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Brian Dye: Building a Legacy of Disciples from Chicago

Brian Dye isn’t gregarious. He’s not tall. He doesn’t look like a Brooks Brothers model, wear skinny jeans, or have a charismatic presence. He’s not an extrovert or a back slapper or a deal maker. He doesn’t headline conferences or write books.

If you had to guess who could build a successful conference on a shoestring budget—one so compelling that speakers such as John Piper and Lecrae and Jackie Hill Perry and Trip Lee would speak for free, one that would grow to 1,800 attendees and five cities in a dozen years—Dye wouldn’t even be on your B list.

He wouldn’t even be on his own B list.

Dye grew up in a rough community on the west side of Chicago, with a distant and abusive father but a mother who brought him to church. He grew up in the Christian faith under the weathered mentorship of a carpenter in that church, a man who “loved God, proclaimed that truth to me, loved me, walked with me, and invited me into his life.” He showed Dye “God in a different light.”

Dye and John Perkins at a Legacy conference / Photo by Anna Heyward

Dye came to Christ at 13 years old and was immediately passionate about two things—discipleship and his city. He started his first neighborhood Bible study at 14, then went to Cedarville University so he could teach elementary school in the area where he grew up.

“That was going to be my ministry—public schools,” Dye said. “God redirected that.”

But just by a little bit. After college, Dye joined the staff of an after-school program called Inner City Impact, doing outreach into high schools. He saw that parachurch organizations like his were doing the work that the local church should be doing but wasn’t trained for.

So he started Vision Nehemiah—called Nehemiah because of his burden for rebuilding a city—as a side hustle in 2003. He held regular meetings, training youth leaders how to be engaged incarnationally in ministry, how to care for their volunteer ministers, how to support each other—“what I saw in Scripture.”

Then, in 2005, one of the youth pastors “envisioned a conference” for young people. “He needed the relationships that I had, so we partnered together on it,” Dye said. “I just supported him in his vision.”

They held the first conference—named Heavyweights—in 2006, and 200 youth came to see Lecrae, Sho Baraka, Tedashii, and Trip Lee. But before it even began, there was drama.

“Unfortunately, the week before the conference it came out that this youth pastor had been involved inappropriately with young ladies in his youth group,” Dye said. “We knew that, obviously, he couldn’t run it anymore, and we probably needed to change a lot about it to move it away from his fingerprints.”

So they did. Before the next year, the name of the conference was changed to Legacy. The audience was changed from youth to young-adult lay leaders. And the leader was changed to Dye.

Trip Lee speaks at the 2018 Legacy Conference in Houston. / Photo by Anna Heyward

“Conferences aren’t in my DNA,” Dye said. “It’s not who I am. But it fell in my lap and I was like, ‘This has to continue. This has to move forward.’

“It was almost like I took an adopted baby of sorts.”

And that was something Dye knew how to do. Though he hasn’t formally adopted any children, he and his wife, Heidi, have unofficially parented dozens of young men in Chicago. More than 150 troubled teens, struggling adults, and young people seeking discipleship have ended up in the Dye home, some spending years there.

Those teens—and the hundreds of other young people Dye has worked with—are the reason he pulls together the conference every year. They’re the reason he’s expanding it, and the reason he’s started a string of house churches with the same name—Legacy, for passing on the faith, for disciples making disciples.

“For me, the conference is a necessary evil to get the message out,” Dye said. “My passion is one-on-one discipleship and neighborhood ministry.”

He can’t think of a better way to share the gospel. It’s those closest to him who not only “hear what I teach, but see it practiced in everyday life—see how I interact with my wife, see how I interact with my community, see how I deal with tough situations,” Dye said. “The gospel is the only thing that can change a community such as this.”

Parenting the Conference

The Legacy Conference has grown like a child—regularly and steadily. The first year it attracted 300 people, followed by 500. By 2017, it was drawing 1,800 to Chicago.

“The typical attendee is a person in their mid-20s who has been a believer for a few years and is looking to see how they can be used,” Dye said. The crowd is diverse (about 75 percent non-white), generally lives in a city, and has day jobs (their churches usually don’t have enough money to pay for full-time work).

Legacy speakers teach doctrine (the five solas are on the website), disciple-making, biblical manhood and womanhood, evangelism, hermeneutics, and community impact.

