The Eyes of God Are Upon You
March 21, 1993
Our story begins in 1833 when a man named Joseph Kettlestrings, an Englishman from Yorkshire, arrived in the Chicago area. He settled first along the Des Plaines River where he worked at a saw mill. Two years later he moved to a patch of dry ground just west of the thriving city of Chicago. Two years after that—in 1837—he bought a quarter-section of land which he subdivided and sold to others who wanted to move to the same area. Within a few years a small community sprang up called Kettlestrings’ Grove.
Things changed in 1848 with the opening of the Chicago and Galena Railroad. The importance of the railroad cannot be underestimated because now the small community was joined with Chicago to the east and the burgeoning frontier to the west. In 1857 James Scoville moved to the community, which was now called Oak Ridge. Mr. Scoville was a businessman and a philanthropist, but above all, he was a community builder. He envisioned a village that would be enlightened and modern, yet with a small-town feel. The institutions that mattered most to him were the school, the church, and the library. The schools would educate the young, the library would connect the village with the larger world, and the church would be the moral center of the community.
The Church At the Heart of the Village
In 1871 the First Congregational Church was established. Soon after that came the First Methodist Church in 1872, the First Baptist Church in 1873, Grace Episcopal in 1880, followed by the First Presbyterian Church in 1883. All were located within the original area of settlement around Lake Street, which was and is the center of the village. Taken together, these church buildings were a visible expression of the place Christianity ought to occupy in the affairs of the village and the lives of its residents. A crucial moment came in 1873 when the three remaining saloons were closed down. They closed because Henry W. Austin bought all three on the assurance that the village would prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages.
In time, the village which began as Kettlestrings’ Grove changed its name from Oak Ridge to Oak Park. The founding families of Oak Park came mostly from New York and New England where they were steeped in the Puritan heritage. That heritage planted within them a vision of building a city for God. Although they would not have said it this way, they truly believed that the village could be a “city on a hill,” giving light to those around it.
That’s why there are so many churches in Oak Park. The founders wanted it that way. They were sending a message that this community was to have God at its center. Temperance was to be the major principle and symbol of their common life together.
The Mid-Point of America
Location was everything. Oak Park was built on the first high ground west of the city. It was literally the first stop past the city limits. It was near Chicago, but it was not in Chicago—and that made all the difference. More than that, Oak Park was built on a ridge overlooking the city—as if to say, “Our values are different.” Early Oak Parkers used the ridge to explain the significance of the village. Rain falling on the west side of the ridge drained into the Des Plaines River and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico, while rain falling on the east side drained into Lake Michigan and ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean. When they told this story, possibly tongue-in-cheek, they meant to say that Oak Park was no out-of-the-way place. In a variety of ways, Oak Park was a bridge and a watershed.
By the end of the 19th century, Oak Park’s reputation as one of the leading suburbs was firmly established. Because its founding principles were different, it was not an immigrant community like Berwyn or Cicero. People who settled here came because they shared the vision of a village based on Christian principles. Sometimes they actually used the word “Puritan” to describe what drew them here. For many of the founders of this community, this place really and truly was a “city built for God,” a demonstration that when individuals united together under God, they could establish a holy place on the edge of an obviously unholy city. In a sense—if only a loose sense, never clearly articulated—Oak Park was a village founded on the fear of God. God would be first, and to prove it, the town would be filled with churches and free of saloons.
That means that the people who founded this village believed in their hearts that they were on a mission from God. This town was to be God’s town, they were to be God’s people, and the world would know that Oak Park was like no place else in America.
If you doubt my words, I invite you to go to the Oak Park Public Library and read a Ph.D. dissertation entitled Fall From Grace by James F. Bundy. He wrote about two Chicago suburbs—Oak Park and Evanston—showing how both were established as covenant communities. On page after page he demonstrates conclusively that the founders of Oak Park intended that the Christian faith would illuminate every aspect of secular life. It would be modern—yes—and progressive—yes—and up-to-date—yes, but it would flourish because the churches would stand at the center of community life.
A Breath of Fresh Air
We pick up the story in 1901 when Oak Park voted to separate from Cicero. Almost immediately Oak Parkers began to use such terms as “civic ideal,” “model municipality,” or best of all, “model village of the west” to describe themselves. They were living in “Chicago’s finest suburb.” The notion that Oak Park was a model and that it had a mission to perform was unquestioned. What was its mission? These are the words of Rev. William Barton of the First Congregational Church, from a sermon preached in 1903:
The battle of civilization is to be fought to a finish in our cities. We must never believe that better things are impossible. The righteousness of the suburb must reinforce that of the city…We are out in the fresh air, thank God; we must bring fresh air to the city.
Think about that. Oak Park was established by people to be a model village built on the Christian religion. Its effect would be like fresh air blowing away the polluted smog of the big city. If that seems unbelievable to you in light of our current conditions, I assure you it is true. Once upon a time Oak Park was a Christian village founded by Christian people.
