Growing trends among second-generation and multi-site congregations
By Eric Reed
Across Illinois | Five new churches held their “grand opening” events during the two weekends before Easter.
The congregations couldn’t be any more different: They are Hispanic, Korean, Anglo, and multicultural. They meet in the inner city, in new suburbs and older neighborhoods, and way out in the countryside.
Yet their worship services are remarkably alike: all in English, all contemporary, all enthusiastic, and mostly loud.
Collectively they show how some important ministry trends are reaching both main roads and back roads in Illinois:
➢ After decades of planting ethnic language churches, English-language ministries may be the next wave as the grown children of immigrants aren’t feeling comfortable in their parents’ churches.
➢ Starting new churches is getting more complicated and expensive and harder for planters to do solo. That is resulting in more multi-site churches and in new networks among church leaders.
➢ And in some situations, starting from scratch may prove a better strategy than re-engineering a faltering ministry.
Jonathan de la O was born in the United States, but his parents are from El Salvador. He is the product of two countries. “I wasn’t 100% Latino or 100% American, at least in the eyes of those around me,” he said. “It made it difficult to identify with a people group.”
When called to pastor a church, he asked what kind? “I didn’t know where I fit in,” he said in a video.
That tension produced a new kind of church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood: Hispanic worship in English. It’s designed to reach people like him, second-generation young adults, the children of immigrants who are often more like the kids they went to school with than their own parents.
De la O cites a statistic showing 60% of second-gen adults have markedly different culture, language, education, and income than first-gen immigrants. If they don’t find a different kind of church than mom and dad’s, he said, they are likely to drop out.
At home, and not at home
If the very different needs of younger people sound familiar, there’s good reason, said IBSA’s multicultural church planting specialist, Jay Noh. “The gap between first-gen immigrants and their U.S.-born second-gen children includes every challenge that the mainstream U.S. churches have faced, compounded by differences in languages and culture.” In his words, “The paternalistic assumptions of the first-gen won’t be accepted” by their children.
“As soon as they are able to escape the world of their parents and other people of authority, they find a place that is somewhere between their ethnic heritage and the dominant American culture,” said Van Kicklighter, who heads church planting for IBSA.
De la O hopes that place will be his new church. Starting Point Church is meeting in the newly refurbished building owned by Chicago Metro Baptist Association. Noh is assisting another second-gen church start that also shares the space, The Way Bible Church, reaching young Romanians. The Romanian congregation, and second-gen Koreans, Chinese, and international students from Moody Bible Institute, packed out the launch service to show support for De la O and the new church.
Later that same day, northwest of Chicago in Mt. Prospect, a worship band rehearsed prior to the first public service of Bethel Church. On the platform was the expected array of guitar players and drummers, plus one violinist. Mostly Korean, they sang in English and the music was loud.
“Is this typical of Korean worship services?” a guest asked two teenage girls who were thumbing their phones while sitting on the back row of the borrowed sanctuary.
“No,” one girl said. “Not the Korean-language services. They are very traditional.”
“Very,” the other added, “but EM – that’s English Ministry – those services are contemporary. Not as, um, Korean,” she said, smiling.
“Not as, um, Korean” might be a good slogan for Bethel Church. Pastor John Yi has led a multicultural community ministry to poor families in Maywood, about 15 miles away. Now he is starting a new church, also multicultural, which is expected to draw several ethnic groups, but especially second-generation Asians. Like the young women on the back row.
“Our principal attention has been on unchurched English-speaking people in our surrounding neighborhoods in Mt. Prospect even though Bethel Church is made up of a largely Asian-American base,” Yi said. “Interestingly, our ethnic affinity is difficult to dismiss and thus, we have attracted a lot more Korean-speaking people than we had planned.”
The disconnect between generations becomes evident as older people filled the pews, then attempted to sing English worship songs. It’s not only the linguistic gap, there’s a musical gap that many churches have had to bridge.
Their discomfort is evident, but clearly the older people support Yi and his effort to reach their children’s generation. It’s all smiles and bows as about 300 people filled the fellowship hall after the service and shared an inaugural meal of stir-fried rice, Buffalo wings, and Italian spaghetti.
“The first generation has a growing understanding of the necessity of having a gospel ministry that’s culturally indigenous for their U.S.-born second gen,” Noh said. “This may have come about belated as a result of a decade or more of the young generation’s silent exodus from their ethnic churches.”
New networks, new sites
In the far south Chicago suburbs, another church launched this day. Meeting in a middle school amid large new houses, this church plant is a restart. “First Baptist Church of New Lennox approached us asking for help,” said Scott Nichols, pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Carol Stream, another suburb 40 miles away. “They sold their building and had been meeting in a school….Unfortunately, they were…near to closing the doors.”
Nichols and his team did what they have done twice before: they brought in leaders and vision. First they offered Saturday night services utilizing the Carol Stream staff. Then, after calling a campus pastor to lead the new work, they restarted Sunday morning worship.
