Two prominent area churches — Word of Grace in Mesa and CitiChurch in Scottsdale — have merged in what’s being called “two streams coming together to form a rushing river that will transform the landscape of the Valley for good.”
Pastor Gary Kinnaman, 58, who has shepherded Word of Grace for 25 of its 27 years and has seen it grow to about 5,000 members, has taken a “pastor-at-large” role and turned over the leadership to Pastor Terry Crist, 42, who founded CitiChurch in 1999 and who will be installed in January as senior pastor of both churches. The new official name for the “one church in two locations” will be announced at that time.
Kinnaman told his congregation last January that he was looking for a co-pastor who could succeed him at Word of Grace. Over coffee about a year ago, Kinnaman told Crist of his transition plans and asked him for names of potential candidates.
“I said, 'I can do you one better than this — I may be interested,’ ” Crist told Kinnaman, one of the first pastors he consulted when he came to Arizona. Crist told Kinnaman he would not be willing to leave CitiChurch, which has 1,400 members, but that he had envisioned multiple campuses for his own church. If Word of Grace would “entertain a merger with us in which we combined as one church on two campuses, then it would work for us,” Crist said.
“We spent time in prayer, we continued the conversation, and we had a search committee working,” Crist said. Proposals for a merger were developed over about nine months, and the boards of each church approved it. “I can see the fingerprints of God all over this,” Crist said in a letter to CitiChurch after the plan was approved.
On Sept. 1, Crist took over. He and Kinnaman are sharing weekend services for the two campuses, with a new schedule to be adopted Jan. 5, with the formal installation of Crist as senior pastor.
The pastors call it a good fit. “The spiritual DNA of the two congregations compels the church to extend itself whenever and wherever God provides opportunity,” says a brochure laying out the changes. “I have a heart and a dream for the Phoenix area, for the faith community to become a stronger and more prominent player in social change,” said Kinnaman, author or co-author of 10 books, a leader in pastoral peer support development and the father of David Kinnaman, president of the influential Barna Research Group, a leading observer of the American religion scene.
“I have a conviction that a large church needs what George Barna refers to as a direct leader — someone who is a visionary,” Kinnaman said.
“Terry has wonderful communications skills, he is a good preacher, he has A+ leadership skills, he has asked all the right questions and he is very passionate about the church and about pastoral work,” Kinnaman said.
Crist, who has 20 years of pastoral work in Tulsa, Okla., Kansas City, Mo., and Scottsdale and is the author of several books, is a fifth-generation pastor, as is his wife, Judith. He has traveled to 62 countries, preaching and doing seminars in such places as Turkey, South Africa and Egypt.
Certain ministries of the two churches will merge, while others, such as children and youth programs, will remain with each campus. “Life groups” will form and may include three couples from each church to meet.
“Our missions program will be one, our singles program will be one, our small groups program will be one,” Crist said.
“We have a goal for seven campuses over the next 15 years,” he said.
“There are 2,000 multisite churches in America right now,” said Crist, father of three grown sons. He pointed to Leadership Network statistics that 30 percent of American megachurches (defined as those with a minimum of 2,000 members) have established at least one other campus. “Another 30 percent are in the process of preparing the launch of their next campus, and another 30 percent are considering it.”
“It’s about taking ministry to where people are doing life,” he said. People seem less willing to go long distances to church. “People may drive to work, but on weekends, they want to stay close to home.” Even where some churchgoers are willing to drive across town, “their evangelistic impact suffers because their neighbors aren’t willing to make the drive,” Crist said. “So by taking church to a place closer to home, it raises the evangelistic impetus.”
Crist believes the metropolitan area has room for a dozen 20,000-member churches.
“I think we have a lot of opportunity here because, even though there are some large, healthy, vibrant, reproducing megachurches, we are still, in large part, an unchurched culture.” Compared with other metropolitan areas, the Valley is “on the low end of the spectrum” in the ratio of churchgoers to population.
When he learned more about Word of Grace, Crist said he was surprised at the extent of its outreach ministries, including serving the elderly, painting houses, feeding the hungry, Habitat for Humanity house-building and opening the church gym in the heat of summer to the homeless. Word of Grace provided $998,000 last year in such ministries.
Founded as Gospel Echoes East Side Bible Church in 1980, the congregation first met in the Mesa Theater (current site of Spencers Appliance on First Avenue) and later at a former Mormon ward building (site of New Life Assembly of God on University Drive). In 1985, it moved to 655 E. University Drive in Mesa when Central Christian Church built its current campus on Lindsay Road. Over time, it bought 37 neighborhood houses to expand parking and campus buildings, including its sanctuary in 1997. As many as 9,000 attend Word of Grace on Easter, Kinnaman said.
“I felt like the church had reached a point where we needed new leadership, and I needed to do some other things in this season of my life,” he said. The decision was “a long time coming in some ways,” Kinnaman said, adding that he wished he had made it sooner.
“I am feeling a lot of personal freedom to fulfill the calling of God in my life, to serve the larger Christian community,” Kinnaman said. “I feel a lot of hope and joy for Word of Grace.”
Crist started CitiChurch in a Scottsdale community center 7 1/2 years ago, and it moved to a library, theater and school before its campus was built and opened in 2004 on 6 1/2 acres at 9610 E. Cactus Road in Scottsdale. In January, CitiChurch began holding Sunday services at Theater 4301 in downtown Scottsdale, as a second site seven miles south of its campus. “I closed it down because I couldn’t maintain that and also seize this opportunity,” he said.
“Both our churches are nondenominational,” Crist said. “We call it spirit and power churches — biblically literate, culturally relevant, spiritually sensitive. All of those things are an exact match.”