“Should I Not be Concerned about that Great City?” Why We are Staying in Oak Park
September 21, 2003
It was an exciting time to be alive.
The year was 1915, and change was in the air. So many things were happening all at once. Armies marched across Europe, meeting in the deadly combat of World War I. America was about to become a superpower. In Russia, Lenin plotted his revolution. Germany torpedoed the British liner Lusitania. Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity. Closer to home, a telephone circuit from New York to Denver was completed, with the cost of a three-minute call estimated at $21. The Boston Red Sox beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series, four games to one. Booker T. Washington died that year. Ernest Hemingway was a sophomore at Oak Park High School.
People born that year would shape the 20th century: Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, playwright Arthur Miller, actor Orson Welles, the future star of Bonanza-Lorne Green, jazz singer Billie Holliday, Israeli general Moshe Dyan, and Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman. The top musical hits included such notable songs as, “You Can’t Mend a Broken Heart,” “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary,” and the ever-popular, “I Wish I Was An Island In An Ocean Of Girls.” The world was changing, moving, evolving, passing rapidly into the modern era.
Unnoticed in the great swirl of world events, unnoticed even by their friends and neighbors, a small group of men and women gathered at the home of Mr. Walter Bretall in Oak Park for the purpose of establishing a new non-denominational church. They came from five different local churches, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational and Lutheran. For six weeks the little band met together, discussing how and when such a church might come into being. On March 21, 1915 the infant church held its first Sunday service at the home of Mr. John McCarrell. On April 11 the first meeting of the Sunday School was held in a rented Chinese laundry at 944 Madison Street. Soon after that Mr. Louis Talbot, recently graduated from Moody Bible Institute, accepted the call as the first pastor of the Madison Street Church. Twenty years later the name would be changed to Madison Street Bible Church, and a little over two decades later, to Calvary Memorial Church.
Eighty-eight years have passed since those humble beginnings. Back then there were perhaps 30 people; today over 2,000 people are part of our church family. The church started with $100; this year our total giving to all causes will top $2 million. But numbers and dollars do not tell the whole story. The tradition handed down from the founders remains with us today. We are still an independent, evangelical, non-denominational church committed to the clear teaching of the Word of God, to aggressive evangelism and to taking the gospel, through world missions, to the ends of the earth. Although our methods have changed, the underlying commitment is the same.
One thing that has not changed is the faithfulness of God. Psalm 145:4 says, “One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.” If the founders could return to Calvary today, they would marvel at what God has done. But they would not be surprised that God has done it.
When Elisabeth Teiwes died earlier this week, she was almost 92 years old. I had the privilege of speaking at her funeral service. As long as she was able, she came to church every Sunday, sat near the front, and always came through the line after the service to greet me. I can’t forget her because she was deaf. She came to church every Sunday even though she couldn’t hear the music or the sermon. I loved her because when she greeted me, she would shake my hand and say, “Good to see you. Nice sermon,” even though she hadn’t heard a word of it. When I spoke with the family, they told me that Mrs. Teiwes and her late husband started attending our church 60 years ago. After the funeral, her son David sent me a note that read in part,
With my mom’s passing, this may be the severance of the Teiwes’ family approximately 60-year participation in Calvary’s legacy before Christ’s return. It was a great foundation our family received when we went there which is still emanating from me today. God’s continued blessings on your involvement at Calvary and hope that it will be a long one. From what I hear, Calvary is being richly blessed because it has never lost its focus of bringing honor and glory to Jesus Christ. Don’t ever let that change!
I have told you before, and I say it again today, that we have not changed the doctrinal statement that was handed down to us from the founders of this church. We still believe today exactly what they believed in 1915. By God’s grace, we will continue to preach the gospel until Jesus returns.
I received an e-mail from someone who attended last Sunday for the first time and who knew very little about our church. This is what he writes:
My wife and I attended Calvary Memorial last Sunday and were surprised at the size and vitality of the church. The old, downtown churches are supposed to be withering on the vine; you are doing the very reverse. Was there some seminal change as a switch in denominational affiliation, which may have caused this?
