Cacti and brown desert surround Nolan Tjaden and his wife, Lindsey, in the west valley of Phoenix.
The landscape here sure doesn’t match the drizzle-fueled biodiversity of their hometown, Portland, Oregon. But no matter, they say, because Christ directed them to the American Southwest so he could grow an oasis from a church.
“He’s there to do the better gardening work of resurrection,” Nolan Tjaden said. “We’re planting a garden in the desert.”
Their pursuit of a spiritual harvest started with moving to Phoenix in January. The Tjadens quickly discovered their fellow neighbors were just as new. Tens of thousands have relocated to the area from California, Oregon, Washington and Texas in recent years.
Tjaden said these people now seek home, a place that satisfies the deep ache they can’t connect to Genesis 1, the record of the moment when sin evicted humans from God’s original garden.
“There’s a deep longing for home in the city where we planted,” he said. “We are all longing for home.”
Phoenix’s shifting population forms a new cultural identity. Conservative values, rugged, Western independence — ‘don’t tread on me’ — and people who say they are spiritual but not religious have all mixed together.
Tjaden grew familiar with the vagaries of new-age ideas in Portland, where people often believed that God, if there was one, approved of what they already supported.
“The new age I was used to is alive and well here,” he said. “It’s a convergence of really diverse spiritual backgrounds.”
The neighborhoods around the church include people with staunchly religious backgrounds, people who love football far more than worship and cops, firefighters and veterans. Yet all those people and hundreds more gathered in early September for The Garden’s first worship service.
That’s where Tjaden proclaimed the good news of the master gardener: the church is for skeptics and saints. The church is a people who baptize bartenders and disciple weed smokers.
“Whatever God was writing in our story that led us to Phoenix, it has somehow been that story that has landed on very, very fertile soil,” Tjaden said. “People are really interested in getting into the Bible.”
Dropping people into Jesus’ story
That’s quite a surprise considering many people in Phoenix “have zero Christianity in their bloodstream,” he said.
Beyond new-age ideas, Arizona’s established residents and transplants seldom have authentic religious experiences. Some have been in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or a Roman Catholic mass. But most have very loose spirituality and little exposure to Christ.
Tjaden himself grew up thinking Christianity was nonsense. He lived as an atheist in his teen years and didn’t grow up in church. But he was radically saved at 16, giving him the memories of an atheist’s inner perspectives even as Tjaden now follows Christ.
That’s led to a church for guys who’d rather watch football than embrace Jesus or moms in their 20s with two kids and a side hustle. The congregation includes tattooed first responders befriending personnel stationed at Luke Air Force Base.
Volunteers in the children’s ministry include men saved from gang life. Besides Tjaden, the church’s other preacher is a firefighter who’s won his whole department to Christ. Hispanics and whites worship together, and people have started translating the sermons into Spanish so older Hispanics can hear God and grow in faith.
“We’re a very distinct look as a church so far,” he explained. “Our goal is to add value but also drop people into the story of Jesus every day of the week.”
The church baptized nine people before the first service in September. Since then, Tjaden’s been hearing spiritually curious people say how they understand the Bible for the first time, believe in Jesus or have meaning in their lives through him.
Invitations and Instagram
Another foundation of The Garden has been Instagram and the Tjadens’ precise utilization of social media. Eighty percent of the church connected to the ministry through the social media app. That ratio steadily changed to 55 percent because the church’s earliest worshipers invited friends through various methods.
God’s people are overcoming people’s isolation and yearning for home through invitations and Instagram as everyone starts life in a new place.
In Phoenix, hot, dusty air and sparse loneliness surround people. There’s not enough living water here, but the God who made streams of water flow beside Moses in that desert is doing something new through his church in this one.
“He is establishing a new, better garden,” Tjaden said. “God has already been up to something in the west valley. We are here because God is moving in the west valley and we want to be part of what God is doing.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.