Two years ago, as the first church meeting was dismissed and the congregation filed out of a rented room at the YMCA, one of the guests stopped to talk to Pastor Bill Branks, an urban Chicago church planter with Continental Baptist Missions.

“That was one #!@&*! of a sermon, pastor,” complimented the visitor.

Bill laughed about this later, saying, “Right about then, I started to think, ‘Oooo. This is going to be different.’ ”

All of this started several years ago when Bill and Tamra Branks were still in West Virginia. He had a comfortable job working as a health care manager; she worked as a nurse; but both arranged to spend some of their vacation time on a missions trip to New York City with their church’s youth group. Thinking that perhaps their two teenage daughters would use the opportunity to consider Christian service, Bill and Tamra went along.

“Listen up,” Bill told the teens before they met with an urban church planter. “God could be calling you into the ministry.”

But a strange thing happened while the group listened to the missionary’s testimony. Under great conviction, Bill began thinking how he could explain to his wife his need to quit his job, go to seminary, and become an urban church planter himself.

Meanwhile, Tamra was in the other room talking to the missionary’s wife and thinking, “I’m glad I’m not her. I could never do this!”

Six years later on a chilly Sunday morning, Tamra Branks is standing next to her husband at the door of an office suite at 800 North Clark Street, Chicago, greeting each person as they get off the third-floor elevator.

When song leader Erik Eloe stands in front of the corner window and begins the first song, I look past his raised arm to see Houghton Hall—gateway to the Moody Bible Institute campus.

Seventy-five years ago, this neighborhood was the epicenter of our movement. Many of our pastors received their training at Moody. Many of them attended church about twenty blocks north of here, the site of the original Belden Avenue Baptist Church. And the first offices of the GARBC were also located on Clark Street, just ten blocks south.

That was church history. Today, the neighborhood could be generously called “transitional,” the urban planner’s way of describing how the Gold Coast shopping district is eight blocks east and the Cabrini-Green housing projects are eight blocks west.

This also explains how former drug dealers and downtown executives and Bible college students found themselves standing next to each other during the morning service.

Alfred Jackson, who took the El train and then walked four blocks to church, leans over and tells me, “Our church is a melting pot. We have people from all over.”

Before the service started, Sojournee Prince —everyone calls her Spunky—had told me about her first visit. “I had stopped going to church because I was angry with God. I was living at the Y and working in the clothing room, where this church used to meet. I sat down in the middle of Pastor Branks’s sermon and listened through to the end. That’s when I realized I needed to be saved.”

Spunky sits near the back, watching the door to the meeting room while the congregation sings. Homeless people are welcome, but the church recently had a disappointment when someone snuck in during prayer and stole three dozen donuts. Now, Spunky watches. When I talk to her again after the service, Spunky casually mentions that she is legally blind.

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After the service, we walk up the street to a restaurant while Bill explains how his ideas about urban church planting have changed over time. He started with a Bible study at the YMCA, thinking that he would develop multiple cell groups in different apartment buildings before starting a church. And Bill looked for a “Caleb” to help him, hoping for a dedicated, spiritually mature young man who was working downtown and interested in urban missions.

But Bill found that he had no access to the downtown high-rise apartments where people lived, the YMCA was not an ideal place for a church plant, and no “Caleb” was appearing to help with the work.

When passing out flyers one afternoon, Tamra met a Christian Realtor who said, “This is true? You’re really planting a church down here? Let me find you a better place.”

As a result, they were able to find meeting space just a few blocks away from the YMCA where they started. A missionary friend had advised them to try a new approach: Hang out your shingle. Start a Sunday service, and begin inviting everyone to attend.

Bill says, “It was as if God was telling me, ‘The people I’m sending you are your church. Stop looking for the easy way, stop looking for the perfect congregation, and start planting a church.’ ”

And after living in the suburbs and commuting downtown for a year and a half, Bill and Tamra decided to move to a nearby high-rise apartment. Living in the same neighborhood as the church proved to have many benefits. “It’s not just how he talks and how he preaches; it’s how he walks,” says Ray Flowers. “We can see him during the week and see how he lives his life.”

Then the search for a “Caleb” ended when  Erik Eloe, a recent graduate of Maranatha Baptist Bible College, began attending with his wife, Erika. He’s the son of Pastor Dan Eloe, First Baptist Church, Shelbyville, Illinios, and had recently found a job downtown.

But Bill and Tamra Branks are still seeking support from churches who have a vision and burden for urban missions. Their current level is 37 percent; Tamra continues to work as a nurse.

And that search for a perfect congregation? “My wife and I are just happy that everyone is sober when they come to church,” Bill laughs.

I had sensed this spirit of brokenness when the church service closed and the men moved to a side room for a discussion of the sermon. I’m the last to arrive, just in time to hear Alfred Jackson say, “God loves men! That’s why our church is growing, because we have a group of men who meet for prayer.”

As I listen, the prayers are earnest and fervent, and the requests are made public in their rawest, most honest form.

Commenting on how much this prayer time means to his men, Bill says, “We’ve never had anyone ask for an unspoken request. No one knows what that is.”