Why Phoenix

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November 9, 2022
Future Church
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Lately I've been writing a bit about the upcoming Phoenix adventure. In the last couple of articles (The Chasm the Church is Facing, The 4D Chasm), I've unpacked the challenge I see the church facing in our current context. We face a uncommon moment in history in which the task at hand involves a more-than-iterative change in the way we do church. What I plan to do ahead is give my best crack at building a church in a new shape that is on the other side of some of these issues. I refer to this task with the term Church Pioneering, which draws up fantastic images of the Oregon Trail computer game I loved to play growing up. Will we have any luck in our task? Or will we die of dysentery as we try and ford a river along the way? No one can know for sure, but I know I can't not try.

In the process that I've walked through discerning all of this over the last couple of years, when I got to this point an obvious question presented itself: where should I go and give this a try? It's not immediately obvious how to make a decision like that: often church planters feel a call to a specific location–the passion for a particular place or people drives a lot of vision forward. We didn't feel called to a specific place, we felt called to attack a particular problem. How do you move from that to a concrete place to go and give it a try?

Well, of course I began by asking God where I should go. Here I am, Lord, send me...somewhere? This is, of course, what I believe is the right way to start. We're only as fruitful as we partner with God is what he's already doing (John 5:19, John 15:4), so the first question is where God is doing this. I prayed and asked for him to make it clear. And I waited for revelation, and I waited...and I waited.

What do you do when you're trying follow the Lord and he's not speaking? That's a tough place to be.

There are of course many good answers to that question generally: it's good to keep doing what you've been assigned until God changes the assignment, for example, but my problem is that didn't help me in this situation. God had made it clear the assignment was changing, now he just wasn't telling me where the new assignment was going to happen.

Eventually I concluded that the way I was trying to go about the decision wasn't what God was doing. What I didn't see at the time was that my grid for hearing God on that decision was limited to one in which he spoke in an instant rather than speaking through a process. God was eager to speak to me, he just wasn't doing it in the way where he resolves everything up front; he wanted me to journey through a process so that I could understand some of why Phoenix was the place to go next. Of course hindsight is 20-20, in the moment it just felt confusing and hard. Difficulty being what it was, I eventually concluded the way this decision was going to get made didn't look like God handing me the completed answer so I started doing research while praying that God would guide and speak in that process.

In the time between then and now, I've had various people reflect to me that seeing the process I walked through was helpful to them, so I thought I would put it out there as an example of following God through this type of decision. If you find it helpful for some decision of your own, great! If not, at least you'll know why Phoenix for our church pioneering adventure!

Regional Culture

In the last number of years I've had the chance to travel around a fair bit and interact with churches in a variety of contexts. Every church is different for many reasons–the specific leadership, the unique calling on that church, and also because of the environment that church is situated within. The environment around a church sets a kind of background that will inform a fair bit of where people are going to be coming from that you're working to disciple. It seemed to me that what would be very helpful would be to find a location where pioneering was already in the air, so to speak. Church as a whole isn't so much as associate with change as it is with staying the same, so the right environment may be really helpful in making those conversations smoother.

One of the first resources I came across in this area was the book American Nations. I didn't realize at all when I read it that this was what I was reading it for, but sometimes that's how God works, right? In this book, the author, Colin Woodard, argues that the North American continent actually has eleven cohesive regional cultures which each have their own outlook on life, goals for the political system, and even understanding of Christianity (Wikipedia article, summary article).

The eleven distinct regional cultures in North America

While it would be far too much to get into why here–it's a great book, read it for yourself–the overall conclusion that I came to with regards to this analysis is that if it's possible it would be much easier to do this kind of church pioneering work outside of Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Left Coast, Greater Appalachia, Tidewater, and the Deep South. The reason why is that according to Woodard, these six have been locked in regional alliances against each other (the first three against the last three) for nearly all of American history. Each of these alliances is working hard to advance separate visions for what the ideal future is, and Christianity is not separated from that. Each of these regional alliances have their own version of Christianity that understands "that other version of Christianity" as part of the problem with our country. Better to avoid that whole mess if we can, otherwise we're likely to spend all our time trying to clarify the different thing that we're doing is not the enemy the background culture is working against. Okay, well that's a really interesting data point: in one fell swoop, about half the country looks a little more appealing than the other half.

Along similar lines, it's interesting to look at the country in terms of Geopsychology. It turns out that scientists have done enough personality testing with a personality model called The Big Five to be able to plot how personality maps to physical location. This gives a very measurable way to look at culture in different parts of the country. And even better–one of the Big Five traits is "openness", a measure of how much someone likes to be creative and try new things. What this reveals is that openness tends to be higher around metropolitan areas and on the west half of the country:

Openness measured across the country. Warm colors are high, cool colors low.