I was happy to tell him the answer—that we are and have always been an independent congregation, committed to teaching the Bible, preaching the gospel, and winning the lost. That’s how we started in 1915 and that’s what we’re all about today. In the things that matter most, nothing has changed at all in 88 years.
An Oak Park Church
But there is a related fact that is very important for our purposes today. We have always been an Oak Park church. We were born in Oak Park 88 years ago and we have always been in Oak Park—through the teens, the roaring 20s, the depression years of the 30s, through World War II in the 40s, the “I Love Lucy” era of the 50s, into the turbulent 60s, through the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and now into the early years of the 21st century. Oak Park is in our congregational DNA. This is where we started, it’s our hometown, this is where we grew up, and it’s where we are today. For better or worse, we’re not a Berwyn church, a Chicago church, an Oak Brook church, an Elmhurst church, or a Park Ridge church. We’re part of Oak Park and Oak Park is a part of us.
In recent years as our congregation has grown, we have had numerous opportunities to consider whether or not to stay here. Frankly, things are awfully crowded at 931 Lake Street. We don’t have enough parking, we don’t have enough green space, our sanctuary isn’t large enough to hold us all, and we need more classroom space, especially for children and youth. And that’s why this morning we will hold four worship services back to back. Because of our crowded situation, we’ve been thinking about our long-range growth plans. Several years ago we had to shelve plans to build a larger sanctuary on the east parking lot. Last year we sent out scout teams to consider a wide variety of options. We asked one team to consider relocating the church. That means selling our property and moving to larger quarters elsewhere, which almost certainly means moving out of Oak Park. The team spent hundreds of hours and looked in detail at dozens of possible locations in Chicago and in the western suburbs. They concluded that relocation is not a viable option at this time.
The elders prayed over all the scout team reports and came to several conclusions. The most important one is this: We plan to stay in Oak Park for the foreseeable future. There are no plans to relocate outside of Oak Park. And that’s one reason we are renovating our current facility. We plan to leave a legacy in Oak Park that we can hand down to future generations. If we were planning to leave soon, we wouldn’t do this project. We’re doing it because we plan to stay. And that’s why we’re asking you to make a commitment next Sunday. We’re going to be here for a long time to come so we better fix up the church and make the most of what God has given us.
Staying is the Hard Thing
I want you to know that I think this is the right decision. I believe God gave us a call to Oak Park 88 years ago, and he has never revoked that call. That’s not to say that God might not lead us elsewhere in the future. He could, and if he does, we’ll happily move wherever God leads us. But it is my conviction that the call given in the beginning still stands today, and that’s why we are still here.
But there is more that needs to be said. Even though this decision is the right one, it is not easy to make. In some ways, moving would be easier. Staying is the hard thing to do. There are times when I look at those suburban churches with 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 acres of land, with 2,000-seat sanctuaries, with tons of parking, with gleaming new educational buildings, with grass and trees and ball fields, with all the bells and whistles of modern technology, and yes, sometimes I covet my neighbor’s church. Let the record show: I don’t want his donkey or his wife, but there are days when I wouldn’t mind having his church.
But here we are, all crowded together, 1,400 of us packed onto a little postage-stamp piece of property in Oak Park. It’s not easy doing church like this. And if we stay here, it’s not going to be easy in the future either. We will continue to be crowded, parking will always be hard to find, we’ll have to schedule multiple services, and our neighbors will complain when the junior highers make too much noise. Not to speak of the fact that we haven’t been able to buy so much as a square inch of adjoining property in all the years we’ve been here. Not to mention that Oak Park is becoming more urbanized all the time. And this is a liberal community and we are the largest evangelical church in town. And we are exceedingly outspoken about what we believe. (We don’t plan to change that, by the way.)
