By Andrew Woodrow
EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. (BP) — In an Illinois town proud of its Route 66 heritage, thousands gather every year to celebrate what John Steinbeck called “the Mother Road.” For more than 20 years, Edwardsville’s annual Route 66 festival at City Park has offered visitors fun, food, and classic cars.
What was missing, realized church planter Rayden Hollis, was a gospel opportunity.
Hollis is the planter and lead pastor of Red Hill church in Edwardsville. The church isn’t quite three years old, and they don’t have their own building yet. But Hollis is passionate in leading his church by a missions strategy based on Jeremiah 29:7.
“Just as the Israelites, exiles in their community, were commanded to seek out the welfare of the city they were living in,” Hollis said, “it’s our philosophy that we too, as exiles, need to seek out the welfare of the city we live in and pray for it.”
That philosophy is at the core of Red Hill’s presence at their city’s summer festival, and it’s a noticeable presence. At this year’s event June 8-9, park visitors stirred the humid air with hand-held fans emblazoned with Red Hill Church. Diners at picnic tables ate under misting fans donated by the church. Dog walkers at the festival discussed their pets with dog walkers from Red Hill. Church members brought a bean bag set and played alongside park visitors.
And showcased just outside the church’s two tents at the festival: a 1955 Chevy Bel Air. The gleaming red and white car – made even more vibrant by the sun’s glare – attracted visitors to the Red Hill display.
To Hollis, Red Hill isn’t just about gathering for their Saturday evening worship, it’s about the church going out into the community and making the city better.
“I’ve been a part of churches where if the Lord removed that church from the community, the community wouldn’t even notice,” Hollis said. “We don’t want to be that church.
“We want to be so deeply integrated into the life of our community that if we were pulled out, it would have a devastating effect upon the regular rhythms that people engage in inside of our cities. So, we’re trying to find ways that we can step in and make an immediate impact and difference in the life of our city, just by observing what’s naturally happening in it.”
Nothing in return
Early on, Red Hill began to observe the rhythms and patterns of Edwardsville, seeking out ways to serve at city events with a focus to “breathe even more life into it,” Hollis said. “We want to be given an opportunity to show the city how much our church cares for it.”
Once Hollis learned of the success of Edwardsville’s Route 66 Festival, he knew he needed to get involved.
But at first, it wasn’t easy. Katie Grable, assistant director for the Edwardsville parks department, was uncertain about allowing a church to actively participate in the festival. “Initially I was a bit skeptical,” she told the Illinois Baptist. “Not because I was against a church partnership, but rather, I was nervous that their angle would be vocally evangelistic.”
Still, in 2015, Red Hill was granted permission to set up a photo booth tent in the far back corner of the festival. They provided props and space for festival-goers to pose for photos. “We wanted to do something that added to the festival’s success,” said Sarah Hollis, Rayden’s wife. “And through that, begin those gospel conversations with the park visitors.”
Realizing the potential to reach up to 10,000 people in one weekend, Rayden Hollis was eager to do more the next year. He asked Grable how Red Hill could best contribute to the festival, and the city’s success, from Red Hill’s own budget. His requests puzzled Grable, leading her to eventually ask Hollis what was in it for his church.
“Nobody just gives freely without wanting something in return,” Grable said. “And they were just willing to offer so much I eventually asked what Rayden wanted, and we would see what we could do to help.”
To Hollis, Grable’s question came as a surprise. “At first I didn’t know what she was talking about,” he said. “But then something really awesome happened.” Hollis was able to explain to Grable that what Red Hill was doing was meant to be a reflection of God’s love. Hollis further explained there wasn’t anything he needed but rather that the opposite was true.
“I told her I had something that she desperately needed,” Hollis said. “And I got to share the Gospel with her.
“Now the unfortunate news is that she didn’t receive Christ, but because of what we’re doing as a church, I got the opportunity to share with someone why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Hollis noted.
Grable wasn’t yet ready to receive Christ, but she understood Red Hill’s genuine intent in giving. And a partnership blossomed between the Parks and Recreation department and Red Hill.
“It was through that experience that I finally realized this was just an honest willingness in wanting to help,” Grable said. “They’ve been our most frequent partner since then and are the only organization that is coming out to basically anything that we do in the city.”
Since their first involvement with the Route 66 Festival in 2015, Red Hill has come a long way at the event. Their photo booth tent is no longer in the far back corner of the park. It has instead been moved to the front.
“We even have a second tent where we pass out handheld fans,” church member Casey Elmore said. “And we do almost all the volunteering for the kids’ activities.”
Elmore emphasized Red Hill’s devotion to the city as a “heartbeat to serve and build relationships within our community. And through that, crack open those opportunities to share the Gospel.”
The church is also fostering its relationship with the Parks and Recreation department, who has called on Red Hill to help open their newest park, and even made Hollis an administrator on their Facebook page.
The pastor thanks Illinois Baptists for giving through the Cooperative Program – Southern Baptists’ giving channel for missions and ministry, to help make his church’s outreach possible.
“Events like this would never happen unless Southern Baptists of Illinois continued to give to the Cooperative Program, to the Mission Illinois Offering, and other Illinois Baptist offerings. So, to every pastor, thank you for inspiring and encouraging your church to give. And to every Illinoisan who’s given over the course of their lifetime, thank you.
“Your generous gift helps make this moment possible for us to be a gospel witness and to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this city.”
Andrew Woodrow writes for the Illinois Baptist, newsjournal of the Illinois Baptist State Association.