Churches changing with their
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 15, 2004
Demographic shifts stir older
Ten years ago Messiah Lutheran
Church in Phoenix saw upward of 300 worshipers at Sunday services.
By 2001, the central Phoenix congregation had dwindled to about 20, and it
didn't take long to figure out the problem: The largely White church was planted
in the middle of a burgeoning Latino neighborhood at 27th Avenue and Camelback
"One by one, families would move out of the area and the neighborhood shifted
from predominately Anglo to Latino with the language barrier to go with it,"
said Kathryn Thompson, the former president of the church's council.
Messiah, which marked its 50th
anniversary this year, isn't alone. Neighborhoods across the Valley are going
through similar demographics changes, and churches are left deciding whether to
put out the welcome mat, close down or turn over the keys to those with the
skills to minister to the areas.
"This challenge is not isolated to one faith or neighborhood because it affects
all religions which have churches in a changing area," said Jorge Montiel of the
Valley Interfaith Project, a network of congregations and non-profit
Calvary United Methodist Church at 79th Avenue and Indian School Road hired a
part-time Hispanic minister to face the challenge while the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints added Spanish ministries to its ward at 38th Avenue
and Camelback Road.
Some denominations have met resistance while trying to develop ministries for
"A lot of people are somewhat hesitant to initiate outreach programs because
they have a sense that they are being taken over," Montiel said.
Wally Athey, secretary of the United Methodist Association,calls it a difficult
"On the one hand, it's our duty to accommodate the entire community," he said.
"But at the same time, long-standing members don't always welcome change." Some
of the churches within the Valley Interfaith Coalition are in heavily Latino
areas, where the parishioners strongly resist outreach.
Father Chris Carpenter of Christ the King Catholic Church said he understands
the hesitation many in his central Mesa congregation are feeling.
"Change is a difficult passage for congregations to deal with especially if they
have attended a church for a long time," Carpenter said of the church, located
in a heavily Hispanic area. "However, we have an obligation to welcome our
neighbors and serve the community as it changes."
Messiah had initial dissent as well, but the handful of members eventually
decided outreach was the key to bringing up numbers.
In 2001, with help from the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America and the Lutheran Urban Coalition of Phoenix, the church hired
its first bilingual pastor, the Rev. Maria Valenzuela.
Valenzuela began an after-school tutoring program for neighborhood children and
morning English classes for adults. Messiah was reaching out.
Then, in spring 2003, the church hit a roadblock. A child-care center renting
space at the church abruptly closed, taking with it one-third of the church's
"At this time, the council looked around at the new life created by the outreach
and we realized God was showing us what needed to be done," Thompson said.
The council contacted Jose Valenzuela,director of the synod's Latino outreach
program and the son of the Rev. Valenzuela.
"Historically my phone rings when a predominantly Anglo church is having
retention problems due to a neighborhood's changing demographics," said Jose
Valenzuela, who leads ethnic church-planting efforts. "Messiah was a perfect
candidate because it sits in an area in which 68 percent of the population is
Now it was decision time. To become a church plant, Messiah's council would have
to donate the church in full to the synod. It would include renaming and
restructuring the church and eventually replacing Messiah's small congregation.
"It was a difficult choice to make, but I didn't see it as us giving the church
away," Thompson said. "We were giving to God in order to better serve the
community, which needed it."
In May 2003, the church voted to give the synod control.
The church was renamed La Vida Nueva, to symbolize the new life brought to a
changing community. In November 2003, the Rev. Gissela Varinia Blanco, the first
ordained Peruvian pastor in the United States, was hired. She replaced the Rev.
Valenzuela, who couldn't continue because she didn't live in the church's
neighborhood, a mission requirement.
"The neighborhood was very receptive during the door-to-door outreach," said
Blanco, who graduated from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., in 1999. "Small
things like replacing the traditional organ music with guitars and pianos make
such a difference in the church's atmosphere."
On Easter this year, La Vida Nueva held its first worship service as a
reconfigured church, though officially the church wasn't signed over until July.
Jose Valenzuela was awed by the receptiveness and enthusiasm of the newly formed
"On a home visit to the Ramirez family, they told me they had never been in a
church where they felt such a sense of community," Jose Valenzuela said. "Their
children were baptized on the first day La Vida Nueva officially took over."
As for the handful of congregants at Messiah, they've moved on.
"It was sad, but now the church is opened up to the community that surrounds
it," Thompson, the former council leader, said. "And as for us, there is a new
row at St. John's Church in Glendale made up of the old Messiah crowd."