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'The Fields Are White Here': Church Planters Say Las Vegas is Strategic for The Gospel

Las Vegas Church Plant

Southern Baptists have watched the denomination's membership decline for over a decade but an emerging trend holds promise: an uptick in church planting last year, including a number of multi-ethnic congregations.

In Las Vegas, the denomination's SEND Network is planting 13 new churches. It's a strategic move in a high-profile city that's rapidly growing. It's also an uphill climb.

"The overall majority of people, I guarantee you—especially if they're from the West coast, have never had someone sit down and explain who Jesus is," said Josh Carter, a church planting coach with SEND.

Carter and other Southern Baptist church planters describe Las Vegas as a "pre-Christian" culture with large numbers of people who know little about the Bible and church.

"These people, because they're not used to church, they're not waking up on a Sunday thinking 'man, it would be great to go to church today,'" he said. 

That culture has led to a different kind of playbook for church planters in places like Las Vegas. In many cases, it starts with social media.

"That literally is the front door for people," said Carter. "They're going to check you out. They're going to follow you."

Building one-on-one relationships is another key building block. During the pandemic that's been an enormous challenge for planters.

Joseph Gibbons and his wife Kristen arrived in Las Vegas in August 2020, backed by the SEND network and ready to begin a church.

They soon found themselves struggling to connect with neighbors during stifling hot summer days that keep most people indoors.

In time, they discovered a place where people were ready and willing to talk: Las Vegas' splash pad parks.

"Really nothing was open," Gibbons recalls. "We have little kids, ages 5 and 3, so my wife would take them out to the parks and she would meet moms."

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Joseph and Kristen began building friendships and found people who were willing and open to exploring the Bible.

"For us, it's about not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought but getting into a posture of 'we all need to meet each other on the ground level of the Gospel,'" said Gibbons. "And if we're doing that then we're taking those religious facades and throwing them in the trash can."

Gibbons also prioritized giving to the community. He approached a local high school and asked how he could help it succeed.

From there, Favor City began to grow, right in the midst of the pandemic.

"When the limit of gatherings was 10 we said 'great, we have six,'" Gibbons says. "And we just started to gather."

Favor City is part of a wave of Southern Baptist church plants that are moving the needle in the right direction.

The denomination has struggled to regain ground for over a decade. Membership has declined by more than two million since a peak of 16.3 million in 2006.

But church planting, even during Covid-19, has grown. In 2020, Southern Baptists launched close to 600 new plants, up 36% over the previous year.

Church growth experts like Dr. Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, say the movement holds promise.

"I think there's hope," he told CBN News in June. "The North American Mission Board is planting hundreds and hundreds of churches, surprisingly high numbers even in 2020."

These churches are also diverse. Six in 10 of the plants in 2020 were non-Anglo with multi-ethnic and Hispanic groups leading the way.

That's crucial as experts predict that whites will decline to a minority population in the US as early as 2045. 

Going forward, Southern Baptists and other denominations will continue to rely on church planters to keep pace with closing doors. 

Nashville-based Lifeway Research estimates that roughly 3,000 Protestant churches started in the US in 2019 while 4,500 Protestant churches closed. 

Daniel Yang, a church planting expert, and director of the Send Institute is calling for a net gain of 2,000 new churches per year,  in order to keep up with these closures and population growth.

That means the call for church planters is as urgent as ever. 

Carter says cities like Las Vegas, with its melting pot culture and adaptability, offer a prime opportunity for the Gospel.

"This city has the best opportunity to multiply churches quicker," he said. It's one of the reasons why he recently relocated to Vegas, after planting a church in Oregon.

It's also a city where planters will need a missionary perspective.

"You used to think 'well to do that you have to go to a place like China or another country to share with people who don't know Jesus," he explained. "Well, welcome to the West coast. Welcome to Las Vegas—the fields are white here with many people who don't know the Gospel."

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