Dry land, fertile soil
It’s only been four years that we’ve been around.
People come from near and far, from up the road and down.
The last thing heard each Sunday morn, let’s take the curtains down … stack up those chairs, wind up the cords, turn in your badge, and greet those visitors.
— From song by Garth Nash
That’s because the church plant, which has grown to 180 members in four years, worships at a public school in a multipurpose room where students munch corn dogs and shoot baskets during the week.
Before each service, volunteers arrange speakers and rows of silver-legged plastic chairs on the gymnasium floor.
Minister Tom Riley preaches underneath a raised basketball goal near the school stage, with an electronic scoreboard and colorful “Got Milk?” posters providing a less-than-holy backdrop.
An adult Bible class assembles in the school library amid Dr. Seuss books and giant world and U.S. maps.
Portable placards on the sidewalk near the playground swings and slides point members and visitors alike to other adult and children’s classes.
“You bring the Crayons, bring the glue, bring the snack. Then you have to walk a country mile,” said Felicia Andersen, wife of elder Jeff Andersen and a preschool teacher who carts crates full of puppets, puzzles and pint-size New Testaments to class each Sunday.
For this congregation in a fast-growing suburb 35 miles north of downtown Phoenix, simply preparing — and mopping up — the leased facility affords a fellowship opportunity.
“It’s kind of given us a forced reason to be together,” said member Garth Nash, who wrote a song celebrating the congregation’s fourth anniversary.
Tom Riley had a dream of planting a church.
He organized and prayed and called us all to work.
We’ve laughed and cried, had some meals, worshiped every week.
Twice we’ve prayed for 40 days, God’s blessings we did seek.
Like the Canyon church, the city of Anthem did not exist until a few years ago. The unincorporated suburb, with an estimated population of 28,000, has sprung up faster than wild animals such as javelinas and coyotes — which residents report seeing scamper across their front lawns — can evacuate.
Picture desert Palo Verde trees, saguaro cactuses, mountain vistas, lakes, trails and tarantulas mixed amid golf courses, swimming pools, shopping centers and houses in every direction. Just off Interstate 17, the shiny new Outlets at Anthem mall beckons bargain hunters, while the community train stops at the Daisy Mountain Railroad Depot.
Most of Anthem lies in fast-growing Maricopa County, which gained 696,000 residents between 2000 and 2006, the largest numerical increase of any of the nation’s 3,141 counties, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
To find the roots of the church planted in Anthem’s arid soil, go back to 2000, the year after the suburb’s first homes were sold.
Riley, then the minister at the Fourth Avenue church in Franklin, Tenn., traveled with his wife, Anne, and their children, Emily and Jim, to the Grand Canyon Family Encampment that summer.
But two of the four Rileys found themselves bumped from their Sunday flight home. Since Tom and Emily needed to be back Monday, Anne and Jim stayed behind with friends in Phoenix, where Tom had worked with the Northwest church for nine years.
The friends — Dave and Donna Strong — drove Anne out to Anthem, where their daughters planned to move. Except for a Safeway store, a McDonald’s and the frames of the first few homes going up, the master-planned community remained mostly undeveloped.
But all signs pointed to explosive growth in the near future, and Anne couldn’t help but worry about the souls who would soon inhabit the newest town in the Valley of the Sun, as the Phoenix area is known.
From her family’s previous time in Phoenix, she knew it’s one of the nation’s most “unchurched” cities: Up to 80 percent of residents do not attend any church, according to the Arizona Republic. So, Anne called Tom and told him he needed to find someone to plant a church in Anthem.
“We started praying about it,” he said. They fasted over it. They wrestled with it. And they determined, after two years of prayer, that God was calling them.
Calling them to leave a comfortable, satisfying ministry at Fourth Avenue — where Sunday attendance grew to 875 from 450 in their nine years there — and start from scratch.
We’ve rented different places, just waiting for our own.
We’ve bought some land, made some plans, God’s blessings do abound.
Praise the Lord for Canyon, press on to higher ground.
While initially shocked by Riley’s decision, Fourth Avenue’s elders embraced his vision and offered to support the church plant financially.
They gave Riley nearly a year to plan the new church — including making frequent trips to Anthem — while he remained as Fourth Avenue’s pulpit minister. The Bell Trust, a Dallas-based foundation that helps Churches of Christ support ministers and missionaries, also pledged financial assistance.
In fall 2002, elder Tom Cook explained to the congregation why the Fourth Avenue elders felt so strongly about supporting a church plant in Arizona.
