Chris Phillips, set aside a career in pharmaceutical sales to move his family to Denver an be on missions reaching a growing area of the city. Hear about the challenges they face in planting a church in an increasingly pre-Christian culture.
Chris T.: Hello and welcome into this edition of Radio B&R. I’m your host Chris Turner, and today we have a special guest Chris Phillips, who is church planter in Denver, Colorado, and he’s a Tennesseean. Chris, welcome into the show.
Chris P.: Hey, it’s good to be with you guys. I’m glad you could come, and look forward to being with fellow Tennesseans today, this morning.
Chris T.: Well, let’s just kind of start there because you’re one of four church planting families in the Denver area from Tennessee. There’s obviously an attraction, but just recap a little bit. You were on an earlier episode of Radio B&R, but just recap a little bit about your journey here and how you guys made it from the Memphis area and then felt called out here.
Chris P.: I’m originally from Memphis, my wife was from Knoxville, so we kind of blanketed the state for a really long time. Both of our families are still there, so it’s a huge part of our heart and a piece of home. I was serving on staff at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee and honestly had no desire to leave whatsoever, but kind of when God calls you just you have a choice. Obey or disobey. Honestly, it started a conversation with another Tennesseean now at Lifeway, CEO and president Ben Mandrell, just a conversation with him about the western part of the United States. It really just broke my wife and I’s heart. Libby and I began thinking and praying. There just, there’s such a need in the western part of United States. And the conversation with Ben just said, “Man, we need more leaders to come and plant churches.”
And if you’re familiar with NAM and the statistics, they have a ton of resources and they lacked leaders to come, assessed church planters to come and plant churches. And so my wife and I just said, “Are we dumb enough to do something like that to move from what we’re used to and comfort and all that to go and start with nothing?” And took about two months to kind of pray and fast and walk through, and God just made it abundantly clear that our call was to come out here. And so in 2000, really ’16 we began that process, moved out here in June of 2017 we spent a year with Storyline Fellowship and Arvada, which is about 25 minutes from where we’ve planted and just learned all about church planting, learned all about Denver and the West and the culture because it is not Tennessee. And so took that year to really learn and engage and then begin building a team to launch our church that launched this this past February, February 10th, 2019. And so, yeah.
Chris T.: Not a traditional church building. We walked in and you’ve got two trailers out there and setting up a whole church. And I know people that are familiar with church planting, they’re like, “Yeah, that’s just the way it is.” But just talk a little bit about this area and why you guys decided to be here and how this opportunity came about.
Chris P.: Yeah. So we’re, so Denver in general, just an overall statistic is there’s one church for every 32,000… One Evangelical church for every 32,000 people in the city of Denver. And we’re actually in the city limits of Denver. We’re the furthest northeast territory of the Denver city limits. And we’re actually sitting around the school, is a neighborhood that’s being built. It’s the last residential area of Denver to be built out. There’s literally no more land, so they’ll have to tear down something and then rebuild it, but we’re the last residential area. And so when we came out here, we just prayed about where would God use us in a community that we feel like we could also be a part of the community. Right? I think that’s the hardest thing as a church planter, you want to go where there’s a need. Well, there’s a need everywhere.
So then you start to identify what community could we see ourselves in and relating to the people there? So we’re actually in the old Denver International Airport. So before Denver’s airport now moved to where it is, which kind of feels like it’s in Kansas. It was here in this community and so back in the late 90s and early 2000s, they had the largest urban infill redevelopment project in the country and so there was zero homes here in 2005 and ’06, first neighborhoods started going up. And now, there’s about 45 to 50,000 people that call Stapleton home with a lot of developments still to come. We’re on the northern side of the area. The neighborhoods that are around us right now, not a single paved road existed when we visited the first time in 2016. Now in our specific neighborhood, there’s 900 homes and right next door there’s 1700 homes going up.
Stapleton’s average age is 33. There’s two kids per home, and it’s the wealthiest zip code in the state of Colorado and also 43% have a Master’s or doctorate-level degree. So anything you could put with young affluent and educated and then throw in that they’re spiritually disconnected from Christ. Anything you can imagine this community has exactly what you’re thinking of. And so we just, we knew that we knew that we knew that this was the area that God had called us to. So because there’s two kids per home, my wife and I have four kids, she’s was a former educator before we moved out here, a first grade teacher. We knew that the first way to kind of go to the river as Paul does in Act 16, to go to the river was going to be through the school systems, and so the school that we’re in now actually didn’t exist when we first came out here.