A Church of Sacrifice
So what kind of church are we anyway? Several years ago while speaking at Word of Life Florida, I met a pastor from a town in Florida. He asked about Calvary, and so I began to describe our ministry. After listening intently for a few minutes, he said, “You’ve got a church of sacrifice.” “Why do you say that?” I asked. His explanation was simple. “It isn’t easy to come to your church. It’s in the middle of a major metropolitan area, and it’s not located next to a freeway. You’re all hemmed in by buildings, you don’t have much parking, and you’re crowded all the time. Yet the church continues to grow and the people continue to come. There must be something special happening at your church that causes people to sacrifice so much to be there. They could go to lots of other churches in Chicago, but they choose to come to Calvary. It’s not easy or convenient to come to your church, but they come anyway. It’s a sacrifice. It costs people something to go there.” Then he told me a story.
Many years ago he founded a new church in a large city in the South. He did it the old-fashioned way—by going door to door, winning people to Christ one by one. They met at first wherever they could—in rented halls, schools, any place they could find. It wasn’t easy but the Lord blessed and the church grew. The people longed for their own building and their own property, with plenty of parking and lots of green space for the kids. So they saved money for years, and eventually God gave them their dream—a large piece of property, a new sanctuary, new buildings—it was all their own. It was wonderful. They weren’t crowded anymore. They didn’t have to set up and take down chairs every Sunday. Life was easier. And the preacher said, “We lost something along the way. We gained comfort and convenience but we lost the spirit of sacrifice that had made the church great. Oh, it was still a good church, but the spirit of sacrifice was gone. And once it’s gone, it’s hard to get it back.” The moral of the story is not, don’t ever move to a bigger place with nicer facilities. No, it’s not wrong to do that. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do. The moral is, be thankful for what God has given you right now. Don’t spend so much time dreaming about what you don’t have that you become unhappy with what you already possess. Too much dreaming about tomorrow can drain your joy today. This is a principle that cuts across all of life. Said another way, the moral is, realize the blessings that come with the problems you face. God has given us something special here. We should rejoice in what we have right now.
Here we are—in the center of Oak Park, in the middle of Chicago, in the heart of America. We’re at the geographic center of eight million people. Oak Park is a tiny island floating in a teeming sea of humanity. What amazing opportunities God has given us. In the future we may plant churches, establish branch campuses, start a Saturday night service, do video services, and we may enter partnerships with churches in the city in order to reach more people for Christ. We don’t plan to leave, by God’s grace we intend to remain faithful to the call given to us 88 years ago.
“Go to Nineveh”
And so I come at last to my text—the final verse of Jonah. I’m sure you remember the story. God called Jonah to preach to the city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians had a reputation for cruelty that is hard to fathom in our day. Their specialty was brutality of a gross and disgusting kind. When their armies captured a city or a country, unspeakable atrocities would occur. Things like skinning people alive, decapitation, mutilation, ripping out the tongues, making a pyramid of human heads, piercing the chin with a rope and forcing prisoners to live in kennels like dogs. Ancient records from Assyria boast of this kind of cruelty as a badge of courage and power. It would be accurate, I think, to call them the Nazis of their day. It would also be fair to say that everyone feared and hated the Assyrians. Naturally (and understandably) Jonah hated the Assyrians and wanted nothing to do with them. So he decided to flee to Tarshish (which was the opposite direction from Nineveh). But God prepared a great fish that swallowed him alive and spit him up on the beach three days later. God renewed his call to Jonah and he obeyed the Lord this time. He went to Nineveh, preached, and the whole city repented. That’s no exaggeration. The entire city—from the king on down—repented and cried out for mercy. God heard their cry and relented of the punishment he had threatened against them. This made the people happy—and it made Jonah very angry. So he went outside the city and pouted for a while. Jonah 4 is the story of his dialogue with God. Essentially Jonah says, “I knew you would pardon them, and I’m angry about it.” He had hoped they wouldn’t repent so God would destroy them and they could burn in hell. So now he’s angry with God for showing mercy to wicked sinners. If you skip to the end of the story, you find that God asks Jonah a question. (Did you know that Jonah is the only book in the Bible that ends with a question?) “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11). We learn some interesting facts from this verse:
1) God knows all about the city.
