Vacation in the desert kindles call to Ariz.

by Dave Arden/Arizona Portraits, posted Tuesday, May 09, 2017 (7 months ago)

Josh and Shannon Jennings and their three children planted their lives in Sedona -- the Arizona town popular for its red rock formations and eclectic residents -- after the 2011 SBC annual meeting in Phoenix.
Photo by Natalie Montgomery
SEDONA, Ariz. (BP) -- The two-hour drive to Sedona was an uncomfortable one for Josh Jennings, balking at his wife's vacation plans in the middle of the Arizona desert after the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix.

But when Josh and Shannon arrived in Sedona -- 2,000-plus miles removed from their South Carolina home -- something happened they did not expect. There, in the midst of the red rock pillars and majestic mountain cliffs, they were drawn to this unique culture.

Sedona, one of the biggest New Age destinations in the country, is a unique enclave of tourists, artists, psychics, locals, jeep riders, gurus, hikers, Buddhists and nature lovers. After Josh became acquainted with the region and the spiritual needs there, he made the offhand comment, "Somebody ought to plant a church out here."

Over the next few years, the Lord enabled Josh and Shannon and their three children to add an additional church's witness in Sedona.

"I never considered planting a church," Josh said. "I was happy being the pastor of an established church."

Yet, from 2011 to 2013, God began to impress upon their hearts that He was calling them to Arizona, sometimes in unusual ways.

Once, the Jennings family was hiking in South Carolina's Table Rock State Park where they had a "God moment" when a man walked by wearing a Sedona shirt and a Clemson hat (Shannon is passionate about Clemson). Later, they met a young man at the 2013 Passion Conference who reminded them about the big challenges in Sedona.

Josh soon found out more about the opportunities in Sedona. His director of missions in Spartanburg contacted Rik Danielsen, director of missions in Arizona's Yavapai Baptist Association and learned there was a definite need for a new plant. Danielsen told them a church in Cottonwood, 20 miles to the Southwest, was praying about starting a church in Sedona.

Josh moved to the Verde Valley in January 2014 and his family arrived that summer. They officially launched Aletheia Church on Jan. 18, 2015. "Aletheia" is the word for "truth" in Greek.

"I love the people of Sedona," Josh reflected. "We have a real presence in the community. Our [church members] see this as an opportunity to serve our town."

Josh and Shannon have worked hard to make inroads into Sedona by hiking the trails with people, serving in the schools and parks, and loving the community as Jesus would.

"When people first hear what we do, the walls go up," Josh said. "But when we show interest in them and care more for them than ourselves, the walls come down" -- and people come to Christ.

Multiple churches east and west have partnered with Aletheia Church to reach Sedona. Crestview Community Church -- the first Southern Baptist church in town -- and pastor Ken Nickell have been especially supportive, allowing the church plant to worship on their campus on Sundays.

The Jennings family is not just surviving in Sedona -- they are thriving.

"I was scared that my kids [Caleb, Eli and Anna Grace] would not adjust well moving from the South," Shannon said, "but my kids have done beautifully."

Ministry in the West, Shannon has found, can be refreshing.

"People are open and honest and don't sugarcoat how they feel," she said. "As long as people know you genuinely care for them, they are open to an honest conversation about Christ."

Josh's leadership and Shannon's energy have been big reasons for the church's progress. They now have dreams of multiplying and starting new churches as they influence the Sedona area and beyond.

"My biggest dream," Josh said, "is that one day people will flock to Sedona not because it's wildly spiritual but because God is working in people's lives."

Getting involved

-- Pray for Arizona church planters like Josh Jennings that God would give them wisdom and strength to make an impact in their communities. Most of all, pray for their endurance to stay the course and to keep standing (Ephesians 6:11,14).

-- Partner with church plants like Aletheia (http://aletheiasedona.com) with encouragement, people, support and passion. Get your feet wet by sending a mission team to spend a week with a church planter.

-- Plant a church. Why not you? Being on a church planting lead team is a great way to grow in your faith and leadership. Contact Monty Patton, North American Mission Board Send City coordinator for Phoenix-Tucson, at mpatton@namb.net.

Dave Arden (arden118@hotmail.com), a freelance writer living in Surprise, Ariz., is a North American Mission Board church planting catalyst serving in the Phoenix-area West Valley. This article first appeared in Portraits, the magazine of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.
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