Temperance to them was the visible sign of the invisible commitment to be a city set apart for God. The old-timers told of two teamsters who were delivering some goods to Oak Park. “How will I know when we get to Oak Park?” “It’s easy. When the saloons stop and the church steeples begin, you’ll know you’re in Oak Park.” To this very day that saying is still quoted as part of the village folklore. Pastor Barton explained the significance of temperance this way:
It was determined very early that no liquor should be sold in Oak Park. This moral stand, taken in a way when it was less frequent than it is now, may be said to be the very cornerstone of Oak Park’s intellectual and moral supremacy.
He was saying that Oak Park would lead the way in matters of moral and spiritual concern. We would go first, taking the high road, setting the standard for others to follow. A.S. Ray, the first village president, said that being free from saloons made Oak Park particularly desirable for families with young children and enabled the village to attract people of “high character.”
By the turn of the century Oak Park’s character was set: It would be an ultra-respectable suburb, with excellent schools, attracting the “best” people, who liked beautiful homes, well-kept streets, a friendly, safe environment, who wanted to be near Chicago but set apart from it—and all of it made possible because the village was built upon Christian principles. Perhaps Mr. O.W. Herrick summed up the prevailing view with these remarks at the dedication of the municipal building in 1903:
What our future is to be depends on the blessing of God and what use we make of our privileges. Let us see to it that no local pride or jealousies mar our prospects. Let us see that no saloons invade our village, and that the Sabbath is not desecrated. May we be that happy people whose God is the Lord.
The people of Oak Park found nothing unusual in these remarks because they truly intended to build a village based on Christian principles. On April 3, 1915, the Oak Leaves reported the speech of a man named Edward Steiner who was visiting Oak Park. After complimenting Oak Park, he made this summary evaluation: “The eyes of God are upon you.”
April 3, 1915. The world on the eve of its first great global war. America about to become a superpower. In Russia Lenin plots his revolution. Germany torpedoes the British liner Lusitania. People born that year would shape the 20th century: Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, playwright Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, Moshe Dyan, and Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman. The world was changing, moving, evolving, passing rapidly into the modern era.
Birth of a Brand-New Church
Unnoticed in the great swirl of world events, unnoticed even by their friends and neighbors, a few weeks before Edward Steiner said, “The eyes of God are upon you,” 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 the Moody Bible Institute, accepted the call as the first pastor of the Madison Street Church.
At the very moment of Oak Park’s glory, when a visitor would say, “The eyes of God are upon you,” at that crucial instant of history God was bringing forth a brand-new church. Is this coincidence? Is it just the fortuitous coming together of two events that just “happened” to happen at the same time and place? For those who believe in God, the answer is no. We don’t believe in luck or chance or fate. We believe in the providence of God who causes all things to work together for good.
Seventy-eight years have passed since those humble beginnings. In the beginning there were perhaps 30 people; our latest count shows nearly 2000 in our church family. The church started with $100; this year our total giving will top $1 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 which 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 tonight, they would marvel at what God has done. But they would not be surprised that God has done it.
If we could bring back Louis Talbot, Walter Bretall, Herbert Peaslee, Myrtle McCarrell and William Jaeger, they would be less surprised by the church than the changes in Oak Park. The village they knew has ceased to exist. Oh, the streets are the same and some of the buildings are the same, but the spirit of Oak Park is different now. These days we talk about how to remove every vestige of Christianity from our public school system. The local newspaper brags about how good it is that our community welcomes gays and lesbians. We no longer have a community of churches. Instead we have a community of congregations—including various non-Christian religious groups. In 1993 I doubt whether an openly evangelical Christian can be elected to high public office in Oak Park.
What Happened to Oak Park?
Things have changed over the decades, haven’t they? The dream of a “city of God” has long been forgotten. We have awakened to the harsh reality that amoral neo-paganism has become the order of the day. Oh sure, Oak Park is still a respectable place to live and we still know that we are different from the other surrounding suburbs. We aren’t like Berwyn or Elmwood Park or Maywood or Cicero. We’re different, all right, but we’re not different like we used to be.
Once Oak Parkers believed that God had called us into being and given us a special mission. Today one hears the echoes of that old idea, only today we don’t talk about being a people set apart for God. No, we boast of our cultural diversity, we pride ourselves in our acceptance of gay rights, we proclaim our allegiance to tolerance, diversity and pluralism. Those who dare to suggest that the Christian faith should be the foundation of our public morality are derided as kooks, fools, troublemakers and worst of all, narrow-minded fundamentalists.
Oak Park was founded as a model village. We’re a model all right. A model of moral decay, spiritual darkness and multicultural confusion. We no longer know who we are or what we believe or what our village should stand for. We only know that we want nothing to do with the Christian values that brought us into being.
Sodom and Gomorrah, USA
What in the world has happened? I wonder how many of you read Dr. James Dobson’s letter this month. If you haven’t, I hope you will because I think it is one of the most profound pieces he has ever written. I was so challenged by his words that I sent copies to the staff and elders.
