History of Church on the Street
In 2014, I was invited to attend a meeting where the faith needs of people, in the city, were being discussed. This group was full of pastors, other professionals, and people who provided services in the community. The group met for months, and as time went on, it dwindled to a group of pastors and my friend Carolyn and I. Many ministry ideas were talked about, and how to reach the unhoused population was brought up. We started talking about what a ministry of Word and Sacrament with people struggling with homelessness and poverty might look like. We wanted to provide an opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who may not feel comfortable in the walls of a church. So my friend, Carolyn and I asked the group if we could research this “street church thing” and report back to the group. We found an Ecclesia ministry gathering and training in Dallas, Texas. We spent 3 days with about 20 people who do street church all over the United States, we learned how to do street ministry in a tent city, and we joined The Gathering, in worship in downtown Dallas. We came back to South Dakota fired up! We were sure this could be done here. So Carolyn and I sat down and wrote all of our thoughts, our ideas and dreams, what we had learned, and then we prayed, and we prayed some more. We asked everyone at the meetings to pray too. After several meetings with our Director of Evangelical Missions, Bill Tesch and my Pastor, Paul, we were ready to get started. Although Carolyn and I had joked that one of us was going to need to quit our job and do this, I did not see it coming. I quit my job and trusted that God had a plan for my life and His church. I remember saying, "OK God, you’ve Got this". This is how I became a Mission Developer with the ELCA. Thankfully, there was mission developer training and lots of people to support me.
For the next 6 months, I and volunteers went out on the streets, to shelters, to parks, under bridges, on walking paths, to places where meals are served to the hungry. We met people where they were at. We listened to their stories, we built relationships, we prayed, we shared Holy communion from our backpacks and we asked a very simple question: “If you had a church, what would it look like?” At first, people were surprised by the question, until they realized we were consistently showing up, we honestly cared and wanted to listen, we were not going to judge them and we were going to share God’s grace and remind them of their worthiness in the kingdom of God. After a while, we started to get genuine answers to the question. They shared that they wanted a time together that they didn’t have to think about their situation. They wanted fellowship. They wanted to pray for people who they had lost in their community, they wanted a Christian community that they understood. They wanted to have visits and pastoral care during the week, they wanted a community that knew their real life and the real struggles. They wanted real relationships.
From this, we developed the 80/20 model of street church. We were developing what the people wanted, not what we thought they should want. Most churches spend about 80 percent of their energy on worship and 20 percent of their energy on mission and outreach. Listening to what we heard when we surveyed the community, it was the opposite of what our people wanted. So we flipped that around and we spend 80% of our time on the streets in community and having church from our backpacks, and 20% in organized worship.
Six months later, after many hours of street visits, many hours of prayer and many hours of listening, we thought we were ready to have our first worship service. All this work and we had no idea what to expect. We set up our pop up table, threw an old sheet over it, set up an altar and waited for God to do His work. We thought we would have 10-12 people come that day and we ended up serving Holy communion to over 80 people. On that day, people cried as they took communion because they hadn’t been invited to the table in years. They talked to us in the middle of communion and it did not matter, people shouted out questions in the middle of the sermon and it did not matter, the person leading worship cried during the prayer, and it didn’t matter. It was the beginning of monthly worship. It was amazing. The Holy Spirit was present and active. We have continued worship of Word and Sacrament each month, in the park for 7 months out of the year and in a rented space during the arctic South Dakota winters for the remaining months.