PHOENIX (BP) — At Fair Trade Cafe in downtown Phoenix, where Super Bowl excitement continues to build, the big game seemed to be the last thing on Jim Helman’s mind.
Customers sipped their espressos and chatted at the popular coffee shop earlier this week while Helman and a few fellow Christians had something else brewing just outside in the open courtyard. At a glance, one might think the band warming up was preparing to merely entertain customers. But a closer look and listen revealed a Sunday evening church service was about to, as Helman would say, “pop up.”
Helman, pastor of Downtown Phoenix Church (also called DTPHX Church), says instead of waiting for people to come to them, “Pop Up Church” helps believers take the Gospel to the community.
But Helman described the unconventional method as anything but spontaneous.
“I get real nervous,” he said. “I come down here two hours before we start largely because I want to make sure everything is gonna work right because of technology.”
Since April 2014, Helman has led the church with a focus on reaching the city’s millennial crowd — those born in the ’80s and ’90s — and others he refers to as the “nones” and “dones” (those who don’t claim any particular faith or have quit going to church).
Helman and his wife Colleen, who live in an apartment downtown, both have a heart for the people in the area. Prior to planting the church, Helman had served as a worship pastor at North Phoenix Baptist Church for more than 30 years.
Though the “empty nesters” initially considered international mission work a few years ago, Helman said they saw God opening doors for ministry in their home city.
In an increasingly post-Christian culture, Helman said, church buildings and typical approaches to worship are not attracting many young adults in the downtown Phoenix area.
“They don’t think about going to church on Sunday morning any more than you and I think about going to bingo on Friday nights,” Helman said. “It’s just not on the radar, so rather than trying to be separate from all of that, we try to be a part of that. But … if you come in with some kind of agenda, they’ll be able to tell right away.”
The church tries to keep it simple, he said, with a focus on building relationships within one square mile of the downtown area. Then through those relationships, the church utilizes spaces that are already being used in the community.
Pop Up Church typically meets every other week, usually the second and fourth weekends, and then uses the other two weekends to serve in the area.
One week the church might meet at a coffee shop, park or even a jazz club. The next week the church could be handing out sandwiches to those in need. The church also is heavily involved with ministering to students at Arizona State University’s downtown campus.
Those who attend regularly can follow the church through its website and app. “We don’t have a building, we have an app,” Helman joked. But he was only half-joking.
Building real friendships is critical to Pop Up Church, he said.
It’s about “coming alongside [locals] and supporting a lot of the great things they do … especially in a thriving area like the downtown area and then just being a part of their lives first.”
The partnership with Fair Trade Cafe started through simple conversations and acts of service. Helman helped the owner repair her chairs and offered suggestions on improving the cafe’s lighting.
But relationships and ministry take time to develop, he said.
“Then you earn the right to say something about your faith,” he said. “You earn the right to have a conversation about their faith and take it from there.”
Rob Payne, the full-time worship leader at North Phoenix Baptist Church, helps lead worship for DTPHX Church and worked with Helman for 16 years when he was at North Phoenix. Payne said the church’s approach stirs conversations about faith among those who typically wouldn’t want to talk about religion.
“It’s an artsy … philosophical conversation that they’re looking to have, much deeper conversation,” he said. “They’re not so interested in the Super Bowl. They’re more interested in what’s the new art-house film coming out.”
Curiosity often draws people to listen in on an evening service, Helman said.
An average service can attract 20 or more people, depending on how many are already at that particular venue. A service can consist of praise music, a panel or guest speaker or a video. And Helman seems to enjoy pointing out that the service’s music lyrics can be accessed through the church app.
And lives are being impacted. Since its start, the church has baptized three people in a pool on the roof of Helman’s downtown apartment complex.
But taking the church to the people has its logistical challenges or “messy church” moments, Helman said. One example includes the praise team being asked on occasion to turn down the volume.
But utilizing occupied spaces is far more affordable, he said, than the cost that comes with renting and maintaining a building. And all of the church’s equipment fits easily in the back of his pick-up truck.
Helman also is thankful for his wife Colleen’s support and the help she and other area friends and partners who attend and help make the church’s ministry possible.
DTPHX Church draws financial support from the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board and a group of partnering churches that include its sponsoring church, First Southern Baptist Church of Phoenix, and North Phoenix Baptist Church.
Payne’s wife Monna, who helps lead worship with her husband Rob, said the beauty of DTPHX Church is that it helps her do the everyday ministry she believes all Christians are called to do.
“This is not just this little meeting that we have,” she said. “As members of this community we’re all really tasked with … wherever you are, you are a minister for Christ and you are sharing God’s love in the heart of your city, whether it’s at your coffee shop … or it’s ministering down at ASU and making sure you are there for students….
“That’s our job.”
Helman hopes other “empty nesters” will get involved in similar types of church planting.
“Colleen and I are having the time of our lives,” he said. “We really are. I couldn’t have done it when I was a younger man because I wouldn’t have had the patience.”