It’s hard work to plant a church in Chicago.

“If you pierce the 100-member level, you’re in the vast minority,” said David Choi, who planted Church of the Beloved in Chicago four years ago. “From my vantage point, I’ve seen about 10 percent of church plants pierce the 100 level. Far more have around 10 to 50 people. . . . I could name a good amount of churches that have fewer than 60 or have folded in the last five years.”

Jon Dennis planted Holy Trinity Church 18 years ago. He agrees church planting in Chicago is hard, but his assessment is more optimistic.

“There’s a quiet and critical church planting movement afoot in Chicago,” he said. “Many aren’t aware of what is happening in our cities, but God is at work.”

The city has its own church planting heroes, Dennis said, pointing to New Life Community Church and its 24 church plants since 1986. There’s also James Meeks, who started Salem Baptist Church in 1985; the church now tops 15,000 members

But most of Chicago’s church planting has been done in the last decade or so.

Part of that growth stems from the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) North American Mission Board (NAMB). Recently, the SBC’s church-planting wing bolstered its staff and care for Chicago planters as part of its SEND Cities campaign, which seeks to plant churches in North America’s 32 least-reached cities.

“Especially in the last five to seven years, our assessment process has improved drastically, which helped with the retention rate for our plants,” said Chris Wright, who oversees NAMB’s church planting strategy and vision in Chicago.

In Chicagoland alone, NAMB has a relationship with 32 active church plants—two-thirds of which are in the city. Wright believes the vast majority will survive.

“That doesn’t mean it’s easy for any of them,” he said. “In Chicago, growth is consistent but slow.”

Why It’s Hard

A number of factors make the Windy City’s ground relatively hard, such as a post-Christian culture, neighborhood segregation, and racism. But a growing number of church planters are hopeful that healthy churches can persist, despite the difficulties.

NAMB estimates only 3 percent of Chicagoland’s 9.5 million people are evangelical. Chicago is historically more Roman Catholic, owing to its immigrant populations from Ireland, Germany, Poland, and Italy.

By the end of the 1940s, both the closing of stockyards and meatpacking plants and the burgeoning civil unrest over racial issues sent many to the suburbs. Around the same time, African Americans from the South moved north during the Great Migration, and with them brought larger exposure to Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal denominations. Before long, due to the influx of African Americans, the growth of enormous Baptist churches, and the birth of gospel music in the city’s South Side, Chicago became a “black church mecca,” said Charlie Dates, pastor of a fast-growing black church of 1,500 members. 

Chicago’s Catholic heritage has persisted, but few Catholics are active churchgoers. In fact, Chicago Magazine recently reported that for every 10 Catholics in Cook and Lake counties, there are four ex-Catholics. 

“Chicago to a large degree is very post-religious and post-Catholic,” Dennis said. “There are many in Chicago who have had a taste of the gospel and of religion, but reject the necessity of it.”

Parish Model

But the Catholic Church also left a gift: their model of neighborhood churches.

“I think a parish model is much more efficient” for church planting, said Brian Fulton, who planted Missio Dei Lincoln Square three years ago. “Empowered local elders and deacons with a sense of spiritual responsibility for their neighborhood can work out the gospel in their context.”

Christians will drive an hour to church, but non-Christians “will only go about as far as they would to a grocery store.”

Having a church down the street builds a sense of community, which attracts non-believers, he said.

Keeping churches community-focused works well in cities like Chicago.

“[Chicago] is a cluster of tribes,” said Mark Jobe, who restarted the non-denominational New Life Community Church 30 years ago and has since planted 23 congregations. From the young white professionals in Lincoln Park to the Mexican migrants of Little Village to the black grandma in Roseland, each of the 77 neighborhoods is distinct.

New Life expanded by planting or restarting smaller neighborhood churches. Their largest single gathering is about 1,500, but the rest are somewhere between 100 and 300.

Fulton and his wife started their Missio Dei plant three years ago in Lincoln Square, where most of the population is young, white, and white-collar. Before opening the doors, he spent a year embedding himself in Lincoln Square, praying over every block and getting to know people.

Similarly, before starting Holy Trinity Church, Dennis “apprenticed” himself to a friend who’d grown up in the city.

“[My friend] grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes [a public housing project on the South Side] and in Englewood [one of the South Side’s most violent neighborhoods], and then started working for the city,” Dennis said. “He did inspections in every neighborhood. I’d drive around with him and ask about the neighborhoods we were in.”

Jobe believes neighborhoods are distinct enough to warrant different church plants, even when they’re nearby. New Life has congregations in bordering Lincoln Park and Lakeview, less than two miles apart. Different demographics and population density mean both can thrive.

He advises going a step further, and matching church planters with a neighborhood that fits them.

“I get a lot of wide-eyed, idealistic guys right out of Bible college who want to plant in a black neighborhood,” he said. “I love that missionary heart.”

But Jobe is clear: tossing a white, middle-class kid who didn’t grow up in Chicago into an African-American neighborhood introduces barriers to church planting.

Divided by Race

Chicago neighborhoods are divided by both income and race. Chicago’s North Side is primarily wealthy and white, while the South and West Sides are predominately poorer and Hispanic or African American.

Even though Chicago began with a good track record on race—the Chicago Tribune was so outspokenly abolitionist some blamed it for helping to bring on the Civil War, and in the late 1800s Illinois had some of the best anti-discrimination laws in the country—it hasn’t stayed that way.

The influx of African Americans from the South settled mainly in the city’s South Side, and stayed there. The problems of the 1960s—violence, poverty, and poor education—stayed, too.

And while there has been some improvement, Chicago’s neighborhoods remain among the most segregated in the nation, the Tribune reported.

