Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 1
If ever there were a modern day boom town in the Old West, Las Vegas has to be it — and church planter Tim Posey (RTS ’87) is just tickled pink to be sitting right in the middle of it.
Las Vegas is one of the top two fastest growing cities in the United States, and Nevada, the fastest growing state — some 4000 people move into Las Vegas every month. Experts predict the city’s current population of 750,000 will swell to between 1.2 and 1.5 million by the year 2000.
As pastor of the newly organized Spring Meadows Presbyterian Church in Las Vegas, thirty-six-year-old Posey is on the cutting edge of that growth, heading up a church planting effort in a state experiencing rapid transformation.
LAS VEGAS: A TALE OF TWO CITIES
You might expect Posey and his congregation to be meeting in a casino, but you’re wrong. Las Vegas and gambling have long been synonymous, but what most folks do not realize is that the face of Las Vegas is changing. Certainly the glitter and tinsel of the gaming industry still abound and attract millions of tourists — seventeen new hotels are under construction now — but the current population boom is a sizeable middle class who are settling down to live in Las Vegas. Why?
The big answer is a huge retirement population moving in from California. Senior citizens who bought their homes years ago for next to nothing in California can sell them for double that amount or more now, then move to Las Vegas, buy another house for the price of their original home, and use the difference for retirement — all without any state taxes in Nevada.
Also, good-paying jobs in the burgeoning tourism support industry are attracting white collar and semi-white collar workers. No longer is the Las Vegas middle class merely constructing the hotels and leaving; they’ve exchanged blue collars for white, and they’re moving in to manage them. The median age is thirty-four, and many couples have children — so many, in fact, that the city is building seventy-seven new schools.
To accommodate the growth, massive, planned communities are mushrooming all over Las Vegas. Spring Meadows is located in fast-growing Summerlin, a thirty-nine square mile development projected to have eight townships and a population of 250,000 by the year 2010.
The city may be prosperous, but the culture is tough to penetrate, and Tennessee-born Posey had culture shock for six months. “People here tend to be very audacious, even abrasive,” confides Tim. “No one trusts anyone else; you can’t write a check for two weeks until they run a credit check on you.”
So, how do you minister the gospel to people like this? According to Tim, you build bridges. “We are trying to build relationships and make disciples, not decisions,” he explains.
“Out here, you cannot use a canned evangelistic presentation to coax a person to accept Christ, then leave. Cold calls do not work in Las Vegas; in the West, if you come on strong, people clam up. Therefore, friendship evangelism is working for us; build a bridge, and they’ll listen.”
An aggressive marketing strategy has also paid off. Yellow Page advertising is a must and generates constant calls about the church. Creative, well-done mailouts and newspaper ads –five or six families visit whenever one runs — ask penetrating questions like, “Do your kids think Genesis is Phil Collins’ old band?” and then invite people to a “fresh start” at a church that cares.
FITTING THE CHURCH TO THE CULTURE
Ministering to such a culture means significant changes in the worship service, too. Spring Meadows is no ordinary Presbyterian church, but then it isn’t designed to be. Its focus is clear — reaching the unchurched person and making him want to return, bringing his friends.
“We are dealing with people who are not in the habit of going to church,” says Tim. “If all of the sporadic visitors who call our church home were to come every Sunday, we would have an attendance of over 250 people. Many times we have only one chance to impress a person; we want to hook him and keep him coming back.”
Consequently, worship services are low-key and low-commitment; they focus on making the unchurched person feel comfortable and unthreatened. Upbeat, contemporary, original music and praise songs replace traditional hymns; Randy Mattson, one of Wayne’s Newton’s band members, leads the music program, and other members of Newton’s band are actively involved in the church’s music. Drama is usually part of the service, while creeds and responsive readings are not used; much of the “Christianese ” is deleted, and Tim tries to communicate in very practical language.
Says Tim: “We can all agree on the functions of the church — to have fellowship, to teach, to have good worship which pleases God, to have outreach, and to be socially concerned. But the form which all that takes is dictated by the culture. Out here, you’d better be willing to build bridges to people where they are and tear down the walls.”
