Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, at 305 Circle Ave., is the village’s oldest congregation and it’s constantly exploring new ways to reach out to its neighbors.

 Organized in 1867, St. John’s ministry was, at first, home to many German immigrants and their descendents for almost a century.  It’s congregation continued to grow, peaking in the 1950s, when, on a good Sunday, attendance could reach 1,200. But, numbers started to decline in the ’60s – the result of demographic changes that began to erode membership levels. Now, Sunday attendance is around 200.

Knowing this downward trajectory could not continue, Pastor Leonard Payton did a demographic analysis of the church’s neighborhood – between Madison Street and the railroad tracks, and Harlem Avenue to Lathrop Avenue – soon after he became St. John’s pastor in March 2010.  What he discovered was density – 5,000 people live within a three-block radius of the church. 

He learned that 52 percent are African American, most households have one or two people, children often live with a single parent, and many residents commute to work on public transportation.  He also found out that the many of the high rises surrounding the church are virtual gated communities.

So, how does a congregation change its ministry focus and meet its “new” neighbors?  “Slowly,” said Pastor Payton, with a commitment to the long haul and with an emphasis on relationships.

Community garden

St. John’s biggest, most visible attempt at connecting with the people living nearby is the community garden they started last spring.

Eighteen garden beds were recently created in a vacant lot that the church owns, just west of their facility. Churchgoers created thirteen of the beds and another five were the work of nonmembers from the community. 

“We wanted that mix,” said Payton, “because we need interaction.”  The $20 “administrative fee” charged for each plot will be returned in November if the plot is left clean.

Pig roast

On June 25, the congregation put on a pig roast in the park-like area where the community garden is located.  Payton estimated that about half the people who attended the free event were nonmembers from the neighborhood.  “That’s exactly what we wanted,” said St. John’s pastor.  “During the four-hour event we wanted unstructured time with people sitting around enjoying each other’s company.”

Paper retriever bin

Sitting in the church parking lot is a dumpster-size container for recycling paper.  Payton said the recycling bin is there to provide a service and to connect with people in the neighborhood.

Little league and the Fleadh

St. John’s has also opened its facility to community groups.  Forest Park Little Leaguers did some of their “spring training” in the church’s gym, and the Irish Fleadh held its evening concert in the sanctuary last summer.  Although both groups made a donation, nothing was charged nor expected.  “Jesus came not to be served but to serve,” Payton said.  “Jesus did that in 30 A.D.  We are his arms and legs in Forest Park today.”

The congregation has had a few of the people participating in these outreach activities visit the church for worship on Sunday mornings, but, thus far, none have joined. “I’m not surprised by that,” Payton said.  “This is slow work.  It’s all about building relationships.” That said, he added, “Twenty years from now this congregation needs to look very different than it is now.”

And that can happen, he affirmed, if the church listens to its neighbors, serve them without expecting a reward and remains committed to the community for the long haul.