Dr. Dobson begins by talking about the “alarming erosion of morality in the culture, some of it relating to the changing philosophy of government.” Then Dr. Dobson offers these ominous words:
It is open season on any Christian who has the courage to stick his head out of the foxhole. Indeed, I believe we are seeing the beginning of an era of serious repression against believers.
I think Dr. Dobson is quite correct. Several years ago evangelical philosopher and theologian Carl Henry predicted exactly the same thing in his stunning book Twilight of a Great Civilization. He said that as America progressively loses its Judeo-Christian heritage, paganism will grow bolder. What we have seen so far is a kind of benign humanism, but by the end of this century we will face a situation not unlike the 1st century when the Christian faith confronted raw paganism—humanism with the pretty face ripped off, revealing the angry monster underneath.
Something like that is happening in America today, and in Oak Park. And probably faster in Oak Park than in other places. We love to be in the forefront, to lead the parade, to show the way for others to follow. Now that we have decided to jettison the Christian faith, the only thing left is for Oak Park to lead the way into New Age paganism.
Where do we go from here? Dr. Dobson offers several answers: 1. We must fortify ourselves with prayer. 2. We must hold tightly to our moral convictions in the stressful days ahead. “What is occurring in our country today is the moral equivalent of war.” It is a civil war of values and ideas, a life and death struggle for the soul of America.
Our great confidence is that secular humanism must eventually go down to defeat because God will not forever bless any nation that turns away from him. No nation can kill its babies, destroy its family, promote immorality, worship materialism, deify man, obliterate the knowledge of God, enthrone paganism, normalize homosexuality and “de-moralize” its teenagers … no nation can do that, and prosper forever. A great moral awakening must take place … or the Lord himself must descend from heaven. In either event, God will not be silent forever.
Dr. Dobson closes his letter with these stirring words:
What’s at stake at this stage in our history is profoundly more significant than the whims of politics. Hanging in the balance is the essence of the Christian faith—purity, reverence for life, family stability, love for God and receptivity to the gospel itself. We are the custodians—the stewards—of this precious heritage. We can’t afford to tremble now!
What is needed are millions of believers who will remain true to their convictions and ask God to help them prevail (or persevere) against overwhelming odds. Will you join that army of committed soldiers? If for no other reason, let’s do it for our children and grandchildren. If we lose them, there will no family on which to focus.
That brings us back to Oak Park, back to our village founded by people who believed in God. In 1915 a visitor said, “The eyes of God are upon you.” At that precise moment in history Calvary Memorial Church was born. What would God say about Oak Park today? And what would he say about us?
Ten Signs of Life
The way the question is phrased may lead you to think that I expect a negative answer. But that is not true. With all my heart I want you to know that I have never been more encouraged about the future. After 78 years this church is stronger and healthier and more vigorous than ever. And our opportunities for ministry have never been so abundant. If anything, the general moral decline has led to so many open doors that we can’t go through them all.
On every hand I see vital signs of life. Let me list ten positive trends that I see at Calvary:
1. The birth of a prayer ministry. Most of you know that God did a special work in my heart during my trip to Belize in October. While I was there He impressed me that we should set aside one day a week for prayer. Since then, every Wednesday begins with prayer for spiritual renewal in the sanctuary at 6:30 a.m., then at noon we meet in Room 216 to pray for the nations, then at 7 p.m. we meet in the chapel for our congregational prayer meeting. At 8:15 p.m. we have prayer for healing. What a difference this new emphasis on prayer has made in the life of the church.
But I see it not just on Wednesdays. Our youth ministry is praying more, our staff is praying more, our Women’s Ministries sponsors highly effective prayer breakfasts and our brand-new Men’s Ministry ended up its first breakfast with a prayer time. In the last year we’ve incorporated more times of prayer into our worship services and into our church business meetings.
Several times each month our youth ministry sponsors “Prayer Walks” in which the students walk around the high school early in the morning, praying for fellow students, teachers and administrators.
Noted author J. Edwin Orr said, “Whenever God wants to do something on the earth, he first stirs his people to pray.” With all my heart I believe that the church that prays together stays together. If indeed we are facing difficult days ahead, then there is nothing more important we can do than to come together as a congregation to pray. We can do more once we have prayed, but prayer must come first.
2. The success of our Awana program. A few days ago I had the privilege of speaking to the Pals and Pioneers (3rd-6th grade boys) on Thursday night. As I stood before 35-40 eager faces I felt like I was looking at the future. Each week our Awana program involves nearly 200 children and workers. Each week the children memorize hundreds of Bible verses. Each week the children bring their friends. I do not know of any children’s program that is as effective in Scripture memory and evangelism. My hat is off to Fred and Erlene Hartman and their wonderful team of co-workers. Thanks for your hard work.
3. Working together with other churches. In his excellent book The Body, Chuck Colson issues a ringing call for Christians to unite together across denominational lines to impact our nation for Christ. He says the time is long past when we can stay inside our four walls and simply do business as usual. For the world to take us seriously, they have to see that we are willing to rise beyond narrow sectarianism and join together as fellow believers in Jesus Christ.
