Boy scout troop helps members lay sod as part of an Eagle Scout project in front of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. | PROVIDED

There are two church buildings for sale in Oak Park. This isn’t unusual. In addition to serving Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, I work part-time for the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Last year I personally oversaw the closure of two congregations. Both denominational and non-denominational churches are struggling with buildings that served a different century and dwindling finances to sustain them. 

The issue of whether a building impedes or enhances ministry moved to the forefront for Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in September 2018. A new roof suddenly became an eviction notice when a fire moved quickly through the dried wood of our attic that took hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to extinguish. Pink slip from the fire department in hand, I gathered the leaders of the church. We had three days to find a worship space and a little more time to find a temporary home. Many thanks to Euclid Methodist Church for helping us land that first Sunday and for First Baptist Church who gave us a home for more than a year.

In those earliest days of determining our needs, there were questions that involved physical space: “How many Sunday School classes do we have?” “What are the needs for offices?” But the larger question was about mission. 

We’d said that the church wasn’t the building, that the church was the people. So you should find church wherever you found us. But that is more easily said than done. Just like the person who can’t sit in the same pew because you don’t have the same space, everything shifted when we left the building. Nothing could be assumed. Nothing. We had been serving breakfast to high school students on late-start days, which was relatively easy when we set a table in front of the building. Do we continue that when people need to haul all the supplies from home? The answer became yes.

If you saw a group of us involved in ministry, you saw the church. We clearly saw our church involved in God’s world. Social ministry kept us grounded in our identity. It wasn’t just Housing Forward and Beyond Hunger, during our displacement we became newly involved in AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities), helping unaccompanied minors navigate the immigration court system, among other new ministries. 

Often struggling congregations gather for an hour on Sunday and perhaps another hour during the week. The question of a building looms large. I know congregations that have loosened that tie and sold their building. That isn’t always the answer. I came across a quote after the fire, the author of which I cannot recall, “We shape buildings and then they shape us.” 

If you are always renting, how are you being shaped? There is something about sacred space that is clearly designed to invoke the Divine. Yet what does the space say? I invite you to look at the stained glass of Good Shepherd and First Baptist. They both have amazing stories to tell, yet are starkly different. I learned much from a liturgical building consultant.

Yet it wasn’t only the shape of our building that caused us to rebuild; it was our community connections. Our building is a community asset. That realization redesigned the interior rebuild with fewer pews, more flexible seating, and a sanctuary-level restroom, among other things. It has been such a great joy to have homeless people resting peacefully in the basement and children hosting a benefit concert in the sanctuary. The building isn’t just our home, it is a home for others. 

We’ve come to love our building even more. It hasn’t been easy. There is a lawsuit with the insurance company as they refuse the last $500,000 of our claim, which has put fundraising for an accessible entrance and elevator on hold. Just as the construction ended, the pandemic hit, which kept us out for another year. 

The building is now considered home base for the ministries of Good Shepherd Lutheran. On Sunday we gather to encourage one another and be refreshed with God’s word. Those mornings when the sun shines brightly through our windows can be truly awe inspiring. The building is where we assemble “Sunshine Boxes” to bring cheer for those slogging through another pandemic year, and personal care kits for Lutheran World Relief to send to Ukraine refugees. There truly is no place like home.

But if you are looking for the church, you’ll need to see people.

Rev. Kathy Nolte is the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park.

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