LAS VEGAS—Dave Earley remembers the moment he felt drawn to plant a church in Las Vegas. Teaching church planting to a master’s level class at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., he read Matt. 16:18, “I will build my church and the forces of Hades will not overpower it.”
Challenged by the Holy Spirit as to whether he believed the truth of the Scripture, the professor sensed God leading him to find the gates of hell and plant a church there. In his study no place fit the description better than Las Vegas. As he and his wife began the process of making the move, 15 young adults signed up to join them in June 2012 to reach the community known as Paradise, just off the Las Vegas Strip.
The group began praying through a chapter of the Bible each day, meeting for more than six hours at a time in search of God’s direction. During their second month they began reaching out to homeless people, prostitutes and drug addicts, offering food at weekend block parties.
Over a two-year period Grace City Church has grown to the point of meeting on two campuses, providing an Outreach Center that distributes food and clothing, sponsoring Good News clubs in several elementary and middle schools, and training church planting interns and semester missionaries in urban ministry.
“This is a lot better environment for training than a classroom,” Earley told North American Mission Board trustees who toured church planting sites Feb. 2. “Our motto is, ‘Do very hard things in really tough places so God gets all the glory.’”
To the west of the city, Jim Collins began his ministry in a church planting residency with Hope Church of Las Vegas. After a year filled with opportunities to preach, teach and counsel, Collins said he learned, “One of the most effective ways to reach people in a city is through church planting.”
Eight families from the sponsoring church joined Collins and his wife as they met for a Bible study, transitioned to a storefront facility and launched Discovery Church in an elementary school last Easter.
In a diverse community with a mix of blue-collar and white-collar households, the new church plant gained attention by hosting games during a school’s fall festival event. Collins befriended a couple who had separated but eventually prayed for reconciliation and found redemption in Christ.
“We want to be a gospel-proclaiming, disciple-making presence in Las Vegas,” Collins told trustees. “I am so thankful for the partnership in the gospel by Southern Baptists that has made this happen.”
On the south side of town Heiden Ratner remembers leaving Las Vegas in pursuit of a basketball career. Recruited by James Madison University, Radner thought he was seeing his dream come true in Virginia, only to find the experience unfulfilling.
“Basketball was my god,” Radner told trustees visiting a classroom of Silverado High School where he got his start. Through the influence of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he accepted Christ and felt burdened to share his faith with friends from earlier days while home for the summer.
“I saw the gospel work its way into the hearts of people who were working the strip, selling drugs,” he remembered. “That summer of 2008 gave me a fresh passion for the city of Las Vegas.”
After playing basketball professionally for a year in Israel and coaching as an assistant while earning a master’s degree in Christian leadership, Ratner entered an apprenticeship with NAMB to prepare to launch Walk Church.
That training helped him identify 30 of the 70 people attending the Bible study he was leading to develop a core group. He and his wife are seeing the fruit of small group discipleship, encouraged by the participation of other NAMB interns.
“We don’t have people with a church background coming. It’s Jesus working his life into them,” he explained. “This isn’t the city of sin. This is the city of him.”
Seventy percent of the population of Nevada resides in Clark County where Las Vegas dominates the culture. NAMB missionary Ben Barfield shared, “In this city that often shatters dreams, people have been finding hope in several churches in the last 20 or so years.”
With only one Southern Baptist church for every 19,499 people, Barfield is quick to point out the need for more help. Through a partnership with key churches, the Nevada Baptist Convention and NAMB, Barfield looks forward to a day when Las Vegas will be known for “true light and true hope.”
NAMB’s Send North America strategy prioritizes the planting of new evangelistic churches—especially in the unreached and underserved areas like Las Vegas. Half of the 14 churches being planted there are ethnic plants, reaching Hispanics, Koreans and Filipinos.
After traveling around the city to hear the testimonies of church planters, Texas trustee Zoila Lopez from First Baptist Church of Forney told the TEXAN, “We get to see the need that there is for Christ in other places that you’re not accustomed to seeing. It’s wonderful to see how these men and women of God are just working for the Lord with everything they’ve got.”
Grateful that Southern Baptists are able to cooperate together to fund church planting, she added, “I’m flabbergasted that we’re such a big part of that, to be able to send these men and women to do God’s work. It’s just awesome to see them do it.”