On a hot July day in 2009, some of the Philip Center staff and a handful of other people from Godspeed Church set up a folding table in Dexter Park, Providence, RI. We offered face painting and crafts, played a little soccer, and shared the gospel with kids who came for the free city lunches. Maybe eight or ten kids were there. They had fun. We had fun. So we decided to come back the next day.
They brought their friends, we played more soccer and gave out some juice packs. Then we all did it again. Except more kids came the third day. So we made a trip to Sam’s Club for more drinks and came back the fourth day.
By the end of the week there were about 50 kids who wanted to play and listen to us share about Jesus. We didn’t do much planning that summer. This project developed very organically. But we were surprised by how responsive the kids were.
The Philip Center staff recognized the need to respond with some organization and to steward this opportunity well. So the following year, the Summer OFF leaders and about thirty youth from Godspeed met for four weeks before the summer for pizza, fun, and some serious preparation for our time with the kids at Dexter Park. We also partnered with Faith and Hope Baptist Church, and did Summer OFF the week before their VBS. While we played and ate snacks and talked about Jesus, we also invited them to VBS.
Summer OFF Grows
In the fall of 2012, we invited other eleven other churches in Rhode Island to do the same thing with us. With their partnership, we were able to have Summer OFF 2013 in Dexter Park from late June to the beginning of August, and also have it in Riverside Park, Jennifer Reviera Park, and Bucklin Park.
The same summer that the other Rhode Island churches joined us, the first out-of-state church joined us also, from Tallahassee, Florida.
From 2014 on, the Rhode Island churches continued to serve with us, and we have welcomed more out-of-stated churches to participate in Summer OFF—churches from Chatanooga, TN; Princeton, NJ; Dallas, TX; Alexandria, VA; Rochester, NY; and more.
In recent years, our relationship with the City of Providence has grown. We have worked closely with the summer lunch program. Through those relationships, we have been invited to expand Summer OFF to other cities in Rhode Island. Churches throughout the state have launched their own Summer OFF programs in parks near their churches.
A New Church
Over the years, as our relationships with the kids grew from summer to summer, we longed to see something permanent for them—a church that was there year-round. We had found in partnering with Faith and Hope Baptist Church that though it was a wonderful church, it was simply too far for most of the kids for it to be a year-round church home for them. A new church plant was what was needed.
By God's grace, in the fall of 2015, West End Community Church opened right beside Dexter Park. We had met John Ames two years prior, when John was already praying about planting near the park. In partnership with Converge and the North American Mission Board, with the Philip Center and with area churches, West End Community Church held its first service in September of 2015. Among those helping to welcome newcomers were some of the teens who had been a part of Summer OFF since 2009.
A New Director
Also in the summer of 2015, Derek and Miranda Laughlin led their home group from the Village Church in Dallas, TX, to serve for a week. Through that experience, they sensed God's call to move to Rhode Island. Miranda became the Summer OFF Director in 2017, and Derek launched Paradigm Biblical Counseling Center at the same time.
Summer OFF Export and Parks to Plants
Most recently, Summer OFF has been joined by two new initiatives at the Philip Center: Summer OFF Export and our Parks to Plants initiative. Summer OFF Export exists to help churches beyond Rhode Island start Summer OFF programs in their own areas. Parks to Plants exists to launch new gospel-centered churches near parks that don't have existing healthy churches, as happened in the case of West End Community Church and Dexter Park.
If you're interested in doing your own Summer OFF program, you can learn more at Summer OFF Export.
If you'd like to learn more about Summer OFF and church planting, please see the Parks to Plants page.
If you'd like to intern with Summer OFF, you can learn more here.