If one takes the countrywide data and examines how different states are represented, there are three general patterns of consistency that emerge:

Big Five personality tests compiled by state

It seems pretty clear to me that "Conventional" is going to make pioneering harder. I'm not sure that "Uninhibited" is really what we need either. "Relaxed & Creative" sounds just about right. Interesting.

Thinking about Cities

The information above gives helpful broad-scale information, but we don't need to choose just a region or state to live in, we need to choose a city. How do we pick from all the cities in these regions? Two vital pieces of input really helped shape the next step of the process.

The first came from my friend Ken Fish a number of years ago. At a conference he did with another person who is a trusted known prophetic voice in early 2017, the second person gave me a significant prophetic word. Later that evening we were processing that word and I was asking him about what it looks like to partner with God for that word to come to pass. He said, among other things, "you're going to have to get to a world city." When I inquired what he meant, he pointed to the historical trend that world changing revivals most often flow out of world-connected cities. Consider, for example, the powerful effect of Azusa Street, The Jesus People/Third Wave, or the Toronto Outpouring. All of these happened in places that had global reach. Ken suggested that I work to get to a major city as it will likely only help potential reach. That's a pretty easy to figure out input:

Largest cities in the US

The second helpful data point came from Leif Hetland. (I give these names not to name-drop, but to indicate that its smart to process with the wisest people you've got access to). We were processing my whole journey and he shared with me some of his thinking when he relocated his ministry a number of years ago. While we talked, he looked at me and said, "You really need to get yourself to a hub-airport city. It will change your life in ways you can't even imagine right now." When he said it, I knew it was the Lord speaking to me, and I flagged it as an important thing to consider. This also is a rather easy thing to look up and yields a bunch of concrete options. Here are the maps with the top-three airlines in the US:

American Airlines Airport Hubs (bonus points for these since I already fly American)
United Airport Hubs
Delta Airport Hubs

Looking at all these factors coming together, we're starting to get to a shorter list. As a scientist though, I wanted to work to put a number on it.

Engaging the Physicist Within

As a physicist by training, as this process continued forwards and I could see many different factors in play, I realized that what I wanted to do was build a model that would help focus my search–so that's what I did. Entered all the hub airport cities, any other city that seemed like it should be a major consideration and I worked to gather data on a bunch of different factors. How much did I like each of these cities? How much did Brittany? What was the cost of living, metro size, how was it growing? Who did I already know there and how many Vineyard churches were there already there? And so on...

After dumping all that data into a large database, I had to wrestle with a new set of factors which I hadn't considered. How much should I weigh these things relative to each other? How much does a hub city airport weigh next to cost of living? How about that compared with metro growth? And network connectedness? That led to asking a bunch of fundamental questions about which things were relatively more or less important. It's amazing how much you learn from a process like that!

Modeling different potential cities

As that process came together, Phoenix increasingly rose to the top. It seemed to the place all the different elements converged: the right regional culture, a hub airport. A metro the right size (one of the major downsides to LA). I realized I had to give Phoenix a closer look.

To that end, I decided to list out the factors that I was going to weigh in making the decision about Phoenix. Interestingly, though I didn't feel God was eager to talk about whether or not it would be Phoenix directly, I found him quite eager to discuss the factors that should go into making the decision itself. We decided we needed to weigh three major questions to make the decision:

Phoenix decision making criteria

Digging into Phoenix

So the model is pointing to Phoenix. If this model is helping zero in on something real, I should be able to find specific markers that this is a place of growth, development, and the kind of innovative change that I'm hunting for. Maybe I'd even find some things that would point to God's hand being on it for innovation.

The first thing I discovered as I dug a little deeper is that Phoenix is (by some measures–these things are harder to measure than you may think) the fastest growing large city in America over the last decade. Whoa! I didn't know that. That sounds like a good thing when you're trying to plant a church. In fact, that's probably really important because growth is also connected to openness. While things are growing they have to remain open to change and be in flux. That's a good environment to experiment in. Consider these two charts:

(I can imagine this growth curve in Phoenix probably couldn't really take off until air conditioning became mainstream in the 1950s & 1960s).

What's interesting to me about these graphs is when the steep growth curve is. Chicago's steep growth was roughly 1880-1920, and in that timeframe the infrastructure for the city was developed. After that growth curve peaked, the city hasn't grown, in fact it has shrunk. These dynamics all feed into the mentality of the governance and the populace. It's probably true that the openness to innovate that comes with growth is more resident in Phoenix than it is in Chicago.

