By Brian Jennings
Ed Taylor took the leap of faith to plant a church in Arlington Heights, an upscale suburb of Chicago, three years ago. My soul was blessed to hear how Quest Church opened her arms to the people God surprisingly sent their way.
If I had a nickel for every friend who went from overseeing university standardized testing to planting a church, I guess I’d have one nickel. How did you get from there to here?
I’d worked at the University of Iowa for about 10 years when I started leading worship at Iowa City Church of Christ. I’d been in leadership for several years, but when our lead pastor, Dan Bare, asked me to accept our volunteer worship minister position, I found my niche.
I loved my university job, but I spent more time thinking about worship than testing. Ministry was on my mind nonstop, so I started looking for someone who’d pay me to lead worship. Apparently, Washington Christian was the only church crazy enough to hire me.
Tell us how Washington (Illinois) Christian Church played a beautiful role in the story of Quest.
Just taking a chance on me was huge. I didn’t have a Bible college degree—just a little talent and a lot of passion. Not only did they hire me, they helped me finish my degree at Lincoln [Illinois] Christian University. That’s where I caught the church planting bug and realized my future might be in preaching rather than music. Washington has also been a key financial partner.
It’s easy to swap the glory of the kingdom for the glory of our own little kingdoms. I cringe when church leaders fail to dream beyond the walls of their local church, especially when I’m the guilty party. I pray this part of your story will shatter the boxed-in perspective that blinds us to God’s grand plans.
I’ve never been satisfied with the status quo. Part of what drives me is potential. I see a situation, I dream about what God could do, and I can’t rest until I give it a stab.
Washington is a comfortable community. It would have been easy to just settle in, but my wife, Kim, and I were constantly being drawn into the brokenness that was just under the surface. We sensed a strong calling to serve in inner-city Peoria, work with domestic abuse victims, and try to elevate people out of poverty through transitional housing. We were becoming “broken people magnets.”
God was sowing seeds of unrest in our hearts, and it felt like church planting might be the answer. Fortunately, Ignite Church Planting agreed.
How did you spend your first few months in Arlington Heights?
Right away, I joined the Chamber of Commerce and arranged meetings with local officials and church leaders. I wanted to uncover needs and get a lay of the land. I quickly learned, like in Washington, there was an appearance of comfort, but a gritty undercurrent.
I thought only yuppies lived north of Wrigley.
That’s what I thought, too. But a couple of weeks before we launched small groups, I met Randy. He invited me to Ministry of Hope, his ministry to the homeless and under-resourced population of Arlington Heights. Until then, I didn’t realize poverty existed here. Everyone always painted a rosy picture of suburban life, but here it was—Broken People Central.
When it came time to launch, who showed up?
I really connected with the folks at Ministry of Hope. So when I held my first Bible study, it was almost all homeless guys. For the first six months after Quest’s grand launch, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the people in our chairs were homeless. And that’s not counting the folks who just came for doughnuts and coffee.
How emotionally difficult was it for you to recalibrate your planning?
Actually, I’m still coming to grips with that. It’s been a really complicated process to work through. On the one hand, we were adamant that one of our core values would be loving people where they were—not just saying it, but doing it. On the other hand, finding the people with enough spiritual health and maturity—those who could form the core of our church—but who could also live out that core value was, as it turns out, not very easy. It takes a special kind of family to embrace the chronically homeless.
Quest labors to make sure those in poverty are not made to feel intimidated or exploited. How has your church created an affirming, welcoming environment?
This is totally a top-down thing. Leadership has set the standard on this from the beginning. We bring the impoverished into positions of service. We take them out to lunch. We have a place for them to lock up their belongings during our worship time. One of the homeless guys is our house sitter whenever we’re out of town; he loves our dog. Several folks have come to our apartment to get a shower, recover from surgery, or stay until they could find another place.
I hesitate to ask the next question because I’ve read James and I know what God thinks of favoritism. But guests may enter without a shred of spiritual maturity. Have you found it difficult to attract and retain those who aren’t homeless or poor?
We do everything we can. But this part is tough. We’ve had many young families who are attracted by our messaging, marketing, and online presence, but once they make it through the doors, they find we’re a bit too much. They like the idea of “come as you are,” but maybe not so much experiencing it as we do. It’s difficult to gain enough traction with young people to get them to stick.
We’d been warned this might be a stumbling block from the get-go. Some folks look a bit rough. Maybe someone’s sleeping in the back. Sometimes, our sanctuary doesn’t smell that great. One time, when he walked in our doors, our worship leader’s 4-year-old son told his dad, “Smells like church: coffee, doughnuts, and cigarettes.” That’s Quest. Consequently, it’s not for everyone.
What’s the most encouraging thing you’re seeing?
Transformed lives—without a doubt. We refer to our regulars as “Questers,” because we welcome people “as is” and journey with them. So, it’s all about life change.
There’s the guy who’s in his 60s who earns money by picking up groceries for the elderly. He uses a cart plastered with old postcards we’d used to promote a sermon series last year. He’s been looking for a church home for decades with no luck. Now, everywhere he goes, he tells everyone he meets about how much Quest has changed his life.
There’s the family whose son died of a heroin overdose, and the church they were attending blamed them for his death. A friend invited them to Quest, and now their whole extended family attends. The mother is attending church regularly for the first time in her life, and the father is one of our sound guys.
There’s the guy who came to my first Bible study who was living in his car at the time. I don’t think he’s missed a single Quest gathering since. We helped him get an apartment, reliable transportation, and a job, and now he’s on a committee to help with transitional housing for the homeless. He’s being mentored to grow in his leadership and preaching/teaching gifts. He told me the other day, with tears in his eyes, “I don’t know where I’d be without Quest.”
What’s the biggest challenge you face?
Sustainability. Considering their circumstances, our Questers are extraordinarily generous. But at this stage, three years in, we’re still relying on outside fund-raising for more than 50 percent of our budget. We’re honestly not sure how much longer we can keep the doors open. We’re praying and trusting.
How has knowing your audience changed your preaching?
I was joking with a ministry friend that I spend 90 percent of my time “unteaching.” Questers who have a church background often carry a ton of negative baggage, some even bordering on abuse. So lots of my teaching attempts to undo damage, and I have to do so in a way that people understand. I was thrilled to once hear, “You do a good job of saying really deep things in a really understandable way.”
As you look back on your life, what prepared you for this ministry?
Nothing and everything. Nothing could have prepared me for this. This is NOT what I expected church planting to look like. However, everything in my life made it possible. My life has been a bumpy ride, and I think those bumps made it easier for me to relate to such a wide variety of folks.
What’s a big lesson God has taught you through Quest?
God can work through your plans, but don’t be surprised when God rearranges them for his purposes. Pay attention. Be on the lookout for surprises. If you blink, you might miss them.
Brian Jennings serves as lead minister with Highland Park Christian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has helped his church develop a holistic approach to serving the poor in their community and also serves on the board for Blackbox International.