“There’s a long history of discrimination that’s hard to wrap your mind around,” Dennis said. “In 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, there was a lot of rioting in Lawndale [a predominately poor, African-American neighborhood on the west side], and the small businesses moved out. Here we are 48 years later, and they haven’t really moved back in. There’s intense socioeconomic disparity. It’s present in any city, but there’s a lot of historical racism in Chicago.”

Racial and socioeconomic segregation in Chicago brings challenges for any church planter, but it also provides opportunity.

“Partnerships that transcend ethnicity show Christ is not a tribal God,” Dennis said. “Multiracial churches . . . help Christ’s beauty and reconciling harmony be seen.”

‘Partnerships that transcend ethnicity show Christ is not a tribal God. Multiracial churches . . . help Christ’s beauty and reconciling harmony be seen.’ — Jon Dennis

Dennis knows from experience.

In the late 1990s, he helped start Holy Trinity Church in Hyde Park, a racially diverse oasis of wealth and education near the South Side’s University of Chicago. His white church-planting team had been sent from College Church, located in the affluent suburb of Wheaton.

“[But] in 2004 we started over,” he said. “We blew up the team and rebuilt one to look like the neighborhoods surrounding it.”

“When you have proven relationships and friendships that . . . are authentic with people of various ethnicities, then it’s much easier for people of a similar background to see you’re legit,” he said. “It’s not a programmatic activity. It has to become a part of the [church] culture.”

Don’t Forget

Charlie Dates embraces the need to plant churches, but he doesn’t want newly trained pastors to forget about established churches that have existed in Chicago for decades.

“At our church, we’re doing the hard work of church revitalization,” he wrote for Christianity Today.  “We’re a local, thriving black church in the hood. And we’re not an anomaly.”

When young seminary graduates tell him they want to plant churches in Chicago, he wonders why they’re turning away from the congregations that are already established.

“This is part of what one Illinois pastor has called ‘Gospel Gentrification,’” Dates wrote. “I understand the impulse. Church planting is a biblical imperative. Unfortunately, their motives for planting are often tinged with arrogance and a disdain for older, established churches.”Progressive Baptist Church

“I would love to see pastors in historic black churches intentionally train up young black pastors and support them as they go into established churches. That was the grace that was given to me.”

After studying under both TGC Council member K. Edward Copeland at New Zion Baptist Church and Meeks at Salem Baptist, Dates became pastor of Progressive Baptist Church. He led the 95-year-old church to add 700 members the last two years.

“Progressive is a church that’s seated on the Word of God, and hungry for the Spirit of God,” he said. “Preaching the Word to a church like that helps revitalization take place.”

Turning “an old ship” requires “patience, fortitude, and stamina,” he wrote. Yet “the vitality of the black church is critical to the welfare of the church at large.”

Dates is doing his part to train up future pastors of old churches. Progressive recently started a renewal residency program, where seminary students “learn everything they can from us, good and bad, about church revitalization.” The goal is simple: sending the young pastors into declining, historic African-American churches all across the country.

What You Don’t Need

Starting a church in Chicago is one thing, but cultivating health requires a unique mix of patience and wisdom. Well-worn “church growth” strategies simply don’t work.

“We live in old buildings,” Fulton said of city dwellers. “[So] when you spend tons of time setting up an amazing stage and backdrop, the people in the city don’t care. They know we live in old buildings.”

Choi’s churches are close to the city center; they’re full of young people, those traditionally assumed to be attracted by big screens and smoke machines.

Instead, Choi said, “millennials are suspicious of the façade. I feel bad sometimes about not being polished, but our church doesn’t love it when we get polished guys to come in. People can sniff out polish and affect.”

Those who live in the city are more likely to be skeptical and jaded. “But at the same time they have the same hopes and longings as anybody else,” Choi said.

What You Do Need

So if church-growth strategies don’t work, what does?

Dennis said prospective pastors who move to Chicago must be trained for the diverse urban context. He said they need both cultural latitude and an ability to confront pluralistic religious and ethnic perspectives.

“It requires a deep understanding of other people’s points of views and a re-articulation of the gospel,” he said.

Perhaps more crucially, church planting in Chicago requires prayerful patience.

“In Jeremiah 29, [God tells Israel] to settle in—build homes and plant gardens and give your children in marriage,” Dennis said. “Have a long-term perspective of investment. Don’t expect anything in the first 10 years.”

“There’s a little parody that says church planting takes piles of cash, skinny jeans, and a tattoo. In reality, it takes longevity and a deep, authentic knowledge of God. We want instant results, and it’s not always like that.”

‘There’s a little parody that says church planting takes piles of cash, skinny jeans, and a tattoo. In reality, it takes longevity and a deep, authentic knowledge of God.’ — Jon Dennis

But across the board, church planters said the most important ingredient is prayer.

Room for More

Church planting in Chicago is both frustrating and exciting—and the need remains great.

That’s something the Chicago Partnership for Church Planting (CPCP) is working on. Each year, the seven-year-old organization offers grants from $6,000 to $50,000 to Chicago church planters.

The CPCP is “rebooting its ministry and focus and has a vision to see new and revitalized churches throughout the neighborhoods of Chicago,” Dennis said.

And slowly but surely, seeds are taking root. All of the 12 churches it’s helped to plant over the past five years are still alive. Two have added second gatherings to accommodate growth.

Another new initiative, the Chicago Church Planting Alliance, will meet for the first time in March, said Ed Stetzer, interim teaching pastor of Moody Church and executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College.

“Church planters need one another in a challenging field like this,” he said. “Our intent is to connect different evangelical denominations and networks and find ways to encourage and equip one another.”

Just like anywhere else, planters in Chicago need support. 

“I would welcome any church planter in my neighborhood, and thank God for bringing him,” Fulton said. “We need significantly more.”