By Tom Holmes
"We realize that, up till now, if you went to any liberal person in Oak Park and said to them, 'I am an Evangelical,' immediately a wall would go up," said Laura Cook, a River Forest resident and the Fine Arts and Outreach Coordinator at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park.
"What we're trying to do in our outreach programs and the new worship format," she continued, "is to engage in a conversation. We don't want to be a 'bubble church.'"
The new worship format, called "Unify and Glorify," will offer one service on Saturday evening at 5 and two on Sunday morning at 9 and 10:30, all of which will feature a blend of classical, traditional and contemporary music.
Many Evangelical congregations, she noted, follow a kind of church-growth recipe that includes an informal worship style with contemporary music, featuring guitars and drums.
"If our desire was to bring in 200 Evangelicals from Naperville and Aurora every Sunday," she said, "we would go completely contemporary at Calvary. But one of the main desires of Calvary is to connect with the community. We believe that through our new worship format, we will connect with the community."
Caleb Widmer, Calvary's pastor of worship and music, said that when church staff looked at the Oak Park-River Forest community, they realized that several different "musical languages" were spoken. One of these languages is what he called "accessible music" — that is, contemporary music with sing-able melodies, which is the bread and butter of most Evangelical churches.
"But we also see that residents in these communities value classical music and the fine arts," he said, "so in our new worship format, Unify and Glorify, we are combining the classical and fine traditions of sacred music into services that have accessible music at their core. We will have some substantive classical pieces in every service, including music accompanied by our pipe organ." Kimberly Jones, a soloist at the Lyric Opera, was scheduled to sing during last weekend's opening of the worship year.
Classical and traditional music is also being included in Calvary's concert series. Stephen Alltop, for instance, music director of the Apollo Chorus, will conduct the Nov. 16 concert at Calvary, which will include vocalists from the Lyric Opera, and, according to Widmer, "there won't be a sermon at the end of the concert!"
The new worship format, first and foremost, is designed to help unify the congregation. For the past 20 years, Calvary has had a traditional service at 8:30 each Sunday morning, followed by contemporary services at 10:00 and 11:30. The format was based on the understanding that because people spoke different musical languages, a congregation should offer worship alternatives.
The problem with that format, according to Cook, was that Calvary felt like two separate congregations meeting under one roof. "If I went to another service," she said, "I felt like I was going to another church."
Widmer acknowledged that having only one item on the worship menu makes it harder to please everyone. "It's more natural to have a service that's 100 percent in your 'heart musical language,'" he said, "but just because it's difficult doesn't mean that it's the wrong move. It's going to be challenging, but it's going to be rewarding."
Calvary's membership is more diverse than many Oak Parkers might think — racially and socio-economically. "It's a great indicator of where our church is," Widmer explained, "because it looks like our community. A lot of churches are growing into the thousands by just having a cutting-edge contemporary service. I don't think you can do that if you want to maintain diversity. If you want to have rich diversity, you have to make a choice between rapid growth and doing the hard work for what you value most."
Cook expects that what will happen is that members will pick the musical expressions they resonate with most and sort of overlook the ones they don't like as much.
"We've already started to blend the different elements," she said. "A few weeks ago, I was spending time with some of the older members who pointed out some pieces that resonated with them, but they didn't mention the ones with heavy drums. In the new format, you will be able to have a very diverse group, and they'll be able to pick and choose what they like."
Widmer added that what will unify the new services is that all of the diverse musical expressions will be coordinated around one biblical text. The musical accompaniment might differ, but the lyrics will all be in harmony with the text for the day.
"Because of that one unifying element, which is everything being focused on the text," Cook said, "I believe that even though someone may not connect with 100 percent of the music, I feel they will still get the message and understand."
Widmer would love to have everyone in the community check out Calvary's new worship format and see that his congregation is trying to find common ground with people living in the Oak Park/River Forest area while still maintaining their theological integrity.
He also hopes visitors and members will understand that Unify and Glorify is a work in progress.
"We could have purchased this pre-packed thing, plugged it in and played it," he explained. "This is really the start of a relational journey that our church is going on together. We are not going to get everything right on week one. There will be some clunky transitions. That's what family life is like sometimes."