Dennis Conner is a North Carolina native who had no interest in being a church planter – much less one who would live in Arizona. But God was preparing him to invest Southern Baptists’ Annie Armstrong Easter Offering dollars in an unreached part of North America.
Two Baptist churches in Mecklenburg County, Westside and Chapman Memorial, had shaped Conner’s life from the time he trusted Christ at age 8 to the time he was called to ministry in 1986.
When he decided it was time to pursue his calling, he entered Chowan College (now University) in eastern North Carolina and pastored the congregation at nearby Riverside Baptist Church during those four years.
After graduating, a declining congregation in Charlotte asked him to help them through a difficult transition. He accepted that call to Thomasboro Baptist Church, now called HollyHunter Baptist Church, in west Charlotte in 1998 and entered Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s (SEBTS) extension campus at Hickory Grove Baptist Church at the same time.
Several years later, Cashie (pronounced cash-eye) Baptist Church in Windsor, asked him to return to the eastern part of the state to pastor their congregation. Founded in 1770, Cashie is one of the oldest churches in the state.
“Before I went to Cashie, Ron Pinkerton, the director of missions for the Mecklenburg (Metrolina) Association, asked me to consider planting a church in northwest Mecklenburg. ‘Ron, I’m not a church planter,’” Conner declared. Pinkerton said, “Well, I think you are.”
Conner told him he was already in conversation with Cashie. “I’ve served in that county before, and I know the people. I think if I go there and behave myself that I can stay there ’til I retire.” Conner was comfortable with serving in older, established congregations.
Pinkerton said, “Dennis you’ll never be satisfied with that.”
“It took me three years to realize he was right,” Conner admitted.
It was a fruitful time at Cashie. The church was numerically growing, members were spiritually growing and they baptized “quite a few believers.”
Looking back, Conner now sees God’s hand in that segment of his ministry. He told a deacon a few years ago, “Had I not had that experience at Cashie, I don’t think I could have planted a healthy church. They were loving, wonderful people in Bertie County.”
Conner has long felt a compulsion to engage unbelieving people. “I’m not content with just having a place and meeting time and say, ‘you ought to come.’”
Conner points out that one mistake many Christians make is the way they see themselves in relation to the unreached. We often tell the world, “We like who we are, and if you come be like us, we think you’ll like being like us, too,” he says.
Pastoring in North Carolina was very satisfying, but there was a restlessness in Conner.
“Cindy and I began praying a very simple prayer of surrender, ‘whatever, wherever, whenever.’”
During that time Conner took a mission trip to Quebec to work with Pastor Francois Verschelden who had planted Church of the Living Rock in Quebec.
Conner remembers the day he went to the town of Rawdon in the Province of Quebec to simply engage some people in conversation – doing what Francois called “scouting.” The purpose was to meet people and gauge the interest in a church plant for the community. Looking for a good cup of coffee, Conner found a café called “The House of Chocolate.” “I got into a conversation with Kathryn, the owner, who recognized I was not a local. I told her why we were there – looking to plant a church.”
“What kind of church?” Kathryn asked.
“In faith and practice it will be Baptist,” Conner answered.
At that moment a young woman named Marie stepped out of the kitchen and shared that she and a friend were driving 45 minutes each week to attend a Baptist church in another city. She was very interested in being part of the project. God used that experience to convince the Conners of a call to church planting. “It also opened our eyes to look at some of the needs.”
They explored some possibilities for new church starts in North Carolina, but nothing seemed to come together.
They were challenged as to how seriously they meant “wherever” in their prayer.
Conner began researching places in the United States where population growth warranted new churches. He said, “where there’s new people, there’s a need for new churches.”
“I never wanted to start a new church that would draw people – discontented people – from other churches. I wanted to start a church which would engage people and effectively reach those who were off the radar screen from most churches.”
Crosspointe, the Church at Tartesso
In 2004, Conner made some contacts with church planting leaders in every part of North America. In God’s providence he connected with the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) church planting strategist for Phoenix, Phil McConnell. “It was astonishing to me the need that he shared,” Conner said.
Dennis and Cindy Conner have a wide mission field in Arizona. The Conners work with N.C. Baptists and receive help from the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering to reach people with the gospel of Jesus.