“There, you can drive for hundreds of miles and not once run across a group of people preaching the Bible and baptizing disciples into Christ as the Bible instructs,” Cook said.
Riley put it this way that Sunday: “It’s a place where entire communities are moving in almost overnight — a place where churches are few and far between — but a place where people are open to Christ.”
Riley made four trips to Anthem over the next 10 months, meeting with area church leaders and Christians who lived in the desert boomtown but were driving half an hour or more to worship.
Seventeen people came to the first meeting, 30 to the second, 40 to the third and 50 to the fourth. Riley scouted potential temporary meeting locations and began contemplating where the church might buy land for a permanent building.
For $2,000 a month, the church rented three rooms and a nursery at the Anthem Community Center, the first of four places that have served as the church’s temporary home.
Canyon’s first service at the community center in summer 2003 drew 80 people, about half of them visitors from area Churches of Christ who came to show their support.
A core group of about 40 founding members — some who lived in Anthem and others who drove from as far as 25 miles away to help plant the church — started inviting friends and neighbors to small-group meetings in members’ homes.
Elder Frank Hamilton, 73, whose wife, Patty, bakes the unleavened bread for the weekly Lord’s Supper, describes the home gatherings as crucial to reaching the community.
“The only way you really know people is when you visit in their home,” Hamilton said.
Bill and Caroline Sewell, retirees who moved from the San Francisco area, were raised in the United Methodist Church but had drifted away from attending any church.
The Sewells’ first week in Anthem, Bill ran into a neighbor while taking out the trash. Neighbor Dave Strong, the Rileys’ friend, who had moved to Anthem himself, told Bill about the Canyon church. The Sewells accepted an invitation to worship and later joined a Bible study at the home of members Garth and Zandra Nash.
On June 26, 2005 — their 50th wedding anniversary — the Sewells were baptized in a church family’s backyard pool.
Even before her baptism, Caroline had started helping Riley produce the church bulletin.
“They were with us, they were learning, they were enjoying themselves and they were involved,” Riley said. “We try not to be exclusive when we need something. … Sometimes, that involvement actually is the thing” that prompts the next step.
For Bill and Caroline, singing without instruments and taking communion each Sunday are new.
“I think the thing that has been the most positive for us … has been the pure, Bible-based teachings,” she said. “We’ve had more exposure to the Bible per se than we’ve probably had the rest of our lives.”
Rae Morue, a church greeter and wife of elder Don Morue, makes it a point to remember visitors’ names and make them feel welcome.
“We have a lot of people at this congregation that come from different religious backgrounds, and so they have questions,” she said. “But I guess the common thing I hear is, they love our friendliness because we are a warm congregation — we love visitors. And they say, ‘You are the church that really studies the Bible.’”
Canyon leaders believe they can love people with differing religious beliefs without compromising their own. “You keep your beliefs, keep your convictions,” Riley said, “and you love the stew out of people.”
Look for things that you can do, just let your own light shine.
Let the good Lord get the praise, you’ll get yours in time.
After eight months at the community center, the church moved to a school where it could rent more space for about the same amount of money. Later, the congregation changed addresses two more times, ending up at Diamond Canyon School, its present home.
“It’s fitting that we’re in a desert and it’s very nomadic like that,” Shawn White, a Canyon member along with his wife, Davina, said of the frequent moves.
Roger and Linda Hewitt, who moved to Anthem from Sioux Falls, S.D., said meeting in temporary facilities helps give Canyon an energy and vitality they had not experienced. “I think part of it is, we’ve all kind of migrated to this area, so we all kind of hold together because we don’t have our original family — church family or biological family — around us anymore,” Linda said.
But Canyon’s five elders, appointed earlier this year after more than a year of prayer and study by members, say the church can’t remain a nomad forever.
In September 2004, the congregation acquired 8.6 acres of land — the last remaining property zoned for a church in the entire city — for $1.14 million.
Recently, a campaign began to raise $1.5 million for the first phase of construction, concerning a few members who wrestled with the need for a permanent home. But Riley said the constant setting up and tearing down of chairs and equipment wear people out.
“I don’t want a place that becomes an idol, where you can’t do something in the church building,” he said.
“But I want a place … where we can have a party, a funeral, a baptism, a wedding — just a place where we have a church family that doesn’t have to ask permission of anybody.”
Member Kim Cumby said she won’t miss stacking chairs after each service.
“It will be nice,” she said, “when you can just stand around and have a conversation.”