"I don't know how to start a church, but I know how to start a business," Cal VanderMolen said back in the late '80's. So, applying his basic business acumen, he set up solid fnancial bookkeeping and personally leased a storefront, ie: the former United Pentecostal Church, on Whipple Street. (Now home to the Kokipelli Eye Clinic).
VanderMolen and his wife, Imogene, were part of a small group of people who felt led to start a new church in Prescott. Not one to add to the 50+ Baptist churches scattered throughout the quad-city area, but one that was similar. And so the First Evangelical Free Church was established in 1989.
It was a church that was deeply rooted in faith, sometimes blind faith. All but one of the couples that joined together to begin the church were over 50 - much like Prescott today. Yet, by faith, they chose a room to furnish as a nursery, even providing a comfy rocking chair and a loving lady named Minnie that would become the adopted grandmother to all the babies for many years to come.
Pastor Dave Kennedy and his wife Nancy, who was a talented pianist came for the first Sunday. (They ended up serving the church for several years.) Nobody had any idea how many people would come through the doors but the pews were comfortably filled by the time the service started. And yes, a family with two little boys showed up for Minnie to rock and cuddle.
Fast forward about 20 years. The First Evangelical Free Church has undergone many changes. Two senior pastors, one interim pastor. They purchased and sold the first building and moved to the second on the corner of Rosser and Demerse. The name was changed to Cornerstone. Attendance was up and down from about 40 to nearly 200. By late 2008, all but one of the original families had moved or found another place to worship. In short, the church was hopeful but struggling and between pastors.
And then the Lord brought John Dickerson. Some might say he was an unlikely choice - he was young (about 26,) he didn't even have a Pastoral Studies type of degree, although he did attend Bob Jones University - a fiercely conservative Bible College. That's where he got his journalism degree. And both his father and grandfather were pastors, so he had been fully immersed in the church all his life. So, the church relied once again on that 'faith thing' and asked him to come.
Meet Pastor John Dickerson
"Before we moved to Prescott," Dickerson said. " I worked as a journalist for a couple of different papers, the last one was Phoenix New Times, did a lot of investigative reporting there. Some of those stories won some awards around the nation and around the region, and a lot of awards in the state. I really loved journalism, and still do love journalism and writing. At the same time, I was torn because it seemed like in the day I spent my time reporting on everything that was wrong with the world, but at night we would have these Bible studies at our house and we would see people's lives actually being changed. Freed from addictions and mending relationships. So, I was living with this tension of in the daytime reporting on problems in the world, and in the night time, not as a job, but as a side thing, being able to do something about those."
Dickerson continued, "So, that's when my wife and I started praying about if God wanted us to do that full time, to explain to people how the Bible, Jesus, essentially, can really fix the problems in their lives, if God wanted us to do that as a vocation, We surrendered that we were willing to set aside the career that we were in to help people out and to introduce people to Jesus and his power to free them from addictions and to give them meaning in their lives and give them purpose.
"So, we started praying that if that's what God wanted us to do, He would open a door and it wasn't long after that we heard about a little church in Prescott, up in the mountains, a church of somewhere between 50-100 people, I would guess at that time. So, we reached out to them, and through a process of interviews and other candidates, they settled on me to be the Senior Pastor."
Not only was Cornerstone relying on faith, so were the Dickersons.
"It was one of those things where you walk away from a good job and you move your young wife up here, and then you look at the church's finances after you move up here and you realize that you might not get paid next month," Dickerson said. "But we did, and God has been providing ever since. You know, I think the special thing about Cornerstone is that we're simply a church that truly wants Jesus to be the Head of the Church, and that's not just an empty thing. It's something that every Pastor and staff member and elder really believe in their core that we want to be part of a church where Jesus is truly the Head of the church, that we're not following a man, we're not following a trend, we're not following anything other than Jesus and His Word.
"And I think that purity has been part of why Cornerstone has been so fruitful these past three years. I guess it's three and a half years, coming up on four. In that time, God has grown the church from that original group of around 50 to between 500-600 folks who gather every week to worship God and look into His word together. So, that's kind of the journey," he explained.
Things started to happen at Cornerstone. As it grew, so did the Dickerson family. Pastor Dickerson and his wife Melanie had a baby boy, and then about a year and a half later, a baby girl.
Dickerson continued, "As that first service filled up, we were pretty excited and started praying about a second service. And as we prayed about that, we can sit about 200 in our auditorium here. And we had a couple of Sundays where it was more than that, and we had to put chairs in the lobby. And the building, I think the max we can have in here by fire code is like 260, and we were at 240, so we decided to start a second service. And then that one filled up as well, so we started the third service. At this point, we are at capacity. We can't reach any more people. We can't have Christ transform any additional lives in our current facility with our three services; We're maxed out."
So, the elders and the staff started praying and looking.
"So, our options are either to build something, or to rent something," Dickerson said. "Our resources, we really want to see - well, the dream would be to see every penny going directly to making disciples, none of those pennies going to mortgage or a lease, or anything like that. But, for the time being, as we prayed about that, we felt led to look at rental options.
"As we looked at rental options, we pursued or examined probably everything that was available in the Prescott area. We dialogued quite a bit about meeting at the high school because other churches had met there, and that's a pretty normal thing around the country. So we were in talks with them, and we were looking at some other commercial spaces, like retail spaces, where we'd rent, but we'd have to take in speakers and all that stuff," he explained.
Then they looked at another location. One that they at first assumed was way beyond their resources.