With the help of McConnell, in May 2005 Conner began developing a new church plant. Tartesso, a planned community in Buckeye – west of Phoenix – became their target area.
“At the time the only thing there was construction trailers and markers. We were convinced that this is the location for the vision to take place. I went back to share the vision with the good folks at Cashie on September 18, 2005,” Conner said. “I told the church we would be leaving, but this was not your traditional resignation – we did not know exactly when this was going to happen … Their response was a demonstration of great grace and favor.”
By May of 2006 support had been raised and the Conners moved to Buckeye to begin the new church. “The very first family who moved into that community got involved with [the new plant] and still is today,” Conner said.
Our mission statement for Crosspointe, the Church at Tartesso, became, “We want to lead people to become transformed, ever-maturing followers of Jesus Christ.”
While the economy has stopped new construction in Tartesso over the last three years, the church has grown to an average of 90 people each week. They have baptized 46 new believers and involved them in an intensive discipleship strategy. A new church plant is in the exploration stages now. In 2007 Mike and Michelle Bailey joined the Conners in Buckeye. Bailey had pastored Greens Cross Baptist church in Windsor and graduated from SEBTS with Conner.
The plan from the beginning was to equip the Bailey’s to start another church after Crosspointe got on its feet.
“Our vision was to plant another church. … I wanted to build into the life of the church the expectation of multiplication,” Conner explained.
In 2009 Conner and Bailey began discussing a leadership change for Crosspointe. Conner believed Bailey should become the pastor, while the Baileys’ hopes were focused on returning to North Carolina. They stayed, and the church was handed over to Bailey in April 2010.
Another new assignment
Around the same time, Phil McConnell left the position as NAMB’s church planting strategist for Phoenix. The leadership of the Arizona convention then asked Conner to consider the role. On Jan. 1, 2012, Conner began his assignment with NAMB as the church planting catalyst for Arizona.
Part of Conner’s work is to coordinate a network of house churches, primarily in apartment communities. It requires spending a lot of time connecting with people in local coffee shops and restaurants.
“The spiritual soil is tough, but there’s a sea of humanity here – in a three-and-a-half mile corridor, 6,700 people are living in apartments and condos,” Conner said.
Less than 2 percent of them are connected to an evangelical church.
“Institutional expressions of church are not being effective in reaching these people,” he said. Conner explained that “institutional expressions” of church refers to traditional churches with a building and Sunday meeting time.
“I believe these 6,700 people are open to the gospel,” he said. “They are simply unfamiliar with and therefore uncomfortable with traditional churches.”
Conner is using financial support from the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering to reach those who are open to the gospel in Arizona. He said, “The support of Southern Baptists through this offering and the Cooperative Program are essential to our work.”
The state of Arizona has over 400 Southern Baptist churches. Their goal is to plant 39 new churches this year.
Conner asks Southern Baptists to pray for “laborers for the harvest.” “The need is overwhelming in Arizona. We need churches to send us couples who will share a church planting vision. We need mission teams and we need a lot of prayer,” he added.
Parkwood Baptist Church in Gastonia has been a strong partner since Dennis and Cindy moved to Arizona. Pastor Jeff Long said, “Dennis Conner’s infectious personality makes you want to join with him. He has the ability to talk to anyone about any subject.
“We have a wide variety of people who regularly go to Phoenix to work with Dennis,” Long said. “They all return excited to have been a part of the work that God is doing in Phoenix.”
The Cashie church is supporting the work in Arizona, and the West Chowan Association has been a supportive partner. Many N.C. churches have given gifts and sent teams to Arizona including First Baptist Church of Welcome. Pastor Mark Blair said the church enjoyed a four-year partnership with Crosspointe. Blair said, “[Dennis] yearns to be used by the Lord to penetrate centers of darkness with the gospel. … I admire his innovative thinking in how to reach the lost in strategic areas, such as urban Phoenix.”
Conner also wants church planters to understand a very important principle.
“The value of a strong partnership goes beyond the dollars. Parkwood [church] taught me that,” he said. “Churches like this not only gave us their dollars, but they gave us their heart. They prayed for us, and did so passionately.”