Home Christian News For a Small Chicago Church, Closing Down Was an Act of Faith

For a Small Chicago Church, Closing Down Was an Act of Faith

Right before the pandemic, Grace was drawing about 40 people, said longtime church member Steve Dawson, a former denominational leader. Dawson said that churches in Grace’s denomination had declined by an average of 31% during COVID-19.

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Added to the decline at Grace was a sense of weariness, he said.

“People did not get a sense that Grace was going anywhere,” Dawson said.

Along with the broader trend of decline facing churches, Grace experienced its own challenges. In recent years, students who had once flocked to Grace had found other churches to worship in, or did their education back home rather than moving to Chicago. Young people who had grown up in the church moved away and there were fewer families with children left.

COVID-19 also took its toll. Some church members, now free to work from home, had moved away to be closer to family. And for more than two years, the church worshipped in small groups while gathering occasionally for Sunday service.

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

But the second year of the pandemic took its toll. Church members longed to be back together but wanted to keep people, especially older members, safe from COVID-19. Some church leaders wondered if meeting in smaller groups might be a way to reinvent the congregation’s ministry for the future.

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In the end, the congregation could not find a way forward they could all agree on.

“When you are a small congregation you have to move forward together,” she said.

As a pastor, Olson felt an urgency to help the church reinvent itself. But she also wanted to care for the people in the church who were worn out. Eventually, the congregation voted to close and to give its resources to their denomination, to be used to start new churches.

The decision was painful, even if they agreed it was the right thing to do.

For years the congregation has seen itself as a sending church — a place where aspiring pastors and missionaries had been nurtured and trained before leaving for other ministries. Church members knew the students and former members were going out to do great things. But they were missed.

“Every time somebody left, it hurt,” Dawson said. “This is different — this is everybody leaving. We are the ones being sent.”

Among those who spent years at Grace was the Rev. Tammy Swanson-Draheim, who was recently elected president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, Grace’s home denomination.

Swanson-Draheim preached her first sermon at Grace while in seminary, at the invitation of then-pastor Deb Gustafson. Before coming to Grace, Swanson-Draheim had served at a church but never saw herself as a senior pastor. But that changed while at Grace, where Gustafson was a “gracious and winsome leader” who set an example of what a woman pastor of a thriving congregation could be, said Swanson-Draheim.

She also got to see what ministry in action looked like.

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“You got to experience the joy of being a part of it,” she said.

During Sunday’s service — part celebration, part commemoration — Olson told the congregation that the mission of Grace was not ending, even though the church had closed. She said the church could have “buckled down and anted up” and fought to survive for a few more years. But the congregation was tired and weary, she said, and wanted more than survival.

The church property will be sold, she reminded church members, and the funds from that sale would go to help other ministries in the community and to start new congregations.

“This is not failure,” said the Rev. Danny Martinez, a denominational leader who will oversee the sale of the property. He said there were already five new congregations waiting for funding in the area, and the sale would help bring them to life.