Phoenix URC focuses on God’s mission to the city

Gathering for worship at Phoenix URC
Gathering for worship at Phoenix URC

Phoenix, AZ, named after the mythological regenerating bird associated with the sun, consistently tops the charts of the sunniest US cities. The legendary phoenix can symbolize Christian themes of rebirth and resurrection, and it’s those timeless truths that members of Phoenix URC seek to bring to the almost 1.5 million people living in American’s sixth largest city.

Whenever I write a church profile, I begin by gleaning information from the church’s website. The professionalism and appearance of the Phoenix URC site were striking. Via email, I visited with Pastor Phil Grotenhuis about this and the church’s ministerial perspective.

CR: The church website has a fresh look and a professional feel. What led to your website changes and what kinds of things did you want to convey with the upgrade?

Pastor Phil Grotenhuis
Pastor Phil Grotenhuis

Pastor Grotenhuis: Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not web savvy. According to Pastor Bill De Jong, I once tried turning on a computer by pushing the Dell sticker on the desktop hard drive. Nevertheless, I think I can still convey accurately how we came about reconfiguring our website.

We came to a point in our church’s ministry where we believed that we needed to ask a number of key questions that revolved around the matter of ministerial philosophy such as: Who are we? Why are we here in Phoenix – a city that ranks fifth in the nation in population and number one in geographical expanse?  Where are we at in our church’s ministry?  What are our ministry’s strengths?  What are our ministry’s weaknesses?  Where should we be heading as a church? There appeared to be a consensus that we needed more exposure as a church. Our conviction was that if the light of the gospel and our Reformed heritage was so precious, then we were obligated to let our light shine (Matthew 5:14,15). In the course of discussion on these key questions, a member of our church suggested we take a serious look at our website. We understood that our website was an integral part of our witness and so we needed to “freshen it up,” as they say.

We’re extremely glad we did.

There are a number of things that prompted a retooling of our website. First, we did a search of some URC websites and found that a number of them were quite informational but lacked aesthetic appeal. Secondly, we found that a number of websites lacked pictures of the members and life of the church. The standard home page typically showed a picture of the church building but no true face of the church. On a related note, we found no videos that provided an insight into the ministry and life of the church (at least among the websites we viewed). Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, many websites reflected (in my personal opinion) an imbalance between the church as institute and the church as organism. Many websites were weighted in favor of the church as institute – its leadership, doctrinal position, confessional standards, on-line sermons, worship practices. But few focused on the organic life of the body – its community, relationships, ministries, local outreach efforts, opportunities for service. It’s not as if these things were not there; it’s just that they did not seem emphasized to the degree that we wanted for our own website.

As a result of our findings, we set out to create a website that reflected more of a balance between information, doctrine, community, worship, ministries, mission, etc. – all packaged in a fresh, creative, accessible, and aesthetically pleasing way. This required that we go outside our circles (Tipping Point Media) and invest a significant amount of money in making this happen.  We’re generally happy with the results and we have discovered that a large majority of our visitors decided to visit us due to the appeal of our website, particularly the three videos that we feature. Many people have commented that they have found it extremely helpful in learning about who we are, what we believe, what we practice, and what our calling is in the world.

CR: A video on the website explains that Phoenix URC began meeting in a warehouse in 1996, but soon moved to a school in an industrial area where it met for many years. It implies that in recent years the church purchased an older building and renovated it. If that is correct, when did the renovation occur, and in what ways has the building facilitated your congregation’s witness to the city?

Pastor G. In God’s gracious providence, the door was opened for us to purchase an existing church building centrally located in Phoenix. You are correct in saying that our church began meeting in a warehouse and then soon moved into a public school gymnasium where it worshipped for about 15 years. During that time the church committed itself to giving to a building fund that accrued over time. You can imagine that after 15 years the church was itching to have a place they could call “home.” An existing church building opened up a year and a half ago not far from the school where we were worshipping. We chose to purchase the building primarily because of its geographical proximity. It provided a central meeting place for our congregants – many who must drive many miles from all parts of the city (my commute time is 35-40 minutes).

young peopleBut our location also provides access to a number of people in the area and we’re currently in the process of figuring out how best to reach them. Recently, our Rooted group (ages 18-25) offered a mammoth garage sale in our church’s parking lot. We sold various items to fund a mission trip to Honduras, cooked burgers and hot dogs, mingled with people from our neighborhood, and took interested people through a tour of our facility. This provided great exposure for our new church and, quite frankly, many in the neighborhood were thrilled that we were there. A few months later our Rooted group sponsored a pancake breakfast to raise further funds and sent out flyers throughout a mile wide radius of our building. At one point in the breakfast, half of the people were from the neighborhood. You can’t underestimate what God is able and willing to do when you “stick your neck out” and “test the waters.”

