From Chicago basement to international stage, the power of collaboration fueled a Latino-led nonprofit working with youth

For almost a decade, I’ve enthusiastically followed Streetlights’ journey as the organization’s innovative Latino leaders re-imagined the audio Bible, infusing it with the vitality of hip-hop beats and showcasing diverse and authentic voices. Their artistic vision and dedication to placed-at-risk youth speaks directly to my heart.

Born from a vision in a basement 17 years ago, Streetlights has grown into a thriving nonprofit with an $800,000 annual operating budget, 75,000 newsletter subscribers and 430,000 app users worldwide, according to its leadership. It has achieved international influence, reaching 18 million plays of its audio Bible — currently in Spanish and English — with plans for more languages. Beyond the audio Bible, its initiatives also include the Corner Talk teaching video ministry and a music ministry through its touring band, ALERT312.

ALERT312 is a music ministry of Streetlights.

How Streetlights expanded from basement dream to international reality offers a powerful learning opportunity for us all, including for my own role as an executive director. Since visiting the Streetlights studio in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin community last fall, I’ve gleaned valuable lessons in organizational leadership and capacity building from its inspiring story of collaboration.

Esteban Shedd, Streetlights’ co-executive director, said his vision emerged from the disconnect many youth in his community felt toward the Bible. They found it inaccessible — difficult to understand and hard to relate to culturally — with a lack of engaging resources. Shedd, inspired by the scripture “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17 NKJV), envisioned a culturally relevant, bilingual audio Bible for the digital-native generation. That led to the development of artistically rich digital tools that engage young people from urban communities in their heart language.

Streetlights app
Streetlights has 430,000 app users worldwide.

Shedd patiently refined his vision over two years, supported by prayer, discussions with leaders and family, and in-depth research about resource production. He waited for the right moment — confirmed by the Spirit and community support — balancing the demands for action with the wisdom to nurture the vision, anticipating when peace and faith would align.

The catalyst came from a friend at GRIP Outreach for Youth, a faith-based nonprofit working with Chicago’s young people, who suggested that Shedd speak with that organization’s executive director. This conversation ignited Streetlights’ inception, leading to a series of conversations and careful planning with GRIP’s board. Bolstered by their support, including covering his salary for a month, Shedd was offered precious time and space. GRIP evolved into an incubator for Streetlights.

But, Shedd said, it was a challenging decision for some in GRIP’s leadership, given that GRIP, too, works with urban youth in underresourced neighborhoods. The initial wariness that the partnership might strain GRIP’s limited budget eased after a board member highlighted how Shedd’s culturally relevant Bible project aligned with GRIP’s mission, offering new ways to serve youth.

Shedd said those who were hesitating realized that the organizations’ missions weren’t separate but an opportunity for unity; they came to see GRIP as part of a larger, interconnected ecosystem. Strategic planning for the partnership began, focused on communicating clearly and engaging stakeholders, crafting a framework that equipped GRIP to effectively navigate and adapt in this new role.

album cover The Lord is Beauty
ALERT312’s album cover for “The Lord is Beauty.”

This was also a leap of faith for Shedd. Newly married and juggling his roles as rapper and hip-hop group leader, he committed to Streetlights despite the economic uncertainty for his family. Through prayerful consideration, he and his wife found peace, understanding that vision and conviction are crucial in Christian leadership and may precede funding. Trusting in God’s call and in GRIP’s leadership, Shedd entered into a mutually affirming partnership, where he knew that his vision would be honored, with no attempts to change, control or compete against it.

GRIP’s support meant more than guidance — the executive director and board offered spiritual backing, mentorship, friendship and essential connections for the work ahead. Shedd vividly remembers Scott Grzesiak, GRIP’s founder and then-executive director, providing unwavering encouragement during uncertain times, which was vital to persevering.

In that crucial first month, Shedd devoted countless hours to developing Streetlights’ business plan, capturing its vision and how it would fit within GRIP’s fiscal umbrella. Thanks to the supportive environment provided by GRIP, Shedd was able to avoid some of the typical challenges that organizational leaders face — playing multiple roles and wearing various hats, risking feelings of isolation amid a flurry of meetings, swinging between exhaustion and exhilaration as the vision takes shape.

Out of the Tension... Comes Beauty
ALERT312’s album cover for “Out of the Tension… Comes Beauty.”

During this phase, Shedd harnessed his skills as a hip-hop group leader for strategic planning and building social capital. He laid the groundwork for capacity building and sustainability by earning trust from leaders, forging connections in Bible publishing and engaging in effective fundraising. And he wisely focused on community and collaboration, as he sought advocates both within and beyond GRIP.