"We had dialogued a little bit with Yavapai College really, just out of curiosity, and the more we talked back and forth with the officials at Yavapai College, it really looked to me and our board like it could be a win-win situation. That we could pay a pretty significant amount of rent that is going to be a win for the college, and give this congregation a place to meet that's really turnkey, yet still really easy for the college."
Really? Is he referring to the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center? Yes. Really. Remember that 'faith thing'.
Dickerson explained some of the logistics. "We can drop in there Sunday morning, do our thing, and be out of there. With the way the curtains are on the stage, they don't have to move any props, they don't have to change a bunch of stuff. It's essentially a bunch of extra revenue for the college with very little effort there."
They prayed, and they also consulted a lawyer. And it looked good. "So, attorneys on both ends hammered out a contract that everyone was happy with, that was a real win-win, and our first Sunday is September 30."
How did the congregation respond?
"Overall, with a whole lot of excitement," Dickerson answered. "I think it's bittersweet for those of us who were there in my beginning, three and a half years ago. For us, this church has always been a church that's a family. And that's a value that we intend to really protect and keep. Cornerstone is a church that is really about relationships. But, we've all been, or at least larger churches, where you don't feel like you're cared about, where you feel like you're a number. So, that's something, that I think if we're honest, we fear a little bit, and yet we don't want to stand in God's way. It's His church, like we said. And we know that ultimately, He wants to reach thousands of people in this area."
He admitted that growth isn't always easy. "We know from Scripture, it's a biblical thing for churches to grow. In the book of Acts, the first few chapters, we see the churches go in one day from 120 people to 3,120 people. The growth we're seeing seems rapid and a little uncomfortable to us, but it's really nothing compared to New Testament growth."
"We just want to keep lining up with God, and we trust if He's bringing the growth, He's going to give the grace and the leaders at different levels everything that's needed to still be relational," Dickerson said. "The more we've prayed about it, and really surrendered, "Okay God, if You want this church to keep growing, it's really Your church, not ours." The more we've surrendered that, the more, at least for me personally, that I've come to the place to realize that whether or not the church feels relational doesn't have to do with its size as much as it has to do with the attitude and values of the leadership."
Dickerson talked about the big picture, "So, moving forward, that's something that the leadership is really intent on maintaining: That our goal is not to be a big church. But our goal is also not to be a little church. Our goal is not to be a really trendy church, our goal is not to be really traditional church. Our goal is to be a church where Christ is truly the Head of the body. And the reality is that Christ has promised when He is lifted up, He will draw all people to Himself. So, a church where Christ is the Head of the Body is going to be a church that grows, because people who are lost and enslaved in sin, Christ is going to be setting them free. And people who have wandered away, He's going to be drawing them back to Himself in a church like that.
"It's bittersweet to leave our comfortable little building that we've been in, but it's exciting to actually be part of something that God's doing. As opposed to something that's manipulated by human hands. At Cornerstone, we're not a church that started off with a three-year, five-year, ten year plan. We're a Church that started off by saying, 'We truly want Christ to be the Head of this church.' And that's where we still are, we don't plan on ever changing that."
The 'Green Room' will transform into a Sunday AM nursery.
Is Dickerson saying, " If people want to come to Cornerstone, they are not going to find a 'no vacancy' sign on the door?"
"Absolutely," he agreed. "And that's the point where we're at. More people are coming every week, and they can't find a parking spot, some weeks they can't find a seat, and so we want to be somewhere, that if someone is speaking Christ, they can get a parking spot, and they can get a seat and they can learn about Christ there."
Dickerson said he thinks there's a need in Prescott and the quad-city area. Not necessarily a need that he thinks he can fill on his own. But a 'faith-based' need.
"I see two hungers in Prescott. The first is the hunger of the lost and of the seeking to know Christ. And God loves every person in Prescott, in Prescott Valley, in Chino Valley, and beyond. He loves every one of them so much. And He wants them to know He's just waiting for them to come to him, and to accept his free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. And there is a great hunger in this community for that. And a great need for the new life that Christ gives, and the hope that He gives. And we've seen with the rate of suicides and the local suicides and the local suicides in the last few weeks and the last month, we've seen a great desperation. I was just reading a story in the national news yesterday that in the United States more people now take their lives by suicide in a given year, than people who die in car accidents. And that's the world we live in. And it's as true in Prescott as anywhere else. People need hope, they need purpose."
"And they don't need empty promises," he said firmly. "They need spiritual reality, they need transformation, in their hearts and in their minds and in their outlook on life. And I'm a firm believer that it only happens through Christ. And I believe that because I have seen it played out in life after life after life. So, yes, there's a great hunger in this community for actual, meaningful hope and purpose and ultimately for Christ."
"And I believe there's a second hunger, and that is a great hunger of existing believers to unify within churches that are truly committed to Christ and His word, and not to anything else," Dickerson concluded. "I think there's a great hunger among existing Bible believers to be part of something that is actually God at work."
Yavapai College will be paid their standard rental fees each week at a time when the Performing Arts Center isn't being used.
This Sunday is the first Sunday that Cornerstone will meet at the Performing Arts Center. They will continue to use their current facility for youth groups, Bible studies, and offices. During the week, small groups will meet at various locations for more intimate fellowships.
As for that 'faith thing'? Well, it's still the foundation of the church. And according to Dickerson, that won't change any time soon.
When: Sunday mornings
Time: 9:30 am
Where: Yavapai College Performing Arts Center
More info: 928.776.0121