Idea: Get an Entire Community to Value a Local Church

The Church: Harvest Church

The Challenge: Find a way to make the church truly valuable to its community and a provider of goods, services and taxes

One Key Idea: Skip the worship center, and build a gym or water park instead

More than a dozen years after Vern Streeter planted Harvest Church in a low-income area of Billings, Mont., he still doesn’t have a worship center—but he does have a $5 million water park.

His desire for a church that mattered to its community came after he read an article about urban planners excluding churches on grounds that they don’t provide goods, services and taxes.

“I just owned the responsibility of the irrelevance of the church in that guy’s mind and said, ‘Well, that’s our fault, and we’re going to fix it,’” 47-year-old Streeter says.

Vowing that “we would be so relevant that even the most ardent critic of Christianity would be bummed if we ceased to exist,” church leaders cultivated relationships with city officials and formed the nonprofit Better Billings Foundation (BBF) in 2005 to raise funds to build the water park. The Oasis would not open until June 2012.

Talks had centered on a swimming pool; Streeter’s vision was greater. “A water park’s more fun—more family-friendly,” he says, “and we think Jesus would like going down slides.”

The fruit: Families in the church provide season passes for low-income families in the community; Oasis employees and others have come to Christ and to worship; and the water park has created immense good will—even residents who have never attended the church say they love it. Meantime, the 1,800-member congregation (with 700 additional attendees at three other sites) has built—not rented—a gym to house its services and that the community can use throughout the week.

Streeter admits he’d still like a proper worship center, and there have been other sacrifices. The church lost members when it opted for a water park, and it lost others when it needed to borrow more than $1 million to complete it.

“I was like, ‘Ah—their loss,’ ‘cause it’s pretty neat what God’s doing here,” Streeter says. “But it’s still hurtful, and some of my really good friends are not part of the church anymore. That’s too bad, but I’d do it again.”


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2013 issue of Outreach magazine.

Jeff Sellers
Jeff Sellers

A former associate editor at Christianity Today magazine, Jeff M. Sellers is a freelance writer, editor and founder of Morning Star News, an independent news service focusing on the persecution of Christians.