“Are you in Colorado?”
It’s the first thing Esteban Shedd wants to know when we finally get our computers to synch for a video call. He’s in Chicago and is curious about our weather. I assure him that I am in Colorado and that there is a stunning view of Pikes Peak just beyond the blinds I’ve shut to reduce the glare. It apparently hasn’t been entirely successful because, according to Esteban, the light is seeping through and I am being bathed in a heavenly aura.
After some small talk, I’m the one asking the questions. The purpose of our call is to interview Esteban about Streetlights, the ministry he and a couple of his college buddies have founded. And as I listen to his answers, I begin to sense a heavenly aura around him. Or, more accurately, a definite anointing of God’s Spirit.
Esteban is an articulate young man with the intense eyes of a street preacher and the quick, disarming smile of a close friend. As he begins to give me the backstory, I quickly realize that he’s describing a fresh move of God.
The backstory is this: When Esteban, Loren La Luz, and Aaron Lopez were teenagers in Chicago, they surrendered their lives to Christ. Although they didn’t know each other yet, these life-transformations took place at roughly the same time. It was at Moody Bible Institute just a few years later that what Esteban calls “the point of convergence” took place: the three of them met, became friends, and began putting their musical talents to use in missional hip-hop bands.
(“Missional” is a word Esteban uses often. The statement on the Streetlights website also includes the term: “We are a team of ‘Digital Scribes’ mobilizing ‘Missional Creatives’ to translate and teach God’s Word so all people can understand and know Jesus Christ.” It’s definitely a theme and speaks to the focus and intentionality of the Streetlights ministry and the individuals involved in it.)
The idea for the ministry came to Esteban when he was a junior at Moody. He was discipling young men at his local church and leading them in a Bible study. “It was hard to get these young men to interact with the Word of God,” he recalls. “The Bible was difficult for them to understand, to identify with, and to read. The experience was too much like school.”
So he decided to try something: “Let me go back to my home recording studio,” Esteban remembers thinking, “and try to bridge this illiteracy and communication gap with audio. These were brilliant young men made in the image of God. They could rattle off thousands of words from their favorite rapper or lyricist. But there was a lack of communication due to education, broken school systems, broken families… They were not able to interact with the Word. So I recorded Acts 2 and 3.
“I came back the next week. I said, ‘Go ahead and get out the Word of God, but something’s different. I’m gonna press play.’
“It was like night and day! As soon as I pressed play on the CD player, everyone paid attention. Some closed their eyes, some read along because it was bridging what they were seeing… Everybody interacted with the spiritual questions and discussions. And not just the basics. They started going deeper and deeper into the spiritual meat of the text.
“That kicked off this idea of meeting the need of illiteracy, biblical illiteracy, and bridging the communications gap.”
After graduating, Esteban and Loren were leading a 10-piece, hip-hop, Latin, reggae fusion group. “It was really taking off,” Esteban says with a smile. “At the height of its success, the Lord was saying, ‘Give it up. Give it up because I’m going to birth a greater thing.’ You know how the Lord works, he doesn’t show you the whole blueprint. So we gave it up.”
They spent about a year praying and thinking and talking about what might be next. During that time, Esteban’s sister told him: “Remember that vision for Streetlights? That’s needed. It’s needed across the world. You need to do that.”
Stepping out in faith, Esteban founded Streetlights. Before long, he brought Loren and Aaron on board. Their first project was the creation of a highly-original audio Bible, word-for-Word Scripture scored to tasteful Hip Hop beats and made for the purpose of giving the listener a powerful, ‘on-the-go’ way to internalize the spoken Word of God (listen to it here). Next, they began developing curriculum to help people understand and apply the message of Scripture.
Perhaps as unusual and innovative as the art they are producing is the business model they’re following. “We have a ‘freely given’ model,” Esteban explains. “We want no barriers for people to access the Word of God and the teaching of the Word of God. Since we started, that has been a core conviction.”
Esteban uses the young men he was discipling as an example. “They’re not going to pay for the Word of God because that’s not where their primary interest is. They might not even have the money. And the Gospel was freely given. We want to emulate that. Many people have said, ‘Man, go profit!’ But we said, ‘No. We’re ministry driven, freely given, and God’s gonna provide.’
“That’s why our partnership with Biblica is so huge. There’s that like-minded mentality.”
What does the future look like for Streetlights? I ask him.
Esteban nods, considers this, then: “The future is the audio Bible, multiple languages, and translations. That’s where Biblica comes in. We’ve had requests for Spanish, Portuguese, even the dialects spoken in Senegal, Mali, Mauritania… Hip-hop is huge among the Muslim youth there. This converges hand in hand with Biblica. We don’t have to fight for use of translations with Biblica.
“We’ve have this army of artists ready, and we’ve really just needed good translations!” he says. When he first met with Biblica representatives, his immediate thought was: “This feels like a partner we need to run years ahead with because they get it. The urgency of the times is now and we don’t want a profit-driven business model or a control of translation to impede the Word of God from going out!”
There’s passion in his voice as he says this and I can tell that this guy and this ministry are for real. They are honestly concerned with getting God’s Word out to people in a format they can understand and engage with. (Which just happens to be Biblica’s mission as well.) They also seem willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Which I can’t help admiring and respecting.
A big part of the future for Streetlights will involve their new app. It allows users to access and listen to their audio Bible. Since it was released in March 2017, the app has been downloaded more than 20,000 times in more than 20 countries. To date, their audio books have been downloaded via their website over 40,000 times in 85 different countries.
“It shows that it’s meeting people right where culture is communicating – with direct to palm teaching, learning, and hearing.”
“Hip-hop culture is a great conduit of expression,” Esteban explains. “It can express the Word of God and the gospel. It’s a worldwide culture. It’s a culture that has influenced all musical genres, all big cities… It trickles into suburbs and rural. It’s been international for the last four decades. It’s time for the Church to catch up and use it – not abuse it, but use it – natively and let it express the goodness of God.”
After our interview winds down, after I thank Esteban for his time, after we end the video call, I sit for a few moments, considering what I’ve just heard: young people using a contemporary medium to communicate God’s Word to the next generation… It’s edgy, groundbreaking, effective, and exciting.
God is clearly up to something with Streetlights – something big. He is using Esteban Shedd, Loren La Luz, and Aaron Lopez to creativity speak His message to young people in a language they can appreciate and comprehend. And it’s awesome that Biblica gets to play a role in that!