In fact, it's a little more interesting than that: Phoenix is not only growing quickly, but it also has experienced growth during the era of the new shape of society that is connected to the chasm the church needs to cross. This new shape has been facilitated by the decentrally-shaped internet. Internet use largely took off in the early 2000s:

Another key measure might be smartphone use over time (because this is the measure of when the internet becomes attached to your person in an ongoing way, not just the computer on your desk):

The point is that growth from 2000 onward is quite possibly connected to a different era of development. Growth in the internet age may leverage internet-empowered-shapes and decentralized thinking at the core in a way different than other metropolises.

This may be connected to why Phoenix seems to be a hub for social innovation.

Arizona State University (located in Phoenix) has been named the most innovative university in the country for the last eight years in a row. It surprised and excited me to learn that!

The Phoenix city government has been the subject of studies of innovation within city government. Chapter 4 of this book is titled, "Creating a Culture of Innovation: 10 Lessons from America's Best Run City" (see page 107 here).

Consider these values statements from different city websites in the Phoenix metro:

Phoenix’s city manager website: We engage employees and the public in productive and respectful dialogue. Our success hinges on dynamic and interdependent partnerships.  We achieve our highest performance by working together. The city manager is talking about the value of interdependence! I would guess this is the result of development in the interdependent era of the internet.

Avondale (Phoenix metro area) City plan: Early in the General Plan public participation process, it became clear that residents of Avondale are focused on a community experiencing economic prosperity through diversification, self-reliance, interdependence, and adaptability.

Incredibly interesting. A hotspot for social innovation that was open-minded, and airport hub, and a growing city?? What more could I ask for? It was time to go and visit.

Visiting Phoenix & Making the Decision

By this point I was incredibly intrigued. There seemed to be so many converging factors, but it is important to get feet on the ground and see what God is doing in you while you're there. All of this process included, it was still important to me that this was a God-led decision, not one I made in his place. The process was there to provide the opportunity for God to speak, not to replace God's speaking in it.

To that end, we took our family out to Phoenix for some vacation time. Just to see how it felt and what it looked like. This wound up being a really interesting experience. First, we had a friend who helped us get out there for a week, but it worked during the summer; not exactly the time you want to be in Phoenix! It was 115 degrees outside and very much feeling like a desert. To top it all off, I got sick right as we we leaving. Not a setup for a great time, and yet somehow it wound up being the best family vacation we've ever had. I found myself loving it; it drew out of me so many aspects of my personality that feel "against the grain" in the midwest. That openness thing is real. We connected as a family, we had fun and enjoyed our time together. I found out I loved the landscape, which was a surprise to me. Everything about it felt right.

On vacation in Phoenix

It was an incredible feeling to have done all of this work and to finally be on the ground feeling God's favor on being there. It was a long road to seeing with any clarity, but it was well worth the journey.

Our family trip out there really tilted the decision process over the peak. We went out there asking, is this you, God? We came back asking, God, if it's not you, will you show us that? We kept researching the city and Brittany and I planned one more trip out there to finalize the decision. We told God that we were going to finalize the decision at a certain date about four months out unless he steered us otherwise. Over those months we felt only more confirmed and more settled this was what God was doing, both in our research and in our decision.

When the time came we closed the decision, confident that God had more than enough room to steer us another way if he wanted to. We felt at peace, like we had found God through the process, and excited to begin the process towards getting out there–which has taken longer than we had wanted, but our decision has only been increasingly confirmed along the way.

In all, the process was well over a year from start to finish. Probably closer to a year and a half as I was always working at a church at the same time as working through this. That length of time has been hard. There has been so many steps along the way where I would have liked to have a decision faster than we could, but I feel really good about the process we implemented and about the way God used it.I would have liked something faster, but that's most likely because I'm impatient! God has allowed the process to stretch out because he's changing me in it and through it, and I know I'll need all of that as we continue forward.

The peace and settledness I feel having walked through a process like this is amazing to me, and I feel so enthused about what is ahead. I don't know what our church pioneering adventure holds, but I know that God has guided us through a really solid process to pick the place to kick it off, and I believe he's ahead of us already working there. Come, Holy Spirit!

(PS, of course the other layer I should reference is the potentially prophetic nature of the name Phoenix. I mean come on, named after a bird that rises from the ashes? That's exactly my prayer for the Church in the West! This is not escaped on me, but I cannot say that I've heard God say much about that specifically. I sure hope it's true nonetheless though!)

Putty Putman's Spirit-inspired innovative insights come from his wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication, and journeying towards the future God has for the church and the world.

Putty founded the School of Kingdom Ministry and spent eleven years as a pastor on the staff team of The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois. He is now serving as a pastor at The Chapel and preparing to church pioneer in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of two books, and lives with his wife and three children in Mundelein, IL.

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Read the whole series:

The Phoenix Adventure

Future Church
Future Church
September 2, 2022
The 4D ChasmRead More
Future Church
Future Church
Video
November 9, 2022
Why PhoenixRead More
Future Church
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