A Church of the Culture

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It had never been Wayne’s idea to start a church. He was a schoolteacher and coach, not a minister. The storefront that he rented just a few blocks from the inner-city Chicago high school where he taught made an ideal apartment for a single male, especially for one who felt called to work with urban young people. His Nautilus weight-lifting equipment was visible through the front street-level window. It was a great place for guys to hang out. Wayne was delighted when several boys on his wrestling team expressed an interest in being part of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes program he wanted to start. His apartment became the meeting place. The apartment proved to be less than ideal for Wayne’s young bride Ann, whom he introduced with manly pride into this tough urban neighborhood. The evening of their wedding day they unloaded their gifts in the apartment and left for a brief honeymoon. Upon their return they discovered that someone had broken into their place and stolen all their wedding gifts. Undaunted, the newlyweds set about preparing the storefront as a suitable home for a couple, keeping plenty of open space for young people to sit around. Wayne continued to pour time and attention into the young men while Ann forged friendships with neighborhood girls who were attracted to the apartment more by the male company than by the adult-led discussions.

In time the seeds that Wayne and Ann planted in the lives of their young friends began to germinate and evidence of new spiritual life began to spring up. The weight-room-turned-living-room became a safe place to share troubles and hurts, and explore questions about values and faith. Friends invited friends and before long the apartment became so packed with kids that Wayne and Ann began scanning for a larger place to have their meetings. They also felt some concern that although the young people seemed genuine in their faith they showed no interest at all in attending church. This prompted a discussion and Bible study on the subject of church.

For several weeks they read scriptures together and considered the purpose and function of church. The Biblical patterns of gathering for worship, of studying and applying scripture, of confessing faults and praying for one another – these were fresh insights for young believers. Church was a community that cared for each other, that reached out to those in need, that encouraged its members to live out their faith in visible and practical ways. These kids were getting it!

When the subject had been thoroughly explored, it was time to decide what church(es) they should join. To Wayne and Ann’s consternation, the group arrived at a nearly unanimous conclusion: this was their church! No, they were not called a church nor were they connected to a denomination (which no one could find in scripture anyway), but they did have a Christian leader and in a lot of ways they were very much like some of the early churches that the Bible described. This was not where the discussion was supposed to lead!

As I said, it had never been Wayne’s idea to start a church. But the sincerity and insistence of his eager friends was difficult to ignore. Certainly much more training would be needed if these youth were to become the founding members of a new congregation. And doubtless more space as well. Eventually and reluctantly Wayne acquiesced.

The word traveled quickly from one friend to another, jocks inviting other jocks, girls chattering at their hall lockers. A church of their own – now that was something to talk about! A few moms even dropped by to see what was happening. Wayne got a lead on an abandoned building nearby that could be picked up for a song, an old car dealership that had plenty of space for meeting as well as all kinds of indoor activities. The roof was not quite high enough for basketball but the boys excitedly offered to dig out the floor to allow adequate height. The faded Lawndale Cadillac sign soon was replaced by a freshly painted Lawndale Community Church sign.

Planning, organizing, electing leaders, deciding on programs, setting meeting times… the next few months were filled with hundreds of first-time decisions for the young congregation. Wayne was relieved to have the support of some his suburban friends and college students to assist in leadership. But as time went on a bit of tension arose over who was supposed to be making the decisions for the church. Some of the youth felt that the outsiders, who were older and had experience in leading worship and running programs, were taking over. And they didn’t like it.

The teenage “elders”, who had been duly elected by their peers, called a closed-door meeting to discuss the situation. It was clear to them that these well-meaning outsiders were reshaping the culture of the church, changing the music, choosing the discussion topics – that sort of thing. If it were going to really be the youth’s church, the elders reasoned, they would have to stay in charge (perhaps with a little support from a few parents or other adults from the community). They then adopted a motion that would set the future direction of the church for decades to come. Their ruling by unanimous vote declared: only residents of the Lawndale neighborhood could belong to Lawndale Community Church.

It could be argued that the motivation behind this momentous decision was less than noble. But one cannot deny that the decision of these naïve young leaders would solidly anchor the ownership and mission of the church in their community. Over time they would begin to understand just how significant their vote had been.

As the church grew, so did the maturity and character of its young members. High schoolers became young adults. Discussions of career and marriage replaced those of sports and dating. Some found jobs in Chicago’s economic mainstream, employment that enabled them, should they choose, to move to better parts of the city. Others set their sights on college and were encouraged by the church to acquire skills needed for leadership in the community. A scholarship fund was established that paid for college tuition with the understanding that students would return each summer to serve as counselors in the church’s youth ministry. For many, the church had become the center of their social, spiritual and now family lives and they were not quick to leave, even as opportunities elsewhere beckoned to them. A vision for transforming their community had been planted within them and they had tasted some of the sweetness of its first fruits.

Outsiders, too, wanted to become part of this now vibrant church, but the membership rule held. They could attend but if they wanted to join, they must move into the neighborhood. A few did. And as the impact of the church grew, more followed their lead. This brought neighbors with resources and connections into the community. A doctor moved in and started a health clinic in the church. Another soon joined him. A real estate developer moved in to help establish a community development corporation to begin fixing up the hundreds of vacant homes that blighted the neighborhood.

With a focus on community transformation, the church spawned an amazing array of ministries, programs and businesses that not only brought new life to the neighborhood but created leadership and career opportunities for young people in the church. The church became the primary source of indigenous leadership for the neighborhood as well as the major catalyst for community revitalization. Today, nearly thirty years after the young “elders” issued their memorable membership edict, Lawndale Community Church through their 600 or so neighbor-members has created a Christian health center that provides nearly 100,000 patient-visits a year, a CDC that has built and refurbished hundreds of homes, recreational and educational ministries that involve hundreds of community youth, small businesses that train and provide jobs for difficult-to-employ young adults, and a growing list of other needed services. Few would deny that it is the Lawndale Community Church that sparked and fueled the dramatic rebirth that is now reclaiming every street and alley in the neighborhood.

One has to wonder: what noticeable impact would have resulted had Wayne held to his original strategy of integrating youth into other established churches? And wonder, too, how different would be this church’s influence on its community had the young elders simply allowed the church to follow the normal pattern of commuter church growth?

Bob Lupton

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