Shedd initiated scaling efforts, taking on odd jobs with friends to contribute toward the salary for Streetlights’ second team member and leveraging his artist community ties for a digital audio Bible demo’s fundraising. This pivotal first year set Streetlights on a path toward resilience and significant growth, focused on mobilizing resources, managing finances and coordinating volunteers.

What began as a one-month commitment became a nine-year dynamic partnership between GRIP and Streetlights. Within GRIP’s abundant and creative embrace, Shedd and his co-leaders, Loren La Luz and Aaron López, transformed Streetlights into an autonomous organization. As with Acts 2:44-47, Streetlights and GRIP united under a common vision, sharing resources, celebrating collective successes and meeting their community’s needs with joy and gratitude toward God.

The partnership between Streetlights and GRIP exemplifies the power of unity, faith, generosity and a mutual commitment to enhancing capacity. It underscores how organizations can come together to create transformative outcomes.

Streetlights’ journey inspires me to broaden my organizational leadership views, sparking questions like: What resources do we have to empower others? Where can we find partnerships to build essential support systems and strengthen our capacity?

Rooted in Christian values, such an ethos of collaboration reminds us we are not meant to tackle this journey alone. Together, we grow stronger, shaping a future that transforms capacity building, where collective progress and innovation become our common goal.

sound mixing
Streetlights’ leaders reimagined the audio Bible to reach a younger audience.

“Will I have a job in five years?”

“What will happen to this ministry in the long term?”

I hear leaders worrying about long-term viability, uncertain about how to plan for it.

Beyond wringing hands, some are experimenting by launching a new degree, starting a new worship service or selling a new curriculum. Others are begging donors for more financial support to cover expenses or provide scholarships to reduce fees. A few are exploring mergers with like-minded organizations to consolidate costs and expand ministry work.

Viability is tied to the services offered, the income generated and the related expenses carefully managed.

In a startup or turnaround phase, employees are asked to invest long work hours and offer their best creatively. When successful, such efforts generate more income and keep expenses low. This works for a season but is nearly impossible to maintain for the long haul. People wear down and eventually burn out.

At some point, we have to pay attention to the organizational capacities that undergird a ministry — things like the pay and benefits offered to employees; the hours of work expected; the methods of communication to constituents, donors and other stakeholders; the systems that store, manage and access data; and the skills needed by the board and the staff to operate year after year.

We know that such things are important. However, in an extended period of transition and related uncertainty, we often push off strategic decisions in order to accomplish the urgent. The donors, board members and other stakeholders can lose sight of the time and money required to keep the ministry functioning in healthy ways. The employees and volunteers grow so accustomed to working in overdrive that they may not even point out these longer-term needs.

Over and over again, I meet ministry leaders who have sacrificed the time and money necessary to provide for themselves and their families for the sake of launching and maintaining a ministry. They depend on pay and benefits provided by spouses and partners. They take risks with inadequate health care or borrowed housing.

They can make these choices, but should donors turn a blind eye to such sacrifices? Do those of us who have influence over resources question the decisions and their consequences for the people involved? Do we recognize the problems inherent in unsustainably low salaries and expenses?

Practically speaking, higher expenses require more revenue. Increasing revenue has consequences. For many ministries, the main sources of revenue, and the consequences of dependency on them, include the following:

  • Fees paid by those served. Fee-based ministry serves those who have money and are willing to spend it. Even modest fees can exclude some groups from the services offered.
  • Sponsor fees paid by those who have money in order to provide a service for those who don’t. Sponsors often determine whom the ministry serves. Sponsors also often have stipulations about how the work is done.
  • Contributions from supporters of the ministry. Those who contribute again and again want to know the impact the ministry is making and how their donations are spent. Developing the initial connection that leads to recurring gifts requires a deep commitment on both sides. Ongoing fundraising often becomes a substantial part of the ministry’s work.
  • Grants, usually one-time gifts for specific projects. Grants typically require reports to the grantors and are seldom renewed more than one time; the general expectation is that grants are a way to fund startup costs or launch experiments. With some notable exceptions, like government grants, ongoing grant funding is unlikely.

Occasionally, a ministry will have assets like property or endowments that can generate revenue. Such assets often take years to acquire as well as skills to manage.

The wisdom from 20th-century nonprofit work was that if 20% of an organization’s income comes from a single external source — a person or organization — then the organization is dependent on staying in alignment with that source’s expectations. Perhaps the percentage is different for your organization, but if the loss of a single source of income would require you to make significant strategic changes, then your organization is dependent. The governance structure might indicate independence, but the financial statement does not. For the sake of clear expectations, the board, staff and volunteers need to know the influence of any single funder on the ministry.

Another factor related to viability (and connected to revenue) is often labeled scale. What quantity of services can we provide that are both affordable and of good quality? This might be the number of congregations a consultant can serve or the number of people in a learning experience. Congregations have to discern the number of staff that can be adequately paid and what those staff members can accomplish. The questions about scale are specific to each organization, but the concern is across the board.

