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Chicago! The Breath of Life in the Windy City

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The story of two church planters—Dave Choi and Jon Kelly—and the astonishing work God is doing to multiply their impact.

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While studying at Moody Bible Institute, Kelly began attending Harvest Bible Chapel’s campus in downtown Chicago. Led by Senior Pastor James MacDonald, the Harvest Bible Fellowship has started 110 churches across the world, with a goal of starting 1,000. Harvest coaches, equips, trains and supports leaders who desire to plant churches.

Kelly was hired as a family pastor at the church and was increasingly drawn to the idea of starting a church through the Fellowship. When contemplating a plant in a warmer climate and a city more suited for his family of four, a young, inner-city African-American man shook his thinking.

“‘That’s the problem with all these black pastors,’” Kelly remembers the man telling him. “‘They go to good schools, get their education and never come back.’”

The young man’s words morphed into Kelly recognizing God’s calling to start a ministry in a neighborhood like the one he grew up in. After graduating from Moody in 2016, Harvest Bible Fellowship sent Kelly and a team of 20 people, diverse in race and economic status, to plant a church in Austin, a Chicago neighborhood known for poverty, unemployment and a high murder rate.

Two months into his job as senior pastor, Kelly pulled into the parking lot of the church office and saw yellow crime scene tape. A 16-year-old kid, walking to school, had been shot for not giving a gang signal.

For Kelly, ongoing violence came as no surprise.

“Growing up in North Philadelphia, I carried a gun starting when I was 14,” he says. “I didn’t think I would be alive when I was 21. Violence is what happens when you have a group of young men who have accepted death. They don’t care. If someone looks at you wrong when you got a gun and no outlet to express your anger, you pull the trigger without even thinking about it.”

During the first year of ministry, the church worked to establish a loving presence in Austin, a neighborhood of 110,000 rife with high rates of unemployment (21 percent), poverty (27 percent), gang wars and racism. While predominantly African-American, the area is bordered by neighborhoods of Hispanics, Asians, Italians and every mix in between.

“Our church is very on the ground, active in the community,” Kelly says. “When I get done preaching, I get my basketball clothes on and we open up the courts in the high school where we meet. We order pizza. Neighborhood players camp with us. It’s just about being present together.”

Partnerships are critical to Harvest Chicago West. Michele Clark Magnet High School, for example, not only provides space for the church to rent but a network to care. The principal, assistant principal, four teachers and half the basketball team are part of the church body. Together, they serve the neighborhood.

The church also partners with other ministries, the police, social service agencies and church-planting networks. Every Wednesday during the summer, Harvest, five other churches and law enforcement partner for an outreach called 100 Blocks.

“Police give us the corners they have the most problems with and we smother those corners with love,” Kelly says. “We share the gospel, bring food and water, and just hang.”

After one year in ministry, Kelly feels the church has a loving and growing presence. He now hopes to focus on partnerships to give the people of Austin more job and educational opportunities.

“It’s not social justice so much as just loving your neighbor well,” Kelly says. “We should desire for our neighbors the same things we desire for our families.”

Church of Many Nations

On Feb. 18, 2012, Choi and a team of 20 planted Church of the Beloved in a predominately African-American neighborhood surrounded by great diversity. Bordering on the west are Mexican, Chinese and Italian neighborhoods, as well as the multiethnic University of Illinois at Chicago.

When they opened the doors of the church in a dilapidated warehouse that Choi’s buddy was giving them rent-free on Saturdays, they had only 100 chairs—but 168 people flowed into that tiny space.

Three or four months into the plant, Choi got a weird feeling. Looking out over the faces of every race and ethnicity imaginable, most of them under 30, he was led to ask: “If you were born outside the United States, could you please raise your hand?”

When more than half of the church did so, Choi counted 15 nations represented.

“Nothing that was happening in the church made sense to us. When all those hands went up, that’s when it all clicked,” he says. “God was bringing all of these nations into our church. He was moving on the promise of his presence going with us. Once God gave us that seed, we began to strategize on what he was already doing.”

