Shrinking churches find partners, modernize

Graceful edifices, empty pews and a few exceptions

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TOM HOLMES

Contributing Reporter

In 2008 the baptized membership at United Lutheran Church, corner of Ridgeland and Greenfield, was 507, according to church records, and attendance at worship averaged 94.

Last year membership had slipped to 176 and worship attendance had declined to 45 in the large sanctuary built in 1928 when three Norwegian Lutheran congregations in Chicago merged and moved to the suburbs. 

Many congregations in Oak Park and River Forest have experienced similar declines from the height of church attendance in the 1950s and '60s when, according to the Gallup Organization, 70 percent of Americans belonged to a church.

Although United Lutheran members have no trouble social-distancing in their large worship area, their faith community, like many others in the area, have responded to the changing religious ecology by evolving in many creative ways.

Rev. Dennis Bushkofsky, United Lutheran's pastor said his congregation has adapted by "going from being a congregation that focused primarily on its own programming and was relatively isolated from much of the wider community to that of being in more intentional partnership with others."

The narrative of First United Methodist Church on Oak Park Avenue is similar. Rev. Katherine Paisley, the pastor, acknowledged that her church "has decreased in size significantly from 20 years ago." 

Her faith community has responded by sharing their large facility with Alcuin Montessori School, hanging a Black Lives Matter banner outside the building as a symbol of becoming a stronger voice for justice, and changing worship to featuring a blend of traditional and contemporary hymns.

First Baptist Church, which meets for worship at 820 Ontario, has a large building built in 1921 — 110 rooms to be exact — which is no longer needed to accommodate the activities of its congregation alone, so it has responded to membership decline by hosting other organizations.

The latest and most dramatic has been sharing space with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church after a fire ravaged that congregation's East Avenue building in September 2018.

Rev. John Rumple, meanwhile, rector of Grace Episcopal Church on Lake Street, said, "Like many mainstream denominations, our church has faced the challenges of moving into modern times with a liturgy that is traditional and a Gothic building that is from another age. However, in our theology and practice, we are at the cutting edge of Christianity in terms of not only accepting, but welcoming the Spirit-led leadership of women, LGBTQ people, and racial minorities."

Like many congregations, Grace Episcopal has embraced technology as a way of staying together virtually during the pandemic. Rumple reported that the congregation's worship attendance has actually increased while being online during the shutdown.

River Forest United Methodist Church, like United Lutheran, is the result of mergers — five congregations over the past 129 years from Austin, Maywood, Forest Park, Melrose Park and River Forest. The latest adjustment to changing demographics is its partnership with Urban Village Church.

Two faith communities that have done better than most in their response to changes in society and culture are Good Shepherd Lutheran and St. Christopher Episcopal.

"Good Shepherd," said Pastor Kathy Nolte, "is actually stronger than we were in 2000. In the '80s and '90s, Rev. Jack Finney had built up the congregation from less than 100 people to over 400. In 2000 he retired, and, not surprisingly, when a beloved pastor leaves, the congregation has a period of shrinking. So in 2000 there was a time of decline. We have since rebounded to where it was when Rev. Finney left."

Nolte noted, "Instrumental in the return to strength was an emphasis on children and youth ministries and diversity in worship. More than anything, members were proud of their congregation again and began inviting people."

"After a significant drop a few years into this century," said Eric Biddy, rector of St. Christopher's, "we mostly held steady for about 10 years. In the last five years, we have enjoyed quite a bit of attendance growth and are currently larger than we have been in living memory, though who knows how the pandemic will affect that."

Biddy attributes the growth to a "deep investment in the needs of our neighborhood and continuing adaptation to support faith formation at home, as people in general spend less time in our building than in previous generations."

And Wiggle Worship, a kid-friendly family Mass started by Biddy's predecessor, Rev. Paris Coffey, "has given us a new way to minister to children and their families."

The six Roman Catholic parishes in Oak Park and River Forest have been given a way to respond to declining worship attendance by the Archdiocese of Chicago called Renew My Church, a strategy in which "all 344 parishes in the diocese have been joined into 98 groupings. Within these groupings, parishes will determine opportunities for collaboration and unity following a structured process for discernment, transition, and building a future together."

In Oak Park, for example, St. Giles has been "grouped" with Ascension Catholic Church, and St. Bernardine in Forest Park has been grouped with St. Luke in River Forest.

To explain the decline in worship attendance nationwide, researchers report many Americans have become either disillusioned or dissatisfied with institutions of all kinds. "I am spiritual," they often say, "not religious."

Robert Putnam documents in his classic study titled Bowling Alone, that the Baby Boomer generation "put great emphasis on individualism and tolerance for diversity and rejected traditional social roles. … Throughout their lives they have expressed less respect for authority, religion, and patriotism. Boomers in general are highly individualistic, more comfortable on their own than on a team, more comfortable with values than with rules."

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