There was good news and bad news in Forest Park’s faith communities during 2011. Here are arguably the top 10 religion stories for this last year:
Living Word Christian Center
Living Word or, more precisely Rev. Bill Winston, continues to be the top story involving Forest Park churches. He came to Forest with 12 people in his congregation 20 years ago and now the membership is – estimates vary – around 16,000. To name the number of ministries going on at Living Word would take the whole page. One subtle shift is that the term Bill Winston Ministries is gradually replacing Living Word Christian Center on their publications.
St. Bernardine turns 100
St. Bernardine Catholic Church celebrated its 100th anniversary all year long, with the highlight being Francis Cardinal George presiding at Mass on Nov. 20.
St. Paul Thai Lutheran
St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church invested over $100,000 in remodeling and updating both the church building and the parsonage, which are located at the corner of Brown and Dixon streets. In the midst of all the renovation, the congregation was still able to send $7,000 to sister churches in Thailand, many of whose members have been devastated by the recent flooding there.
There is amazing ethnic diversity in Forest Park churches. Simbang Gabi, a Filipino Advent Mass, was celebrated in Tagalog on Dec. 20 at St. Bernardine, whose pastor was born in India and whose assistant priest was born in Kenya. New Harvest Christian Center is composed mainly of second-generation Latinos. Services at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church are bilingual – Thai and English, and virtually every congregation is multicultural in composition.
Tolerance of homosexuality
Compared to Oak Park churches, congregations in Forest Park are far more conservative. For example, while four openly gay pastors serve in the village just east of us, only one congregation in Forest Park has a pastor who will say publicly that they don’t consider homosexual behavior a sin. Our village’s pastors in general come down at the place where they don’t consider homosexuality per se to be a sin, but they contend that, according to the Bible, homosexual behavior is not God’s intention for humankind.
St. Peter Lutheran Church was forced because of financial constraints to not have a pastor leading worship every Sunday. The congregation’s pastor, Rev. Audrey Catalano, was commuting once a month to conduct services. St. Peter’s sister church, St. Paul, which closed last year and handed the building over to the Thai congregation which had been sharing space with them. Every church in town over 20 years old has experienced dramatic declines in membership since the 1950s.
Voting with their feet
All of the congregations that have moved into Forest Park in the last 20 years have “entrepreneurial” pastors, i.e. clergy who recognize that Americans are no longer loyal to the denominations in which they grew up and that congregations, whether they like it or not, are in competition with each other for members. Most are also bi-vocational.
Congregations renting space
Many of those entrepreneurial pastors also “rent” space in the church buildings of existing churches. New Harvest worships in St. Peter’s space; Hope Tabernacles uses the building belonging to St. Paul Thai, and Chicagoland Christian Center is the host to New Generations Ministries.
St. John Lutheran Church, the oldest congregation in Forest Park, is making a concerted effort to reach out to their neighbors, many of whom are not white Germans, the ethnic group that founded the big church on Circle Avenue. In 2011, the congregation started a community garden, invited businesses to use their paper recycling bin, and made attempts to welcome neighbors to their annual Boars Head Festival. Their pastor, Rev. Leonard Payton, will sometimes eat his lunch out on the church’s front steps during nice weather as way of connecting with people walking by.
Small can be beautiful. The worship attendance at both Forest Park Baptist Church and New Harvest Christian Center is closer to 100 than to 200, tiny congregations compared to Living Word. Yet there is energy and some growth in both, proving that churches don’t have to be big to thrive in the spiritual marketplace.
Keep up with new postings on my blog at www.oakpark.com/spiritualityethicsreligion
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.