I see that happening more and more in Oak Park and in Chicago. How about the Unity Walk last summer—a never-to-be-forgotten moment when 500 believers—black, white, Asian and Hispanic—joined together in a public demonstration of our oneness in Christ? I know that I will never forget the Solemn Assembly that took place at the Rock Church under the leadership of Pastor Raleigh Washington. We prayed and sang and laughed and cried and confessed our sins and begged God to heal our land—600 people packed into a hot gymnasium for nearly 5 hours.
But there are other signs of increasing unity and cooperation: The monthly ministers’ fellowship in Oak Park, the lay-led ministry called “Exalt ’93, the Concerned Citizens Coalition, the growing movement to invite Luis Palau to lead a vast evangelistic effort in Chicago in 1995, the churches that joined together to sell Christmas banners as a testimony to our community, the founding of the Near West Crisis Pregnancy Center, the Hike for Life, and “See You At the Party.”
In the days to come the real division won’t be between Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians and Lutherans. The real division will be between those who truly believe the Bible is God’s Word and Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Savior for the world … and those who don’t. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by working together with like-minded believers for the sake of the kingdom of God.
4. Our new contemporary worship service. We are now only four weeks away from launching this exciting new service on Sunday mornings. A year ago I would not have thought it possible. But as so often happens, the people of Calvary surprised me. You demonstrated last August your strong support during our three-week trial run when hundreds of people jammed the sanctuary on some very warm Sunday mornings.
Frankly, I believe this new service will enable us to reach more people than we’ve ever reached before. To be more precise, I think offering a contemporary service will enable to us reach some people we simply can’t reach right now. There is a large segment—perhaps as large as 40% of the people around us—who weren’t raised in the evangelical church or in any church at all. For them going to church is a “cross-cultural” experience. Our job is to find a way to communicate the unchanging truths of the gospel in terms and values they can readily understand. Does that mean the contemporary service is a “seekers” service? No, it is and will remain a worship service. But the number # 1 “port of entry” for most people is Sunday morning worship. It’s where they “get off the boat” and “enter the country.” If all they hear is a foreign language they don’t understand, most of them will get back on the boat and sail off to some other place.
Please remember. This isn’t a spiritual issue. You’re not more or less spiritual if you like traditional over contemporary or contemporary over traditional. They are simply slightly different ways of worshiping God. In my years of traveling I have raised my hands in charismatic worship in Belize, stood for the solemn singing of the “The Lord’s Prayer” in Russia, clapped and cheered with the exuberant Haitian Christians, sung “Just As I Am” with 45,000 others at a Billy Graham Crusade in Denver, listened with awe to our own incomparable David Brackley at the organ, thrilled to hear our choir sing “Embrace the Cross,” listened to Gary Pigg and the Crossroads band belt out “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” stood around a campfire in Schroon Lake, New York, with 300 teenagers singing “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” heard the beautiful chanting of the Catholic monks at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, stood with John Sergey at an Orthodox liturgy in St. Petersburg, learned to sing “Hay Vida” in Spanish and “Che Ru Upa Pe Gau” in Guarani in Paraguay. I have been in churches where the music was fast, slow and in-between, in formal liturgies and informal sharing services, in churches where they followed the church year and in churches where they never heard of the church year.
And when we get to heaven we will all praise the Lamb together—redeemed saints from every nation, tongue, tribe, race, culture and ethnic group on the face of the earth. We will together bow the knee before the mighty Son of God and declare him worthy of honor, praise, power, glory, wisdom and adoration. And together we will worship him in unending praise around the throne of God. In that day it won’t be traditional and it won’t be contemporary. It will simply be heavenly praise to Jesus.
Until then we will worship him in different ways, understanding that all worship that truly comes from the heart is acceptable to God. In that spirit let us move forward toward our contemporary service—with joy, with enthusiasm, with excitement, not judging each other or putting each other down, but celebrating the fact that we are still one church, one body, one family of God. We’re not all alike but we are one people.
Our goal is to have two excellent worship services on Sunday morning—both well-planned, both done with excellence, both built around the same general theme each week, both designed to lead people to a deep heart response to God. I will preach the same sermon in both services. No differences in terms of preparation, outline or application. You can attend one service regularly or you can alternate in any manner you like. It doesn’t matter to us. Do whatever meets your own needs. We are fully committed to maintaining an excellent traditional worship with the choir, the organ, the same mix of hymns and choruses, the Scripture readings and so on. We simply want to add a service on April 18 built around a more participative, informal and contemporary style of worship. I believe by having two services done with excellence each week—one traditional, one contemporary—we can minister more effectively to more people than ever before.
I am grateful to Terry Strandt, Cliff Raad, Larry Korbus and Ken Powell who have worked overtime to make this change possible. It is an honor to serve with you!