They were meeting in the wing of a high school. And so we said, “Hey, they’re probably struggling to do stuff. Why don’t we just go serve them in any way we can?” So we actually engaged with the principal. She thought we were crazy because we lived in Arvada at the time. We had no kids in the community and we’re with the church. And so she turned us down a couple of times and then I let her know that my wife’s a former educator, we’re going to have kids in the community. We had a contract on a home here, and she was in such of a need because they were overworked and understaffed, that she said, “Hey, we would actually-
Chris T.: Believe it takes some crazy people.
Chris P.: It will take some crazy people that have no kids here or a home here. And so we came and Chris, the third time we started serving them, and we’re doing nothing that anybody in Tennessee would do.
We’re taking drinks. We’re stuck in the resource room, we’re giving them teacher gifts and stuff like that. But this area, because the lack of churches is so unfamiliar to that with people in the outside community doing it. The third time we were here, she said, “Hey, I don’t know where you guys, when you gather together or meet,” she had no relationship with Christ so she didn’t know to call it worship, you know? “So when y’all get together, when y’all do start your church, do you have a place that you’re going to meet?” And we said, “No, but God will provide that. And we feel confident in that.” She said, “Well, we’d be honored if when our building is finished you would come into our school and use it as a place of meeting.” And so I tried to play it cool.
I tried to play… “Oh we’ll think about, pray about that,” but I knew our home is right next door. I knew all that and so, yeah. So we ended up coming in. Long story short, my wife, we’re actually sitting in my wife’s classroom right now doing this podcast. We had some space because we were here for a year before starting the church, while we’re learning. So she wanted to substitute teach. So she subbed a couple of times and the third or fourth time she was subbing, the principal almost demanded that she’d be a teacher here in the school. That was not our plan, and so after some prayer we just said, “Man, that is just a door that only God could open.” And so she is actually a first grade teacher at the school that we worship in.
And the principal told me this, Chris, she said, “I’ll come to your church,” she said, “So I’ll come and I’ll visit it and if it doesn’t feel like a meeting, I’ll keep coming.” And that broke my heart because somebody that’s not engaged in a church looks at church as a meeting. And so it just really, really broke my heart. And so Marisol is her name and she is somebody that I think about in everything that we do. That statement right there and so sure enough, she came in November to a preview service.
She came in December to a preview service. She came in January and she actually gave her life to Christ in January. And so my wife, in a one-on-one teacher meeting while she’s at work last year, during the school year, got to give Marisol her first Bible that she’s ever owned. And so it’s one of those things, that it’s just, man, when you walk in step and obedience to God, what he calls you to do, it may look crazy to leave a great church and a great location and people that you love and family. But when you see that, it really comes to light that we’re just a small part of what God’s doing in this part of the country.
Chris T.: It sounds a little bit like a spiritual rodeo. Just hang on and just for the ride, [crosstalk 00:08:06] because I mean, there’s no way you could have orchestrated any of that.
Chris P.: No, not even a chance. Yeah.
Chris T.: So just talk a little bit, you’d mentioned, talked on the spiritual climate. How would you just describe that the average spiritual worldview of someone that lives in this area?
Chris P.: Yeah, that probably took the longest time for us to identify what to do. So this area, Denver is the third loneliest city in America and the teen suicide rate here is triple the national average. So it’s three times the national average. Now you combine that with there’s one church for every 32,000 people, there’s one marijuana dispensary for every 11,813. So there’s literally three times the amount of dispensaries than there are churches. To put that into perspective a little bit more, there are more Starbucks and McDonald’s combined than there are marijuana… There are more dispensaries combined than there are Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. So there are more dispensaries in Denver than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. And that resonates, I know to the people in Tennessee. So for us, that climate, what I tell people is that Denver has more breweries than churches.
It has more dispensaries than churches. It has some of the most beautiful mountains and hiking and skiing that you can possibly think of. It’s got obviously, clearly a very liberal community. Obviously, one of the states, the first state for legalization of marijuana, one of the first states for same sex marriage, and all those areas. So anything you can think of would be a part of all that is the reason that people are moving here. They’re not moving here to go to a church. We are the bulk, the vast, vast, vast minority. And so, if you can imagine it why people are moving here, that’s why they are. Now, some of it’s just jobs and hiking and skiing, but that requires no church attendance on Sunday or Wednesday night or whatever else we’re accustomed to. What I have found is that they are not spiritually harsh to the gospel like they would be in say, the Pacific Northwest, but they are so apathetic to anything that we are doing, you know?
