Driving north through Chicago, Joseph Taylor often glimpsed a unique shape far out in Lake Michigan’s expanse. For years, he accepted his own educated guess: it must be a lighthouse or a tower.
Standing on the shore one day, the 37-year-old decided to find out. Guesses weren’t good enough anymore. It’s sunrise when he starts paddling his 15-foot kayak.
Taylor and his wife Maria grew up northwest of Chicago in Cary, a village much closer to Wisconsin than to the city of 2.7 million.
So, the Taylors perceived Chicago like tourists do. They came in a few times each year, seeing Christmas lights or the Bulls, White Sox or Cubs play. They had a good time but never considered the city home.
Back on the water, heading east, Taylor pauses paddling. He checks his phone: about a mile from shore, he still has a wireless signal.
Sitting in Lake Michigan, giant barges pass between the shore and his kayak. Again, Taylor uses his phone’s map to judge the distance to the curious objects. He needs to paddle east about two more miles.
The Taylors moved back to the area eight years ago. Going away to help plant a church in the suburbs of Atlanta revealed much to them: The two had discovered they loved living in a city and starting a church.
A chance to help plant churches close to home and in a major city like Chicago brought them back to the city they’d never considered home.
Three miles out in Lake Michigan, Taylor arrives at the strange object. He finds thousands of giant birds circling and perching on a water crib. These concrete and steel ovals or circles are water intakes: 200 feet deep below the surface, clean drinking water enters 10- or 20-foot diameter pipes going back to Chicago.
By being miles offshore, the cribs accessed clean drinking water when industrial pollution along the city’s shoreline created unhealthy water quality.
In their earliest experiences, the Taylors saw the city as inaccessible, a distant mystery of occasional interest like the water cribs. But now, after eight years in the city, the couple love the home to millennials and generation Z and diverse people.
“While I’ve got breath in my lungs, while I have that opportunity, I can’t abandon this place,” Taylor said. “This is the place, and these are the people who God has been preparing for us. You see far beyond the veneer and you realize, wow, this place has serious needs,” he said.
Isaiah 4 leads Maria to the church’s name
While reading Isaiah 4 a year ago, the very words of Scripture inspired Maria with the name for Canopy Church. The prophet’s portrait of God’s people and the Promised Land is dark: a spirit of judgment and burning is upon Israel to cleanse the filth and bloodshed from Jerusalem’s midst.
Despite the despair, verse five’s image of a glorious community in God’s presence under a canopy moved Maria’s heart.
“The word ‘canopy’ just grabbed her, and she shared it with me,” said Taylor. “It immediately grabbed me, this picture of coming under the Lord’s glory and his protection.”
The hope that God’s canopy can grow over the city fuels the Taylors to serve amid a global pandemic, massive division amongst Americans and economic and political difficulties around the world.
While I’ve got breath in my lungs, while I have that opportunity, I can’t abandon this place. This is the place, and these are the people who God has been preparing for us. You see far beyond the veneer and you realize, wow, this place has serious needs.
Moreover, their passionate conviction is fueled by demographic research such as The Great Opportunity by Pinetops Foundation. That organization’s research says 50 million millennials and members of Generation Z will walk away from the faith in less than 30 years.
“That’s not just a stat,” he said. “That’s neighbors and people I went to high school with and my family.”
Canopy Church is positioned amid the current churn of the city ― young people moving in and out while other people struggle with generational challenges.
Canopy Church serves younger people who, because of secularization, doubt God’s existence, the Bible and the church. At the same time, many neighbors of all generations won’t fully listen to the gospel without first asking if God cares about the injustices they endure.
“As challenging as these are to negotiate, they’ve only grown my desire to serve,” he said. “Like the prophet Isaiah, I can’t help but respond, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ This might be the most significant moment for the spread of the gospel in the West for well more than a century.”
How the church engages the city’s identity
With wisdom and confirmation as they went through the Converge assessment process for church planters, Canopy’s theology and philosophy empowers moving forward in sharing the gospel with who their neighbors are.
“Our mission is practicing the way of Jesus for the renewal of Chicago,” he says, quoting the church’s mission statement. The primary means to succeed in the mission, he explains, is understanding all of life as an apprenticeship under Jesus.
“We’re placing ourselves under his authority as our teacher and our savior and our Lord and we’re learning to work out his way of life into our lives,” he said.
As these people themselves become apprentices of Jesus, Canopy’s ministry guides them in three practices ― one individual, one corporate and one missional.
First, they are to be with Jesus in prayer and solitude and other spiritual disciplines. Secondly, they are to gather in community living out the love of a family, responsible to each other as brothers and sisters.
Finally, Canopy Church teaches the Christians to be on mission, proclaiming the gospel that all are sinners and yet, God has made a way to be reconnected to him. As they continue in these three practices, apprentices continue the early disciples’ mission, sent out into the communities around them.
A major strength in ministry for Joseph, according to fellow church planter Brian Fulton, is helping others follow the Spirit.
“His sweet spot is being able to take people who aren’t used to experiencing the Holy Spirit and meeting them where they are,” Fulton said. “He wants to disciple them toward experiencing the Holy Spirit.”
For Canopy Church, sharing that Christ can and has before accomplished God’s will on earth, that God cares about people’s needs, bridges into the hearts of Gen Z and millennial residents.
Chicago’s people are facing a deep and wide reckoning about pervasive injustices for many in the last several decades. Many city residents have persevered amid political corruption, injustice and decisions made against their best interests again and again.
