Growing Word-Rooted Christians in Chicago

With a population close to 10 million, the Chicago metropolitan area is America’s largest Midwestern city and third largest overall. Known for its architecture, deep dish pizza, avid sports fans, and sprawling suburbs, the Windy City also boasts a sizable Christian population.

While only about half of the residents in Seattle (52 percent) and San Francisco (48 percent) identify as Christians, 71 percent of Chicagoans call themselves Christians (a large portion of these are Catholic; Chicago has one of the largest Catholic populations in the United States).

The Chicago area is also a global center of evangelical influence. It is home to many top evangelical colleges and seminaries (Wheaton, Moody Bible Institute, Trinity, North Park, to name a few) and publications (Crossway, Tyndale, InterVarsity Press, Moody, Christianity Today).

But even with its evangelical pedigree, Chicago needs more gospel-centered, Word-rooted churches where Christians see clearly how Scripture should guide and anchor their lives. That’s why The Gospel Coalition Chicago is hosting the Leading with the Word conference on October 26 to 27, 2018—a gathering to encourage and equip believers to take the highest view of the Bible and its application in the church, in preaching, teaching, and in their own spiritual lives.

I asked the conference organizer, pastor and TGC Council member Colin Smith of The Orchard, as well as David Choi of  Chicago’s Church of the Beloved, to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of gospel-centered ministry in Chicagoland today.


Is ministry in the Chicago context different from ministry in similarly sized cities in other parts of the world?

Smith: Having come here from the UK I have been asked many times about what’s different from the context of ministry in London. But I have been much more struck by the similarities than by the differences. The first great need of all human beings in every time and place is to know God. When we come to know him we become aware of our need of a Savior. Another great need is for the strength to pursue the life to which God has called us, and that power becomes ours through the Holy Spirit as we look in living faith to Christ our Savior and our Lord. These are universal needs. They never change. And in all the conversation about cultural context, I think it is important to remember the relevance of the gospel in every time and place.

Briefly describe your churches.

Choi: Our church, Church of the Beloved, was a parachute plant launched in 2012 in the near west neighborhood of Chicago. Since then, God has multiplied our plant to six locations in the city of Chicago, and two outside of Chicago. One of the most encouraging aspects early on in our ministry was how God began to lead nations to our church, in particular people who had never heard the gospel. Our first international student who came to Jesus had no previous knowledge of Jesus. She put her faith in Christ and was baptized several days before she moved back to her country. Another girl from an unreached country came to our Christmas Eve service. That night, she had a dream where she was running away from Jesus. When she woke up, she felt compelled to learn more about this Jesus she was running from. Several months later, after studying the Bible with one of our church members and hearing the gospel proclaimed, she trusted in Jesus and continues to be an important part of our church family.

Smith: The Orchard began in 1953. For the first 55 years it was known as The Arlington Heights Evangelical Free Church. It was planted through the leadership of Will Norton, who was the professor of missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the 1950s. The first pastor of the church was Gordon Addington, a student from the seminary. The name of the church changed to The Orchard in 2008 when we launched a second campus in Barrington. In the years that followed, the remaining members of two churches facing closure asked if we would receive them and continue the work of their church as a campus of The Orchard. Then in 2016 we launched a fifth campus in Northfield and are looking forward, God willing, to the opening of our sixth campus in the city of Chicago in 2019.

Many in our community have been helped by our community care program, in which volunteers offer material and spiritual help to people in need. The Celebrate Recovery program has been another means of help to many, and the children’s ministry is highly valued by many families in the communities we serve. But I think the greatest ministry to the community is through innumerable acts of care and kindness that flow from God’s people wherever he has set them down.

What are the biggest discipleship challenges you face with Christians in your particular context?

Smith: Despite the rapid secularization of our culture, many in the communities we serve have some form of faith. They would consider themselves Christians, even without a personal faith in Christ or the experience of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Others have rejected a cultural Christianity without ever having tasted the joy of a living relationship with God, and that’s a challenge. Either way, it’s hard for people to hear what Christ offers when they think they have experienced it already.

It’s hard for people to hear what Christ offers when they think they have experienced it already.

Another challenge is that many have an understanding of discipleship that revolves around individual mentoring and is often disconnected from the local church. Our model of ministry revolves around roots, life, and fruit. We believe Christians grow and mature where they put down deep roots in the Word of God, share in the life Christ gives us through fellowship with others, and bear fruit wherever God has set us down to serve him in the world. That’s different from what many people are familiar with, and so it can take some getting used to.

