Filled with faith in Jesus Christ and pastoring a vibrant, growing church is not something Ryan Hall—or probably anyone who knew him—would have predicted for his future, back when he was a scruffy Palos Hills kid attending Stagg High School.
“I was a stoner–a long-haired, drug using, deceitful drummer in a heavy metal band,” he recalled in a conversation last Sunday morning before services at the new home of Harvest Bible Chapel, 6600 W. 127th St., Palos Heights. “I made trouble, I stole things.”
Raised Roman Catholic, Hall attended religious education classes and received the sacraments at St. Patricia Church in Hickory Hills.
“They did their job in giving me the facts, but my heart was not filled with faith,” Hall remembered about his boyhood. “I didn’t believe what I heard, so to me it was a joke. Even in high school, I viewed religion as a joke. God was a joke, Christians were a joke.
“It wasn’t until I was a freshman at Moraine [Valley Community College] that I was struck to the heart with the reality that I was a sinful man who needs a savior,” he added. “I had known about Jesus, but I had not known what he needed to do for me.”
Shortly after he had found Jesus, Hall met his future wife, Lauren.
“She grew up in Palos Heights,” he said. “As children, we had the same pediatrician, swam at the same pool, but we never actually met until college, when the bass player in my band told her about me and got her phone number. He just knew her as a waitress at Country House Restaurant.”
Though their first phone convesation went well and lasted a few hours, others may have seen them as a bit of an odd couple.
“She was raised in a nice, Dutch, Christian Reformed home,” Hall recalled. “She had attended Christian schools all her life and was going to off to Calvin College in Michigan.
“So in the middle of that, I show up at her door with long hair, wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt. Let’s just say that her parents didn’t look at me and say, ‘That guy’s going to be our pastor one day,’” he chuckled. “But here we are, years later, and her parents—as well as mine—attend church here.”
He is more than their pastor. He is their son-in-law. Hall, 36, and Lauren are the picture of Middle America, married 14 years and living in Palos Heights with three children: Ellie, 12, Cassie, 10, and Jared, 7.
The new church
The new home of Harvest Bible Chapel was originally built as the Reformed Church of Palos Heights more than 50 years ago. It was the focus of intense controversy in 2000, when Muslim leaders purchased the land and announced plans to convert it into a mosque.
Those plans were scuttled after local wrangling that attracted national attention. In recent years, the building has been home to Life Church of Chicagoland, and Harvest Bible Chapel moved in just before Easter this year. Life Church, led by Pastors Freddie and Mary Gaye Steel, is now known as Mercy Gate International and holds services at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, according to its website.
The Palos Heights church is part of a much larger operation, described by some as a mega-church. Founded in 1988, Harvest Bible Chapel describes itself as “a non-charismatic, conservative, evangelical fellowship that welcomes all who know Jesus Christ as their Savior and all who are seeking Him.”
Harvest Bible Chapel began an aggressive expansion in 2000. Initial plans called for the planting of 10 new churches in a decade, and by 2010, they had planted about 50 new churches, Hall said.
The Palos Heights location was launched in 2009 in rented space in Palos Hills and has grown since.
When asked to explain Harvest Bible Chapel’s success, locally and on a grander scale, as well as what sets it apart from other houses of worship, Hall offers a three-point response.
“I can’t speak for other churches, but what we strive for is a commitment to discipleship,” he said. “Everyone who comes here is challenged to do three things.
“First, worship Christ, because that’s where discipleship begins,” he began. “Some churches wait until later to push for that, but right up front, we say, ‘Hey, you start a new life when your relationship with Jesus Christ begins and you understand he’s God the Son who came down into the world to save you. If you’re a saved, rescued person, you worship the one who rescued you from heaven.
“The second thing we ask is to walk with Christ,” he continued. “We challenge people not just to learn Bible facts, but to put feet to their faith and to do what they know. This is not just one Bible study after another. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
“The third one is work for Christ,” Hall added. “We strive to get everyone plugged into a ministry team. In any given week, we have over 100 people serving somewhere to make church happen. So it’s not a handful of people doing all the work. It’s the birthright of every believer to use their spiritual gifts to do some work for Christ.”
Hall concluded by saying that he doesn’t necessarily measure his success by the number of congregants.
“It’s all about quality of discipleship, rather than quantity,” he said. “What good is it to have more people than you can train in discipleship? So we go for the quality, and we think if we focus on that, God will take care of the quantity.”
Hall encourages people to visit harvestpalos.org to learn more about Harvest Bible Chapel, as well as stop by the church.