We have updated our Privacy Policy to provide you a better online experience.

Viva Church Plant

An unconventional pastor launches a congregation in the shadow of The Strip in Las Vegas.

People move to Las Vegas, often pulled by supersized expectations. Sometimes they’re guided by dreams of getting rich quick, of making it big. Or they’re running from something. Others are poor recent arrivals to the nation, desperate for plentiful low-paying hospitality jobs.

But in this transient community, fortunes shift as quickly as the desert sand upon which this city famed for gambling was built.

“People come here, expecting something, but the city destroys them,” says church planter Russ Cambria. “Then they find they’re stuck here.”
Cambria, with his wife, Jennifer, and four other Pennsylvania families, moved to Nevada last year to start
CityReach Church Las Vegas East. It will launch Sept. 18, National Church Planting Day in the Assemblies of God.

The East Las Vegas church is one of a record number 75 AG plants set to open in September through the Church Multiplication Network, the Fellowship’s church planting arm. It’s also one of 28 launching through CityReach, an AG church planting network concentrating on overlooked urban areas.

Cambria likens Las Vegas to a big waiting room, where patients bide their time before being called elsewhere. Jennifer Cambria, a first-grade schoolteacher, sees the revolving door in her classroom as parents up and leave the city. Most of the pupils receive free or reduced-cost lunches. By the end of the school year, 40 percent of her students won’t be around anymore.

Cambria, 37, from Reading, Pennsylvania, has seen middle class professionals end up homeless in Las Vegas, which is not friendly to those needing help. Ever mindful of keeping up appearances, authorities routinely carry out homeless sweeps before conventions to keep tourists from seeing how the other half lives. 

Some aspects of the demographic are familiar to Cambria, who previously directed two Teen Challenge programs for nine years.

“Some people come running across the border and get into addiction and gangs,” he says. “We only have a window of opportunity to reach them before they move on. We’re going to have these people for a moment.”

Fifteen years ago, Cambria says the Lord called him to the mission field, confirmed after a 2004 trip to the desert city. He actually heeded the church planting call as a University of Valley Forge faculty member, after watching a live stream of a Church Multiplication Network event. 

“My heart has been with the addicted men and women who needed parachurch ministry before they could be productive members of society,” he says. “CityReach was a hybrid between church and Teen Challenge. They have programs for addicts and utilize addicts to start churches.”

While Las Vegas, with a metro population of 2 million, has some large congregations doing great work, the city is full of pockets without churches. One such place is the older, poorer inner city of East Las Vegas. The Cambrias are planting CityReach Church Las Vegas East three miles from The Strip and a quarter-mile from Boulder Highway, notorious for sex trafficking and prostitution. The Cambrias understand that relationships in “Sin City” must be built quickly.

“We want that moment in time to count,” Cambria says. That’s why instead of rows of pews, CityReach Church Las Vegas East will have tables for bridge-building pancake breakfasts provided at every 60-minute service. The church, which received financing from the AGTrust/CMN Matching Fund, has been approved as an official city food pantry. In addition, CityReach will offer a recovery group.

“Our team really wants our building and our church to be a crossroads for people — whether they’re in Vegas long term or just got to town — to have an opportunity to meet Jesus and meet others who know Jesus,” Cambria says.

The CityReach network uses unlikely people in overlooked places to do extraordinary things, Cambria says. Neither he nor his wife had pastoral experience.

“I was an unlikely person to plant a church,” he says. “We got approved to plant where other churches left.” 

The couple attended a two-day Church Multiplication Network Launch training event in Washington, D.C., where CMN Director Chris Railey and other leaders equipped and empowered them to plant the church.

“We left thinking, Oh, wow, we can do this,” Cambria says. “With God’s help, we can manage. We really felt prepared.”

Frank Wooden, CityReach West Coast and AG SoCal church planting director, notes that CityReach provides church planters with financial, mentoring, coaching, legal, and technical resources. Additionally, CityReach provides training and peer-to-peer learning from others, which greatly enhances a church plant’s chances for stability.

“Resourcing planters in a substantive way really helps them out without confining their innovation and creativity and entrepreneurial spirit,” Wooden says. 

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.