Destiny in the Desert: Two Phoenix Churches Celebrate Intersection of Stories
By Carl Stagner
Two Church of God congregations, separated by miles but joined by history. Two stories of incredible influence on the city of Phoenix, yet distinguished by setting, plot, and characters. Neither North Hills Church nor Mountain Park Church are campus churches of one another and neither compete for people, resources, or attention. But their unity today isn’t limited to their proclamation of a common Lord. One planted the other and, thanks to a divine set of circumstances only the Spirit could orchestrate a few years ago, their stories have intersected yet again.
Like most cities during seasons of remarkable expansion in the Church of God movement, the Church of God in the Phoenix area started with a single congregation. With a burden on their hearts for the establishment of new works in other parts of a rapidly growing metropolis, zealous preachers were commissioned to go and spread the message of Christ and the Church of God. North Hills was one of several plants that would ultimately become a powerful force for God’s kingdom in the north-central region of Phoenix. During some of their best days, they planted a church called Mountain Park on the south side of the city, south of South Mountain, in a fast-growing neighborhood known as Ahwatukee.
Meanwhile, North Hills continued to reach higher pinnacles of growth and success. At one time the largest congregation of the Church of God in Arizona, the church would ultimately face some of their toughest challenges. Economic hardships, shifts in local culture, steps of faith that didn’t pan out as expected, and disagreements between well-intentioned sisters and brothers in Christ seemed to slowly erode the confidence the congregation once had in the trajectory of the church, as well as the community’s perception of them. Allies of God’s work at North Hills came alongside as best they could, and several leaders offered indispensable wisdom and guidance while wearing out their knees in humble petition to the Lord. These godly leaders ought to be commended for their patient endurance. But, as history would demonstrate, God’s timing didn’t yet call for a new season—or a new life cycle, perhaps—to unfold.
The sale of their larger facility to another Jesus-centered congregation in the Phoenix area helped North Hills acquire a new home suitable for their reduced numbers. Not too far from their previous location, the new address put them smack dab in the center of a neighborhood primed for tangible demonstrations of the love of God—and ripe for spiritual harvest. Acquisition of the new building also allowed the church to make a clear break from the difficulties of the past and visibly embrace a new future. But a young pastor from Mountain Park—which grew to be the largest Church of God congregation in Arizona—would bring the formerly intertwined stories of two kingdom landmarks back together, penning an exciting new chapter to a book the forces of hell had hoped would end with a bitter epilogue.
“The credit can’t go to me,” Zach Schifferer insists. “It was definitely God’s plan. I never planned to be a lead pastor. I was in charge of small groups ministries and first impressions at Mountain Park. That’s what I wanted to do. But the state pastor, Don Doe, a longtime friend and mentor, came to me and sat down and said, ‘I think you should do this.’”
In 2019, Zach and Alyssa Schifferer, along with their children, accepted the call to bring new pastoral leadership to North Hills Church of God. They were by no means certain of what they were doing, what they would find, or how things would go, but they went by faith into the unknown, following the Spirit’s leading. It certainly helped that, on their first Sunday candidating, Zach looked out into the congregation and identified four or five individuals he knew from previous seasons of life. Coincidence? The Schifferers knew better. Inexplicable confirmation rested upon their souls on several occasions—North Hills would be their home.
The onset of the pandemic within months of their arrival at North Hills exacerbated already existing problems. Only thirty-five people were present for Pastor Zach’s first day. But God knew what he was doing.
“OK, God, do you have a new chapter for North Hills?” Zach recalls asking. “We’ve got financial struggles. How do you staff a children’s ministry without staff? How do we all get along in the midst of disagreement? There were lots of challenges, but the Lord has blessed our faithfulness. Everybody’s excited about how the church can minister to our neighborhood. We’ve got some momentum going. Now we’re doing two services with probably between 120 and 150 people. We had seven baptized a few weeks ago. We had eight baby dedications and not enough people ready to staff the nursery.”
The turnaround didn’t happen overnight. The process of revitalization and growth was long and seemed to stall during COVID. Only in December 2022 did the church get to a point where it was ready to ceremoniously celebrate an official “relaunch.” Along the way, the church has partnered with organizations that help them distribute food to local families. Also along the way, the church has discovered the power of recovery ministries, foster family ministries, and fellowship ministries. Much of the fellowship ministries at North Hills are based on Pastor Zach’s own ministry to his family; he urges pastors to not neglect their families while doing the work of the church.
“We’re choosing to be faithful to the Great Commission,” Zach reflects. “Evangelism and discipleship are vital. And we need entrepreneurs in the church who are looking at the people in their world and finding creative opportunities to do worship, evangelism, and discipleship in their context. My dad gave me great advice on that day when only thirty-five people showed up: Do what you know. Do the small-group thing. So, I extrapolated that…. We have a new family almost every week come to check us out. It was a slow and steady increase, but now it’s accelerating. I had somebody complain about parking last weekend, and I’m like, ‘How did we get here? We’re complaining about parking now?!’”
Pastor Zach explains that the job of North Hills—and any believer—is to find out what God is doing in the community and join him. If you’re not where God is, you do the moving. Their job is to really see people the way Jesus does and extend them that kind of love.
Modeling is very important to Pastor Zach, too, though not in the usual context of the word. “I’m a dad first, leading my family first,” he explains. “I extrapolate that further to the church setting—almost like a spiritual patriarch. If I’d like to take my family on a camping trip, maybe I should do that with the church! As a family man, I was trying to read all the pastor tips and was just sort of feeling inadequate and frustrated all the time, but when I settled into doing my best to lead my family well, then I’ll do as much as we can and work hard. But I don’t do all that programming myself; as the family of faith, lay leaders are running those programs. I’m a part of as much as I can be, but it’s my modeling and my conviction to be a good husband and leader of my family that has inspired the church to do so, also.”
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.
Feature (top) photo: Baptism celebration at North Hills this summer.