And you have to kind of go above and beyond that. You mentioned the trailers earlier, we actually have three trailers that we set up and tear down because we have to make this place feel like something special because if we don’t, they’re not going to want to continue to come back because everything they do here is on a 10 out of 10 level. The mountains are 10 out of 10, skiing’s 10 out of 10, the nightlife scene is 10 out of 10, and so we also have to do the same thing so that when they walk through those doors, it feels like a 10 out of 10 and so yeah. But so what you believe that people here in their climate are? It’s it.
So our community is very high in the same sex population, very high in young professionals. Most of them work downtown, very liberal. We have some of the, the liberal government policies that are in place here in Colorado. Many of them live in our community as well. We are six miles from downtown. So it’s not too far, but it’s close enough where people can engage in all that. And so it’s that community, and not that there’s some that aren’t harsh to it, because we have, we’ve had our fair share of run-ins with people that don’t want any part of what we’re doing here in the community. Yeah.
Chris T.: So obviously, to walk out on the street corner in downtown and share four spiritual laws is probably not the approach. So how do you connect? Not just as a church planter, but I mean, this small group of people. How do you just connect to draw people that direction? Obviously, the Holy Spirit plays a big role in that, but I’m sure your thinking when you came out here was pretty much nothing that we had from a conventional, spiritual, share the gospel perspective in Tennessee is going to work here. So how are you bridging that gap?
Chris P.: Yeah, I was a Sunday night visitation guy at Bellevue. We did visitation on Sunday nights and so I thought, “Okay.” And so as I gathered the community, so we’re in a obviously very affluent community. We’re surrounded by lower-income indigent populations because it’s just like any… Take an airport in Memphis and Nashville or anywhere else, the surrounding communities are in lower income areas. Same thing here, that’s what Stapleton was. So we are surrounded in a 15-minute span by some of the lower income populations here. Number one crime, when I came and engaged the police officers and city officials and said, “Hey, what’s the problems in the community?” It’s petty theft. They call them porch pirates, so they’re going to come in, you leave the garage door open, they’re taking something out of it.
You leave Amazon packages out too long, they’re taking it. So that’s a number one crime here. So in my mind, I immediately went, “Hey, door to door is not going to work.” It’s going to be a turnoff.
Chris T.: Can wind up in jail doing that.
Chris P.: Yeah, exactly. I don’t know what the population of Ring cameras are in our… Like Ring and all of those, Nest. But I would say it’s probably 90% of the homes you walk by in Stapleton have a Ring or a Nest camera and so we thought, “Okay, check that one off the list. It’s not going to happen here.” What I have found, our church right now is comprised of about a third people that have zero relationship with Jesus or ever have been to church in their life. We’re about a third people that are long-term disconnected, been very burned by the church, put off in some sort of way, and then we have about a third that are connected to the church and had been involved in church and engaged in church in some kind of way.
For us, the biggest thing I tell people out here is people in this community are going to have to know that they can belong way before they can believe what you believe. And so they’re going to have to have… You’re from Tennessee, so your barbecue, you have to eat some barbecue. I’m from Memphis. It’s a low and slow burn brisket or a low and slow burn pork shoulder. It’s going to be a long consistent relationship building over a long period of time so that they build some trust, they’ll come and kick the doors and see what it’s going. Chris, everything we do is from the person that has ever walked in church before. So my message, our music, our greeting, everything that we do, I’m thinking about the person that’s never been to church. And the reason being is because here, where there are church people, I am grateful for them and we need those people that are on mission and they need to learn and engage.
But at the end of the day, the team, the community, the neighbor that has a relationship with Jesus, if they don’t like my church, they’re going to heaven. But my neighbors that don’t have a relationship with Jesus, they’re going to hell. And so I need to think of everything that person would want in a church to walk in for the first time. And so we try to overcome all those barriers, but it really is relationship building and community driven. We served the basketball team this year and you guys are huge, probably in FCA and everything like we were in Memphis. I served the basketball coach, Coach O. is his name. We give them a meal. I said, “Hey, how can I sign up to do more meals? Because I’m sure you got a lot of people,” he said, “Chris, this is my fourth year as a coach, you’re the first person that’s ever served as a meal before a basketball game.”
And so for us, being there and being for the community and not just being a church in the community is the biggest thing that we’re focused on. And sometimes that means we don’t even get to talk about being a church at all, but the fact that we are there and the power of presence and involvement in their life has time and time and time again shown that that’s what this community is really needing. And then, those people ultimately come and walk through the doors. So we’re not a bait and switch to them. Right? Is ultimately what it is. Yeah.
