Locally and nationally, older congregations are experiencing sometimes dramatic dips in attendance during worship services while class sizes in their affiliated schools shrink. St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which recently turned its classrooms over to outside agencies, is among those affected.
In church circles, a resistance to change is often blamed for the losses, hence the standing joke among pastors that the seven last words of the church are, “We never did it that way before.” But at this Circle Avenue institution, which finished its first year of teaching under the new partnership on Friday, they’re attempting to prove that old schools can indeed learn new tricks.
After several years of agonizing over what to do with a K-8 day school that was losing money, St. John’s voted to close its school last year after a run of 137 years. Likewise, neighboring Oak Park Christian Academy was in “a real bind,” according to OPCA board member Rev. David Steinhart. Meanwhile, administrators at the Walther Lutheran High School in Melrose Park had already watched two feeder schools close, and decided they couldn’t risk seeing St. John’s shuttered.
It was at this critical juncture that the Walther Association, which runs Walther Lutheran High School, decided to try something new. Don Gillingham, the Walther Association’s executive director, encouraged a partnership with the Forest Park church, the Oak Park academy and Concordia University in River Forest.
The buck, however, stops with the Walther Association, which is bearing the biggest share of the administrative load. Steve Zielke is now the principal of the academy as well as continuing to function in the same role at Walther Lutheran High School. As all the tuition and fees are collected by Walther, so too, are the bills.
The primary reason for the existence of Christian day schools is, of course, the desire to pass on the faith to the next generation. Everyone in the coalition knew that was going to be perhaps the greatest challenge for the new school, because significant differences exist between how Lutherans at St. John’s and parents of OPCA students worship.
“The similarities we have between Oak Park Christian Academy and Walther are strong enough that we can center on those things we agree on,” Zielke said. “We will disagree on baptism. There are times in the classroom when we’ll say ‘You need to talk to your parents or the pastor of your church about how you believe. Here’s what we believe.'”
OPCA has taught what is called a decision or baptistic theology while St. John’s believes in infant baptism. In terms of worship, St. John’s is more liturgical and formal whereas OPCA has been more informal or low church.
Margaret Smith, an eighth-grade teacher at Walther Academy, said she was turned on by the idea of creating an educational community in which different faith traditions were included.
“The blending of students from many Christian theological backgrounds is exciting to me,” Smith said. “I have made it my business to learn as much as I can about the differences in theological points of view, so that I can acknowledge this as I teach religion classes.”
Linda Johnson, who teaches third- and fourth-grade, acknowledged that there have been “collisions and eruptions” in the school’s attempt to create a new community with a new culture. The positive effect of these tensions, she said, was to force everyone to examine their assumptions.
“We all now know and understand more about our own religious traditions and faith experiences as well as those of others,” Johnson said. “We have worked together to achieve a balance that is acceptable and respectful of the variety of ways faith can be expressed and practiced by Christians in the world today.”
Many of the graduating eighth-grade students interviewed for this report echoed the thoughts of their teachers, although they tended to respond more concretely in terms of making friends and what they liked and didn’t like about changes in worship and homework. Jacob Trader reacted to the prospect of being part of a new school much like his teacher, Smith.
“I thought it would be great meeting new friends,” Trader said.
Jadalyn Hayworth remembered thinking that “there’d be a lot of new kids, and I didn’t know what they would think of me since they hadn’t known me.”
Brianna Hester said she had her doubts about the assimilation, but is happy with the end result.
“Last year I was thinking about losing all my friends,” Hester said. “When I came here I was looking around and was kind of confused. Am I going to meet new friends? How is everybody going to react? We had our ups and downs, but it turned out OK.”
When it came to blending two different styles of worship, many Walther Academy students recalled feeling ambivalent, at least at first. Speaking from the St. John perspective, Hayworth said the break from tradition can be difficult.
“Last year church services were a little more formal,” Hayworth said. “It was more, like, professional, but this year it’s more open-ended and like, more liberal. It’s like, do what you want to do. Sometimes it’s good, because you reach a new set of people, but sometimes it’s bad, because it’s hard to adapt to a new set of traditions.”
Patrick Wright described his encounter with a more liturgical style of worship by saying, “This year there’s been different things like responsive readings. I’ve never done that stuff so I didn’t know what it was and what to do. Now at the end of the year I’ve adapted more to it. It’s not that much different than what I did. It’s still practicing the same religion and it’s mostly the same.”
Sam Jones agreed with his classmate, and said that he, too, changed his attitude over the course of the year.
“Some of the stuff [in chapel] I didn’t do before … but you have to be open minded and think about those things that make up Christianity before you judge them,” Jones said. “That was a good thing, because it made you realize that when it goes up, God hears it and it’s still praise.”