A few months later, in a donated theater space three blocks from the John Hancock Center, Church of the Beloved launched its first church plant in one of Chicago’s hardest-to-reach neighborhoods—downtown—and 187 people overflowed the 159-seating capacity.

Currently, an average of 800 people representing 35 nations attend six multiethnic campuses across the nation started by Church of the Beloved’s indigenous leaders and teams.

For Choi, strategies to build multiethnic churches often miss the mark if they focus on a product instead of the process.

“We have a desperate need for more multiethnic churches in Chicago,” he says, “but we have to be careful to not make multiethnicity the ultimate thing instead of a logical outflow of the gospel.”

Choi searched for simple and creative ways to love each person by valuing his or her unique culture. To illustrate, he tells the story of Church of the Beloved throwing its first Chinese New Year’s party.

After noticing the volume of Chinese-Americans posting about upcoming parties for the Chinese New Year, he invited 15 internationals to his condo to discuss the cultural importance of the holiday. The next week, the church, as it is prone to do, threw a party.

“More than 120 people showed up and 80 of them were non-Christians,” says Choi. “It was the first church party I had been to where Christians were outnumbered.”

Choi could tell you hundreds of other nearly impossible-to-believe stories, like the Muslim man who prays to Allah before he comes to hear a Christian sermon and experience authentic community. Or the Bible studies for Chinese scholars and people from Thailand who had never heard of Jesus. Or the reality of a downtown Chicago church, whose average attendee is age 25 and is as likely to be from Nepal, India, Guyana, Korea or Indonesia as from Illinois.

“When God sent me out on this mission, I never realized that so much of the world is moving through our American cities,” Choi says.

Confident in God’s presence continuing to move with them, Church of the Beloved plans to plant 10 more churches in the next five years, one of them a church in a global city of critical need.

Like always, many believe Choi is crazy, but the flow of 500 millennials and internationals to a downtown Chicago church defies the limits of what was previously thought possible. And it’s not because of spin or technique.

“I believe they are coming because we are so familiar with hospitality cultures,” Choi says. “We invite them into our homes and eat meals together. Millennials can sniff out the disingenuous. They are attracted by authentic relationships in diverse communities where you can be yourself and your identity is not defined by your performance,” he adds.

For Choi, Church of the Beloved has the childhood feel of drinking soda and eating chips together at an abandoned school’s picnic table with a great variety of good friends.

The Lame Shall Walk

Of the 200 people who now attend Harvest Chicago West, Tanaya was one of the first people Kelly met less than a month after the church start.

On April 24, 2016, a stray bullet hit the 16-year-old girl’s spine. Tanaya’s high school principal asked if Kelly would visit her in the hospital. Meeting with the teen and her mother, Shavada, Kelly learned that Tanaya had dreams of becoming a cosmetologist, but the doctors warned she might not walk again.

Kelly held Tanaya’s hand, spoke of the long road ahead and promised she wouldn’t go it alone. During the following months, the people of Harvest Chicago West came to love Tanaya. They visited daily; women often slept on the floor by her bed at night.

They also loved on Shavada, allowing her to struggle through bitterness and anger to arrive at grace.

The weekend after her release from the hospital, Tanaya started coming to church in a wheelchair along with her mom. They both became believers. One day shy of a year after the shooting, Tanaya walked on her own into Harvest Chicago West Church. The entire local body of believers rose in a standing ovation.

The Future of Harvest

When Kelly and Choi envision the future, the number one comes to mind.

“The gospel moves out of one loving relationship at a time,” says Kelly. “We just want to make one disciple who will disciple another, who will plant another church.”

“We just feel like God’s presence has been so gracious to our church,” says Choi. “It just doesn’t make sense in a city like Chicago, which is so difficult to reach. I trace it back to the promise of God’s presence recorded in Matthew 28: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”

Additional Chicago Church-Planting Stories:

Rob Wilkins, an Outreach magazine contributing writer, is the founder and creative lead for Fuse Media in Asheville, North Carolina.

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