St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church was once a German congregation. | File photo

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The cornerstone of the building now owned by St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church reads, “Deutsche Evangelishe Lutheranishe Kirche, 1899.” Today Thai is the principal language spoken at worship and a 50-foot-long mural of the life of Jesus by Thai artist Sawai Chinawong hangs from the balcony below a stained glass window with the words, “Heilige Bibel.”

The changes that have taken place in that building at 7416 Dixon St. are emblematic of how much the religious landscape of Forest Park has changed since the dawn of the 20th century. 

Except in the Methodist Church, which used to be on Adams Street until it burned, German was the language spoken at every worship service 120 years ago in the village then called Harlem. Every congregation in those days belonged to, or was affiliated with, a denomination like Lutheran, Reformed or Northern Baptist. Worship in every sanctuary was formal, if not liturgical, and the pipe organ was the primary instrument. 

In the first decades of the 20th century, three German Lutheran Churches within just five blocks of each other were thriving. St. John Lutheran and St. Bernardine Catholic congregations were both able to maintain elementary schools with hundreds of students enrolled.

Big Changes

The parochial school run by St. Bernardine closed in 2013 and the school started by St. John in 1870 closed in 2007 and now houses a YMCA day care. 

The Presbyterian Church at 848 Ferdinand was purchased 20 years ago by an independent pastor named Tony Davidson, pastor of Chicagoland Christian Center, a nondenominational congregation. Davidson rents his building to two African-American congregations: Rev. Pearly Champion’s Peace, Mercy and Charity Church and Reformation Ministries, pastored by the husband and wife team Andrew and Delores Bell.

The former St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, corner of Hannah and Adams, is now owned by Rev. Maurice Streeter, a Baptist minister, and is also a predominantly African-American church.

First United Church of Christ, which began its life as First German Reformed Church of Chicago and according to its website moved to 1000 Elgin in Forest Park in the 1920s, is now owned by Rev. Dawayne Choice.

What was known as the Thai Christian Church of Chicago took over ownership of the building which had belonged to St. Paul’s Lutheran in 2010 and rents space to an African-American church called Hope Tabernacle, which is pastored by Rev. Bill Teague.

And, of course, Living Word Christian Center, pastored by Rev. Bill Winston who moved his congregation to Forest Park in 1989, has grown from a storefront church on Madison Street to a 20,000-member mega-church that worships in their mega-facility on Roosevelt Road.

What caused all these changes? 

Scholars attribute the transformation of the religious landscape in Forest Park to the same two factors pushing changes all over the country.

One is that mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church have been experiencing a decline in membership and worship attendance for decades. Americans are no longer going to church like they used to.

The Pew Research Center reported that “in 2014, the overall share of Christians in the United States dropped to an all-time low of just 71 percent, down about 7 percentage points from 2007.

The 56 million adults not belonging to any faith tradition [nones] outnumber both Catholics and mainline Protestants; only Evangelical Christians comprise a larger share of the population.”

The other factor is demographics. When it comes to Sunday morning, birds of a feather tend to flock together. Since mainline denominations are mainly white, the increasing racial diversity in Forest Park has contributed to the decline of those congregations who, back in the day, spoke only German in their Sunday services and the increase of African-American churches.

What’s new?

All of the new congregations in Forest Park have memberships comprising primarily African Americans, except for St. Paul Thai whose membership is predominantly Asian.

And all of the new congregations, except for St. Paul Thai, are pastor-centered in terms of authority to one degree or another. Whereas the mainline churches that dominated the scene 130 years ago were all owned by congregations and major decisions were made by the voting members, the new churches are either owned by their pastors or at least have the pastor clearly in charge.

The organ is no longer the predominant musical instrument. St. John Lutheran and St. Bernardine Catholic churches still use their grand old pipe organs to lead hymn singing at worship, but nowadays worship in most churches in town will be led by a “praise team” accompanied by electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drums.

Sermons have gotten longer and the services less formal. In the past, personality was downplayed. Choirs sang from balconies in the rear of the church and members never applauded after the choir’s anthems. Clergy wore robes, which made fashion statements a nonfactor.

Now praise teams are front and center and the expression of emotion in body language is expected. In fact, Living Word has four TV cameras, which are able to project on the two large screens flanking the stage the facial expressions of the preacher and the worshippers.

Many of the new pastors are bi-vocational. Rev. Davidson said that in his many years of ministry he never took a dime from church offerings. He made his living independently, selling cars and other business ventures. Rev. Andrew Bell has a full-time job working for the Chicago Public Schools and Pastor Pongsak pays his personal bills from his salary as director of Asian Ministry with the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Somewhat like small business owners on Madison Street, these pastors are also entrepreneurial. In some cases they are planting new churches, and in other cases they are relocating, but in all cases they are not being supported by denominations. That is, they are not part of a chain like Pizza Hut or Starbucks which serve the exact same product at many locations throughout the country.

That is why, according to Rev. Andrew Bell, three separate congregations get along fine using the same building at 848 Ferdinand. 

“Each of us has a different call from God which he has given to each minister,” he explained. “The body of Christ has many members. We work closely together but maintain our separate identities.”

The one major exception is Forest Park Baptist Church. The congregation, which has been meeting every Sunday for 120 years at its location on Harlem Avenue, has gotten smaller but is nowhere near closing. It has resisted the trend toward racial homogeneity by remaining about equally divided between people of color and whites. And the music at its worship service is a blend of contemporary praise choruses and traditional hymns.