CR: Phoenix URC is about 350 miles or about five and half hours from its nearest URC neighbor, Christ Reformed Church in Santee, CA. In what ways do you foster fellowship with other URCNA congregations and with local churches?

Pastor G. Great question. Yes, we are on a bit of an island and we are not the only ones [like this] in the URC. In some respects, this is a healthy thing. It allows us to form our own identity in a unique setting apart from what other URCs are doing. In other respects, there is a sense of isolation that is mitigated somewhat by flying in URC pastors upon occasion for preaching and seminars and also keeping in touch with URCs that share a similar ministerial philosophy. Of course, the leadership also finds fellowship at our regular classical and synodical gatherings. But we have also found that we have been greatly blessed by interactions with other churches. Such interaction allows us to see that the church of Jesus Christ is greater than the URC federation (thus keeping us from a sectarian spirit). At the same time it helps us to gain a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of our federation and its confessional heritage.

CR: How would you describe your church’s viewpoint on ministry or leadership and what are you doing to develop it?

Pastor G. One thing that we are increasingly grappling with is our mission identity. Many conservative churches view mission as addendum to their church’s ministry rather than the very heart and identity of their ministry. The reason for this, in my estimation, is because they don’t see the Scripture through the hermeneutical lens of God’s mission to the world. Jesus has not gathered a people for the sake of themselves but for the sake of the world (John 20:21). When you see the church through the hermeneutical lens of mission, it affects everything you do in the church and drives the church’s ministerial philosophy.

The danger of every local church is to fall unconsciously into a maintenance form of ministry. This easily happens when the church (and especially the leadership) fail to regularly ask themselves key questions about identity and purpose. Thus, at PURC we have committed ourselves as elders to meet twice a year to assess our ministry and address such questions as: Who are we?  Why are we here in Phoenix?  What are our current strengths?  What are our current weaknesses?  Where should we be going in our ministerial calling as a church?  Asking these questions is vital and cultivates intentionality in ministry. It prevents the church from navel gazing, stagnation, suspicion, and inevitable infighting. Positively, it keeps the church moving forward and gives the congregation a sense that they are not only important to each other but the world.

One thing I personally find is that it’s easy to lack creativity in ministry. It’s so easy to plod on from year to year without serious analysis of what the church is doing and without providing creative solutions to perceived shortcomings. At PURC, we have initiated some ministries/activities that have attempted to address various weaknesses. This has been good because it has provided opportunities for service among the members.

two womenHere have been some of our endeavors. We have provided a fresh look to our website. We have recently formed and sent a mission group to Honduras. We are seeking closer ties with New City Phoenix, a PCA ministry to impoverished South Phoenix. We have initiated men’s leadership training with special speakers from around the country. We have begun a discussion about a daughter church plant sometime in the future. We have looked at how we worship and how we can, without compromise, make our worship more intelligible and accessible to people with little or no Christian background. We have examined ways to increase fellowship between believers in the church. We are in the process of forming a mentoring program for new believers. We have initiated a yearly post-worship, congregation-wide celebration of new members – some of them who share stories of how God brought them to faith and/or brought them to our PURC. It’s a great time of encouragement for the church. More could be said. But this gives you an insight into how we (in a very imperfect way!) seek to be faithful in our ministerial calling as a church to the city in which God’s has providentially placed us.

Of course, this kind of ministerial philosophy creates immeasurably more work but the fruit, by God’s grace, is extremely sweet. And we still have much more work to do. But we rest in God’s grace and provision … “(He) is able to do far more abundantly that what we ask or think according to His power at work within us. To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever. Amen!” (Ephesians 3:20,21).

The above interview by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 12-14 of the January 1, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal.

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