Vol 2, Num 1 :: 2003.01.03 — 2003.01.16
Suburban Life Community Church (a Christian Reformed church and originally a church plant) is located in Darien, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. The following is from Tim Hoekstra, pastor at Suburban Life and chaplain at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.
Suburban Life was originally planted by myself and two other staff members with 5 families in 1991 as a “Willow Creek Style” church, meaning we had a Sunday morning outreach and Wednesday “believers” service. Over 300 attended the first worship service in a local country club banquet room. After about 3 months, we settled in with about 120 people attending. About 90% of those were people with little or no church experience and certainly little knowledge of God or Christ.
After about four years of operation, we had around 300 attending with the ongoing challenge of about 80% non- or new believers. It was at this point that we entered a bit of a crisis in keeping up with discipleship needs. In 1995, a group of leaders took a step back from the church and re-examined the vision. For about 9 months we talked, read, prayed, fasted, about where God wanted us to go from here. We basically said, “Lord, this church is yours. Do with it what you want and we will trust you.” We believed that we needed to disciple our people into a much deeper relationship with Christ and that we needed to begin to send out witnesses for Christ who would be capable of discipling others instead of expecting that we needed to get people into a worship service. We believed that we were missing many people who would never set foot into a church.
As a result, Sunday morning became no longer our evangelistic center. We devoted ourselves to equipping the people who would scatter each day to be the “evangelistic center.” For us this meant more worship and teaching at services, etc. We made slight changes to our worship services in 1996 going into summer. All hell broke loose at this point. Many people were confused or simply didn’t want the challenge of growing. We lost 150 people over a year-and-a-half. But we also gained about 30-40 people during that time who came because of the changes. Eventually our services grew to be about two hours long. We now worship for the first hour or so and have teaching and discussion, prayer, response, etc. during the second hour.
Our next step came in 1997 at our monthly men’s prayer and worship gathering. It became clear that the men who were participating had a new desire to participate in racial reconciliation. That desire grew out of Promise Keepers conferences we had been attending. We were a white, suburban church—what could we do? We prayed for about a year. Then, in fall of 1998, a friend of one of our elders introduced him to a pastor he had recently met. This pastor was black and led a church named Austin Corinthian Baptist Church located at the Eisenhower expressway and Cicero Avenue in Chicago. Rev. Clarence Hilliard was in his early seventies and had been around Chicago since the late 60s. His history goes back to Circle Church of Chicago where he was their first black pastor. This elder of our church kept in contact with Rev. Hilliard over the phone and attended the Austin Corinthian Christmas choir concert. That launched our relationship with that church. Over time, that relationship has expanded to another black church, Back to God All Nations Church, a C.R.C. church pastored by D.A. Crushshon, as well as to Ebony Evangelical Community Church, a two-year-old church in Naperville pastored and planted by Rev. Dwayne Turner.
We have now been in relationship with these churches since 1998. We meet together for prayer, teaching and breakfast over at Austin Corinthian every Wednesday morning at 6 a.m. This meeting has about 15 to 20 people in attendance. We worship with Austin Corinthian each second Sunday morning at their church and meet at our church in the evening at 5 p.m. for dinner and worship. There is a Friday morning gathering at Back to God church at 6 a.m. There is also a first Saturday meeting at Austin Corinthian that is open to any church and that has grown from about seven people to 40 or 50 men and women from about 10 different churches of many different denominations from the suburbs and the city. At that meeting we pray, worship, receive teaching, and have discussions on issues of race. All of the above meetings other than our own church services are led by black pastors and leaders.
This path has led to many challenges for us at Suburban Life. As our relationship with black churches grew, we began to once again see people leave our church because they didn’t want to deal with issues of race. Our greatest challenge has been to stay in this relationship for the long haul and to be willing to submit to the black leadership no matter what. We needed to listen and commit and learn. Far too many of our conclusions about race had been made from the isolation of the suburbs and the white experience. We have learned so much and have seen the members of the black churches begin to trust us as white people because we came to them to learn instead of to help them and because we have embraced black leadership instead of having to be the leaders ourselves. The people of these churches did not believe we would stay with this. Their experience had been that eventually whites would stop participating, especially when people begin to leave the church. But we have simply believed that the biblical vision for the church is for the nations to somehow be together. This is our attempt to honor that call.
These relationships eventually led our church to take another look at building and land plans. The Lord began to stir a new sensitivity to finances and the poor and the city. Eventually, we sensed that God was asking us not to purchase land and build a building right now. We had a contract for land and architectural plans that we set aside. We then began to seek how to help these black city churches build new buildings and now are working on plans for a couple of community centers located in their neighborhoods in the city. Most importantly, the black leaders are overseeing these plans as indigenous leaders of the city.
We plan to continue to rent facilities for the long haul and give away as much money to other churches and ministries as we can. We currently meet in a Darien Park District facility each Sunday and rent office space from them during the week. At our office site, we have given free space for worship and offices to a Hispanic church plant that is about four years old. This year we gave away about 20% of our budget. Our goal is to increase our giving every year and see how high we can get that percentage.
This goal has also led to my desire to become a bi-vocational pastor so that my salary can be nearly eliminated from the church. Our congregation can now give more money away and people can see that we are all the “pastors” of this church. Also, I am similar to the people who work each day and then need to make “Christ” a lifestyle. I didn’t want to simply be a paid professional. Our vision is that we gather to scatter into the world so that we can reveal Christ anytime, anywhere, by anyone no matter what!
Our congregation has not grown numerically through this process, but we have certainly grown. We are more biblical, active, and mature. We are currently working with three black congregations and helping plant one cell church in the suburbs. Many of our people are still learning and not all participate in our new activities yet. But we do know that we are doing what God wants for his church according to the Scriptural vision of Revelation 5:9-10 and 7:9,10 and Acts 2, among other verses. But this is very hard. There is a painful cost of comfort and time. There is the cost of going against the tide of the current church culture. It takes all the perseverance we can muster to stay this course. We are now seen as a church living out on the edge of the mainstream, which is the same view many people have of black churches.
So, that’s the story. We do not know what lies ahead. We listen to the Lord weekly to see what he has for us. We are seeking to simply keep up with his revelations to us and to his broader church. I have friends in other parts of the world who are hearing about similar stirrings in churches in their countries, too. We plan to keep doing what we are doing. We now have about 120 people in our church. Sometimes we play with the idea that we ought to break into smaller cell churches that meet in homes weekly and that then gather for bigger worship once or twice a month and probably with other churches at least one of those times. Who knows?
When I think broadly about how our story applies to other churches, I am convinced that it is absolutely essential that churches take a fresh look at what the Bible says about what the church is to be all about. I think that this will include other churches, other races, other nations, the poor and the oppressed and radical discipleship that transforms our lifestyles. But this will require radical change from what is and it will have a cost to it. I think that God will sift the church like he did with the army of Gideon. This all begins with the leadership of the church. The leaders must pray, study, fast, and stay together. The ultimate question is really: is the church God’s church? Is it in his hands to shape and mold? The western, visible, mainline, and often white church needs significant change to become effective in being the church that God calls for. This may or may not include numerical growth for individual churches but it will model and grow the Kingdom of God. The path described in our story is not for cowards but for God-led prophets who are willing to lay down their lives for the biblical message for the church rather the protection of jobs, status quo, and establishment.