5. Our new system of elders, deacons and deaconesses. Although we have just elected our first elders and are still several months away from deacons and deaconesses, I already think the church is better off because we have made an honest attempt to return to biblical principles in choosing our leaders. In my 15 years as a pastor, I have never seen a Nominating Committee work as hard as this one did. We spent hours discussing, praying, planning and interviewing potential elders. In the end, God gave us complete unity in our choices. The eight men we chose are all godly, experienced, highly-respected men. Each one brings a unique perspective to the task of leading our church into the future. And I am happy to report that the nominating committee felt there were at least another 10 men who could serve as elders—and I would add that we probably have another 20-30 younger men who will become the leaders of the future.
Last Tuesday I spoke on Primetime America and explained both what we are doing at Calvary and how we understand the biblical qualifications for leadership in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. At Jim Warren’s urging, we offered listeners a free copy of the printed notes along with the elder job description. The phone lines were swamped! We received calls from Florida, Alabama, Oregon, Ohio, Kentucky—literally all over America. Callers thanked us for sharing a biblical perspective and many said, “Our church needs to do the same thing.” Nearly 200 people called or wrote asking for more information. In good Oak Park tradition we are serving as a model for other churches to follow.
In addition, I fully expect the elders to name the first group of deacons and deaconesses by June. This is a brand-new level of leadership that will open up the decision-making process to many new people in our congregation. By this fall we might have as many as 20 or 30 deacons and deaconesses.
6. We’re becoming a regional church. What is a regional church? A regional church is one that, by virtue of its unique location or its unique size or its unique ministry, is widely recognized as a leading church by both the churched and the unchurched. A regional church has an influence all out of proportion to its size. A regional church becomes a lighthouse for the gospel. It serves as a staging ground for the army for the Lord. It acts as a bellwether for other evangelical churches that look to it for hope and encouragement. And in times of controversy, it becomes a lightning rod by leading the fight for truth.
Since the first day I arrived, I have believed that God was raising us up as a major force for the near western suburbs of Chicago. After four years I see many signs that that is in fact happening. As far as I can tell, approximately 50% of our attendance comes from Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park, with the rest coming from Chicago (a small percentage) and the outlying suburbs. I am delighted to report that many smaller churches send their children and teenagers to our programs. Hundreds of people came to the excellent “Fire of Hope” musical drama at Christmas. Our people pop up frequently in the newspapers, on Moody radio and on TV-38. We continue to have many internationals attend our services. Last year nearly 1400 people celebrated the “Day in Our Village” with us. Major evangelical organizations regularly ask us to host meetings for them.
Here are some of the implications of becoming a regional church: 1. Our congregation will be increasingly far-flung. 2. Most people will come only on Sunday morning. 3. We will need a wider variety of programs. 4. We must develop a viable small group ministry. 5. Our shepherding ministry will be crucial. 6. We must continue to invest in building maintenance, youth ministry, children’s ministry and the music ministry. Money spent in these areas will pay off in big ways in the future. This is especially true regarding children and teenagers. This is a “hot button” issue in Oak Park. Hundreds of families are so concerned that they will gladly attend any church that provides an excellent program.
7. Our flourishing short-term missions program. Two years ago we hit an all-time high of 55 Calvary attenders who took short-term missions trips. This year the number will be closer to 80 or 90. That’s over 10% of our regular Sunday attendance. Why is this so important? Because the only sure-fire, absolutely proven method of passing the missionary vision on to the next generation is to get the next generation on the field for a first-hand look. Missions conferences won’t do it nowadays. That’s why we spend thousands of dollars each year encouraging our people to take a few days and travel to another country. So far this year we’ve sent people to Guatemala, Russia and Mexico. In just 9 days 34 high schoolers and 6 leaders leave for Mexico. Then in July an intergenerational team travels to Haiti and in September another team is set to go to St. Petersburg. Those are just the trips I happen to know about. What about encouraging our senior adults to consider short-term service? Dick and Ann Baer are doing that right now with Wycliffe. Who’s next?
8. Last year we kicked the credit drug. It happened like this. For many years (20 at least) our church never made the budget. We would either kick in funds from some other account, roll the debt over into the new year, or borrow money from our line of credit at the bank. But borrowing money was simply too easy because it only took a phone call to get $20,000. Then last year—following the congregation’s lead—we decided to go “cold turkey.” No more borrowing money. No more short-term loans from church members. No more running to the bank. We were going to live within our means. It was scary at first, and we did have a few tight moments, and the staff led a major belt-tightening effort that saved us thousands of dollars. But the main result was this: Last year, the congregation gave as never before. And we ended up the year exceeding our budget by about $4000! What a fantastic victory for the glory of God. We’re off the credit drug … and we’re not getting hooked again.
9. Our new family ministry. This is so new that it isn’t quite off the ground yet. But God gave Pastor Bob Boerman a heavy burden for the families of America. In his own words, he wants to move from a “restoration” to a “reformation” ministry. That means he wants to help men recapture the biblical vision of being godly husbands and fathers. That means he wants to help single moms who feel overwhelmed as they raise their children. That means he wants to equip parents to produce children who will themselves raise godly families in the next generation.