“It has always been Jesus’ heart to speak to those issues,” Taylor said. “What goes hand in hand with the gospel of personal salvation is the redemption of the broken human systems.”
When Canopy Church offers grace and truth for both individual brokenness and broader cultural dysfunction, he says the gospel earns a fuller hearing with the younger generations present in the city.
“If the gospel doesn’t have anything meaningful to say to those issues, then they won’t even give the full gospel a whole hearing,” he said.
But his heart yearns with the love and hope of God for these very neighbors to hear and accept that gospel.
“I’m trying to find a way to share the goodness of Jesus with people in all of its fullness. And in this moment, I have to do this by speaking to issues in the light of the gospel.”
Canopy Church seeking partners
For this reason, Taylor welcomes all the help the Lord has provided ― and will provide ― Canopy Church. He is eager to form partnerships for prayer and giving from those who desire the gospel’s proclamation and demonstration in Chicago.
Fulton and Taylor meet monthly so Fulton, who planted the Converge church Missio Dei, can coach Taylor in ministry. Taylor was a church planting resident at Missio Dei before he started Canopy Church.
He has locked arms with other church leaders in the city and continually learns from them about serving Chicago. Four or five churches have joined him in his mission to reach Chicago, but others are still needed to pray and support the work.
One of those bridges includes pursuing unity with other city churches of different demographics. Converge’s main vison has four parts, including tearing down walls between races to advance the gospel. Steps to that end, identified by Converge as part of our vision are expanding diversity within churches and addressing racial barriers between churches.
When Taylor talks with black pastors who guide him in serving the city, he said he sees eye-popping and intentional segregation to disinvest in communities where people of color lived. Taylor still sees himself as a missionary, not a social activist. But his friendships and partnerships mean he doesn’t have the luxury of being silent when he encounters the suffering in the story of his neighbors, their parents and grandparents in the last 50 to 60 years.
“I love Jesus with everything I am and I’m trying to do everything I can,” he said. “I can’t do that without my brothers and sisters from this place.”
The Scriptures from Isaiah again inspire and guide Taylor. Reading chapter 61, which Jesus quoted to clarify his own ministry, Taylor realized the year of Jubilee must be understood in spiritual terms. But the actions Jesus took generate social, political and economic implications through Christ’s messianic identity and work.
I’m trying to find a way to share the goodness of Jesus with people in all of its fullness. And in this moment, I have to do this by speaking to issues in the light of the gospel.
The couple is building as many bridges as they can into the lives of the people around him. This includes bridges to serve others as well as the bridges that unite them with other churches in the gospel.
A bridge into serving others was a course on emotional health. Maria led this online-only course in April for 25 people.
It was providential timing just as people in Chicago and indeed the world gradually began to grapple more and more with the stress of doing most of life online, at home.
“When COVID hit, we were building a launch team, we were working within our framework and timeline for a full in-person launch,” Taylor said.
However, the Taylors saw correctly people needed a water crib bringing God’s grace and truth.
“It seemed appropriate given the urgent need of emotional distress and need to find practices that would tether us to Jesus’ presence and his provision,” Taylor said.
In the 12 months since COVID-19 went from an epidemic to a pandemic, the emotional toll and spiritual disruption has increased as what brings people together ― what holds them together ― has increasingly required new methods, new expectations and new ideas.
The luxury of technology supporting relationships became the necessity, a new normal of Zoom meetings for work, worship, fitness, therapy, socializing and more.
An emotionally healthy course was providential in God’s timing: Maria led the online only group to abide in Christ instead of advancing the church plant’s timeline.
“(The pivot) allowed us to learn how to abide with Jesus in that critical moment,” he said. “I think the orientation around practices of intentional silence before the Lord was absolutely critical for the 25 or so of us.”
Fulton recognizes the Taylors’ wisdom in discipling people to be emotionally healthy. “They have a lot to offer trying to plant in the middle of a pandemic and how to keep people engaged online.”
Focusing on silence ― a key part of emotionally healthy spirituality they learned from New York City pastor Peter Scazzero ― is “a really critical antidote in contemporary life where we’re so engrained in habits of panic, noise, frenetic activity.”
The Taylors, along with eight-year-old Mia Jane and four-year-old Silas, have been embracing silence, solitude, rest and sabbath to abide in Christ as he builds and forms Canopy Church’s missionary endeavor.
Their challenges are many, chief among them trying to minister online during a pandemic and building relationships at such an incredibly divisive, emotionally triggering time.
Even so, the Lord continues to be a canopy the Taylors come back to ― and offer others. As they read the Psalms again and again, he finds that God is a safe place and a refuge and he lives in the goodness of that truth.
Like the water cribs of Chicago, God the Father may be a distant and ill-defined glimpse now and then. Many in Chicago may not have the courage or the kayak to navigate beyond the polluted shores of their past to the life-giving water they desperately need.
“We are sinners who are responsible for Jesus being put to death and we have grieved God in rejecting his care and love and revelation,” he said. “But we’re not lost in that condemnation; he’s sent help to the far country that we’ve fled to and he’s found us there and brought us back.”
Converge has a goal of planting 312 churches by 2026. New Converge church plants get a grant on their launch day but Converge is eager to do more. You can give specifically to new church plants through the Converge Launch Offering.
Ben Greene, Pastor & writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.