December 8, 2004
Part 4 of 6 Pastor Ron Earle is cracking jokes and saving souls down at the New Life Family Church, one of several houses of worship striving to satiate the 85296 ZIP code’s growing spiritual appetite.
"Lord, give me patience, and give it to me now!" the Rev. Earle shouts, drawing sympathetic laughter from many of the Sunday morning sermon’s roughly 250 attendees.
His 90-minute admonishment covers a broad spectrum of potential pitfalls and errors of ways, including overspending at Christmas and transference of blame, culminating in a rousing lecture on negativity.
Standing on stage with a full set of band equipment, multicolored track lighting and a PowerPoint message projected on the wall behind him, Earle challenges the group: Don’t say anything negative for at least an hour following the sermon. From the crowd’s reaction to his onstage antics, Earle’s directive hardly seems necessary.
"You walk out of here smiling bigger than when you walked in," says Paul Wagner, a 33-year-old Mesa resident who has been making the Sunday drive to New Life, 202 S. Gilbert Road, for about a year.
Wagner, who volunteers that he is a recovering drug addict and has spent time in prison, says the nondenominational church has become increasingly popular.
"It’s gotten bigger, but more than that the people here have drawn closer," Wagner says.
In a place like 85296 where new people are moving in daily and nobody knows anybody, churches are even more important as social outlets than in older neighborhoods, as evidenced by the overwhelming demand for more.
Gilbert is shaping up to be a promised land for eager church developers as the population soars in the new, upscale subdivisions. It is a family-friendly community served by one of the largest Catholic parishes in the West, at least 50 Mormon wards and a wide range of Protestant and nondenominational groups looking for a foothold to foster new churches.
Demographic studies funded by church groups show there are a lot of potential new church members to be had.
A Ministry Area Profile 2004 study of the 85296 ZIP code by the Percept Group found about 44 percent of residents were "not involved with their faith," compared with about 35 percent nationally. About 56 percent of the area residents were either strongly or somewhat involved with their faith.
A breakdown of religious preferences revealed 17 percent were Catholic, about 12 percent were identified as "nondenominational/ independent," 10.5 percent were Mormon, 7.8 percent were Baptist, 7.6 percent were Lutheran and 6 percent were Methodist. Those who replied "not interested and no preference" amounted to about 18 percent of the ZIP code’s population, compared with a national average of about 11 percent.
"I think if our stats are right, somewhere between 20 (percent) to 25 percent of these people are nonchurched evangelicals — born-again believers that don’t go to church," says the Rev. Joel Tetreau, pastor of Southeast Valley Baptist Church, 14302 E. Williams Field Road. "Some of them have been beaten up in hyperconservative churches or they starved to death in liberal churches."
This month, Tetreau’s congregation will move into a newly built $300,000 steel church building on a county island. The 240-member congregation wants to put up an education building next.
"We believe we have a real chance to connect with genuine believers who are looking to be fed," says Tetreau, who became senior pastor in 1999 a few months after the church began. "I think that the day of watereddown contemporary, entertainment-driven churches are coming to an end."
But the business of bringing in the flock is not without problems in the fast-growing area where many churches are in the midst of major recruiting efforts. Some church leaders complain that the competition for souls to save is resulting in some un-Christianlike behavior in the broader religious community.
And some longtime residents aren’t exactly thrilled with how crowded their once small places of worship have become.
Bev Nielsen, 49, says St. Anne’s Catholic Church has become "too big and too impersonal."
"There are too many people," she says, "the parking lot is always full. You can’t get in and out of there."
Kristine McGettigan, 35, used to attend St. Anne’s but now goes to St. Mary Magdalene, where the downside is that they meet in a gym.
"It doesn’t make sense to only have one true Catholic church in Gilbert when there are so many parishioners," McGettigan says.
New Life, in its second year at its current location, began with 50 to 75 in attendance — it now gets as many as 300 on Sundays.
"It won’t be long until we go to multiple (Sunday) services here because of what we are doing," Earle says, adding that he has heard lately of many other new church groups meeting at schools and in people’s homes.
