First Southern, Phoenix, celebrates 100 years during time of change

Apr 13, 2021

Following a year of significant change, First Southern Baptist Church of Phoenix celebrated its 100th anniversary during the Sunday morning service on March 28.

“Since 1921, First Southern Baptist Church has been leading Arizona Southern Baptists on mission,” said David Johnson, Arizona Southern Baptist Convention executive director and former First Southern pastor. “In fact, I think it probably is fair to say that if it had not been for First Southern Baptist Church, we wouldn’t have a convention.”

Although there are at least three Arizona Southern Baptist churches that are older, First Southern of Phoenix was the first church established as a Southern Baptist church in Arizona. The other churches affiliated with Southern Baptists sometime after their founding.

What grew from the beginning with 72 members “has been nothing less than remarkable,” Johnson said, noting that “129 churches trace their lineage to this church.”

First Southern was one of nine churches that formed the AZSBC in 1928. Because churches in eight other states were affiliated with Arizona Southern Baptists before forming separate state conventions, “there are conventions across the West that also trace their lineage to this church,” Johnson said.

“So, words cannot express the gratitude that Southern Baptists have for this church and for what you’ve meant to the work across the western United States and especially in Arizona,” he said.

However, this isn’t the end of the story, Johnson said, “because the door is open for a new chapter.”

In the summer of 2019, Grand Canyon University purchased the property of First Southern Baptist Church on Camelback Road and allowed the church to lease it back for one year. Last summer, the church moved from the property it had occupied since 1972, not knowing that the worship service held on March 15, 2020, would be the final in-person service there due to the COVID-19 shutdown. The church met only online until mid-September, when they gathered at their new temporary worship location.

With the sale proceeds, First Southern purchased three church properties and invested a substantial amount, with the understanding that the earnings can be used for missions and ministries upon approval of the church.

One property, near Bethany Home Road and Central Avenue in Phoenix, was bought for Myanmar Grace Church, a Burmese congregation that had been part of First Southern.

A second property, on Georgia Avenue one block west of 35th Avenue — at the western edge of Grand Canyon University – was purchased for the church’s community ministries and to provide space for ministries that had used the church’s previous location. These include Relentless Church, which meets on Sunday nights, and Christian Challenge and Young Life from Grand Canyon University.

Currently, the church offices are housed at the Georgia location and First Southern meets there for Sunday morning worship. In addition, Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana, a Spanish-speaking congregation that is part of First Southern, is also meeting there.

Ultimately, a third purchased property, on Rose Lane near 35th Avenue and Bethany Home Road, will become the new church home. The property requires substantial remodeling, and building permits have been delayed due to COVID-19.

This isn’t the first time First Southern has experienced difficult circumstances, Johnson said in his anniversary message. The church’s written history quotes a leading layman saying by every standard of measurement, the church was failing in 1972. Attendance, baptisms and the budget were all down considerably. In addition, construction on the new Camelback property had suffered major setbacks, causing a delay of about a year and a half in moving from the church’s location downtown on 3rd Street and Moreland.

“Little did they know that their best days … were ahead of them, not behind them,” Johnson said.

The best days are ahead for today’s congregation also, he said. Preaching from Revelation 3:7-13, he said the door Jesus opens in the letter to the church in Philadelphia is offered today as well.

“Jesus has … opened a door of opportunity,” he said. “He’s given you financial blessing like this church has never had before. He’s given you new facilities, not one, but two. He’s given you ministry opportunities in this community. And He’s given you a chance to start fresh. … The door is open. The time is now. Will you go through the open door?”

For the anniversary celebration, the church invited former staff members and musicians to participate in the special morning worship service. Along with preaching by Johnson, former minister of music Gordon Christopher led the music, accompanied by former pianist Ruth Wood and singing by former members Rick and Lisa Baker.

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