Las Vegas Sun

July 19, 2019

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Through his church, a community thrives

Bret Johnson sees church’s growth from living room to $15 million building

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Steve Marcus

South Hills Church Community Pastor Bret Johnson sits in the lobby of his church on Horizon Ridge Parkway, which will be replaced by a church being built on St. Rose Parkway. Johnson says people are drawn to his congregation because of an innate desire to form relationships, not simply because it provides a place to pray.

The 40,000-square-foot church at Interstate 215 and St. Rose Parkway will be impressive. There will be a nursery, a coffee shop, a youth ministry and, of course, a large worship area with stained glass facing the mountains.

But perhaps more impressive, in a place filled with neighborhoods of closed doors and drawn blinds, is who will be inside.

Bret Johnson moved to Las Vegas seven years ago, knowing no one, to start a church. The first services were held in his living room. When he started getting 50 people crammed into his home, with cars filling the neighborhood, he started renting a clubhouse in an apartment building.

They moved on to a room in a middle school and finally, a whole building.

Now, with about 1,200 active members, his South Hill Church Community is building the $15 million Henderson church.

In a church, as in business and life, the Las Vegas lifestyle plays a role — not so much the party-till-you-drop atmosphere, but the city’s transient nature and the never-ending growth that surrounds it.

The South Hills Church Community has managed to bridge some of the gaps inherent in Las Vegas life by living up to the last word in its name — providing a sense of community and the feeling of connectedness that comes with it, something not easy to find in a town where many people have, at best, a nodding acquaintance with their neighbors.

Heather Newman, 19, is one of the young people attracted to the church, drawn by the opportunity to meet peers.

“Someone invited me to the college group,” she said. “Then I met a pastor and he asked me to start coming on Sundays ... It’s really just become like a family. We eat together. We just hang out at the park. It’s good to have that.”

The South Hills Church Community is in the bull’s-eye of sprawl, in Green Valley, one of the valley’s original master-planned communities.

Everything was planned there, from the cul-de-sacs to the strip malls. What you cannot plan for, though, is an actual community.

“There’s something innate in the human heart that wants relationships,” Johnson said.

That desire, he said, brings people to services — or one of the dozens of meetings and activities at the church — as much as the desire to pray.

There are the 20-somethings looking for mates, the young families trying to find play dates and even, he acknowledges, some businesspeople looking to make contacts.

Often, they are gone soon after — not driven away by the contemporary music at services or the pastor who wears jeans and Billabong shirts, but just moving on as part of Las Vegas’ typical comings and goings. Some go back home, wherever that is, and others move on to something new.

“We have emotionally learned how to cope,” Johnson said. “You know it’s possible that these guys are going to be gone.”

Johnson isn’t going anywhere, he promises.

Nathan Phinney, the associate pastor, has seen the Las Vegas look. The eyes show weariness, the body language conveys mistrust. It is not a trusting city.

He sees this both at church — where new members are unsure how long they will stay in town — and in life, typified by the gas station attendant who checks his credit card signature when he buys a candy bar.

It’s not a place where commitments come easily.

Phinney, 27, moved here seven months ago with his wife. He’s much like the young church population, building not only faith but a social network.

“I like it here,” he said. “I like the rawness of it. I like the energy. I like the multicultural aspect. People aren’t that false here.”

But if people are not false in Las Vegas, they are at least openly cautious, taking baby steps into friendships and relying on a half-hearted wave as the primary means of communicating with neighbors before pulling into their garage and closing the door.

Within this attitude the community of churchgoers has been created, built around making people feel comfortable and allowing them to share a common interest. In this case, it’s Jesus.

But the church softball team sure helps.

Ground has just been broken on the new church, which is scheduled to open late next year. More people will stop by, looking for a place to fit in.

Johnson has another goal. In 20 years, he wants 20,000 members, spread out among 20 branch churches — or, as he likes to think of it, 20 little communities.

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