TIME AND MONEY
Or even the library.
In an hour’s time, the Rev. Susan Schubert and her volunteers transform a meeting room at Maricopa County’s Southeast Regional Library in Gilbert into church. From out of library planters, which provide storage, come accoutrements of worship. Banners go up, a planter is covered with a cloth to create the Communion table, a sound system is set up, a laptop for PowerPoint sermon notes is readied and by 9:30 a.m. Schubert is prepared for the call to worship.
Library church is just temporary for the fledgling New Creation Church, an "emerging church in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America" that has joined the rush to bring religion to rapidly growing Gilbert. Organized in September 2003, the congregation so far has more than 40 members, and Schubert hopes to soon close on the purchase of 4 acres next to Spectrum Elementary School for the future church.
Schubert estimates she has made about 12,000 "doorstep visits" in Gilbert neighborhoods to raise interest in her young church. In 113-degree weather, she has pushed doorbells and talked to residents, given them videos "of what it means to join a brand new congregation," plus a pen and a full-color refrigerator magnet touting New Creation. When no one is home, she writes a note and leaves it.
One recent morning, Schubert’s church office, in her home, was humming as 5,000 postcards were being readied to mail about promoting a Christmas concert. The pastor is striving to develop a strong congregation well before they ever step into a church of their own.
Schubert says her congregation eyed buying in the Morrison Ranch subdivision but had to pass on it. "They had stipulations that we had to build within a certain time frame, and we were not ready to build that quickly," she says. "When they are building out with their homes, they don’t want an empty lot sitting there."
"It is very difficult to find choice land, and it is going nowhere but up," she says.
Pastors such as Schubert go to Howard Morrison, eager to turn patches of his farmland into church campuses that may become large congregations, feeding off the breathless home con- struction going on all around Gilbert.
But some church planners quickly lose faith in those dreams. They can’t afford $70,000 to $110,000 per acre — a veritable half-million dollars for a bare 5-acre parcel.
"The area is growing so fast that churches that do not necessarily have expertise in planning ahead find themselves a bit overwhelmed at the price of things," says Morrison, whose family has seen large tracts of their Gilbert farm holdings turned into businesses and homes.
HARVESTING THE FAITHFUL
Don’t count the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in that group of neophytes. It has been aggressive in buying land and putting up stately three-ward chapels in its "Heritage" and larger "Legacy" model stake centers.
"I have never backed away because of price," says Steve Hale, a real estate property manager for the church, who decides where to erect Mormon church buildings in Gilbert and across vast regions of the West.
"Our church policy is we will pay the market rate. Show me a valid current appraisal, and if I need it, I will buy it."
In the past five years, Hale has closed on seven parcels of land for Mormon churches, with an eighth in escrow, in the 85296 ZIP code area.
He estimates that 10 percent to 12 percent of the families purchasing homes in south Gilbert are Mormons. He pays particular attention to which developers are building where, as he decides where to locate campuses.
"If (Mormon-owned) Fulton Homes is building in a certain subdivision, we know approximately what percentage of those homes will be LDS families," Hale says. "Fulton, for example, has floor plans that cater more to maybe larger family situations. LDS people have larger families, so we kind of gravitate more to Fulton Homes."
David LeSueur is president of the Gilbert Arizona Highland Stake. It has 13 Mormon wards using three chapel buildings and two more to be completed next spring. He says Mormons are attracted to Gilbert by the same factors that are desirable to other newcomers — "wonderful education systems, some great schools."
"It is a clean, beautiful little community."
Schubert calls Gilbert "a very ripe place for church development" and a "ripe mission field."
Schubert cites Gilbert’s growth rate — 1,000 new people move to the town each month — and says people seem to be "hungry for connecting with a Christian community."
When newcomers arrive, she says, "the first thing they do is set up their house and their yard, and all that stuff, and then they start looking for a church, so there is a ‘settling-in’ phenomenon that happens."
