The glory days are in the past for what I will call the “historic churches” of Forest Park.
The Presbyterian Church is gone. The Methodist Church never rose back to life after the fire destroyed the building; but it eventually merged with the Methodist church in River Forest. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church closed last year. Except for the Baptist church, all of the other old timers are far from what they used to be – at least in terms of size.
The reasons are many: the general decline in church attendance in this country; racial change in the community; competition from new, non-denominational congregations, and more.
Another factor is the rise of what I will call “consumer religion.” Many people I talk to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Just like hardly anyone goes to the same restaurant every time they eat out, lots of people these days go to an historic church for their wedding, a Buddhist center in Oak Park for meditation classes, a mega church when they want to get pumped up spiritually, a neighborhood church for their AA meeting.
I contend that the old historic churches laid the religious and spiritual infrastructure of this community and help to maintain it.
The list of churches that host overnight sites for the West Suburban PADS shelter includes two Methodist, four Lutheran, one United Church of Christ, one Presbyterian, one Episcopal, one Catholic, and one Jewish synagogue. Only one site, hosted by Greater Chicago Church, belongs to a congregation that is new to our area.
The 52 congregations that staff the shelter and or prepare meals include a lot of Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Unitarian (etc., etc.) folk, all from congregations which have deep roots in our communities. Of the 52, only one (Vineyard) is a new kid in town. Only one!
In the 24 years that I was a pastor in a small, historic church, I presided over 165 funerals. When I talk to the pastors of the new churches in town, they hardly ever bury a member. That’s partly because the people who join new churches tend to be younger. The historic churches tend to do the heavy lifting when it comes to ministry with seniors.
There is an AA or Al-Anon meeting going on at almost any time of the day or evening in our community. Many of them are in buildings owned and maintained by historic congregations. That’s partly because many of the newer congregations don’t have buildings of their own so they use the older churches for their services and programs.
It’s those old timers – whose values were shaped by the Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement – who maintain the infrastructure that allows many of the newcomers to do their thing. Those values include loyalty, duty, deferring gratification and frugality. Those values have not attracted a lot of new members, but without them it’s really hard to run an organization.
The advantage of the advent of consumer religion is that the spiritual market place now has many choices. The disadvantage is the loss of commitment and community.
When St. Paul’s closed its doors last year, the Thai Community Church took over ownership of the property. The two faith communities had been partners in ministry for eighteen years, though one worshiped in the morning and the other held services in the late afternoon.
The Thai congregation had been generous and grateful – it gave St. Paul’s over $200,000 during those eighteen years to support the upkeep of the building. However, the responsibility of maintaining the property opened their eyes to how demanding the upkeep of a building can be. They spent over $90,000 on repairs and deferred maintenance last year alone – that’s in addition to paying for utilities, janitorial services and supplies.
I don’t know any magic insights on how to turn the fortunes of these historic churches around, but I do know how to say, “Thank you. And, where would I be without you?”
– 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.