Can One Church Reach Every Neighborhood in Chicago?
Published on 11/20/2012
by Warren Bird
If Park Community Church in downtown Chicago, IL, was going to achieve its mission of helping transform the surrounding 200-plus micro-neighborhoods, the church’s leadership team had an ego-swallowing hurdle to clear. They had to be willing to give up imprinting their church’s name on what they did.
As the young, affluent congregation founded an organization that partners with other churches, community development agencies, schools and non-profits for the common good of the city, they named it simply Renew Chicago. They also renamed one of Renew Chicago’s original components, a city-wide service project started by Park Church from “Park Service Day,” which was named after themselves, to a broader “For One Chicago”—an event that draws hundreds across the city for transformational service projects.
“As churches, we can be territorial,” says Jackson Crum, lead pastor of the multisite Park Community Church. “Sadly, we all want something that’s good to be our idea. But to renew our city we had to give that up and see where we could find common ground with other churches and organizations.
“We decided if we need the credit in order to be engaged, it’s too much about us,” he explains. “If we need to put our name on it to be engaged, it’s too much ours.”
Park Church did more than remove its name from the initiative it founded. It also shares leadership and decision making with others. It’s not afraid to take a back seat—on stage or in the planning stage. As it hosts planning sessions and other summit meetings with Renew Chicago participants, it invites other churches and organizations to take positions of leadership.
“It’s an old saying, but you can get a lot done if you don’t care who gets the credit,” Jackson says. “That attitude really resonates with our young crowd. They’re all for getting it done vs. getting the credit. It’s something we graciously backed into, but it’s become part of our language and part of our culture.”
While Renew Chicago is funded and staffed by Park Church, they work extensively with other Chicagoland congregations, including The Moody Church and Trinity United Church of Christ (President Barack Obama’s former church) – anybody who has an interest in renewing Chicago.
Mike Rolfes, Director of Renew Chicago, talks about the vision and some of the programs used to renew and revitalize the city.
“Renew Chicago evaluates everything by whether it builds the goodness/greatness of the city, and whether it can truly be life transformational,” Jackson says. “Turning a ‘C’ student into an 'A’ student is transformational. Moving someone from the welfare rolls to the tax rolls is transformational.”
This means sorting through ideas from better to best. “Giving a kid a backpack to replace the perfectly good one he already has is not too transformational,” says Jackson. “A free barbecue for the neighborhood... not so much! There’s nothing particularly wrong with that kind of generosity. It’s just not what Renew does.”
On the education front, Renew Chicago began a “C2A” program to combat an 80% failure rate among eighth-grade graduates of a local grammar school. They host a lunch for the teachers each year and place teacher aids in the classrooms as well as raise money for uniforms for students who cannot afford them. “We become friends with the teachers, encourage the teachers, and pray for and with the teachers,” Jackson adds. “You save who you can, living with the uncomfortable knowledge that you can't save them all.”
An enthusiastic group of volunteers painting at the Garfield YMCA childcare center.
Rather than start its own school to shore up education in the city, Renew Chicago leaders worked with a charter school organization to start a new, innovative high school. Renew Chicago championed an under-resourced area of the city as an ideal place for the school, connected charter school leaders to stakeholders in the neighborhood, gave the group space to hold open houses and hosted teacher training.
“Student attendance and parental satisfaction is off the charts,” Jackson says. “The school is racially and economically diverse, and every teacher re-upped to come back for year 2. All signs are that this school will succeed. The dream is that the school will be strong enough that the resourced and under-resourced alike will want to send their kids there.”
About one fourth of Park Community Church attendees are involved with Renew Chicago—ranging from an annual day of service to more frequent engagement such as ongoing activities that involve a weekly or monthly commitment. Renew has a part-time paid executive director, but each director under that person is an unpaid volunteer and serves as the “CEO” over a particular area.
For instance, the Director of Education oversees tutoring, relationships with partnering schools, and represents Renew’s voice to outside stakeholders in the education space. The Director of Economic/Cultural Renewal administers a worker training partnership, as well as encouraging entrepreneurs to design sustainable businesses that either employ or benefit low-income Chicagoans.
A Director of Neighborhood Impact challenges congregations to influence the neighborhoods where they live and worship. The Director of Leadership Development helps Christians in the city view their workplaces as outlets to glorify God in their day-to-day encounters, and how their acquired skills can be used to help other not-for-profits accomplish their goals.
“In practice, it's lay-led, as each lay director decides which partnerships to pursue, and each congregant decides how they want to plug in,” Jackson says.
A group of volunteers predominatly from the Near South Park Community Church campus cleaning out the garden at the Tarkington School of Excellence in Marquette Park.
Being Multisite Helps
Park Church’s recent multisite focus—the church currently has four (soon to be six) locations around the city —has accelerated and enhanced the work of Renew Chicago.
For instance, the church’s original Lincoln Park location doesn’t suffer from chronic unemployment. But massive job loss and unemployment around its River North location (next to the famed Cabrini Green low-income housing projects) made worker training a priority. Instead of creating a new program, Renew partnered with the Cara Program started by a Catholic group.
“They were doing a remarkable job, but nobody knew about them,” Jackson says. “Instead of competing with them, we send clients from the neighborhood who can move from dependency to independency. And we can help Cara by bringing our giftedness, our youthful energy in volunteering, our networking to help their clients find work, and yes, our finances.”
A recently launched Park Church campus in Forest Glen is presenting its own challenges as the first Park location where most attendees are married, and several people in the congregation “enter church with a walker,” Jackson says. “Again, we are being stretched in ways we never would have otherwise. And obviously, this has implications for the work we ask Renew Chicago to do in support.”
More Than a Network of Churches
Renew Chicago works with multiple collaborating agencies to oversee community development programs and initiatives that are meeting major needs in education, housing, job and economic development and citizenship.
With its wide array of partnering people and organizations, Jackson adds that Renew Chicago “gives the church the ability to be in conversations and work with disparate groups, Christian or otherwise.”
“I probably can't name too many groups that belong both to the Executives Club of Chicago and the Christian Community Development Association,” he adds. “We talk to the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as Operation Push. We work in banks, ad agencies, homeless shelters and dimly-lit church basements. Perhaps this approach enables Renew Chicago to have conversations that individual churches can't directly have.” he explains.
All the while, Renew Chicago is multiplying the city-changing efforts of Park and other churches.
“Renew Chicago helps us develop the expertise and farsightedness to recognize the issues that will be unique to different geographic and demographic areas of a great and varied city,” Jackson says. “Renew Chicago serves churches by seeing around the corner and bringing knowledge and know-how that makes the overall church more effective in both demonstrating and voicing the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Warren Bird, Ph.D., research director at Leadership Network, with background as pastor and seminary professor, is author or co-author of 24 books for ministry leaders including Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work with Jim Tomberlin. His most recent title is Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller. Some of Warren’s recent online reports include “The Heartbeat of Rising Influence Churches,” “Pastors Who Are Shaping the Future” and “A New Decade of Megachurches.” Follow him on Twitter @warrenbird