“After the first one, the feedback people were giving was like, ‘We’ve never been in a conference like this before. We’ve never heard stuff like this,’” Dye said.

2017 Legacy Conference in Chicago / Photo by Temi Coker

“Legacy is one of the few conferences around that makes room for its participants to see and hear sound doctrine taught by people that look and sound like them,” speaker and author Jackie Hill Perry said. “This allows for people to learn in a contextual way that is able to then be fleshed out in their own particular contexts. Legacy Conference truly is an anomaly and a beautiful one at that.”

That’s because “most conferences are typically more suburban, white, middle-class, and pastor-focused,” Dye said. There’s an understandable reason for that—conferences take a lot of time and money. Generally, churches in under-resourced urban areas don’t have enough funds to either host or send their pastors to one.

Dye gets that; Legacy doesn’t have big donors.

“It was like, ‘Okay, guys, we have five loaves and two fishes. I don’t know what we can do with this, but I keep coming back to the story where Jesus multiplied it,’” Dye remembers. “We still operate that same way.”

He didn’t take a salary from Legacy for the first 10 years: In the beginning, he juggled substitute teaching and school-bus driving to pay the bills. (Now he gets paid part-time.) He rents space from Moody Bible Institute. He doesn’t pay speakers.

To pull that off, he networks like crazy, sitting down for coffee with everyone he can to explain the vision.

They’re catching it.

Jackie Hill Perry speaks at the 2017 Legacy Conference in Chicago. / Photo by Anna Heyward

“I speak at Legacy because I believe in the mission of Legacy—to equip men and women, who are leading in different ways in their communities and churches, for gospel-centered discipleship,” Perry said. “The heart of Legacy is the heart of God. And for that reason, I will always support it.”

“One of the ways I choose where to speak is whether my presence would encourage the kind of Big God theology that I have given my life to,” said John Piper, who has spoken at two Legacy conferences. “Another criterion has been to reach across ethnic lines and build whatever bridges I could. Both of these criteria seemed to be true, and besides that, I liked the leaders. . . . Anything I can do to strengthen the hands of those who are making a difference for the glory of Christ in our cities, I would love to do.”

The heart of Legacy is the heart of God. And for that reason, I will always support it.

“I believe the Lord is rewarding Brian’s work, his vision, his relationships,” said pastor Jon Dennis, who helped found Holy Trinity Chicago and serves with Dye on the leadership team of The Chicago Partnership for Church Planting. “Brian is the real deal. He loves the Lord. He isn’t looking for fame or glory. In fact, he has an aversion to those things. He just wants to help young leaders in urban contexts make solid, Christ-centered disciples. For Brian, this starts on his knees and in his home but extends with the love of a father to the neighborhoods of Chicago and to the Legacy Conference.”

By 2017, Legacy was drawing attendees from 37 states and offering 80 workshops. Dye added Los Angeles in 2017, Houston in 2018. He plans to start conferences in Atlanta in 2019 and New York in 2020. (“My heart is to make the conference within driving distance of every major city.”)

But conferences aren’t his favorite thing. “I’m not a logistics person,” Dye said.

So if he’s not a logistics person, and not a conference person, why is he still doing this? And putting so much effort into it that he’s doing it well?

The answer sleeps in his house, eats his food, and asks him to come to school events.

Dyes’ 100 Children

“It all started back in high school,” Justin Ross said. “I had just turned 16. I was in a situation where I didn’t have a place to stay.”

Ross’s single mom didn’t have her own place. She lived with a cousin, and then a friend, and then another friend. The house where she was staying was full of fighting and drugs.

“I was just sleeping on a chair,” Ross said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was 16 and couldn’t get my own apartment. My mom doesn’t have a lot of income so she’s on Section 8, and it takes a couple of years to get something.”

A little lost, Ross went to hang out at his old church youth group. One of the leaders found out he needed a home and brought him to meet Dye.

“I didn’t know him at all,” Ross said. Dye asked if he was safe. Ross was honest: no. (“I wasn’t saved at the time,” he said.)

Dye took him home anyway.

“It was only supposed to be for a few weeks,” Ross said. “It turned into four years.”

He remembers coming in the door that first time, Heidi coming toward him. In an urban black neighborhood, she was white. And she was smiling.

“It was really weird,” Ross said. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

But it wasn’t weird for Heidi.