Choi: Transience. Every year about one-third of our congregation moves, usually to another major city. Not only is it challenging to sustain growth, but it is also difficult replenishing new leaders. We recently started a leadership pipeline to try and address this concern, and I have found that one of the most important things we need to focus on as a city center church is developing new planters and leaders who have a vision to stay in the city longer than the average stay of two to three years. Another challenge is the emotional drain of saying goodbye to so many church members and leaders you have come to love and care for. Many urban planters can empathize with the pain and subsequent feelings of loneliness that comes with having key leaders feel “called” to move away from their city. I have found it important to meet with other planters and pastors outside of my church who remind me that these emotions are a common problem among city center churches. It has also forced us to think through preaching calendars and discipleship, knowing that the average member may only be in our congregation for a few years. One of the unique struggles is how to balance casting vision to stay in the city for the long haul with the reality of embracing urban mobility, and learning to equip and send people out to be a blessing to the cities and churches they will be heading to.

Are there contexts or demographics where the soil seems fertile for gospel advancement in the Chicago area? Where do you see the most life and fruitfulness?

Choi: God has grown our church through reaching urban millennials, including internationals who are studying here or working here. On a given Sunday, we have about 30 or so nations represented, and more than half our congregation grew up speaking a language other than English. When people cite surveys that millennials are leaving the church, I ask them: Which millennials? Our church’s average age in Chicago is about 25 years old, and yet it has grown in what is often deemed the most difficult demographic to reach. We find that many internationals have no religious baggage to deconstruct, so they tend to be more open to hearing about Christ. One sister from a closed country was given a Bible from one of our leaders. Two weeks later, I asked her if she had read it. She hung her head in shame as she confessed to having only read Genesis and John. Seventy-one chapters in two weeks! It is extremely challenging for us as believers when we see non-believers being more eager to learn about Jesus and study his Word than many churched people.

When people cite surveys that millennials are leaving the church, I ask them: Which millennials? Our church’s average age in Chicago is about 25 years old.

Smith: I have been struck by the growth of multicultural ministry in our church. Historically our congregation was largely made up of Swedes and Norwegians. Multicultural ministry started with a lady who had a vision for translating sermons into Polish. Then a Japanese intern who served in our church had the vision for expanding this work. Now, we have ministry along people from multiple language groups, including Spanish, Indian, Polish, Korean, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian, Arabic, Swahili, and Ukranian.

What areas of sin and injustice are most troublesome in the Chicago area, and what can churches be doing to address them?

Smith: Racial division is a burden to the heart of any thinking Christian in this area, as is the tragic loss of human life through abortion, and through murder in the city. The greatest opportunities we have for influence in areas of sin and injustice come, in my opinion, not so much through activity organized by the church, but through the influence of individual members of the body of Christ sent out into the world. Our people shine like lights as they act with righteousness, justice, and compassion wherever the Lord has placed them. Motivating and inspiring believers who gather for worship to see the purpose of God in their calling is, to my mind, one of the great privileges of ministry.

Choi: Chicago is widely considered one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Systemic racism, corruption, and injustice have plagued our city in both visible and also subtle ways. Shootings and homicides happen daily and often in neighborhoods that would normally be considered safe. I have had conversations with Chicago pastors who minister in diverse contexts both racially and economically. There seems to be a growing awareness among churches and leaders who recognize the need for coordinated citywide prayer initiatives as well as a united voice to speak prophetically against corporate sins, both inside and outside the church.

How can TGC readers be praying for your particular church and the broader movement of the gospel in the Chicago area?

Smith: Pray for the launch of The Orchard Chicago campus that will meet at The Lakewood beginning January 6, 2019. Pray that ministry leaders may walk humbly and faithfully with Christ and that God’s Spirit will use his Word to bring lasting change in many lives.

Choi: For Church of the Beloved, please pray for us to continue to be humble before the Lord. Please pray for a sweet spirit of unity and cooperation among churches throughout Chicago in seeing gospel impact permeate every sphere of society. Pray that existing pastors and new planters would stay rooted in the gospel and that we would spend much time with God. Pray that there would be an increase of personal and corporate prayer among all the churches in our city.


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