Our recent experiences with quarantines have changed the scale questions in so many different industries. For example, who knows now how much office space a business needs? Each business answers that question differently. Airlines are now cutting and adding flights continually to adjust to changing passenger needs while doing their best to fill up every flight. Congregations can no longer rely on counting the average in-person worship attendance as an indicator of staffing and services.

While capacities, revenue and expenses, and the scale of services are the most obvious questions to explore, the only way to get clear about long-term viability is to get clear about your organization’s mission and vision, along with your part in that mission.

In our work, we often use five questions based on the ideas of business theorist Roger Martin and former Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley to develop a strategy. These questions function as a cascade, the answer to each in turn providing structure for the one that follows.

  • Why? What is the deepest aspiration?
  • Where and with whom are we serving/transforming?
  • How will we serve? What activities are needed?
  • What capacities do we need to do “it”?
  • What management systems are required to ensure that the capacities are in place?

If your organization gets stuck on any of the questions, back up and review the responses to the earlier questions. What has changed? How should that change affect answers to the other questions?

Too often, ministries stop after answering the third question. But when we focus on the long term, we also have to address questions four and five, which take us back to capacities. If boards and donors don’t encourage and support ministries in addressing these questions, then the employees have to answer them out of their own resources. That leads to exhaustion. Insisting that these questions be addressed is a great gift that donors and other stakeholders can provide.

Questions about capacities, revenue and scale are difficult, but those who care about our ministries must do our part to raise them with a view to the organization’s mission and vision. Long-term viability is important to all of us.

Tim Keller and I agree: denominations do something important. While Keller and I might express that importance differently, I will take what I can get. Saying anything positive about denominations has not been popular for decades.

Keller was interviewed this spring on Christianity Today’s “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, which chronicles Mark Driscoll’s ministry at the Seattle megachurch and the church-related networks he helped establish and influence. It is a troubling account of fame and abuse.

In a bonus episode, the host gave the bestselling author and now-retired founding pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church a chance to explain his connections to Driscoll and to interpret what happened.

Keller took a moment to explain how his and Redeemer’s participation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) created an accountability that was not present for Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, because Mars Hill did not have a denominational affiliation. Keller was a part of networks with Driscoll, and those networks functioned very differently from denominations, Keller said.

Networks connect people to each other to make a difference, particularly in a community, while denominations provide oversight and doctrine, he said. Although Keller focused much more of his efforts in connection with Driscoll on establishing and nurturing networks, he also accepted the discipline and rules created in the PCA, and he believes that congregations are better off being part of denominations, he said.

Given the context of the Mars Hill story and the convictions of the PCA, it is not surprising that Keller would emphasize the regulatory work of his denomination. But when I pull back and consider why we need denominations, something broader comes to mind: discipleship, the formation of Christians.

Think about who shaped you. Who inspired, supported and encouraged your development? Was it parents, grandparents, pastors, schoolteachers or community volunteers? I am conditioned by American culture to recognize all the individuals that support me. I hope that you can name a cloud of witnesses in your life from childhood to now.

But I am also thinking about where that cloud of people comes from. Where do they learn, get support and resources? How are the lessons of the past brought to future generations?

This is the work of institutions — schools, churches, child care agencies, camps and more. It takes time and money across decades to build such institutions. I am specifically thinking about organizations that have served their missions across three or more generations. These organizations have traditions that get passed down, and that is one of the ways formation works.

For generations, denominations have been the institutions that support congregations and organize ministries of all kinds. They set rules for life. They articulate convictions on matters of faith and life. They train and ordain clergy. They discipline violations of their rules. Some denominations, like the PCA, have books of order that include many regulations. Other denominations have short covenants that describe expectations but very few regulatory functions.

Denominational work has not been popular for at least 40 years. Most of the time, people in congregations see accountability as a hindrance rather than a lifesaving barrier. The work of passing on the faith and providing structures that support discipleship doesn’t receive much attention. Yet this work is vital.

Keller mentions the significance of networks, and I agree that these loose associations of people formed around a common interest or concern are significant sources of innovation and encouragement. Networks form within geographies, within and across denominations, and around critical work like disaster relief or church planting. Generally, networks don’t have any rules and may not have any legal structure. As a result, networks can rise and fall quickly.

If a network continues beyond a generation, it often develops a structure, including a paid staff and other financial obligations. This process of institutionalization leads to forming something that for groups of congregations looks like a denomination.

Can a congregation be healthy without a denomination or similar institutional support? Sure. I have seen congregations be healthy for a whole generation or longer. But eventually, there is some difficulty. Maybe it is conflict or legal problems or misconduct. At that moment, the congregation needs friends from outside their membership. They need someone from whom to seek advice or get direction. If they are not a part of a denomination, they create a structure. Essentially, they create a temporary denomination.