Chris T.: Well, it’s interesting. I love that comment being a church for the community and not a church in the community. So one of the things that I wanted to ask you about, obviously coming out here from the Memphis area and especially being at Bellevue, which is hardcore door-to-door Steve Gains kind of thing, your expectations of “spiritual success,” I don’t want a superficialize that but really, it’s not a Kenya revival. It is a slow burn. Things are starting to transition, and in Tennessee where the buckle of the Bible Belt is starting to see kind of the creep, the apathy creep across the United States into what has traditionally been a much less hostile area. So as this begins to take root and the apathy begins to continue to increase, what word would you have to pastors that have churches that may have been in the community for a long time? Not necessarily. How would you help them see their future in Tennessee?
Chris P.: Yeah. I say this with a lot of respect to all the churches in Tennessee and by the way, Nashville is becoming so transient that it’s going to start there because it’s so transient now. People are coming from all over the country to live there. And then that moves out, which is what happened here. To those churches, I would say, “Perfectly consider thinking like a church planter.” I had a guy tell me early on, he said, “Chris, when you decide to stop taking risks is the moment you’re not a church planter anymore.” And it’s the moment you’ll start to worry about keeping the people you have instead of reaching the people in your community. And man, that just stuck with me. And so I would say to every church in Tennessee, “What risks are you taking?”
You know? And the hard part is, there’s a ton of people that have a lot of expectations in established churches. By the way, it’s sometimes harder to chisel on concrete, which would be that established church. We’ve always done this type of world that they live in, than it is to come and be a church plant and say, “Hey, let’s try this, and if it fails, no big deal. We’ll try something else.”
But every year we evaluate and say, “Hey, what can we take off the table? Just because we did it this year doesn’t mean we have to it next year.” And so I don’t want to lose that, right? And I think I would say to every established church person in Tennessee I’d say, “Think like a church planter and think about the risks that you’re taking.” And if you take a risk and you lose church members that have a relationship with Jesus, that’s okay, because if you gain people that want to come to your church that have never been there and don’t have a spiritual relationship with the Lord, that’s what we’ve been called to do. Your person that doesn’t want to lose the thing that they’re losing is still going to heaven, and quite frankly, they’re probably going to go to a church down the street.
But the guy in the neighborhood that’s never been, and you took a risk on something. You have got somebody that is with you through and through. And I had another guy tell me, he said, “Chris, the church people are really good, but church people that come to your church because of something that you have will leave your church because of something another church has.” He said, “But the person you went to Christ will never leave your church. They are bought in, they are with you.”
And so just focus on reaching people that are far from God. And if that’s the focus, because and there’s, I mean, Bellevue’s a church of 8,000 people a week. There are people, it’s a 100 plus year old church, of so much history, you cannot throw out the baby with the bath water. And so that’s obviously not what I’m saying either. But I just think sometimes in those worlds, we just forget that we can take risks in church and church work in what we’re doing. And so I would just encourage them, take as many risks as you can that fit within the vision and strategy that God’s given you for your church and honestly, for your community. Because some churches are hitting the needs of the city, but maybe not even the specific community that they live in. And so Chris, from 2000-2010, 85% of church plants failed in Denver.
And so we came in with the mentality that, okay, if 10 years after we start, for some reason we’re not in existence, what do we want to be the barrier if we were successful? Obviously salvations and conversions have been there. We’ve actually already baptized 15 people. We’ve seen about 30 people come to faith. And so we’re so grateful for that. So honestly, if we’re done, life is forever changed for those families. But I think the thing that we said the most is that if we’re done in 10 years, I want Stapleton as a community to weep because we’re gone, because they don’t know how to take care of the needs that are in the community. And so that’s our goal for everything that we do. Would Stapleton weep if we didn’t do this? If we weren’t here, who would do it? And so that’s kind of a barometer of everything we do.
Chris T.: That’s a great mentality for churches, that have been in a community 125 years in Tennessee that really looking at it from that perspective of, is the impact in your community such that if this church was no longer here, first, would anybody notice? And beyond that, were are you having such a big impact in your community that it ripples across the community that you’re not there?
Chris P.: Absolutely.
Chris T.: And so how can, how can people pray?
Chris P.: Yeah, man, that’s so hard to narrow down. I’d say one, church planting is so tough. It really is. It’s the highest of highs and it’s the lowest of lows. We have four kids. I tell my wife all the time, at the end of the night when the kids are in bed and they’re in bed and they’re asleep and they’re alive, we kind of feel like we made it, right? And it’s like, “All right, we won the day.” And so church planting is a lot like that. Like tonight, if like we pull off service and nothing crazy happens, I’ll go, “Yes, we made it another week.” I think a couple of the biggest prayers, I’ll give you a personal and then a couple of ministerial ones. It’s a big change with my wife working, I wasn’t accustomed to that moving out here. I am not a great stay-at-home-type dad that fixes lunches and those things.