2) He calls it a “great” city.
3) He knows how many people are in the city.
4) He sees their spiritual confusion.
5) He notices the economy of the city (“many cattle”).
6) He has compassion on the city.
“Should I not be concerned about that great city?” God loves the great cities of the world. He sees their sin, he knows all about their hubris, their pride, their greed, their disobedience, and their rebellion. And he loves the cities anyway. He loved wicked Nineveh. He loves Cairo and Bangalore and London and Rio and Kiev and Tokyo and Seoul and Singapore and Durban and Jerusalem and Berlin and Helsinki and Amsterdam. And he loves Chicago. That great city. That toddlin’ town, the town Billy Sunday could not shut down.
Do You Hate the City?
Many Christians hate the city and run from it because of its sin. We see the rush-hour crowds on the Eisenhower or the Kennedy or the Stevenson freeways, and we say, “That’s terrible,” but we say that because we don’t have God’s heart. To many of us, the city represents all that is wrong with modern life. We see the dirt (and there are dirty parts), we see the danger (and there are dangerous places), we see the poverty (and it is truly there), we talk about the crime (very true), and how crowded things are (undeniable), and how old the buildings are (true in many places), and we comment on how rude city people can be (very true). And some of us are intimidated by the crowds, by the crush of humanity, by the tall buildings, and by the pressure and tempo of city life. So we flee to the suburbs and avoid the city as if it were enemy territory. But that is not how God views the city. He sees everything we see—and he sees beyond it to the broken hearts and broken lives of those who live and work there. He sees the people—lost and confused—and he loves them. God loves the city and he calls his people to go to the city, to seek its welfare, to pray for it, to bless it, to shine the light of his love into the darkest recesses of the city.
If you hate the city, it’s because you don’t have God’s heart. (By the way, I should add that I am indebted to Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, for many of these insights. Their website is worth visiting: www.redeemer.com.) Many of us prefer to live in the country—or at least in the distant suburbs. I certainly can understand that. I grew up in a small town in northwest Alabama. There were perhaps 6,000 people in my hometown, which makes me much more of a country boy than a city slicker. Personally, if given the choice, I prefer to see grass and trees out my living room window than another house 15 feet away. I like wide-open spaces. Living in a metropolitan area can seem positively claustrophobic. And I don’t believe that everyone needs to live in or near a big city. There is nothing wrong with living in the country or in the suburbs. God doesn’t call us all to do the same thing or to live in the same place. Most of us will live in a variety of places over the course of a lifetime. So the point here is not to make anyone feel guilty. But I do want to challenge the notion that cities are bad places to live and that Christians should abandon them in favor of the suburbs or the countryside. This week I heard it said this way: In the country you have plants, but in the city you have people. Since God loves people more than he loves plants, he must love the city more than he loves the country. If you think about it, that will blow your paradigm upside down. And I can’t find anything wrong with that statement since it’s abundantly true that God does love people more than he loves plants. The cities with all their concentrated sin are also places where God concentrates his love because he truly cares about the people who live in the big cities of the world.
When Jonah saw the city, he saw only the problems.
When God saw the city, he saw the people.
When Jonah saw the city, he felt anger.
When God saw the city, he felt compassion.
When Jonah saw their repentance, he got angry.
When God saw their repentance, he rejoiced.
Jonah had given up on the city, God had not!
Jonah wanted it destroyed, God wanted it redeemed.
Jonah hated the city because it was full of sin.
God loved the city because it was full of sinners.
Jonah saw the sin—and hated the sinners.
God saw the sinners—and loved them anyway.
