Indie churches being 'planted' all around Oak Park

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

In the campaign leading up to the presidential election on Nov. 6, there was plenty of talk about entrepreneurship, a term applied to people who start new businesses. As it turns out, the term can also be applied to pastors who are starting new churches in and around Oak Park.

Michael Wright, 43, is sometimes still dressed in his workout clothes as he rushes to a meeting or Bible study at his church. He's usually coming from Proviso East High School where he coaches freshman baseball and basketball and is the in-school suspension supervisor.

Wright, the resident pastor at Light of Liberty Worship Center in Oak Park, has had a day job throughout his ministry. Unlike clergy in mainline Protestant denominations or the Catholic Church who must complete four years of college, finish another 3-4 years of seminary and then be certified by their denomination, Wright started ministering as a young man after feeling called to do so.

"I came up in the Church of God in Christ," he explained. "In that tradition if you express a calling and show character, anyone can be a minister. I remember being in church and hearing the ministers preach, and I felt drawn to that."

So while working for Ford Motor Company after graduating from Proviso West High School, Wright tested his ministerial potential by agreeing to be the interim minister at a little church on Chicago's West Side which had only eight members. He then became an assistant to Pastor Cory Bush at Light of Liberty for two years. Feeling confirmed in his calling, he and his wife, Tiffany, ventured out and "planted" a church at 1140 N. Lemond in Chicago.

"I was all on my own," he recalled, laughing. "The money to start the ministry as well as our health insurance came from our jobs at Ford and United Airlines where Tiffany worked as a flight attendant. We were really on our own."

In contrast to mainline churches, Wright follows a bottom-up paradigm in which ministers prove themselves in the field, as they say, and then get some theological training while they are doing ministry and holding down a day job. In fact, he is part of the way through an extension program at Harvard University which will lead to a master's degree.

After a 10-year relationship with the United Methodist Church, which ended this summer, Wright returned to a partnership with Rev. Bush, whose congregation, which meets at the corner of Washington and Austin, has been dwindling, partly because his attention has been focused on his two congregations in Texas, one with 1,500 members and the other with 800. A true entrepreneur, Pastor Bush owns the church building in Oak Park and is the congregation's CEO. While seeking advice from his board, he makes all final decisions himself.

Like many entrepreneurs, Wright has a vision for growth and looks to the future with optimism. But his optimism is fueled by a belief that God is calling him to do what he is doing. "I believe that it was God who allowed us to come here," he said. "We have an Oak Park address, but I consider this [location] to be the gateway to the West Side of Chicago. I've always felt comfortable with inner-city ministry."

Wright is one of a group of ministers in Oak Park who refer to themselves as "church planters." They tend to be enthusiastic, energized, optimistic, independent, informal, easy-going, gregarious, sometimes bi-vocational and young — i.e. not yet eligible for membership in AARP.

Chuck and Urshanna Colegrove, for instance, are in their 40s and have not been seminary educated. Like Wright, they firmly believe it was God who called them to plant a new congregation.

The Colegroves showed their entrepreneurial spirit when they made the decision to have their Free Church meet for worship in Theater 7 at the Lake Theatre, to have coffee available before and during the service, and to have their contemporary praise songs accompanied by a rock band. Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Phoenix, Ariz., has called this kind of strategy "entertainment evangelism," i.e. you entertain guests in your home, prepare a menu and plan activities you think they will enjoy.

"I think it's good to go to a church you enjoy going to," said Chuck Colegrove, "where you enjoy the style of worship, the way the Word is communicated, and the people around you. That's a recipe for me."

Small business owners understand that you might be doing what you love, but if customers don't come in the door and buy it, you will fail — 50 percent of all small business start-ups close their doors within five years.

Unlike Wright, whose first church plant in Chicago was financed almost completely by himself and his wife, the Colgroves have financial backing from the outside, at least in the early stage. The Houston church where they used to be on staff believed in what they were doing enough to pay their salary for a whole year while they were getting their family settled and laying the groundwork for building the new congregation. In addition, the couple received some initial funding from two mission-minded organizations, the Association of Related Churches and Churches in Covenant.