I am not arguing that the 20th-century denominations and their agencies can rest easy. Most denominations are in trouble. They need to focus on the work that they are best suited to do. This requires discernment and painful trimming.

In the 21st century, denominations need to identify their core work. What do they offer that both meets needs of congregations and communities in the moment and offers the discipline necessary for future generations? I believe denominations need to focus on those activities that are most effective in forming the disciplines of discipleship and the identity of “Christian.”

When I got started in ministry in the 1970s as a teenager, I witnessed the last moments of an age when denominations were the “main thing” and congregations served to support the work and life of the denomination.

Soon after I went to school, that script flipped, and denominations have been figuring out that flip throughout my career. The process is slow, because denominations are complex political systems. Authority is diffused, and decision making is multilayered. Yes, such work requires much patience.

The starting point is a conversation about why denominations are important. The stake I drive in the ground is that denominations provide the support that helps congregations form Christians to live as faithful disciples. What stake would you drive in the ground? What is required for congregations to continue their vital work in your communities?

In every sector of our lives, we are faced with critical turning points: crises of climate, public health, abuse in the church, gun violence, mental health, and on and on.

We have good reason to respond with fear and despair.

The pandemic has forced many in leadership roles to become — or perhaps at least appear to become — expert crisis managers. We’ve taught ourselves how to manage the disappointment of canceled plans, how to avoid or reduce the impact of unwelcome behavior by others, how to steel ourselves for the loss of yet another beloved one, how to make a way when there seems to be no way.

Crisis, by definition, is a critical turning point, but crisis management gets us only so far. If we focus only on the turn itself, we offer ourselves nothing — no vision or hope — for the future. Locking ourselves into the role of crisis manager imprisons us in a fearful place; it holds us in the anxious dread of not knowing what is next.

Ultimately, crisis management is not the leadership that we need. What Christian leaders must embrace is apocalyptic leadership.

I don’t mean turn-or-burn preaching or doomsday prophesying. Despite its popular association with chaos and catastrophe, apocalypse is not about senseless destruction; it is an uncovering and a revealing, a cosmic remaking of our world and lives as we know them.

In the final chapters of the book of Revelation, the great apocalyptic text of the Christian Bible, John sees a new heaven and a new earth, a place without tears, mourning, death or thirst. This new heaven and new earth are so full of God’s glory that the light of the sun is superfluous.

Can you imagine that with me? A world in which each person’s dignity is celebrated. A world in which the vulnerable are nurtured and protected. A world in which value is not determined by production but is inherent. A planet that is treated not as an expendable resource but as a place worthy of reciprocal respect and care.

It takes apocalyptic leadership to see that vision with John. Things do not have to be as they have been. God is already doing something among the coalition of the willing.

Apocalyptic leaders name the destruction and suffering for what it is — the product of generations of hoarding power and wealth, driven by hate, ego and greed. Such leaders do not deny the disaster but call out the source of the destruction and the harm it has caused.

Apocalyptic leaders offer a steady hand of presence, hope and assurance. When a family experiences the personal apocalypse of the death of a loved one, a good pastor is often found nearby, in the hospital waiting room, at the foot of the bed, deep in a text thread reminding the family that they are not alone.

There is a steady hand, a soft net, a safe place to fall apart. Apocalyptic leaders offer this same safe place to their communities, their congregations or their teams — the simple assurance of not being alone when nothing makes sense anymore.

Apocalyptic leaders resist the forces of “the way we’ve always done it” to imagine and create new economies that center the well-being of all living creatures — persons, plants and animals as a collective whole. They willingly accept personal risk to try new ways of doing things for the good of all.

Apocalyptic leaders don’t rely on shame, blame or complaint to lead. They create spaces for hard feelings to be processed and understood so they can point the community to liberation and healing. The desires to be right and perfect are transformed into the desires to be in relationship with one another and good enough.

Apocalyptic leaders map their communities’ connection to work that matters. They seek out small ways to take action on big things — to build practices that connect their people to themselves, to God, to one another and to the land — to reconstruct the imagination after the devastation.

Apocalyptic leadership is engaging in the daily practice of seeing beyond the destruction to the new heaven and new earth. It is dedicating ourselves to what God has already told us is possible. It is living our hope and acting on our hope and letting our fear take a much-needed rest.

While we may become crisis managers by force, we become apocalyptic leaders by choice.

Yet we cannot do so alone. There are no star apocalyptic leaders in this invitation, only bands of people choosing, not to face the crises alone, but to confront the destruction collectively and create glimpses of the new heaven and new earth all over the place.

Despite its popular association with chaos and catastrophe, apocalypse is not about senseless destruction; it is an uncovering and a revealing, a cosmic remaking of our world and lives as we know them.