"People have a tremendous desire to form community," Schubert says. "Gilbert is a place where people really cherish family values. They are very much interested in nurturing a healthy family."
MASSES AT MASS
Catholics are putting heavy demand especially on two parishes serving the Gilbert area.
St. Anne’s Catholic Church, 440 E. Elliot Road, has 8,000 registered families and about 27,000 people.
St. Mary Magdalene, which was founded in July 2002 and now has 1,000 families, meets temporarily in the Williams Community School gym at the Arizona State University East campus until the church’s permanent campus is completed at Williams Field Road and Parkcrest Street.
The boundaries of the 24-square mile parish of St. Anne’s takes in much of the 85296 ZIP code’s territory, and the Rev. Doug Lorig says nine weekend Masses can hardly keep up with about 9,000 who show up each weekend in peak winter months.
About 2,000 are Hispanics, many from Mexico.
"Ninety percent of them are new here to St. Anne’s in the last 12 years," he says of the entire congregation.
"I have very demanding people at St. Anne’s," Lorig says. "They want their Catholic faith, and they are willing to do what it takes to have it and put up with the crowds, the parking and the rest."
Last spring, Lorig wrote, "Help!" at the top of the church newsletter, then appealed to people to accept their assignments as to which Easter Mass to attend, according to their name in the alphabet. The morning "prime time" Mass simply can’t take more than 1,500 people, he says, adding such "desperate" measures were needed.
St. Anne’s campus, long dogged by bottlenecked traffic and parking problems, has taken pressure off its campus by opening an annex a block away. It also leases a building several miles away for catechismal programs for 1,500 children.
Lorig says another Catholic parish will be needed in south Gilbert, but the priest shortage will be a factor in what is constructed.
"Fifteen years ago, the diocese would buy 6 or 7 acres planning to build a church maybe seating 800," he says. "Now they buy 20 or more acres, planning to seat 1,500 because we don’t have enough priests to cover all these areas."
If projections hold true and Gilbert redoubles its population in 15 years, "we’ll need several new Catholic churches because St. Anne’s can’t take care of all these people forever."
"We are no longer afraid of ‘big.’ We can do it, but we cannot do it forever," he says.
The Rev. Candace Lansberry, founder of Song of Life United Methodist Church in Gilbert, says faith groups in the community have not shown a spirit of cooperation. She would like to see an "opening up of conversation."
"I think right now, we are so churchy," she says. "You know if you don’t believe my way, you are wrong."
To reach the 60 percent of residents who do not attend church, Lansberry says Christian leaders should come together in the spirit of cooperation they claim to espouse.
"Christianity is not about our differences but really about what we can do to improve the communities and make them a better place to live — just by putting God at the center," she says.
The Song of Life church, which draws about a third of its members from the 85296 ZIP code area and meets at Power Ranch Elementary School, is benefiting from a 10-acre farmland gift for its future campus from former Arizona House Speaker Jamie Sossaman and his wife, Sue.
The Rev. Richard Koerselman, longtime pastor of New Hope Community Church (Reformed Church in America), says Gilbert’s ministerial association disbanded years ago, and the Gilbert Action Interfaith Network, which has promoted diversity and the golden rule, "has been quiet for quite a while."
Under former Mayor Cynthia Dunham, Gilbert’s official "Bible Week," proclaimed annually and promoted by the mayor, brought court challenges, national support and rebuke and debate within Gilbert’s interfaith community.
The Rev. Bill Herrman, pastor of Heritage Lutheran Church, 14001 E. Ray Road, says his church, started in 1986, was ahead of the building boom, and he credits the Wisconsin Synod denomination for foresight in new church development.
The wave of churches trying to take root now, he says, seems to be nondenominational fellowship "with a high appeal for making church, in their words, relevant and fun."
Earle’s Sunday sermon reflects that same philosophy, and the notion that all of the area’s residents need to get along in spite of their different beliefs.
"When you’re dealing with a bunch of people, there’s going to be some problems," he says.
"Amen," answers the crowd.