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By Tom Holmes
On Aug. 21 the small congregation of Austin Boulevard Christian (ABC) Church voted unanimously to close its doors on Dec. 25, now just two months away.
The August meeting was not contentious. "We had been struggling for awhile," said Rev. Dwight Bailey, ABC's pastor, "trying to decide what the path of the church was going to be." Members had come to accept the reality that the church was not going to grow.
The congregation, located one block north of West Suburban Medical Center at 634 N. Austin Blvd., had tried what most declining congregations attempt, i.e. to improve their efforts at evangelism and to supplement their shrinking income by renting space out to other small congregations and non-profit organizations.
Bailey said the congregation tried to use several evangelistic tools in an attempt to invite and welcome new people to reinforce their dwindling membership, but worship attendance has decreased to 25 a Sunday.
At the same time, ABC welcomed at different times three other congregations into their space, but in all cases the partnerships did not work out. One congregation never even contributed a cent to the maintenance of the building. A CEDA Head Start program located in their building helped ABC pay the bills for several years until the day care relocated.
Inevitably church members compare their present situation to ABC's "glory days" in the 1950s when weekly worship attendance averaged 500 to 600 people, and the crowd at Easter overflowed the worship area into the lobby. In the 1950s the congregation was all white. Then came the demographically turbulent days of the 1960s when people of color began migrating toward the Austin neighborhood and Oak Park, and many white members responded by moving further west in the suburbs.
Ministers like Don McCord were "real champions of diversity," said Bailey, and intentionally worked to welcome people of color into the church. To a degree, they were successful with ABC diversifying its membership to include blacks, whites, Hispanics and Filipinos. The diversity, ironically, became an obstacle to growth, because, contrary to what many Christians long for, multicultural congregations rarely grow. Bailey said that his denomination, Disciples of Christ, no longer even tries to start new congregations which are anything but homogeneous.
Looking back on ABC's history — which began in 1896 — members are now involved in assigning meaning to the numerical growth and decline of their faith community. Old timers remember the days when the men had athletic teams, the women's group was active, there was a children's choir and a lot was happening in the congregation. There is some grieving that needs to be done.
At the same time, when asked if the Austin Boulevard Christian Church has been a failure, Bailey immediately and emphatically replied, "No. ABC has been a giving, nurturing church which has always been involved in the Oak Park/Austin community."
In fact, said ABC's pastor, the congregation intends to keep on giving right up to Christmas Day. They will continue to host an AA meeting and Mission USA, a ministry to ex-offenders. The church has become a PADS site several times this year when other host churches had a conflict in the schedules. The congregation invites the community to attend its Heritage Dinner on Nov. 19 at 4 p.m.
The congregation, which owns its building, is still undecided regarding what to do with it after they no longer are using the facility.
Bailey is looking forward to the closing with the attitude that it is simply one more step in each member's journey of faith. "We are a winner," he said. "ABC has been faithful. I can look into the face of God and say 'thank you' for the opportunity you have given us to serve."
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