Spring Meadows’ strategy is to hook the unchurched at worship services, then get them involved in Sunday School and small groups, where commitment levels increase significantly. Sunday School classes and six small groups focus on Christian doctrine and commitment to Christ; a new members’ class teaches not only the meaning of a profession of Christ, but the commitment of time, talent, and money which grows from it.
Lives are being changed, and attendance is growing. A women’s Bible study has grown to twelve, all of whom have joined the church. Several troubled marriages have been helped and homes put back together. One blackjack dealer joined the church and changed his employment.
“Las Vegas desperately needs more churches like Spring Meadows,” says Tim. “No one is even attempting the strategies we are trying now. In fact, before we arrived, hardly any evangelistic work was going on. The five families who started Spring Meadows had been searching for a Bible-believing church for almost four years.”
THE BIRTH OF SPRING MEADOWS
God was at work, however, all across the United States, planting seeds for a ministry in Las Vegas. In 1987, Bill and Tammy Frey moved from Colorado Springs to Las Vegas. Forestgate, their former church in Colorado, already had a burden for the people of Las Vegas, and the pastor, Dominic Aquila (former Dean of Students at RTS), encouraged the Freys to think about starting a church there. They ran an ad in the Las Vegas newspaper and found four families who were interested in meeting for Bible study.
But it takes money to plant a church — lots of it. However, God had been working in the hearts of the people at First Presbyterian Church in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Pastor James Barnes (RTS ’77) and his congregation provided $25,000, half the amount needed, and an anonymous donor provided the other half.
In 1988, Tim was approved as a church planter and given five options – none of which were Las Vegas. “Ironically, I had just asked Dominic which of the five I should choose,” say Tim. “To my amazement, he said, ‘No, you need to go to Las Vegas.’ I told him he was crazy, that I had not even thought about Las Vegas.
Imagine my surprise when the phone rang the next day and I was asked to go to Las Vegas.”
Tim and his wife, Pam, visited the city and met with the core group, whom they immediately liked. “They were couples our age with children, and they were absolutely the hungriest people spiritually I had ever seen in my life,” remembers Tim. When I preached, they hung on every word. During the sermon, I looked at my wife and saw she was crying. I thought, ‘Oh, boy, she hates this place.’ Afterward, when I asked her why she was crying, she said, ‘I was so moved by the hunger of those people!'”
The Poseys arrived in Las Vegas in August, 1988, and found that their main problem was not getting people to come, but finding a place to accommodate them. A Sunday worship service in their home grew to forty people almost overnight. After a long search –no one wanted to rent to a religious group — they found a dance studio whose Christian owner agreed to lease them space, and they moved in November. By word of mouth, the church grew to almost sixty people.
The congregation then decided to do a telemarketing survey, and volunteers spent a month calling 22,000 numbers. Over 2200 people requested material about the church, and 282 showed up for the first service.
Attendance leveled off at about 130, but they soon outgrew the dance studio. They could only use the building on Sunday, and there was no room for Sunday School; the nursery was a glorified closet.
Currently, they are renting space from a private prep school — where the likes of Gladys Knight sends her children. Use of the facility has allowed them to begin an aggressive children’s and youth ministry, but the school is not centrally located; this time, they’re planning a permanent move.
If all goes well, a rather novel idea will allow the church to build a facility without incurring the heavy debt which would be burdensome for such a young congregation. Several businessmen in the church are forming a limited partnership to donate the money for a two-story office complex, part of which the church will occupy. A Las Vegas contractor, with whom Posey has built a close relationship, has become involved in the church and will build the complex at cost. Plans are to sell it in three to five years and donate the money to the church to use as capital for a building project. Tim has a broad vision for the future scope of the church’s ministry — an arts center, counseling center, and a recording studio with ability for television.
Ingenuity, creativity, and a humble reliance on God to reveal unique ways to spread His Word in this hard-to-reach culture — that’s what Tim Posey and his congregation have going for them. They’re building bridges, making friends, changing lives — showing the world that, even in a boom town, people need Jesus.