From the day we began meeting together as a fellowship of believers, we have been seeking to be true to the words found in Psalm 145:4, “One generation shall praise Your works to another, and shall declare Your mighty acts.”
Our First 16 Years
In 1991, Marvin Knight had been teaching a discipleship class at North Phoenix Baptist Church, where he was a staff pastor. It was during that year that he and Rich Wells began to forge a relationship as Marvin invested his life in discipling Rich in the faith. Pastor Knight also helped him discern the Lord’s call to full-time Gospel ministry. As their relationship continued to develop and strengthen, they began to talk and pray together about starting a new church in South Phoenix. This had been a thought brewing in the back of Pastor Knight’s mind for several years, since he had grown up in the area.
In 1993, with much prayer and the support of Pastor Richard Jackson, Pastor Knight and Rich Wells decided to step out in faith and move forward with beginning a new church. That, in and of itself, was evidence that the Lord was in this – neither of them had any previous church planting experience. In fact, Rich had no pastoral experience at all at that point. They sketched out the first vision statement of “Presenting God’s Grace to Every Race” on a napkin at Taco Bell!
Vision meetings were held in early 1994 at First Southern Scottsdale Church, where they, along with 30 other members of North Phoenix Baptist Church, began planning the new church, then called Cornerstone Church. The name was soon changed to The Church at South Mountain, inspired by the New Testament churches (e.g., the church at Ephesus, the church at Corinth, etc.) and because many churches in the Valley had the word “Cornerstone” in their names.
The Church at South Mountain (CASM) held its first services at Holdeman Elementary School on July 10, 1994, with 30 charter members in attendance. Within the first six months, the church’s attendance grew to about 100 people. In 1995, Rich Wells was ordained as Associate Pastor. This was affirmation of the call of God on his life, given several years earlier, to full-time ministry. As an infant church, this was our first opportunity to put into practice our commitment of having biblically qualified leadership; a commitment that continues to this day. We understood early on that as the leaders go, so goes the church.
By 1996, CASM had outgrown the facilities at Holdeman and moved to Nevitt Elementary. CASM also launched its first mission at this time by partnering with Valley Christian Center in taking 55 underprivileged children, mostly from the surrounding community, to Tonto Rim Christian Camp near Payson, AZ. During this time, we learned that you don’t have to be large to make a difference. The Lord was allowing us to try some ministry opportunities that caused us to really stretch our faith.
Within the same year, another move was made, this time to an office building at 40th Street and Roeser. This move allowed us to have more permanence in where we met instead of being in a school, with the limitations that came with being in someone else’s building. Here we experienced our first intense spiritual battle. The president of the business park association did not want a church in his park. The building we were renting required us to secure permits and various city approvals before we could remodel it to suit our needs. This enemy of the cross put up roadblock after roadblock to prevent us from doing what we needed to do. John Politan and Scottsdale Bible Church came alongside us during this time and proved to be of great help to our ministry.
Under the providential hand of God, instead of continuing to fight the business park battle, a way was made for us to move in 1997 to the Broadway Commerce Center at 40th Street and Broadway. That same year, our first deacons were ordained – Ray Olguin, Charles Graham, Pert Mims, Rodney Davis, and Tony Long. Years later, three of these same men are still serving God’s people in this role while two of them (Ray and Tony) were ordained as Elders in 2010. The long-term commitment of men like these has led to stability in the ministry for which we are so grateful.
Another very significant event that occurred in 1998 was the ordination of Julien Kinsale, Alex Wright, and Mark Grady as the first elders of The Church at South Mountain.
In 1999, CASM celebrated its fifth anniversary. This was significant because the statistics show that most new church plants do not make it to the fifth year. This occasion was marked by a special time of fellowship, worship, and remembrance of what the Lord had done in those years. The leadership also decided in 1999 to move into a bigger suite in the same office park at 40th Street and Broadway. These new facilities included a larger sanctuary, offices, and several classrooms. These classrooms facilitated the teaching of the children and youth. From the beginning, CASM has made it a priority to educate children and youth in biblical understanding. Teachers receive regular training on how to first prepare themselves, and then how to bring the children to an understanding of the Scriptures. The purpose of each lesson, regardless of the text or story, is always to point towards Jesus Christ and how they might be saved.
One highlight of 2000 was the first Desert Harvest Crusade. This event was the result of the leadership at CASM seeing a need to bring the true Gospel to many who had not yet heard it. Between 600 and 700 people heard the Gospel that night and several new Christians were born. In the following year, the second Desert Harvest Crusade was held at the Phoenix Civic Center, with several churches partnering across the valley. Brent Milner is fruit from this effort. He came to Christ at the second crusade and he now leads our Youth Ministry.
As a result of these crusades, the reality set in that churches committed to the sound, faithful exposition of the Word of God are not as common as we would like. In many places, the emphasis is on entertainment, people pleasing, and easy-to-listen-to story times, rather than the bold, unapologetic proclamation of the Word of God.
It was around this time that Pastor Knight, as he studied the Word of God, leaned more than ever upon the Puritan pastors and theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. The reformed theology embraced and taught by the Puritans proved to be an immense help and encouragement. After much study, the elders came to a deeper conviction that the Bible holds high the sovereignty of God in salvation and teaches equally man’s utter helplessness in securing his own salvation. In 2001, the Doctrines of Grace began to be a central teaching at CASM, as they have been by men of the Word such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, J.C. Ryle, Thomas Watson, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and, in more recent times, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and Sinclair Ferguson.