And so we’re trying to start a church, but also trying to give her space to do what God’s called her and gifted her to do. And so, just a family dynamic of doing those things, and as our church grows, there’s just a lot more on each of us. Right? And she runs our children’s ministry as well. She’s a stud, and so that’s a big thing for us. Just that rhythm and that adjustment. And I’d say from a church standpoint, honestly just that we would continue to look through the lens of people that are far from God. And then, we don’t expect to be in a permanent space until God gives us a permanent space. But just to give you a capture of what this community looks like, a 8,000 square-foot facility to rent would be about $40,000 a month.
Chris T.: Wow!
Chris P.: A month!
Chris T.: Wow!
Chris P.: A 9,000 square-foot building on 13 acres is $13 million. Dirt is $1 million an acre. At Mount Lifeways at Storyline, they had an old neighborhood Walmart that they were able to secure. He said, “Man, one day you’ll get your neighborhood Walmart.” I said, “We’re in a brand new community. They’d first have to put a neighborhood Walmart in. Then it would have to fail, then it would have to sit there long enough for a church to do it.” And quite frankly, Stapleton removed all the green book language that they had for the original community of any church. So we would have to do something creative to even have a church space. Hey, every week, we set up and tear down for about three hours for a one-hour service, three trailers, tons of people involved. We about 50 people in our core team doing all that.
And just that somehow, some way, we can see glimmers of God working in those areas. Now listen, we’re portable until God moves us otherwise, but a big prayer request is that God would just do something that only he could do. And so that’s a big, big prayer request for our church, as we go through and just really walk those lines. Yeah.
Chris T.: Is there any way that Tennessee, we’ve got the partnership still with Denver area. Is there any way that Tennessee Baptist could plug into what you’re doing beyond like praying there, but as something they might be able to do here?
Chris P.: Yeah. I think church planters are really good at being kingdom-oriented and church planters are also really bad about just thinking about their church plant and their city. And so one of the things that I said in the very beginning was that we would be open to doing whatever anybody wanted to do out here as long as it fit in with what our strategy was for the community.
And what I mean by that is some people don’t like to deal with mission team after mission team after mission team after mission team, because it’s a lot of work to to serve the community. We just had 11 teams in 10 weeks and we loved it. We loved every bit of it. We can’t do what we do without those teams coming in. We literally can’t, and so we do it. So man, any of those chances to partner, whether it be with Journey Point or whether it be with any church in the city, we want people to come to Denver and our number one goal is not for the work that they do for Journey Point or Denver. I want people to be so fired up for the things that they can then go back and do in their own community because the stronger they are and more fired up they are and passionate for their city, the better that kingdom is.
And so for us, yes, absolutely. They can pray for us. Obviously, they can financially give in any kind of way, but then they can look and say, “Man, could we send teams out there to support the work that’s going on so that our people can be fired up for serving a block party in our community?” I had a church that just left last week out of Mississippi and the pastor texted me on Monday. He said, “My people are more fired up about our community when they come back from a trip out there than anybody in our church. Just thank you.”
And that’s our goal. That really is our goal. And so man, any of those things that we can help serve the churches and the communities and the cities and Tennessee, we would love to do and we’re not doing anything special. Sometimes it just takes something to trigger what’s going on to go, “Oh well, we can do that here.” And so, we’ve had a lot of success with God showing that and so yeah, I would love for any partnership to be there so that we can help the church. The greater the churches are in Tennessee, the greater the churches are going to be in Denver, Colorado. And so for me, that’s the end all, be all.
Chris T.: Well, this is a great opportunity, really like a lab. I mean, it’s an opportunity to get into a time machine and see what the future looks like as it continues to evolve in the Tennessee area, so to come out and do those types of things and see how you connect with the community and go back.
Well Chris, thanks so much. Blessings on your church and I think this’ll be really helpful for folks in Tennessee.
Chris P.: Yeah. Thank you Chris. Pleasure to be with you.
Speaker 2: Thank you for listening to Radio B&R, a podcast production of the Baptist and Reflector, the official news journal of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. This and other episodes can be downloaded at BaptistAndReflector.org/RadioBR. The ministries of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board are supported through the cooperative program and gifts received through the golden offering for Tennessee missions. For more information, visit TNBaptist.org.