Multiplication Center

Church Makes a Community Splash, Literally

June 4, 2013

Published on 6/4/2013

By Warren Bird

Oasis Water Park has a heated pool, wave generator, several play areas and a variety of slides.

Pastor Vern Streeter wanted Harvest Church to be so relevant to its Billings, MT, community that the church helped build a $5 million water park for the city. Their unusual contribution is not the only crazy thing they’ve done. Harvest’s leaders want to continue meeting the greatest needs of their city in hopes of swaying the most skeptical of hearts toward Jesus Christ.

“We say it like this,” says Vern, Harvest’s senior pastor. “We need to be so relevant and so tangible that even the most ardent critic of Christianity would be bummed if we ceased to exist. If our doors close, we want the most vocal atheist to say, ‘I never believed a thing they said about God, but they were certainly good for our community.’ ” But a state-of-the-art water park? How does a church get into the pool-building business?

Mattering More than “Lost Tax Revenue”

When Vern was starting Harvest in 2000, he read a news article stating that city planners were restricting the development of new churches because the congregations were an economic drain. The article voiced an economic comparison: New retail businesses bring tax revenue, but tax-exempt churches don’t.

“That’s an unsettling article to read when you’re about to start a church,” Vern says. “Here we have the message of eternal life, and nothing really matters more than that. But city planners would rather have a gas station or a restaurant more than a church.”

“We determined that we have to be worth more to the city than the lost tax revenue. We have to matter that much.”

With that foundation, it wasn’t long before Vern was met with a pointed need in the city.

Pastor Vern Streeter explains why Harvest Church needed to be important to the community in an interview with Dr. Warren Bird.

Holy Discontent and Holy Boldness

Billings is a city of 140,000 divided by bluffs and a river. Vern’s side of the bluffs, an area of 40,000 people known as The Heights, is seen as the “less desirable” of the two communities. It has lower-cost housing and fewer attractions than the rest of the city, such as a swimming pool. A bond issue to build a pool in The Heights had been defeated multiple times.

“People in The Heights were always for it, but the rest of the city voted against it,” Vern says. They always saw our area as ‘over there…up there…and we don’t go there.’ ”

Vern was reading a news account of yet another failed bond issue for The Heights when he experienced a “moment of holy discontent and holy boldness.”

“I stood up and said to anybody who would listen—at the time that was just my wife—‘We’ll build it. We’ll build a pool for our community.’ That was before we even held our first worship service.”

The park also includes a community center with showers, dressing rooms, a concession area, and conference space.

Miracles and Making it Happen

As Harvest got off the ground, Vern shared the vision of building a water park for the community. “People would come to our church in those early days, knowing I’m talking crazy like that,” he says.

Harvest leaders envisioned the water park as Phase 4 of the church’s Master Plan. After building a worship center, leaders moved the water park project to Phase 2 and raised the money for it.

Harvest launched the project with full support from the city. During conversations about where the water park would be built, Harvest leaders received a “miracle phone call” from the city’s Parks Department: Billings had seven acres of land in a prime location, but didn’t have the money to develop it. They gave that land to Harvest, which started the non-profit Better Billings Foundation as the funding arm of the project. Founded in 2005 by the leaders of Harvest Church, the Better Billings Foundation acts as a separately governed, non-sectarian organization dedicated to providing community service and facilities, outreach and opportunities for family enhancement and youth achievement. The Better Billings Foundation took the leadership role to unite the community behind the funding and construction of this state-of-the-art aquatic facility and community center.

Before Oasis Park was built, the community lacked a safe and fun place for families to enjoy an aquatic experience.

“There was no separation of church and state here,” Vern says. “It was the perfect partnership—a church-state partnership for the good of the community.”

Skepticism, Then Spiritual Change

Critics began to surface when the project moved from idea to reality. A few non-Christians initially thought the strategy was a gimmick to boost church numbers Vern handled them frankly: “Holy cow! Five million bucks to increase our membership? That’s a bad financial strategy,” he says. Seasoned Christians at Harvest liked the idea—until it cost them.

“We were a four-year-old church family, and the tendency is to focus inward,” Vern says. “The typical comment we would get from long-term Christians was, ‘We don’t think that’s best use of the money.’

“But frankly, there’s some arrogance in that statement. If our leaders believe this is what God has called us to do, then it’s on Him. It’s His money, and He can spend it any way He wants.”

The Oasis water park opened on June 3, 2012 to enthusiastic crowds.

Mostly though, Oasis water park has positioned Harvest as a church for the city. That and many other community projects the church has undertaken are serving as a launching pad for relationships and conversations that lead to spiritual transformation.

A Billings city planner who was initially resistant to Harvest “just because we are a church” now gets emotional when talking about Harvest’s impact on the city.

Another man first came to Harvest to check out the climbing walls in the church’s lobby—that’s right, climbing walls that are free for the community. “He wanted to know what kind of church has a climbing wall in its lobby,” Vern says. The man eventually gave his life to Christ, and then his entire family did. The family recently adopted a child from Ethiopia through Harvest’s partnership with an orphanage.

Part of the fireworks display at Castlerock Park during Celebrate Freedom on July 4th, 2011

Freedom Celebration

Ten thousand people attend the annual Freedom Celebration and fireworks show that Harvest puts on every July 4th. It’s not unusual for Harvest members to hear their unchurched friends say, “I love that church. I don’t actually go to church, but if I did, it would be a church like that,” Vern says. “That warms my heart that people recognize us as a church that matters to the community, because that’s what we set out to do.”

Harvest’s march into meeting the community’s greatest needs is far from over. Harvest Church staff interacts periodically with city officials to keep an open line on discussions around the community’s biggest pain points.

“I tell other pastors who want to see something like this happen, ‘You have to build friendships with the mayor and city leaders and find out what they think are the greatest needs in the city’ ” Vern says. “We don’t need to try to think of these things ourselves. We need to get in the trenches and partner with them and be ready to do what we say, no matter what it costs us.”

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Vern Streeter and a team from Harvest Church recently participated in a Leadership Network InnovationLab for multisite churches. The InnovationLab process is designed to help churches infuse new ideas into existing ministry areas, or to help give you a quick start in a new ministry area, based on the tested and proven results of other churches. 



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