Pat Warner was raised Catholic but said she didn’t have a relationship with God until two years ago.
That’s when she bought her first Bible and started attending Valor Christian Center in Gilbert after she was invited by a friend.
“Other churches, although they were nondenominational ,never spoke of the Holy Spirit within their sermons,” Warner said. “We felt like we were missing out of something.”
Warner, 68, said she and her husband, Robert, 79, found the Gilbert church “the best enlightening experience we ever had.”
Valor Christian Center boasts just 90 members — if everyone was to show up. 46 percent of American churchgoers belong to congregations with no more than 100 members, according to the Barna Group, a California research company that tracks the role of faith in America.
Americans are attending church less, and more people are experiencing and practicing their faith outside of its four walls, the Barna Group reported.
According to Churchleadership.org, every year more than 4,000 churches close their doors compared with just over 1,000 new church starts. And, every year 2.7 million church members lapse into inactivity, which means people are leaving the church, it said.
Valor Christian was on shaky ground when the Rev. Scott Whitwam, came on board as senior pastor in 2014. The church was previously named Oasis Family Church.
“It was very rocky,” recalled Whitwam, a Mesa resident and Realtor. “The finances of the church were very liquid.”
He said the church building faced foreclosure in 2015 but through financial stewardship and faith in God, the congregation turned the situation around to where “we are paying all the bills.”
Today, the church is trying to grow its congregation — a challenge, Whitwam admitted, given “the propensity in our society to be anti-God and to want kids to discover God on their own.”
He believes society has changed over the last 50 years to where a sense of community no longer centers around a church.
For Valor Christian Center and churches in general, getting people through the doors is a critical first step.
Smart Church Management, a church management consulting company, recommends five ways to recruit new members: get involved with the community, host public events, have members invite family and friends, offer diversity-friendly services and create interest-based groups.
Valor Christian has held a number of outreach events, such as hosting free car washes and an annual car show. It also served as a polling center during elections and a meeting place for Christian business people.
Whitman has toyed with the idea of offering for free a Dave Ramsey Financial Peace Stewardship Program. Other ideas include offering babysitting services at the church for $1 an hour to the community, Whitwam said.
“I’d like to grow a bit faster,” he said, noting a larger congregation means having the volunteers necessary to offer more programs.
The vision for the church, which sits on 5.5 acres, is to add a school and a gymnasium for youth indoor sports, Whitwam said.
The pastor, however, isn’t interested in trying to create a mega church and said unless a program fits with the its vision, it won’t be considered.
“We’re not going to create a kayak program just to get more people in church because they enjoy it,” he said. “We believe in the principle we are led by the Holy Spirit in everything we do.”
Through its fundraisers — such as selling fireworks — the church has contributed close to $10,000 to Soldier’s Best Friend, according to Whitwam.
The Peoria nonprofit provides service or therapeutic companion dogs to veterans with combat-related, post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
For Whitwam, bringing value to the community is important and the church works with town leaders to make sure their goals are in line.
“He’s a really great guy and wants to see this congregation grow,” Associate Pastor Thor Strandholt said. “People just love his teachings. We don’t teach religion here, we teach relationship. There are many religions in the world. We rather reach people who want to have a relationship with God.”
Before Whitwam, who was raised Catholic, came to Valor Christian, he was a pastor in Oakville, Washington. The church had 25 members in a town that only had 500 people.
An accident that almost killed him brought the 53-year-old to Arizona, who found the warm climate conducive to his recovery.
It was a rainy Monday morning on Oct. 20, 2003 when his children missed the school bus and Whitwam decided to drive them. It was the first heavy rain of October, which filled up ravines and flooded roadways in the farming community.
After dropping the kids off, a semi pulling two trailers jackknifed on a two-lane road and smashed into Whitwam’s car on the passenger side.
The crash pushed up the floorboard, shoving Whitwam’s right femur into his hip and against the femoral artery and his face collided with the steering wheel, injuring his brain.
After he was cut out of his vehicle and rushed to the emergency room, his wife, Tina, was told he would have just 20 minutes to live. Tina Whitwam also is a senior pastor at Valor Christian Center.
An ER doctor, however, was able to jerk Whitwam’s leg off the artery, buying him more time until he could be airlifted 100 miles away to a trauma hospital in Seattle.
He spent 18 months in rehabilitation.
“It’s made me more empathetic,” Whitwam said of the accident. “I’ve been a business guy since I was 14 years old, A-type personality — just get the job done, no excuses.”
After the crash, he suffered from PTSD and didn’t want to be anywhere near a vehicle — which was devastating for a guy who once drove stock cars.
Working with a doctor, he slowly overcame what he called his unrealistic fear but he still doesn’t trust other drivers as much, he said.
Whitwam rarely brings up his accident in his sermons unless it’s applicable.
“I never blamed God,” he said. “I had a good understanding of the Bible. I don’t find where God in the Bible punishes people because he is looking to correct them.”
Nowadays Whitwam shows no visible scars and is able to resume activities such as playing basketball and running.
“It’s miraculous,” he said of his recovery.
And to that end, Whitwam is probably the best example of God’s healing powers when the church holds its monthly healing service.
“God uses situations in our lives for his purpose,” Whitwam said.
For now, Warner has found a spiritual home.
“Pastor Scott is so awesome,” she said. “He is a true believer.”