How Can A Small Church Impact The Community

How Can A Small Church Impact The Community – 1 in 5 rev. Amanda Olson speaks during a funeral service at Grace Evangelical Covenant Church, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022, in Chicago. “Everybody thinks churches are going to close,” said Olson, longtime pastor of Grace Covenant Church on Chicago’s North Side. “But no one thought it would be their church.” (Bob Smietana/Religious News Service via AP) 1 of 5 Rev. Amanda Olson speaks at a funeral service at Grace Evangelical Covenant Church on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022, in Chicago. “Everybody thinks churches are going to close,” said Olson, longtime pastor of Grace Covenant Church on Chicago’s North Side. “But no one thought it would be their church.” (Bob Smithana/Religion News Service via AP)

CHICAGO (RNS) — Like many pastors across the United States, Rev. Amanda Olson has one eye on the Bible and the other eye on the landscape of religious evolution.

How Can A Small Church Impact The Community

How Can A Small Church Impact The Community

“Everybody thinks churches are going to close,” said Olson, longtime pastor of Grace Covenant Church on Chicago’s North Side. “But no one thought it would be their church.”

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This content was written and produced by Religion News Service and distributed by The Associated Press. RNS and AP share some religious news content. RNS is solely responsible for this story.

For more than a century, the small congregation at Monticello and Berto avenues in Chicago has stood firm, ready to embrace the many changes that have come its way. In the early 1900s, the church switched from Swedish and began worshiping in English in order to be more welcoming to the younger generation. When the church building burned to the ground on the morning of January 28, 1940, the members gathered in the parsonage across the street the next day and decided to rebuild.

In the 1960s, when the congregation, then known as the Irving Park Covenant Church, dwindled to just a handful of people, it merged with another smaller church and relaunched as Grace. Another revival took place in the late 1990s, when the then-aging congregation, fearing the church would be closed, welcomed a young pastor and a group of young families who helped them find a new life.

In those years, the church was always a welcoming place. When a small Hispanic church led by a former Chilean political prisoner and his wife needed a place to worship, Grace welcomed the group. When young Sudanese came to Chicago from refugee camps and needed help with resettlement, the church welcomed them. they too.

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More than ten years ago, the church started Fed by Grace, a food pantry that became a lifeline for the community, working with church members and neighborhood volunteers. And for years, the church was for the students of the nearby seminary, a place where they could find community and enjoy real-life ministry.

The church has never been larger – at its peak it held about 175 people. It was never perfect, but it was a place full of life and love and grace.

All good things come to an end though. Last Sunday, August 28, was the final church service.

How Can A Small Church Impact The Community

In early August, church leaders sent a letter with news that was difficult to receive but not unexpected. “We regret to inform you that our congregation has voted to close the church,” they wrote.

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A 2021 study by LifeWay Research, based on data from three dozen denominations, found that 4,500 churches closed in 2019, while only 3,000 opened.

According to a study by Faith Community Today, 20 years ago the average congregation in the United States was 137 people. Today, that number is 65, or about the size of Grace.

When a church gets this small, there are enough people to get things done—to lead worship, teach Sunday school, greet, volunteer in ministries like food pantries—but by a slim margin. And there aren’t enough people to spend the time and energy needed to create new things.

Before the pandemic, Grace attracted about 40 people, said longtime church member Steve Dawson, a former church leader. Dawson said grace denomination churches have experienced an average 31% drop during COVID-19.

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Along with the broader trend of church decline, Grace experienced its own challenges. In recent years, students who once attended Grace have found other churches to worship at or returned home to Chicago instead. Young people who grew up in the church were moving away, and there were fewer families with children.

Covid-19 has also taken its toll. Some church members, now free to work from home, have moved to be closer to family. And for more than two years, the church worshiped in small groups and occasionally gathered for Sunday service.

“The first year was great,” Olson said. “We have more people coming to worship in small groups than before the pandemic.”

How Can A Small Church Impact The Community

But the second year of the epidemic had its consequences. Church members wanted to get back together but wanted to keep people, especially elderly members, safe from COVID-19. Some church leaders have wondered if meeting in small groups might be a way to reinvent congregational service for the future.

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As a pastor, Olson felt an urgency to reinvent the church. But he wanted to take care of those who were tired in the church. Ultimately, the congregation voted to close and give its resources to its denomination to be used to start new churches.

For years the congregation considered itself a sending church—a place where aspiring pastors and missionaries were nurtured and trained before moving on to other ministries. Church members knew that students and former members were doing great things. But they lost.

“Anytime someone leaves, it hurts,” Dawson said. “It’s different – it’s all going away. We’re the ones being sent.”

Among those who spent years at Grace were Rev. There was also Tammy Swanson-Dream, recently elected president of the Grace Chambers Evangelical Covenant Church.

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Swanson-Dreheim gave her first sermon at Grace Seminary at the invitation of Pastor Deb Gustafson. Before coming to Grace, Swanson-Dreheim served churches but never saw herself as a senior pastor. But while at Grace, Gustafson was a “loving and winning leader” and an example of a woman pastor of a progressive congregation, Swanson-Drheim said.

During Sunday’s service — part celebration, part memorial — Olson told the congregation that even though the church is closed, the mission of grace is not over. He said the church “stopped and moved” and struggled to survive for a few more years. But the community was tired and fed up, he said, and wanted more than survival.

Church property will be sold, he reminded church members, and the money from the sale will be used to support other ministries in the community and establish new congregations.

How Can A Small Church Impact The Community

“It’s not a failure,” Rev. said Danny Martinez, a community leader overseeing the sale of the property. He said there are already five new congregations waiting for funding in the area, and the sale will help bring them to life.

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For Olson and the congregation, the day was full of joy and tears. There are video tributes from former priests and seminarians who once called the church home and stories of church services over the years. In the conversations before and after worship, worshipers had Revelation. Say hello to old friends like Stuart McCoy and his wife, Holly, who helped revive the church in the 1990s, and remember congregants like Nina Larson, who addressed the 90-year-old crowd. The members of the church talked about how he attended the church all his life – he came to the church when he was still a child in the womb.

Larson, the ninth of nine children, often recalls the story of the church fire in the 1940s, saying it was the biggest event in the congregation’s history because nearly the entire neighborhood came to see what happened.

During the service, Olson reminded his worshipers of all they have to be thankful for — and told them God doesn’t work with them.

“No one wants to close the church,” he said. But closing, though difficult, was the right thing to do. The death of the church is not the end of the story, he assured the congregation.

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“The truth is, friends, we cannot experience resurrection without the courage and the courage to face death,” he said.

Editor’s note: Bob Smithena, RNS national writer, was a longtime member of Grace Covenant Church. He writes about the church in his new book, Religion Reorganized. How the coronavirus pandemic has changed worship Some people say they are more connected to their faith, while others may drift away.

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