The Church Downtown: Strategies for Urban Ministry

By Byassee, Jason | The Christian Century, March 11, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Church Downtown: Strategies for Urban Ministry


Byassee, Jason, The Christian Century


THE CITY IS changing. For decades white people with money fled the city for the suburbs, leaving behind a mostly brown and black population that was often bereft of resources. But recently, in many cities, patterns of gentrification have reversed this trend. People with money have moved back to the city and rehabbed old housing stock, seeking to live where they work and play. As housing prices and property taxes go up, lower-income people are often driven out.

How is the church responding to this most recent change and ministering to the new set of urban dwellers? Chicago offers the examples of several churches that have responded to the swell of new urban elites who began coming in the 1980s and have not stopped.

Chicago once had a number of downtown "First Churches." Almost all of them packed up and left in the wake of urban changes in the late 19th and early 20th century. But First United Methodist did not.

First United Methodist Church began at a meeting in a blacksmith's log-cabin shop in 1832--six years before the city of Chicago was incorporated. It thrived amid the 19th-century urban scene through the clever idea of having a mixed-use building: the church built more space than it needed for worship and rented some of the space to businesses.

That concept was expanded audaciously in 1922 when the congregation decided to build a skyscraper, putting the sanctuary and church offices on the first two floors, commercial space on floors 3 to 24 (Clarence Darrow's office was once on the sixth floor) and the parsonage in the loft. The church called itself the Chicago Temple--an odd usage of the term by Methodists, perhaps a sign of the grandness of their vision. The skyscraper, diagonal from City Hall in the Loop, Chicago's downtown, is almost indistinguishable from the buildings around it. Commuters can walk by it for years and never know it's a church.

Pastor Philip Blackwell calls it "a cathedral church" that serves two very different populations. It has a Sunday crowd of about 1,000 worshipers who come from every zip code in the city and 80 suburbs. But the multiple staff would be busy if they had no regular congregation at all. The Chicago Temple offers midweek services for downtown workers (90 percent of whom are members of other churches), and it has a ministry to the many homeless people who spend days and nights in the Loop. Claude King, the pastor who leads the ministry to the homeless, looks like he could handle himself in a fight--and indeed while I visited the church he was called to the lobby to pacify a brewing confrontation.

One simple, powerful ministry of the Temple is its open-door policy: it leaves the air conditioning or the heat on in the sanctuary and keeps the sanctuary open for prayer. Homeless people are almost always in the pews, surrounded by wooden angels, stained glass and oceans of dark wood. Many of them eventually join the church, or at least come forward for communion. "They're pretty hungry," observes Blackwell, who has a quick wit and a young, impish face under a white crown of hair. His ministry is of an intellectual bent. He is proud of the church's new science and theology study group that will be part of a citywide program, sponsored by the Museum of Science and Industry, called "Science Chicago," meant to enhance appreciation for the discipline.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Churches like the Chicago Temple don't thrive unless they improvise. The Temple's most recent innovation is a theater. When the time came to renovate the church basement, the church spent a few hundred thousand dollars to create a venue for the Silk Road Theater Company, which uses the space for free.

Silk Road Theater was founded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in an effort to engage the cultures of the East with sympathy rather than rancor. Its founders are a Muslim and a Syrian Orthodox Christian. Some 1.5 million people with origins in the Silk Road region live in Chicago. …

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