Thirty-five years ago Marilyn Young and her husband joined River Forest United Methodist Church because it had young families, faith-based activities for their children and was small enough to get to know people well but large enough to pay the church’s bills. 

Although a sense of church as family remained, as the church grew smaller over the decades so did the offerings.

And that led to a unique co-habiting, pastor sharing arrangement which is now moving closer to a true partnership between RFUMC and an upstart Urban Village church which already has four congregations in the city and now one in River Forest.

While the contemporary worship services have been an adjustment for RFUMC veterans it has also been something of a return.

“At first,” said Young,  “some RFUMC members feared that in partnering with Urban Village, we would lose our identity as RFUMC, but I viewed it as a way of returning to what we used to be but in a more modern, inclusive version.  It gave me hope to see young families coming to church again.”

Becky Eanet, another long-time parishioner echoed Young’s thoughts on renewal and the energy of young families. Eanet went further and said that without the partnership she “honestly believed  that without such a ‘new birth’ that our church would die within a few years.” 

Rev. Christian Coon is pastor of the joined congregations. He looks back at the decade old founding of the first Urban Church.

When Coon would invite young adults to one of the four Urban Village Churches he planted in the city of Chicago during the last 10 years, he would ask them, “Have you been bored or burned by church in the past?”

That is the cohort on which his outreach is now focusing in River Forest, a ministry which is in the process of being born in the building located at 7970 Lake St. 

The church building continues to be owned by RFUMC.

 “We invited that group of young adults to give us a shot,” said Coon,” especially if they were like LGBTQ folks who were ostracized or they had a church background but it wasn’t compelling or relevant.”

When they gave Urban Village a “shot,” what they found was a casual atmosphere,  a band playing contemporary Christian music in a faith community which was, in his words, vibrant and knowing the difference that the gospel can make in your life. They also heard unredacted testimonies in which faith and doubt could be honestly expressed. 

“We didn’t want to plant a church in the middle of the city and expect everyone to come to us,” he added.  “We chose a multi-site model with smaller faith communities throughout the city so they could have a little more sense of their neighborhood.”

“We have one budget — that is, funds from each of the four sites goes into one pot,” said  Coon, “and each site has its own leadership team including its own pastor. But there are also a few all-site leadership teams (Finance, Staff-Parish Relations, Antiracism) and each site gets equal representation on those teams.”  None has its own building but rent space instead.

Coon became the pastor of RFUMC a year ago with the intention of eventually starting a church plant in their building, a move which would result in two faith communities in one space.  What happened was that over the last year, the RFUMC members and the Urban Village people not only got to know each other but voted in June to form a partnership in which they would worship together in the Urban Village style but remain separate entities for at least a while.

Members of the two faith communities held their second joint worship service recently on the lawn outside the church following all of the CDC guidelines.

Urban Village Church-West, as it will be called, will have its “grand opening” when the pandemic is over.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...