‘Always Felt Full’

Brian and Heidi Dye’s first date was with a group—but not of other couples.

“He put me in a van with some teen boys, and we went to a White Sox game together,” Heidi said. She’s from a quiet town in rural Wisconsin, and fell in love with urban ministry while volunteering in Chicago during college.

The Dyes had been married six months when a “guy both of us knew well” was released from prison after doing time for dealing drugs.

“He didn’t want to go back to the environment he was in, because he knew he would probably do the same thing over again,” Heidi said. “He asked if he could stay at our place. We had one bedroom, so he stayed on our couch for about six months. He was the first person we had, and it’s been nonstop ever since.”

The Dyes don’t have biological children. “We were open to having our own kids, but it was never one of those things where we had a real burning desire,” Heidi said. She’s “always felt full when it came to mothering. I felt the Lord had a different calling on our lives, and I’ve always felt content with that.”

Brian and Heidi Dye / Courtesy of Brian Dye

The Dyes leaned into that calling, so much so that when it came time to buy a house, they chose one with six bedrooms. They put their bed in one, converted another into an office, and filled the rest with single beds. “We can house up to eight people, but our sweet spot is six,” Heidi said. (That’s how many they have now.)

The Dyes have lost track of how many people have stayed with them (“Over 100,” Heidi says). They’ve hosted a homeless man addicted to drugs, three teens in a job-training program, and people in the ministry needing a short-term place to stay (years ago, that included Lecrae and Trip Lee). But mostly, it’s been teenage boys from the ‘hood.

“It was always a learning curve, and we haven’t always had the best experiences,” Heidi said. Some of the boys are hard to motivate, quitting school or multiple jobs. Some are disrespectful. Some smoke weed in the house or sneak girls into their bedrooms.

“We wrestle through it all the time—when do you extend grace, and when do you do tough love?” Brian said. “I don’t know if we always make the right decision, but for us it’s understanding that individuals who have had years of influence in a negative way aren’t going to change overnight.”

“What fuels us and keeps us going is seeing God at work, seeing him do great things on a continual basis,” Heidi said. “We see so many of these men that have lived with us now giving back and doing the same thing for others.”

For example, Wednesday night is the Dyes’ date night. While they’re gone, a half-dozen seventh graders come for a Bible study in one room, while a group of high schoolers meet for Bible study in another.

Legacy Humboldt Park meets for a Sunday service / Photo by Will Wagner

“During my four years there, I was becoming more compassionate and more loving,” Ross said. The Dyes loved him the way God loved Israel—warning about his attitude, forgiving his insults, kicking him out when he was too disrespectful, then taking him back. His fourth year there, Ross gave his life to Christ.

“People feel loved by Brian and Heidi,” Ross said. “God is using them at a transition point. . . . When people leave, they have more wisdom, more insight, a deeper relationship with the Lord.”

Brian and Heidi don’t have a ton of rules—no girls in the bedrooms, no drugs, no taking stuff from someone else. The overarching requirement is that the boys “be present.” That means if you’re in the house at 6:30 p.m., you must sit down to dinner without your electronic devices. It also means you participate in Bible studies or church services that the Dyes host.

That doesn’t sound like a huge time commitment—after all, how many Bible studies does a normal family host?

House Churches in Chicago

If working on Legacy conference logistics is a necessary evil, it’s to get to the goodness of one-on-one discipleship. Dye can’t get enough of it. He and Heidi host four nights a week—in addition to the teen Bible studies, there’s a “missional community” gathering (a little bit like a small group), and two different Bible classes. Then on Sunday, they host church.

Brian was never aiming to be a pastor. But after the second Legacy conference, he was fielding a lot of questions about churches.

“People would come and be challenged in what they believed about Scriptures or the mission of God or discipleship, and we started getting a lot of people asking us for church recommendations,” Dye said.

He was having the same problem. He’d just bought his six-bedroom house in a tough neighborhood 20 minutes from his church building. He wanted something closer, something he—and those he wanted to invite—could walk to.

Dye was reading through the book of Acts, and seeing how the early believers met in each other’s homes. Around the same time, he and Heidi went to Zambia—and saw a modern-day Acts.

“We heard story after story of a pastor having church under a tree,” Dye said. “They barely have copies of the Bible. They have no commentaries, no seminaries, no conferences. But they have the gospel message.”