How serious is Bob about this? He told me that lately whenever he needs to explain something to his girls, he will take care to draw out the principle and then he will ask, “Why am I telling you this?” Then Melissa, Heather or Kimberly will say, “So that we can teach it to our children some day.” Wow! What a great perspective.
As Bob has said, youth ministry as we have known it is slowly disappearing. Churches all over America have discovered that the only way to save this generation of young people is to save their families first. We’re fully committed to following that course of action.
10. Our new men’s ministry. For many years this church has had an excellent, highly-effective women’s ministries. Just yesterday 250 women attended the Spring Luncheon. I received some inside information from someone who spent all last week chopping water chestnuts and baking poppy-seed mini-muffins. From all reports, the luncheon was a spectacular success in every way. My congratulations to all involved.
But at long last the men have their own ministry. A week ago I was amazed to see 106 men gather for the first men’s breakfast. I expected to see 50 or 60 men, tops. But 106? It said to me that our men are hungry for relationships, for a place where they can meet other men. The need has been there for along time, we just needed a way to tap into it. Again, congratulations to the men who served on the steering committee.
Three Rising Tides In Oak Park
But not everything we see is positive. I have already alluded to the changing moral climate here in Oak Park and in America generally. We may bemoan the fact but no one can deny the reality. The world has changed in dramatic ways. America is now a “post-Christian” nation. And Oak Park is helping to lead the way into the brave new world where the Christian faith has been removed from public life.
As I study the trends in Oak Park, I see three things that give me pause as I consider the future of our church. These are trends that are happening whether we like it or not. I predict that the following three realities will radically affect our ministry in the years ahead—especially as we move into the second part of the decade.
1. Rising Racial Tension. The figures speak for themselves: In 1970 Oak Park was 2% black. In 1980 10% black. In 1990 18% black. Today that figure has risen to over 20% and is still rising. By the end of the decade it may be over 30%. Is that bad? No, but it does mean that our community is changing, our school system is changing, and our neighborhoods are changing.
Those are facts—not predictions. Pick up the Wednesday Journal. Every issue is filled with stories about the race issue in Oak Park. Talk to the Calvary kids who attend OPRF. For that matter, ask any of our kids who attend Oak Park schools about the racial situation. You’ll hear some stories that will make your hair stand on end. For all our vaunted liberalism and for all our declarations of open-mindedness, Oak Park right now is an uptight town. We’re scared to death about what the future might hold. All Oak Parkers—Black, White, Asian and Hispanic have a vital interest in solving this problem. The question before us is the one Rodney King asked last year after the Los Angeles riots, “Can’t we find a way to get along?”
We have a great opportunity as a church to respond to these fears in a variety of ways. We have a chance to demonstrate that in Jesus Christ the barriers that separate us have been torn down. In the future I hope we can partner with Circle Urban Ministries and the Rock Church to do some creative things in the area of racial reconciliation.
2. Rising Tide of Gay Rights. Does this point need any elaboration? We have the largest and most active gay rights movement in the western suburbs. We have the highest number of AIDS cases in Cook County—outside of Chicago itself. Our high school was one of the first in the nation to protect gays and lesbians in terms of hiring, staffing, counseling and curriculum development. Last September that same protection was extended to the elementary schools as well. An openly gay man is running for village president right now. Quite simply, Oak Park is known as a “safe” place for gays and lesbians—i.e., the “San Francisco” of the Midwest. In the name of “diversity” we celebrate our moral perversion.
In response to this rising tide, we must hold the line both ways—by insisting that homosexual behavior is always wrong but complete deliverance is available through Jesus Christ. We may be tempted to either soften our stand or to become judgmental in our attitudes. In either case we aren’t being true to the spirit of the Lord Jesus who loves homosexuals and longs to see them set free from their bondage.
But what about people with AIDS? Can they attend here? Some already do. Here’s the bottom line. If we close our doors to gays and lesbians because they are “dirty” and we are “clean,” then we ought to close the doors, shut the windows, lock up tight and take the sign down out front. For when we close our doors to anyone in need we deny with our lives the gospel we proclaim with our lips.
3. Rising Property Taxes. At first glance this wouldn’t seem to belong with the first two points—but it does. Our property tax rate is among the highest in the Chicago area. Many people in Oak Park pay $500-700 per month in property taxes. That’s on top of the regular mortgage payment. Is it any wonder than young families have to look elsewhere for affordable housing? And is it any wonder that so many families are intent on following Horace Greeley’s advice: “Go west, young man, go west.”
West to Elmhurst. West to Hinsdale. West to Oak Brook. West to Downers Grove. West to Lombard. West to Geneva. West to St. Charles. West to Barrington. Why stop there? West to Galena. West to Des Moines. West to Omaha. West to Phoenix. West to Honolulu. (Now there’s a good idea. Let’s move the church to Hawaii!)