Chuck Colegrove embodies another characteristic of the new breed of church entrepreneurs — what he calls a "hassle free" welcome. At the first service of the Free Church on Sept. 9, he promised the assembly that if they filled out the information form, they wouldn't be visited or given a coffee mug. Although he has a degree in marketing, he distinguishes his approach from hard-sell tactics.

"We just talk to people and say what's in our heart. We'd love for you to be a part of what we're doing, but if you decide you're going to be a part of somewhere else, we're going to give you a high five because God has an idea for you even if it's not with us."

Ex-talk radio personality Cisco Cotto planted his new Village Church right around the corner from the Lake Theatre in the 19th Century Charitable Association building on Forest Avenue. Like the Colegroves he is not going the bi-vocational route but jumping into ministry full time.

Cotto and the Colgroves understand that ministers who start a new church have to recognize that many people come with a lot of negative religious baggage. The first task, therefore, is to deconstruct preconceived notions before selling them on a new way of being church.

"The only people Jesus was really upset with," Cotto noted, "were the religious leaders. When it comes to the other people — the prostitutes and the tax collectors — he doesn't say that what they were doing is OK, but he's so gentle and kind with them."

The new model therefore includes ministers dressing informally and delivering "messages" — don't use the word "sermon" — in a conversational style and without notes. It also includes the availability of coffee before the service, which worshipers are welcome to bring into worship.

Cotto, however, does not want to throw the baby of core Christian tradition out with the bathwater of outdated, irrelevant practice.

"One of the Bible verses that is kind of at the core of everything I am trying to do," explained Cotto, who earned a Master of Divinity degree from the Moody Bible Institute before launching his ministry, "is the second half of John 1:17 where the gospel writer says, 'Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.' Often when it comes to religion, people err on one side or the other. It's all about truth where they're smacking you on the head with the Bible, or it's all grace where anything goes. Jesus came to show us that there is indeed truth, but there's also a gracious loving Spirit that's necessary. I'm trying to do both."

Regarding how he is financing his ministry, Cotto said, "We had to do some fundraising, reaching out to friends, family, business leaders and other churches. We also have people in the congregation who tithe."

Rev. Matt Stuhlmuller is following yet another model as he seeks to plant a church at the corner of North and Oak Park avenues. He is an ordained ELCA Lutheran pastor who is on the staff of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Park Ridge. Like Wright, the Colgroves and Cotto, he is knocking on doors, building a critical mass and getting the word out. Much like any entrepreneur starting a new business, he has to build awareness and enthusiasm in order to attract "customers."

What's different about Stuhlmuller's planting is that it's more like a franchise than an independent small business start. His salary is paid by the parent church, he has his pension and insurance with the national church, and has the use of a building provided by his denomination.

If you attend one of Stuhlmuller's "preview services" at Redeemer Lutheran Church — same name as the parent church — at first glance it will be hard to tell the difference between his approach to worship and the other church plants in the area. The words to the praise songs are projected on a big screen, and the music is performed by a talented band. Pews are absent, and the back third of the worship area is furnished with small tables and chairs where worshippers can sip coffee while participating in the service.

Pastor Stuhlmuller is dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and Converse gym shoes as he delivers his message without looking at a script. He, like the other young church entrepreneurs, is laid back, gregarious, optimistic and seems to really enjoy what he is doing.

If you listen and watch closely, however, you will begin to pick up cues that the theology informing what is said and done is very much in the tradition of the Augustinian monk who nailed the famous 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door in 1517. Another way to say it is that the form is evangelical but the substance is Lutheran.

Church planting is not new to Oak Park. Harrison St. Bible Church, a small congregation that meets for worship at 911 S. Taylor, was organized in 1896. Fellowship Christian Church at 1106 Madison St.; Oasis Church and Torre Fuerte, both at 1151 S. Ridgeland; and Living Sanctuary of Faith at 701 Belleforte are all independent congregations to one degree or another and have pastors who have an entrepreneurial spirit.

The difference between these pastors and the ones planting new churches is that every one of the former either didn't respond to multiple contacts and personal visits to their services or did not want to be interviewed.

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