The pandemic affected religion in Forest Park as much as it changed the way we relate to friends, family and work. Faith communities in town experimented with services, going hybrid, i.e. partly in person and partly online. As far as I know, all congregations have opened their doors to in-person worship and have tried to mitigate the risk of becoming a super-spreader by mandating social distancing, and/or mask-wearing, and/or registering in advance to enable a limited number of people in the pews, and/or broadcasting the service online.

It looks like most meetings and Bible studies are stilling happening on platforms like Zoom. What is amazing to me is that attendance — virtual plus in-person — for some congregations has not gone down.

Church leaders are asking, “Is virtual worship, at least for some members, here to stay?” The temptation to “go to church” in your pajamas can be attractive. Is there something, however, essential to faith that requires face-to-face participation in a worshiping community?

St. Bernardine partners with St. Luke

Faced with declining worship attendance and money in the offering basket, the Archdiocese of Chicago has paired St. Bernardine Catholic Church here in Forest Park with St. Luke in River Forest to form one parish. Fr. Stan, who was the pastor of St. B, has been named the pastor of the new organizational structure.

St. Bernardine has retained a Saturday evening Mass, but has gone from two to one on Sunday morning.

The Catholic Church, it should be noted, has what is called an ecclesiastical polity, i.e. a decision-making structure which is top-down, as opposed to most Protestant churches which have a congregation polity, bottom-up.

Big transition at St. Paul Thai

The Rev. Dr. Pongsak Limthongviratn, the pastor of the Thai congregation that moved to the white stucco church on Dixon Street in 1992, is retiring after leading the immigrant faith community for 30 years.

Succeeding Rev. Pongsak is a team of two part-time pastors. Rev. David Mercurio, a Caucasian, and Pongtep Chutimapongrat, a Thai, will share the spiritual leadership of the congregation. Mercurio’s day job is an investment banker and Pongtep will work half-time with a ministry in Thailand and half his time in Forest Park.

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hein

After something like a two-year wait, Forest Park Baptist Church finally greeted a new pastor. Rev. Hein is hard to put in a box. He has one degree from a conservative seminary in the South and a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. And his wife is from a family from India who were missionaries in Africa!

Decline of corporate franchise churches, increase of mom-and-pop congregations

If you think of faith denominations as corporate franchises, they are on the decline. Gone are two ELCA, one Presbyterian, one Methodist, and one UCC congregations. And the two remaining — St. Bernardine Catholic and St. John Lutheran, LCMS — have both had to close their schools and shrunk significantly in membership. Forest Park Baptist never had a school but is also smaller than it was 50 years ago.

Replacing them have been what I’ll call “mom-and-pop” churches, which, like many businesses on Madison Street, are independent and small. All have been led or even owned by ministers who are Black or Brown.

The exception is Rev. Bill Winston who pastors two mega-churches, one in Forest Park and one in Tuskegee, Alabama, and owns malls in both towns.

Rev. Bill Teague’s involvement in the community

Since his retirement several years ago, Rev. Bill Teague, the pastor of Hope Tabernacle, has become very active in the community. His biggest commitment is being executive director of the PTMAN (Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network), an organization of Proviso Black pastors “committed to leveraging our influence to bring about rectification to the systemic issues, and to bridge the communications gap between the community, elected of- ficials and those appointed to serve the community by securing resources for the prosperity of the community.”

Out-of-the-box ministers

Lendell Richardson is a medical doctor who is also a part-time minister at St. Bernardine called a permanent lay deacon. David Mercurio is a banker who serves part-time as the Thai church’s pastor. Ron Riley didn’t go to seminary until he retired as a Cook County public guardian. Jeff Russell is a barber by trade who is now going to seminary.

Systemic secularism

The Christian Church is growing south of the equator, but in Europe and North America it is experiencing a steep decline, as Western culture becomes increasing secular. The decline in attendance and giving in area churches explains in part the increase in out-of-the-box ministries and the decrease in denominational franchises.

Housing Forward changes models

Housing Forward isn’t a church organization per se, but if it weren’t for the thousand volunteers who come mostly from area churches, the nonprofit would cease to exist. The old model, which worked for decades, included churches and a synagogue rotating as overnight sites and volunteers from faith communities serving meals and setting up the sites. Now with a single site model, Housing Forward needs volunteers to reframe how they serve.

Justice, prosperity, and a personal relationship with God

Granted, this is an oversimplification, but conservative churches tend to focus on a person’s personal relationship with God, liberal churches tend to emphasize a concern for justice, and Living Word Christian Center is known for emphasizing prosperity. In practice it’s more complicated than that, of course, but still the distinctions are helpful.