On the plane ride home, they began dreaming about starting a house church.

Dye’s objections—he’s just a guy from the neighborhood who hasn’t been to seminary and can’t read Hebrew—seemed weak after watching Zambian pastors. (“As a believer in the States, you have more privileges than most people do around the world,” someone told him.)

So in 2008, with the support of their home church, the Dyes started a house church with a core group of 12. “God has continued to bring people to us, and we have seen people saved,” Dye said.

But the house church couldn’t grow too much. Even when Dye moves around the furniture, he can only get 40 to 45 people in his living room.

So he started to plant.

Planting House Churches

One enormous challenge to planting house churches is finances. Even on its best day, a house church of 30 generally low-income people isn’t going to pay anybody’s full-time salary. So all the leaders are bivocational, fitting in their hermeneutics classes and sermon prep on nights and weekends.

“Our heart is to see the city of Chicago changed from the inside out,” Heidi said. “We desire to raise up leaders who have lived in those environments. Jesus picked all of his disciples from Galilee except Judas.”

The disciples were qualified not because they had education or status, but because “they had been with Jesus,” Heidi said.

So that’s what the Dyes try to do—“take people whom society may see as undesirable or not having potential, but we see potential because of Christ.”

Yet that doesn’t mean they want unqualified leaders. So over the past decade, Dye has created a leadership pipeline.

Brandon Rodriguez leads worship at one of the eight Legacy Christian Fellowship house churches. / Photo by Al’Alai Israel-Dor

“The first couple years is heavily relational,” he said. “We bring people into our lives, walk with them through Scriptures, identify idols of their hearts, and then funnel them into formalized courses.”

Dye teaches them how to study the Bible, how to see the gospel in the text, and how to preach it clearly. He leads them through a disciple-making course, where he helps them to mentor someone younger in the faith. And he just launched a biblical counseling course to help people to identify idols of the heart, point to Scripture, and equip parts of the body to minister to each other.

This spring, he started sending his planters through a new City to City incubator, which uses a curriculum developed over the last 15 years by leaders at Redeemer City to City in New York and adapted for Chicago’s specific context with The Chicago Partnership for Church Planting, where Dye serves on the board.

“I’m encouraged,” Dye said.

He should be. Over the past 10 years, he’s planted eight churches. “We have more than 200 adults total trying to be faithful in raising up disciples who raise disciples.”

Discipling Like a Father

Dye has been discipling people in Chicago since he was 14.

“There are a lot of similarities” between then and now, he said. “Broken families have been pretty consistent for a while. A lot of young people are growing up without their father in the home, so young men are lacking identity. Young ladies are lacking the value they often receive from their father, and they’re searching for it in other places.

“At the end of the day, people are longing for a place to belong and a father to speak value into them.”

Dye can relate—that was his longing too.

“I know Brian got a lot from how he was discipled” when he was young by the carpenter in his church, Lamar Simms said. Simms grew up rough in Chicago, met the Dyes, and is now the leader of a Legacy house church. “He has a gift for discipleship, for doing right with people.”

Dye teaches at a Legacy Conference workshop. / Photo by Anna Heyward

Discipleship is a humble gift, Simms said. “Brian doesn’t get a whole lot of accolades or praise or recognition. But he’s had his hands in a lot of people’s lives.”

Dye’s strength in building intimacy is one reason house churches work so well for him, and is the biggest reason people cite for loving the Legacy Conference.

“One of the things that I’ve seen consistent with the Legacy Conference is the sense of family and community and the down-to-earthness here,” rap artist Lecrae said on a Legacy video. “It’s grown so incredibly, but yet it doesn’t feel like this institutional, stale conference. It still feels alive, it feels like it’s bustling with fresh perspective, fresh ideas, and the Spirit of God is inspiring and encouraging and convicting and challenging people here. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

“You’ll often hear people say the conference feels like a family reunion,” Simms said. “Really, the heart of it is relationships, like distant cousins who can’t wait to see you and worship with you.”

Dye is the father figure they have in common.

“I see him as a spiritual father, and I know many, many others see him the same way,” Simms said. “Brian is one who can both speak in my life prophetically and who I can call if I need $200 to pay my rent.”

Whether things are going well or falling apart, Dye is content, Simms said. “One thing he’s taught me over the past seven years is—it’s not about me. It’s about Jesus.”

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