When I was reading through the Review last Wednesday, I came across the “Welcome to Worship” section on page 17, and I noticed that only one of the nine congregations that bought space in the section is located in Forest Park.

I understand, of course, that in a bad economy there is less money for advertising.  That’s true for businesses and churches.  But, still, only one out of nine? 

I don’t think the scarcity of local advertising is solely due to lackluster bottom lines.  It’s something more – it’s, dare I use the term, a spiritual issue. And it’s similar to what’s going on or, more precisely, not going on, in the business community.  What I sense, among both merchants and church people, is a kind of depression caused by a feeling of powerlessness (i.e. a feeling that we are up against a force that’s more powerful than we are, sort of like Hurricane Irene).  There’s no way to fight it, so just hunker down and try to survive with minimal damage.

Business owners understand that when us consumers have limited dollars to spend, we have to carefully choose where our money goes.  Not only do we have to decide whether to buy this or that, since we can’t afford both, but we also have to choose where we are going to make our purchases.  That’s one reason our chamber of commerce encourages us to buy local.  Business owners argue correctly that every dollar spent locally is multiplied in the local economy, supporting other businesses and boosting needed tax revenue.

So I wondered if the churches in town should start a worship local campaign.

What follows is not based on any scientific survey, but I’m pretty sure that most merchants on Madison Street not only don’t live in Forest Park, they also probably don’t go to church here – if they go to church at all.  It’s not only the merchants.  Most residents don’t worship here either. 

Now, I can understand why a Forest Park resident might choose to belong to a church in Oak Park, or Chicago, or Barrington.  After all, I sometimes patronize restaurants in other towns.

But, drawing an analogy from Sharon Daly’s column last week on our sewer system, not worshiping locally has some negative, though not always immediately obvious, effects on what I will call our spiritual infrastructure.

Exhibit 1:  “We need more activities for our youth” is a cry often raised in our community.  Each church in town, when it is healthy, provides hours of youth programming every week – youth groups, children’s choirs, vacation Bible schools, summer trips, confirmation classes, Sunday school.  Every person who worships out of town contributes to the erosion of the spiritual infrastructure that supports such programming.

Exhibit 2:  Shortly after 9/11, many residents felt like they had to do something in the wake of the terrorist attacks.  One of the things that brought the whole community together was an event in the park, led mainly by local churches. It allowed many of the residents who came to draw on sources of strength more profound than what mortals alone can muster.

I fear that the spiritual infrastructure that facilitated that event ten years ago has deteriorated.  No wonder there’s more flooding in our spiritual basements.

Exhibit 3:  Most of us – merchants, residents, church members, elected officials -are struggling these days to keep our heads above water.  Where do we go to get the energy to carry on when the economy doesn’t reward the work we do?  For those who don’t see that church can provide that energy, this argument won’t seem plausible. 

But, for those who seek that spiritual fuel in church, but worship outside of Forest Park, there’s a disconnect with the community.  The preaching might be inspiring and the music uplifting, but you’re not sharing it with the people you work and raise your kids with, Monday through Saturday.  The infrastructure is not maintained.

So which needs to come first: the chicken or the egg?  Do congregations need to get their acts together and become more competitive in what has become a spiritual marketplace? A place in which you had better meet people’s perceived spiritual needs or you’ll go out of business because your “loyal customers” won’t be able to keep you viable?

Or, does the onus fall on the people who reap the blessings provided by this town? Those who need to be more committed to investing their time, talent and treasure in the religious communities in this village, and thereby maintaining our spiritual infrastructure.

The answer, in my opinion, is yes.

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.