On opening day, Grace Point Community Church in Frankfort welcomed about 60 people from the area. Their target is not based on ethnicity but proximity. “Our target is anyone who will hear us,” Nichols said. “We have gone door to door and mailed about 20,000 postcards to the area.”
Nichols recounts how he’s often said, “You could blindfold an ape and give him a dart. Any place on the Chicagoland map he hits is a good place to plant a church!”
The Crossroads/Grace Point plant demonstrates two trends: the trend toward shutting down a foundering church, then allowing a stronger church to restart a ministry with new vision and new DNA; and the emergence of networks among churches that produce multi-site ministries.
“I believe this is happening both out of necessity and a new valuing of multiplication and reproduction,” Kicklighter said. “Necessity, because churches and pastors are hungry for connection with others,” but also from “a passionate commitment to impact lostness and to do whatever it takes to reach people and give them a local church in which to grow as disciples.”
North by northwest
As at Crossroads, the leaders of Grace Fellowship have a broad vision. On Palm Sunday weekend, in a small metal building in north central Illinois south of Rockford, that vision is becoming reality – for the third time.
“I got my first job when I was 13,” Brad Pittman said, “tasseling corn. Anybody know what tasseling corn is?” Hands shot up across the room, along with a few chuckles. “Best job in the world,” he said, before describing his journey from corn tasseler to full-time church planter. A member at Grace Fellowship for 13 years, Pittman eventually joined the staff with pastors Jeremy Horton and Brian McWethy. From the main campus in Ashton, the trio launched Grace Fellowship in Amboy in 2012, and next in rural Davis Junction.
“This is a part of the state where Southern Baptists have had little presence,” said Kicklighter. “When Baptists moved from the south, they settled primarily in the metropolitan areas of the north to work in industry. They did not come to Illinois to buy farms…so we have few churches in these kinds of settings.”
The mainline denominations were better established here, but their churches are in steep decline. So, there is potential here.
“There are over 4 million people living in the non-urban context in Illinois,” said IBSA’s John Mattingly, who leads church planting in the northwest quadrant. “I believe God has prepared many more churches like Grace Fellowship to step out in faith and do something remarkable.”
The three pastors targeted Davis Junction (called “DJ” by the locals) because there was only one faltering mainline church there to serve more than 4,000 people. “We hung over 800 door hangers” in the week before the launch, Pittman said. “We don’t know what the Lord is going to do; we’ll have to wait and see,” he said, before describing how deeply he feels the spiritual need in the area.
“This is not the typical multi-site church plant,” Kicklighter said, “but a commitment to reproduction and, even more importantly, sending people who will impact another place with the Gospel. This is a value system commitment that says extending the reach of the Gospel and the church is at least as important as how many we gather in our own building on Sunday morning.”
More than 60 turned out for the first Saturday evening service, some from the church’s other locations, but many new visitors from DJ. After the service in the brightly rehabbed building, there are lots of hugs, as at each of the launches, and cake.
It is a birthday, after all.
After closure, new hope
The next morning Jon Sedgwick is all smiles as he baptizes two new believers. Sedgwick didn’t intend to plant a church in northern Illinois. “I didn’t like Illinois,” the former Missouri pastor said emphatically. Illinois was just a place to get through when traveling home to Indiana for visits with family. “But God gave us a love for Illinois!”
“We love Rock Falls!” his wife, Rhadonda, added, equally enthusiastically.
Mattingly had visited the Sedgwicks’ Missouri church describing the need for planters in the Northwest quadrant of Illinois. After Mattingly’s second appeal – “Is God calling someone here to come and help?” – the couple realized, “It was us. God was calling us. God said, ‘Why not you?’”
In 2012, they arrived and began building a new ministry at the building that once housed First Southern Baptist Church of Rock Falls. To the usual round of Bible studies and home meetings, Sedgwick added “Celebrate Recovery,” a faith-based twelve-step program originated by Rick Warren and Saddleback Community Church in California. Reaching out to people with addictions, Sedgwick found doors opening that once were closed to Baptist ministry.
At the worship service, greeters David and John freely told guests how they came to be part of New Hope Church through the recovery ministry.
Also in attendance was Jordan Van Dyke, a planter who is gathering a core group for a new church in Galesburg.
It is commonly observed that ministry in northwest Illinois is especially challenging. “It’s because of the soil,” Van Dyke said. “It’s hard. Sometimes I wish I’d been sent to southern Illinois where, when it’s Sunday, people go to church. In the northwest, it’s Sunday and church is an option. ‘Will I go to church?’ Maybe. Maybe not.”
On this day they do, because there’s new hope in Rock Falls.
Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper. In the May 26 issue of IB, we’ll continue our series on The Midwest Challenge with a focus on church revitalization. Go to http://ibonline.IBSA.org to read past issues.