When Pastor David Steinhart reflects on the three-decade journey he and members of Forest Park Baptist Church have undertaken together, he often uses the word “challenge.” But with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, what he sees is that each challenge has spawned a blessing.
Soon after arriving at Forest Park Baptist (FPB) in 1985, he and the congregation’s leadership realized the lack of parking at the busy corner of Harlem and Dixon was a problem. That challenge led to the formulation of a dream, which had three parts. Part one involved the purchase of the two houses immediately south of the church building, the razing of those structures and the construction of a large parking lot.
Phase two involved the raising of $400,000 to construct an addition to the church building which was completed in 2014. The new addition includes a double door entrance from the parking lot, an elevator, a foyer that provides a gathering space before worship, ADA-compliant washrooms, and new offices.
Phase three is still in the dream stage: a hoped-for family life center complete with a gym.
What the congregation realized was more parking and a new addition to the building, but more importantly in Steinhart’s view, is the good spirit in the congregation, which made the first two phases of their comprehensive plan possible as well as the enthusiasm created by the visible results of their planning and giving.
A second challenge has been the gradual decline in membership. Worship attendance has shrunk from 131 in 1984 to around 80 today. As membership ages and declines there are financial and morale challenges to deal with. When members move away, there is a sense of loss requiring degrees of grieving. In addition, many voices in the church at large, specifically from the Church Growth Movement, contend that if a church is not growing, it is not healthy.
This criticism can be especially hard on the pastor. Steinhart admitted that he at times has taken the decline in membership personally, but facing such issues has also provided him with the opportunity refocus his relationship with God.
“Slowly,” he said, “I began to realize that the goal of a church growing is wonderful in some ways, but that is not what I was called to do. I was called to pastor, to preach, to care, to serve and to model. And so I eventually came to more of a place of rest with the Lord by ‘dying’ to church-growth dreams.
“Most of our people want to grow in Christ and are serious about their faith,” he explained. “That’s why they come. That’s part of our growing in Christ, part of being a church family. That’s really what drives me.”
What’s more, one of the principles of the Church Growth Movement is the “homogeneous unit,” i.e. if you want to grow, you need a congregation in which everyone looks, talks and thinks alike. That is in direct contradiction to one of FPB’s core values. If you attend worship on any Sunday morning, you will observe that around half of the folks in the pews are white.
A third challenge has been the temptation presented by groups like the Moral Majority to advance a religious agenda through political action. Steinhart said that diversity in the congregation also extends to a variety of views regarding the proper role of government. What FPB’s pastor has been led to firmly believe is that the kingdom of God is not going to be realized on earth through political means.
He articulates his sharpened focus this way: “When one begins to see themselves as being part of the kingdom of God where Christ is the king, whatever country I may live in, my loyalty is to Christ first and to his kingdom, so I’m not putting my trust and hope in a political party or the Supreme Court. I’m seeing that when the church embraces power, it seems to lose Christ.”
The fourth challenge comes from other conservative churches like his own. He sees evangelicals putting too much emphasis on conversion and not enough on discipleship. “Jesus did not preach just about getting our sins forgiven,” Steinhart noted. “He also invited people to follow him.”
He worries that many conservative Christians think that all you have to do is respond to an altar call, give your life to Christ and say the sinner’s prayer, and that takes care of everything. You have a kind of life insurance policy for when you die.
“What I’ve been coming to see,” he said, “is the church of Jesus Christ in the United States — and we fit into that — has been kind of lulled to sleep. We’re sincere, but we’ve lost the edge of proclaiming Christ. We’re very comfortable.”
What is encouraging to the pastor, who has devoted his entire ordained ministry to the people who gather for worship at the corner of Harlem and Dixon every Sunday, is that many of the members seem very wide awake and are serious about their faith.
“I am more excited about being a Christian now than ever,” he said, “especially as I am becoming more aware of how followers of Christ are called to show the world what it is like to live a new-creation life.
“Even though our congregation is facing a number of challenges, I am very hopeful that the Lord will sustain us as He has for these many years.”