A few days ago I was in a meeting with several other families from Calvary when someone said, “We’re thinking about moving.” Then came the chorus: “So are we.” “Us too.” “We’re not just thinking. We’re looking.” I’ve heard that a lot lately, especially when the changes in the moral climate are discussed. With tension rising and immorality growing bolder and property taxes inching ever upwards, St. Charles does look good. Clean air, no crowds, lower taxes, wider roads, bigger houses, bigger yards, nicer people, better quality of life, safer schools. Out west life is different. And in some ways it’s better.
But it’s not Oak Park. And if all of us move out, what will happen to the church? And what will happen to this community? Who will be the salt? Who will be the light? Our future depends on maintaining a strong base in this community, living here with these people, ministering the love of God to those we meet every day.
Not long after that meeting, a friend asked me if I felt my family still needs to live in Oak Park. My answer is … yes. I think my family needs to live in Oak Park. The pastor of this church needs to be right here in the thick of things, fighting the same battles as everyone else. We’ve made up our mind recently that as long I am the pastor of this church, we’re going to live in Oak Park.
Marching Toward Tomorrow
What things are important as we move into the future?
1. We must continue to emphasize the family spirit. I hear this all the time. Calvary is a big church. According to our latest count, we currently have 1210 family units on our rolls. Our total church family now equals 1978. Those aren’t “fluff numbers” either. We prune our shepherding list every two months. I don’t know how many names we drop each year—but it’s in the hundreds. And still people keep coming. They come from literally every western suburb. Some people drive 40 minutes one way each Sunday. They come because they like our programs or because they love the choir or because they noticed us as they drove by on Lake Street or because they want to be in a Bible-believing church or because they have teenagers or because they heard about us on WMBI or TV-38. Mostly they come because a friend told them about us.
Do you ever look around and say, “Who are all these people?” I do. Sometimes I get dizzy just trying to remember all the new people I meet every Sunday. But it shouldn’t surprise us. We’ve prayed and planned to become a regional church and now God is answering that prayer. God has given us an opportunity to speak to hundreds of thousands of people. Our “parish” extends from downtown Chicago on the east to Park Ridge on the north to Oak Brook on the west to Cicero on the south. To be sure, many other excellent churches share this area … but beyond question, God has given us a beautiful building in a strategic location in the “model village of the west” built on a ridge overlooking the mighty city of Chicago, heart of the Midwest, home to the Chicago Cubs, Michael Jordan, the Sears Tower, Marshall Fields, Moody Bible Institute, the Rock N Roll McDonalds, Oprah Winfrey, the Shedd Aquarium, Siskel and Ebert, Bozo the Clown, and the amazing non-waterproof subterranean tunnel system.
What a great place to be! The other day I saw a huge map of the Chicago area divided into zip code grids. Guess what village is in the middle of the map? Oak Park. Guess who’s in the middle of Oak Park? We are! What a great place to be for times like these!
But it’s true that we must work harder to stay in touch with each other. Two weeks ago Marlene and I ate with someone who has attended Calvary for well over 20 years. She made a telling comment about the growth of the church. “Back then I could sit in the choir and tell just by looking at the congregation who wasn’t there on Sunday.” To which I replied, “Today you can sit in the congregation and you won’t even know who’s in the choir.” We’re no longer a stable, steady, never-changing group. We’re a transient, restless, growing congregation. We simply reflect the culture in which we live, which means that trend will continue.
What steps can we take to emphasize the “family spirit?” Here are some ideas:
1. Eat together more. Nothing brings people together like food. That’s why we’re bringing back ABC Delicious Dinners. That’s why we’re going to bring back the Shepherds Open Houses.
2. Emphasize fun times together—like Harvest Home, the Church Picnic and Day in Our Village.
3. Re-build adult Sunday School. In these last two years we’ve neglected adult Sunday School—and it shows. I believe that when the Sunday School is strong, the whole church is strong. And the key is building up adult Sunday School.
4. Establish a small group ministry. We already have small groups, of course—15 or 20 or perhaps 25. I am particularly grateful for the splendid work Bill and Jan Miller do in Precepts and their book studies. We also have special-need groups (like ACDF), accountability groups, prayer groups and fellowship groups. But in 1993 we need to do something similar to the cluster group ministry we had a few years ago. Nothing will build relationships like spending time with a few people in a small group.
5. Re-organize the Shepherds Ministry. Right now we have 31 couples covering 37 geographic areas caring for 1978 people. After talking with the shepherds recently, I think their greatest desire would be to A. Have fewer people to minister to, and B. Spend more time building relationships with the people they have in their area. Perhaps not everyone needs to be in a shepherding group. Let’s find the people who want to be in this ministry and then let’s recruit another 30 shepherds (including singles for the first time) so that more of our people feel connected.
2. I think we must continue to speak out on the vital issues of the day. If we don’t, we’re not being true to the heritage handed down to us. In some ways I believe Oak Park is on the cutting edge of spiritual warfare between God and Satan. As the largest and most influential evangelical church in this area, we must continue to speak out on moral and spiritual issues.
That’s why we marched from Oak Park to Austin.
That’s why we helped establish the Near West Crisis Pregnancy Center.
