About thirty people attend Sunday morning worship at Quartzsite Baptist Church in the summer, but that number swells to as many as three hundred on any given Sunday in the winter because Southern Baptists are among the million or more people who RV their way each December through March to the Sonora Desert in southwestern Arizona.
They come to the southwest quadrant of Arizona as “snowbirds” seeking the sun, fleeing northern winters. Many come to shop and some to sell at Quartzsite’s twenty-four annual RV enterprises, rock/gem/mineral shows, street fairs, music festivals, and swap meets.
“I believe God has put our church here for equipping and encouraging saints on the road,” said Aaron Chicoine, pastor for the last ten years of Quartzsite Baptist, located about 130 miles west of Phoenix, at the intersection of Interstate 10 and US Highway 95.
The church being in Quartzsite is a two-way street that shows “the Cooperative Program is more than just dollars,” Chicoine continued. “It’s being part of what God is doing through Southern Baptists.”
Chicoine, who became pastor at Quartzsite in 2007, recently was approved by the North American Mission Board as a military chaplain. He resigned from the church and began basic training with the United States Navy last month (May 2017).
Quartzsite Baptist is held together throughout the year by full-time residents who for four months each summer—June through September—brave triple-digit temperatures for the privilege of living in the desert and seeing near-nightly incredible dust-filtered sunsets of amazing colors.
Snowbirds, for their part, contribute to the church when they’re in town, and some of them, throughout the year. Their contributions led to Quartzsite Baptist’s debt-free worship center, which seats nearly four hundred people. Their contributions also enable the church to give 15 percent of undesignated income to missions; 9 percent through the Cooperative Program, 4 percent to the River Valley Baptist Association; and 1 percent each to Arizona Baptist Children’s Services and to a church plant on the “big island” of Hawaii.
“We’ve always wanted to make giving a priority in our church,” the pastor said. “We have benefitted from the Cooperative Program enormously”—specifically citing his CP-funded seminary education that benefits the church each week and his recent endorsement by NAMB as a Navy chaplain. “More than just the giving side, our church benefits from being part of Southern Baptist life. CP allows a small church to have a greater impact for the cause of Christ than they could otherwise.”
Quartzsite, which swells to about 250,000 people in town on any given day between December and March, ebbs to a summer population of about 3,500 people, mostly adults past retirement age, though about one hundred students from kindergarten through twelfth grade attend the town’s schools. Ministry in the summer majors on in-home and hospital visits. Ministry in the winter focuses on snowbirds.
“Visiting with people is an important ministry here,” Chicoine said. “If we don’t reach the Boomers, our church will die.” Baby Boomers are identified as Americans born between 1946 and 1964.
“When I first came here, there was the Greatest Generation, but most of them have died,” the pastor continued. “Then there was the Builder generation, and what we are getting now is the beginning wave of the Boomers. When I moved here, the town was known for its RV and rock shows. Now the off-road and quadtracks have quadrupled. ‘Come and relax’ has changed to ‘active adult communities.’”
Quartzsite Baptist responds in the winter months, when temperatures moderate to highs in the 70s, with four-wheeler rides in the desert, desert golf, and relational ministry in mid-January.
“When you have ninety miles of drivable desert, that’s a ministry resource,” Chicoine said. “We’ll be gone four to five hours. We ride out, build a fire, roast hot dogs and look at something, like an old mine or Indian petroglyphs. Then we ride back. People attend who don’t attend the church.”
In desert golf, players get only one club. “You play in the dirt in the desert,” the pastor explained. “They draw a circle you have to stay in.”
Women’s activities include making jewelry, which some then sell at one of the many swap meets that take place between December and March. Exploring with a metal detector is fun for some, and others are rock hounds, the pastor said.
“Our church helps combat loneliness,” Chicoine said. “We become an oasis in the desert spiritually, for salvation and for ministry.
“We don’t see a lot of [spiritual] results,” the pastor continued, but “over the years we’ve had people saved.” According to its Annual Church Profile report, church membership has grown from forty-three to fifty-eight since 2013, with nine new believers baptized during that span.
The church sponsors a relationship-building ministry each January at the town’s major RV and rock/gem/mineral shows, passing out water and evangelistic tracts and inviting the people they talk with to the church for evening revival-style services.
Quartzsite Baptist went on its first mission trip in December 2015, to partner on “the big island” of Hawaii with Kona Baptist Church.
“Given the age of our folks, we wanted to have something that felt foreign but that had a bit more safety,” Chicoine said. “We did prayer-walking and prayer-driving through neighborhoods. . . .
“The mission trip had a great impact on our church in making us more mission-minded in our local Quartzsite area,” the pastor continued. “We had more participation in the water booth, more intentionality in reaching out to their neighbors, and really just people viewing their neighborhood as their mission field.”
Quartzsite Baptist is not so much two different churches in summer and winter as it is “an expanding church,” the pastor said. “There’s such a difference in how you do things when you go from three hundred to thirty.”
For example, the congregation moves the first Sunday in May each year into the Fellowship Hall that is considerably smaller than the worship center, and considerably less expensive to cool “when it’s 115 degrees for at least two months, and lows in the 80s,” Chicoine said.
“It never cools down enough in the summer to open the windows of your house. But it’s a dry heat, so even though it’s 115, if you’re in the shade and there’s a breeze, it’s not bad.”
Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for SBC LIFE and Baptist Press. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove, Utah.