Jonah’s Two Problems
We never hear from Jonah again—which leaves us to wonder whether he ever got the message. This story is in the Bible because it speaks to all of us who would rather not get involved in the world. We’d rather be comfy and cozy so we can keep things nice and neat inside the four walls of the church. There is another way of looking at this whole issue: Jonah has two problems. On the surface, his problem is that he has no heart for the people of Nineveh. But his real problem is deeper: He has no room for a God who does. Jonah’s real problem is God!!! His God is too small and that’s why his heart is too small.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that God’s greatest problem is not with the wicked people of Nineveh. Oh, they were truly evil—no doubt about that. But God has no problems with them. God’s greatest problem was his reluctant, rebellious prophet.
—God’s greatest problem is not the sinner out there.
—His greatest problem is the saint in here.
Think about this. For all its cruelty and sinful brutality, Nineveh was ready to turn to God. The people didn’t know it, they weren’t consciously aware of their need, they weren’t looking for God in any sense. But God who sees all things knew that this vile city was primed and ready to turn to him. If only he could find a man—the right man with the right message—who would dare to go there and deliver God’s message.
Jonah was God’s man for Nineveh!
The world is full of Ninevehs today … and God is still looking for someone to go there.
Nineveh is first of all a literal city.
It also stands for all the great cities of the world.
But Nineveh is even more personal than that. It stands for ….
That place only you can go.
That person only you can reach.
That opportunity only you can fill.
You’ve got a Nineveh in your life right now. It might be a friend where you work. It might be that group you hang around with after school. It might be your neighbors down the street, or it might be the women in the PTO or the guys on your bowling team. Who knows? Your Nineveh might be your husband or wife or even your grown-up children. Your Nineveh might be a new job in a new city or a home on a new street. Nineveh ultimately stands for any part of the will of God that you are afraid to face.
You’re afraid to go … but God wants you there.
You’re afraid to speak up … but there are people who need to hear what you have to say.
You’re afraid to make a move … but God says, “Trust me.”
Nineveh is calling you today ….
What will you do about it?
God wants you in Nineveh ….
But you don’t want to go.
You’d rather go to Tarshish ….
Fine, but watch out for that big fish.
The world is evil and mean ….
Will you speak up anyway?
People are cruel ….
Will you tell them about God’s love?
A Beating Heart for God
What is the church of Jesus meant to be? It is meant to be a beating heart for God in the very heart of the city. There is more to be said, but what I have shared is meant to put our renovation program in the context of our history as an Oak Park church. If we thought that we were adding on to the portico so we could be warm during the winter months, and if we thought we were renovating the gym so our kids would have a nicer place to play basketball, and if we thought we were building a new nursery just to take care of our own babies, and if we thought we were installing air conditioning solely for our own comfort, if we thought any of those things, we were sadly mistaken. This is not about us. It was never about us. It was always for the sake of those we hope to reach in the future. Yes, of course, we will get great benefit from it, but that’s not the deepest reason. We ought to do this so that, with God’s help and for his glory, we might reach those who today are still unreached for the Savior.
We’re an Oak Park church in the geographic center of Chicagoland, and we plan to stay right here, shining the light of the gospel, crowded as we are, all packed together, a church of sacrifice, called by God to this particular place at this particular moment in history. It is a joy to be the pastor of this church and it is an honor to serve the Lord together with you.
One final word and I am done. Ray Bakke points out that churches in the city are not in the advice business. They are in the Good News business. We announce to Oak Park and to all of Chicago that God has done something about your sin through the cross of Jesus Christ. He has made it possible for a city full of sinners to become a city full of saints who are forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ and completely accepted into God’s family. The best thing we can do for Oak Park and for Chicago is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing will change the city like the power of lives transformed through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The bottom line is, we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to stay right here and do what we’ve been doing for 88 years. And by God’s grace, and with God’s help, and in God’s name, and for God’s glory, we will do it with joy and boldness and confidence that the Lord who brought us this far will lead us into tomorrow. Amen.