That’s why we led the fight against the Gay Rights initiative at OPRF.
That’s why we hang Christmas banners outside our houses.
That’s why our teenagers march around the high school praying.
That’s why we hosted the Midwest Conference on AIDS ministry two years ago.
That’s why our Crossroads Ministry has exposed Satanism and the New Age Movement.
That’s why we hosted the Midwest Conference on Spiritual Warfare in 1991.
That’s why we invited Dr. John Morris to speak on creation and evolution.
That’s why I wrote a sermon on casino gambling that TV-38 printed.
That’s why our people are involved in the “December Dilemma” controversy.
That’s why we are cooperating in Exalt ’93.
My ultimate goal is to build a church filled with “impact players” for Jesus Christ who will make a difference in this generation. Seventy-eight years ago our church was founded by a group of people who were willing to take the gospel to the streets of Oak Park. Their bold witness laid the foundation for the great church we have today. May God give us a revival of the same pioneer spirit.
3. We must stay flexible, visionary, and purpose-based. Soon after becoming your pastor I shared with you that Calvary must be “purpose-based and strategy-driven.” As the years have passed I have discovered that that’s a good slogan, but it’s hard to put into practice. Our traditions are the cords that join us to our heritage. But those cords can also become chains, holding us back when we really need to move forward. There are good traditions and there are not-so-good traditions. On the whole I think that our congregation is surprisingly open to change so long it’s clearly explained and we don’t feel rushed into anything. We don’t mind changing, but we want to make sure things are well thought out.
Let me recommend two books I think every leader in this church should read as a preparation for the future: The Body by Chuck Colson (Word Books) and Roaring Lambs by Bob Briner (Zondervan Publishing). Chuck Colson describes the problem and Bob Briner points toward the solution. Oak Park needs some “roaring lambs” who will graciously make their voices heard for Jesus Christ.
Are we ready for the future? It’s rushing toward us whether we are ready or not! Last year Lyle Schaller—perhaps the most astute observer of the American church scene—made this comment last May: “If next year is 1953, the churches of America are in good shape. But if next year is 1993, we’re in bad trouble.” What did he mean? Too many American churches are going about their ministry as if we were still living in the 50s. They are 40 years behind the times. But our call is to minister to this generation—right here, right now.
Let me briefly mention some of my dreams for the future:
1. Establish an intergenerational child care center. Last year a task force completed all the necessary research. All we need now is to raise the money, do some renovation in the east wing and open our doors for business.
2. Start the Oak Park Christian Academy—a K-12 Christian day school.
3. Renovate the front of the sanctuary—with new lighting, a raised permanent platform (similar to the one we built for “Fire of Hope,” a baptistry, risers for the choir, and completed repairs to our new grand piano. We could then use the space much more efficiently for dramas, contemporary worship, concerts, and a variety of special programs.
4. Buy the condominium building immediately to our west and convert it to low-cost housing for retirees and returning missionaries.
5. Plant 4 or 5 spin-off churches in the various Chicago suburbs.
6. Establish a Calvary Scholarship Fund to enable worthy students to reduce the cost of attending a Christian college.
7. Start a Community Impact Committee to lead us into constructive action for God.
8. Begin a concert/lecture/seminar series that would bring excellent Christian artists, musicians and communicators to Oak Park.
9. If our contemporary service blossoms, perhaps we should consider starting a third service on Saturday night.
10. Bring Joni Erickson Tada to Calvary to host a regional conference on ministry to the disabled.
11. Establish a sister church relationship with the Temple of the Gospel in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Now don’t worry. These are just ideas and dreams. Many will never happen—at least not in the form I have outlined here. But that doesn’t matter. We need to dream big dreams for the glory of God.
Does God Still Have a Plan For Oak Park?
I come at last to the end of my remarks. We started 150 years ago when Joseph Kettlestrings settled in this area. The village he founded has radically changed. In fact, the very foundation itself has been changed. It seems unbelievable that Oak Park once was a village built on the principles of the Christian faith. But it’s true.
Someone suggested to me that if we believe in the sovereignty of God, then we must believe that God has a purpose not only for us as individuals, but also for us as a congregation. But if that’s true, then God also has a purpose for each town, each city and each nation.
Is it possible that God still wants Oak Park to be a “city set on a hill,” a bright light in the prevailing darkness, a breath of fresh air blowing across Chicago? Is that possible? Could God still want that for us? Does God still have a plan for Oak Park? My answer is yes, for God’s purposes are eternal and never-changing.
We stand tonight as heirs of the great tradition that brought this village into existence. If indeed Oak Park is still chosen by God, and if a moral and spiritual revival is possible, then I think we have a great future. After all, where sin abounded, grace super-abounded. Where else will it start if not right here? Who will lead the way if not us? When will it happen if not right now?
Let us go from this place with renewed confidence in God and in our calling as his people. Exciting possibilities lie before us. God has put us in this place at this crucial moment of history to fulfill a great purpose. Be encouraged, brothers and sisters The eyes of God are upon you.