“How many of you belong to a church in Forest Park?” I asked the 16 members present at the Chamber of Commerce and Development board meeting last Thursday. No one raised their hand.
Although every single board member had made a contribution to a Forest Park church or a religious fundraiser, like the CROP Hunger Walk, within the last year, none of the entrepreneurs had a committed relationship with a church in our town. Part of the reason is that three-fourths of the board members live outside of our village.
The more I thought about it, however, the more that explanation didn’t satisfy me. They drive here to go to work five or six days a week. Why not come on Sunday, too? The car, after all, knows the way. And what about the 25 percent who live here and worship somewhere else … or stay completely away from faith communities?
I’ve had a foot in both worlds for 27 years. When I came to Forest Park in 1982, the business community was struggling and the church community was doing fine. Chamber of commerce meetings were depressing, while the annual all-village, ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve service could only be held at St. John or St. Bernardine – which had the two biggest worship areas in town – because so many people turned out.
In the last 10 years, the tables have turned. Now it’s the business community that is thriving, while most of the churches are struggling. Even though the current recession is causing a reduction in receipts at local businesses, most are hanging in there. David King, a business real estate agent on the board, reported that Forest Park is doing much better in these challenging economic times than far western suburbs like Plainfield or city neighborhoods like Lincoln Park.
In contrast, of the 15 religious congregations in our village, eight are shrinking in membership – two are dangerously near closing – while only two are growing in any significant way.
I don’t blame the chamber board members for living outside Forest Park or for choosing to worship – or not – somewhere else. Blame is not the point. The point, for me, is to name what is going on and try to make it a shared topic of conversation. The literature on church growth provides some diagnostic suggestions.
Decline of brand loyalty. Something like half of the people who go to church do not worship in the denomination in which they grew up. It’s now a spiritual marketplace in which one congregation is competing against the others for “customers.”
Location, location, location. Several of the church buildings in Forest Park are located on side streets in residential neighborhoods. No savvy entrepreneur would ever set up shop there.
Spiritual, but not religious. Millions of Americans declare that as part of their creed. They are pragmatic. Whatever “works” is what I stick with. In other words, whatever makes me feel better trumps doctrinal coherence.
Individualism. Americans have had an independent streak for centuries.
Of course, it’s one thing for an oncologist to make a diagnosis of liver cancer. It’s another thing for the doctor to come up with a cure.
What I do know is that denial and avoidance almost always makes things worse. The health of our churches affects the health of our community. Let’s keep the subject on the table.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.