill pages writing about the myriad of ways my city is being touched and transformed by God’s people. Doors are opening and opportunities are snowballing. Change—big change—happens with a vision bathed in prayer and implemented through unity and partnership. And today I can say, with confidence, that if Pantano Christian Church would cease to exist, other churches, and more importantly, our city, would notice and care.
But it is not about how important we are to our city. In the end, it is about how important the city is to us.
Glen Elliott serves as lead pastor with Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona.