SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — The members of Waterfront Community Church attend weekly services in a high school auditorium. Their contemporary Christian music rock band practices at someone's home. And the pastor relies on a laptop and Starbucks for an office.
The nondenominational suburban Chicago church operates on a shoestring budget and under an unusual financial setup so it can stick to a mission: Give 100 percent of offerings gathered from the collection plate to those in need.
"We found how little we know about the people around us. We started asking around, 'What are the needs of the community?'" said the church's pastor and founder Jim Semradek. "When you present that need to people, they're very responsive. People have very generous hearts."
Churches typically use at least part of the money collected at worship services for administrative costs, including heating the sanctuary and paying the pastor's salary.
Waterfront is instead funded by eight sponsors; half attend the church and the others are outsiders who support the mission.
Their combined contributions, along with some fundraising, pay for renting the school auditorium and salaries.
In addition, several of the church's nearly 200 members donate their services as accountants and financial planners to make it all work.
Not only does Waterfront give away what it collects, it also develops relationships with the people who benefit.
Since the church started in October, it has raised about $11,500 for a 29-year-old single mother to help her get on her feet, a cause church members chose together.
For Christmas, they also decided to help a single mother of two who recently had her salary cut in half, and a woman who needs brain tumor surgery.
Waterfront's setup is rare, though it could become a model for others.
Dave Travis, managing director of Leadership Network, which works with pioneering churches around the country, said more churchgoers are seeking congregations that put generous giving at the center of their community.
"What this church is starting with is very on trend with the culture right now and the desire to be very integrated and involved with communities," Travis said. "People are looking for a church that authenticates the Gospel."
At a recent Sunday service, Semradek did a "reverse offering," passing out bags each with $5, $10, $20 or $50 bills. Congregants were instructed to choose how the money could be used in their community. Semradek reminded congregants that there would come a day when they would stand in judgment before God.
"How much of your bank account will matter on that day?" he asked those gathered in Schaumburg High School's auditorium, a room resembling a small movie theater.
Ted Novaczyk, 50, a medical manager analyst from Waukegan, Ill., pulled $20 from a bag.
"I'm going to save it for somebody that needs it really bad," he said. "Knowing that it's coming from the congregation itself, it really feels like the true meaning of Christmas."
Sandi Henderson, 41, had participated in the exercise before. The executive assistant drew $10 that time and added some of her own money to buy toiletries — like Band-Aids and socks — for homeless people she sees on her way to work in Chicago's downtown.
The church's approach also has its drawbacks.
Newcomers might not join because the church doesn't have its own building. And sustaining the church's level of giving over time could be challenging.
But Semradek, who has a background in consulting and is a former pastor at nearby megachurch Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., said he has confidence in the model.
"If we can put our resources in the people, a lot of things will start happening," he said.
The life of at least one woman has already been changed by the church.
Shenell, who declined to give her last name, is a single mother who grew up in the projects on Chicago's West Side. Shenell's mother, a cocaine addict, was largely absent from her daughter's life. That also left Shenell to take care of her younger sister.
At 18 she became a single mother herself. Shenell's daughter has cerebral palsy and finding affordable housing in a desirable neighborhood that accommodated her daughter's needs was difficult.
"It's been a rough road," said Shenell, who works at a passport processing company.
Waterfront gives money to Shenell through Fellowship Housing Corp. which pays about half of Shenell's approximately $900 monthly rent so she can focus on the future. For two years, she gets parenting tips and help planning a budget. After that, she will be on her own.
Shenell, who does not attend Waterfront but is grateful for the help, wants to re-establish her credit, save money and provide a better environment for her daughter.
Already, Shenell said she is chipping away at credit card debt and has noticed improvements in her daughter, who is now able to attend a better school.
"I've never been able to save a quarter because I've always had to buy something for my mom or sister or pay the rent," she said. "My goal is to have a nice nest egg for my daughter. ... Hopefully one day I can help someone else and give back."