Idaho Churches Welcome Ex-Californians
When Stevie L. Nix, 33, and family moved to Idaho a year and a half ago from Los Angeles to become executive pastor at Changed Life Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Kuna, they quickly learned that some locals didn’t appreciate Californians migrating to the Gem State. Within the first week, someone slashed their tires, presumably because of their car’s Golden State license plates.
“There is definitely a little bitterness on the Idahoan side for those specifically from California,” Nix says with a laugh. “But the majority of people moving have had enough of the restrictions and the price of houses in California.”
Idaho is experiencing an influx of new residents, many from neighboring Washington, Oregon, and California. In spite of occasional friction, that has meant opportunities for AG churches to grow and welcome “outsiders” to the state’s family-friendly culture.
“A lot of Californians are coming and incorporating themselves into our fellowships,” says Joel H. Wendland, 52, superintendent of the AG’s Southern Idaho Ministry Network. “Everybody wants to move here, it seems, and Idahoans are starting to appreciate a lot of what Californians have to offer.”
Wendland served as a senior pastor at churches in his native South Dakota and Idaho for three decades — a little more than half that time at River of Life Christian Center in Payette, Idaho — before becoming superintendent in June 2021. He observes that most people moving to the state want to embrace a more family- and God-centered way of life.
“They remembered it from growing up and this is what they’re coming back to,” he says. “That seems to be the pattern of churches throughout Idaho.”
Stevie and his wife, Kristin — who serves as worship pastor at Changed Life — fled their native California in part for the mental health of their two grade-school children. The kids found themselves stuck at home by government order in 2020 when the family moved to the Los Angeles area from San Diego, unable to get a chance to make friends or attend school in their new neighborhood.
“Our daughter was showing signs almost of childhood depression,” says Stevie. “We saw other states not going through lockdowns, and having church services. We thought it would be amazing to have our kids around other kids.”
The Nixes never had considered leaving California until one morning when Stevie woke up and told Kristin, in a moment of prophetic inspiration, “Someone’s going to call us today, and we’re moving.” That’s exactly what happened: a friend from Kuna contacted Stevie and asked him to consider applying for a church staff position. The Nixes moved to Idaho in November 2020.
“It immediately felt like home, like a dream come true,” Stevie says.
The good vibes persisted even after the slashing of Stevie’s tires and the numerous vulgar gestures he received from other drivers, until the California plates came off. Today, the family owns a home, and their kids “are happier and healthier, mentally, physically, and spiritually,” Stevie says. Kuna, which has 24,000 residents, has nearly quintupled in size this century.
The congregation of Changed Life has more than doubled in size, to around 350, in less than two years. Some new attendees are transplants from other states; some are new Christians. Some are locals who attended churches closer to Boise until gas prices shot up and they switched to the closer place of worship to save money.
Wendland says AG churches are doing well at assimilating out-of-staters, and the network is planting and rejuvenating congregations throughout Idaho. This includes in the main urban area — Boise and its environs — which is drawing new residents from places like California’s Bay Area as tech companies such as social media giant Facebook/Meta build campuses there. Also on the list are Idaho’s strongly Mormon communities where, in some cases, there is no evangelical church.
“It’s not a barrier; it’s an opportunity” says Wendland, who put 40,000 miles on his Ford Escort while visiting churches in his first year in office.
Meanwhile, the Nix family — and Changed Life Church — are thriving. Stevie oversees day-to-day operations and the integration of new families. Kristin leads worship, and their kids are deeply involved in church life.
“There’s an expectation that God is going to move at church,” says Stevie. “It’s a culture of excitement.”
LEAD PHOTO: These days, the Nix family (from left) Kristin, Ryker, Stevie, and Taytum feel more welcome in Idaho.
BOTTOM PHOTO: Tanda and Joel Wendland are at home in Idaho.