Ten acres of pistachios are ripening on the trees at the Grove Bible Church of Chandler. “We are going to have a good crop this year,” said Pastor Palmer Chinchen, but first he has to find someone to harvest them in the fall.
But the pastor’s tasks now are many. He has 54 folks to get ready to leave in two groups, starting Friday, on a mission to Africa, where their outreach will include putting up 500 mosquito nets in homes. The money was raised during a quick $5,000 fund drive.
In December, Chinchen transplanted Canyon Ridge Bible Church from its temporary site at Santan K-8 School on Chandler Heights Road to its new $5 million campus, 20105 S. Gilbert Road, and gave the church a new name. The Grove conjured biblical metaphors of vines and branches, new growth and the bearing of fruit. In the few months at the campus, the congregation has almost tripled in size to more than 900. “We have just been growing every month, and it was divine that God put us in this place,” said Chinchen, 43, who spent 16 years of his boyhood in Africa, where his father founded three Christian colleges.
It’s fortuitous, he said, that the new church has taken root in a fast-growing residential area with few churches.
“Our demographics are a lot of young families with little kids, so we want to do as much as we can for kids and make this a place for families with little kids and make them feel welcomed and wanted,” he said. They’ve named the children’s ministry “The Greenhouse.” It reaches more than 200 children.
“Families in the south East Valley are buying new homes,” Chinchen said. “They are moving to a new area, and a lot of them are starting over spiritually. They are fathers and mothers for the first time, they are raising kids and they realize we need God.” They are finding that “life without God has been empty,” he said. For some married couples, he said, “it is the first time worshiping as a family.”
On its Web site, www.the groveaz.org, the church touts itself as a “breath of fresh air for those who are not ‘into’ the whole church thing.”
Part of the atmosphere is the Grove Coffee Co., a standalone coffee shop and outdoor patio, an indoor-outdoor fireplace, and a place to experience music, discussion, Bible study and prayer.
“Our vision is that our church is a seven-day-a-week place. People can hang out here,” in what amounts to a “side door into the church,” Chinchen said. The goal is to create a place “where people don’t want to leave” the campus in fulfilling one of the Grove’s core values, “building community and reaching the community.”
Within a few miles, there will soon be four high schools to draw from for its extensive youth programs.
Youth, in fact, were the veritable founders of the church.
In the fall of 2000, dozens of high school and junior high students started meeting weekly in the backyard of a Tempe home for worship and Christian fellowship. When adults wanted to join them, they outgrew the yard and moved to a park. Then a pastor was asked to lead them. For a time, they met at Valley Christian High School in Chandler, but settled at Santan school in 2002. That year the congregation decided to buy 19 acres in Chandler for a building site. Chinchen, who holds a doctorate in education from a divinity school and has four sons, joined the staff about five years ago.
The new youth center has large rooms for activities, games and hanging out, and the worship center doubles as a gym for basketball and indoor sports, including minisoccer, with 100 youth there for weeknight activities. “One thing we are passionate about is sports ministry,” Chinchen said. On May 1, it named onetime major league baseball pitcher Jamie Brewington director of sports ministries. Five acres of sports fields are being developed for camps and competition in soccer, softball, flag football and other sports. In the auditorium, Monday nights will be volleyball nights, and Tuesday nights will be for basketball.
Leon Quan said he and his wife, Lori, tried many churches before they and their 3-yearold visited the Grove about three months ago.
“We were so impressed by the culture, by the warmth of the people, by the user-friendliness of the facilities,” he said. “Everything is done with excellence.” The church-shopping comes down to “finding something that resonates with what you are trying to accomplish with your family.” He lauded the church’s children’s program and music and said the Grove reflects his family’s interests, plus “the kind of (faith) development I want my kids to have.”
Mona Marushak, who organized and leads Mothers for Preschoolers at the church, said that she and her husband, Nathan, instantly found a “sense of peace” when they visited the church. “We felt that that was where God had called us,” she said. “The people we met welcomed us right away. We were able to plug in with Bible studies and leadership opportunities, and we serve with the child-care ministries.”
“I personally learned to enjoy my faith through the Grove,” she said. “I have been able to carry it over to my children, my husband and my friends.” She described Chinchen as a downto-earth, approachable pastor. “He has always made me feel, through his sermons, that he is right down there with us and that he is going through all the things that we all go through.”
Chinchen’s father, the Rev. John Chinchen, was a pastor in Mississippi when a Liberian pastor spoke at his church and challenged the congregation to do Christian work in Africa. “My father felt like, ‘How can I ask other people to go when I am not going myself?’ ” Palmer Chinchen said. “He sold everything he had and moved to Africa with seven kids.” That was 1970, when Chinchen was 6. In time, his father developed Christian colleges in Liberia, Malawi and Uganda, all countries that the Grove mission group will visit on its trip that winds up June 17. The theme is “red — respond, equip and declare.” Volunteers plan to work with orphans, provide health-care support and perform sports ministry, do trauma counselor training, counsel former child-soldiers and help a Liberian college rebuild 32 structures damaged or destroyed in civil war.
Chinchen, who taught in the colleges before taking the Grove post, said his young congregation has earnestly responded to the African projects.
“That international perspective does help to challenge people,” he said.
“Often when we think about God, we don’t think large enough, so our thoughts should be grand. Our thoughts should be life-changing,” he said.
“I told our people the Sunday we moved in that ‘you are in the middle of a miracle,’ that churches don’t start with 20 acres of land. If we had bought just one acre of land, it is hard to change the world, and we needed to be bigger than that.”