Church life in shrinking Illinois

Lisa Misner —  February 21, 2019

By Eric Reed

Illinois Exodus

Hard times hit the publishing industry in the early 2000’s. The president of Christianity Today International, for whom I worked at the time, called the confluence of 9/11, falling ad sales, and the rise of the internet “whitewater.” Apparently he enjoyed rafting, but he knew the river crashing against the rocks as placid waters turned swift was a dangerous situation, even for adventurous souls. He talked often about “whitewater” for several years. He told us to hold on tight.

We did.

It wasn’t easy. In the end, the organization was leaner, but publishers who survived met the crisis with creativity and invention. And the gospel mission was advanced.

I thought of that while reading an article on “the Illinois Exodus.” In it, a Chicagoland pastor used the same term to describe these tremulous times in our state. “I suspect we’re headed into some whitewater,” said Mike Woodruff. “The waves are going to knock us around a bit. But our foundations are strong.”

Woodruff was quoted by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra at The Gospel Coalition. She asked about the future of Illinois in light of declining population and growing debt. More specifically, she questioned the impact of the resulting exodus on churches.

Some 45,000 people left Illinois in 2018, a trend mirrored in equally high-tax states California and New Jersey. In Illinois, the mounting debt is due in large part to retirement promises—and the financial obligation to cover them—which now equals about $50,800 per household.

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“What worries me is that I think most Illinois churches are unprepared for what will happen—i.e., in an effort to meet pension obligations, legislators will raise taxes and reduce social programming, which will likely shift the safety net to churches…”
– Mike Woodruff, Chicagoland pastor

“…For several generations, pastors have not seen these issues as something they need to know anything about, so now they’re unable to do much because they don’t know anything….We need to play catch-up and fast.”
– Greg Forster, Trinity International University, Deerfield

How will that affect our ministries? The first answer is obvious: population decline. Especially in troubled neighborhoods and dwindling rural communities, the loss of people hurts. As young people leave to find jobs and older people leave when they retire, the church loses reliable attenders, servants, and givers, and to some extent its future.

But beyond population loss, what happens when the politicians try to adjust the budget to cover the bills? The pastors Zylstra interviewed pointed to a different problem: efforts to cover the gaps could result in loss of services in failing communities, and increases the probability that local churches will be called upon to make up the difference for people in need.

Such a likelihood causes me to ask, Are we prepared? Evangelicals today say we are interested in social issues and in being the hands of Jesus for our community. That commitment will be tested in time and money. “There will be opportunity for pastors to lead well and offer hope,” Woodruff said. “Don’t build barriers and retreat inside and just take care of your own.”

Who imagined a call to local and state missions would be driven by the state’s financial and demographic crunch, but if that’s what it takes to spur the church to a new era of action, so be it.

Lisa Misner

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Lisa is IBSA Director of Communications. A Missouri native, she earned a Master of Arts in Communications from the University of Illinois. Her writing has received awards from the Baptist Communicators Association and the Evangelical Press Association.