Story: Bridging the Gap

October 1, 2018

Sioux Falls Seminary alumnus Brian Stroh (MDiv 2003) has a story to tell.  It’s a story, ten years in the making, about what led his church to serve their neighborhood school instead of focusing on boosting Sunday attendance.  Through his experiences serving as a counselor and working with junior high students at his church, Stroh felt God calling him to full-time ministry.  He began working at Hillcrest Church in Sioux Falls, SD, in 2002 and now serves as the Executive Pastor.

Ten years ago, Pastor Doug Bartel along with Hillcrest’s staff and leadership council asked ourselves: If we were to stop being a church, would anyone notice?  Would anyone care if we shut our doors and ceased being a church?

The answer to that question was, sadly, no.

I don’t mean that flippantly or even literally.  Of course, our church members and leaders certainly would have cared.  The missionaries and mission groups we were supporting at the time would have cared.

Yet, no one we were in relationship with outside of our church would have cared.

Our neighbors would not have cared.  Our community would not have cared.  Although our missionaries would have missed the financial support we sent them, we were not really in relationship with them.  Most of us didn’t even know who they were and what they did.

The fact that no one would miss us wasn’t even necessarily our fault.  This was just how you did church.  You did church in ways designed to bring more people on Sunday.  You operated energetic children and student ministries to keep families who came.  You had your lead pastor teach in an engaging and practical way so people got something out of the message that they could apply to their daily lives.  You did this all through the lens of growing your church numerically.  This was how you did church, and Hillcrest was no different.

There’s nothing wrong or sinful with how we did church then.  But when we asked ourselves those questions and realized that no one would miss us; it rattled us.  It shook us up.  We didn’t like the answer, and we sensed God leading us—not just staff and elders but all of us—to something that would change the answer.

I recently spent my sabbatical writing a book that shares how Hillcrest followed God into a unique and life-changing partnership.  Bridge the Gap: How One Church Partnered with a Public School tells the story of how we attempted to answer that question in a positive way, primarily through our relationship with Cleveland Elementary, an under-resourced school a mile from our facility.

The apostle Paul closes Ephesians 3 with these words: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!  Amen.”

We have witnessed the truth of these words through our partnership with Cleveland Elementary. There have been plenty of messes but also several examples where God did far more abundantly than we asked or imagined.  For example, in our initial conversations with Cleveland’s principal, she shared that she wanted to buy lunch for her staff but had no funding.  Hillcrest offered to pick up the tab—without knowing if there was even a budget for it!

We recognized this as a “say yes now” kind of situation or the type that would, at most, require asking for forgiveness later!  The principal may have initially been doubtful about this new partnership, but our desire to buy lunch gave immediate evidence that Hillcrest was serious in its desire to serve the school and be a church that would be missed.  Since that day, Hillcrest has bought every back-to-school staff lunch, donated supplies, mentored students, been present in the lives of teachers and students, and much more.

This life-changing partnership started with a question.  How God had us answer is truly more than all we could ask or imagine.  We could not be more grateful.

Bridge the Gap is available for purchase on  It provides inspiration and instruction on how churches can reach out and serve their neighborhoods and communities.

(Pictured left, second from the left, and right) Hillcrest pastors Brian Stroh, Tarina Stroh, and Doug Bartel delivered pizza to the school to celebrate with the school’s gym teacher who had won Sioux Falls teacher of the year.

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