Throughout the years, CASM had always planned to have our own building in South Phoenix. In 2000, we struck a deal to purchase 20 acres on the corner of 19th Avenue and Southern. After doing all that we were told we needed to do, we encountered problems with the financing we had set in place to make the purchase. After several more attempts failed, it was clear the Lord had other plans for the home of this body of believers. While still in control of the land, we were able to sell it at a small profit. God graciously provided for His people, even in the face of our missteps.
Learning from the mistakes made during the purchase of the larger piece of land, the elders began to look for something smaller on which to build the Place of Grace. It was a momentous occasion in 2003 when we purchased 3.3 acres on 7th Avenue and Broadway that we would actually be able to close on. Again, we saw the hand of the Lord work out so many details for us to obtain the land for our church building. Earlier in the year, we had given one of our members, Paul Corens, the assignment of looking for land that was located in a predetermined area. He found a 3.3-acre parcel of vacant land right in the heart of the area where we had asked the Lord to place us. The land was not listed as being for sale, but we were able to track down the owner through the public tax records. An elderly lady in London was the owner (she and her husband had once lived here). We were able to get in touch with her and she agreed to sell us the land for $100,000 plus the $30,000 in back taxes she owed. She even agreed to finance the $100,000 for us. Upon further research, we learned that lien investors were about to purchase the liens placed against the land and take ownership of it. The elders met, prayed, and concluded that the Lord was moving us toward this particular piece of land for our future campus. We were trusting the Lord to immediately provide $30,000 (of which we had nothing) in order to pay off the liens and stop the foreclosure proceedings.
Another member, Eva Rowlee, had a co-worker in London; he was able to get the purchase contract to the landowner and she signed it right away. We had a fully executed contract for the land within 24 hours. That is unheard of in commercial land deals, since they typically take months of negotiations to close.
The Lord was not done surprising us with His grace. We still had the $30,000 to raise and very little time in which to do it. As we were preparing to ask our people to give to this great cause, we received word from the owner in London that her bank notified her that she had an account of which she was unaware. In that account was $30,000; she said she would use it to pay off the liens immediately, which she did. We offered to amend the contract to make it $130,000, since that was the amount we were expecting to pay. She declined, instead wanting to keep it at the original $100,000.
Another way the Lord has marvelously worked on our behalf is seen in the fact that the one-acre parcel next to ours has been listed at $260,000. We bought 3.3 acres for $100,000.
Additionally in 2003, Pastor Knight applied to, and was accepted in, the first annual Expositor’s Institute, hosted by John MacArthur. Over the course of several days, he and eighteen other pastors were taught by some of the best expositors in the country, including Dr. MacArthur and Dr. Steven Lawson. During that summer, CASM held its first Vacation Bible School. Nearly 50 children were exposed to the Gospel throughout this weeklong school. Another move occurred in September, this time to Cesar Chavez High School. A highlight during this time was actually a dark period for the Knight family. After a difficult pregnancy, Mary gave birth to a baby girl who died a few days later. We grieved with our Pastor and his family and the church family responded with love and grace to help the Knights work their way through this tragedy. On a Sunday morning, just before his daughter was born, Pastor Knight was called out of the class he was teaching and urged to rush to Mary’s side in the hospital. As he ran out the door, he gave Pastor Wells the charge of preaching that morning. With no preparation and no notes, the Lord gave what was needed to enrich the people’s souls with the Word. This had nothing to do with Pastor Wells’ abilities, but everything to do with the goodness and grace of God.
Also in 2003, Earl Shivers was ordained as an elder.
Because of severe obstacles in meeting at the High School, which included school officials telling us on a Friday afternoon that we would no longer be allowed to meet there effective immediately, we made yet another move. So from August 2003 through November of 2004, CASM met on Sunday evenings at First Christian Church in Phoenix. Our first Sunday at First Christian, Amber Wells (Pastor Wells’ wife) began to feel the physical effects of what would become a two-week stay in the hospital. This time culminated in her having brain surgery to deal with a potentially life-threatening aneurysm. It was remarkable to see the church rally around the Wells family in their time of great need. The theology we have been so well taught came to life as people ministered to them in crucial ways. These two examples of great struggle and challenge among the leadership in the church and the response of the church body show the reality of the Christian faith and the importance of church body life. The Lord Jesus Christ gives grace to help His people.
In December of 2004, we began meeting at Phoenix Preparatory Academy on 7th and Fillmore Streets. We were there for four years – until the last Sunday of 2008. Dan Ward, the Facilities Manager at the school, was a great help to us in making sure the school was accessible and ready for us to use every week during our time there.
Groundbreaking for the new church building began in March of 2007. After almost two years of construction, we finally made it to our own facility, holding our inaugural service on January 4, 2009.
In 2010 Tony Long and Ray Olguin were ordained as Elders. We also ordained five men to serve in the role of deacon: Robert Gray, Greg Bishop, Yared Asfaw, Harley Lang and Garth Reyer. In July of 2010 we sent out our first short term missions team to Cameroon, West Africa to serve alongside our missionary, Dr. Philemon Yong.
Have we been through a lot in our life as a church? Yes, and the Lord has preserved and blessed us every step of the way. As we begin a new phase in the life of this church, the next chapter may include you. Will you be willing to follow Jesus this way? We invite you to come and be a part of what the Lord is doing here.