Church planting in Chicago first brought me face to face with questions of the involvement of Christians/church in the world. Race, war, poverty, the environment, it was all on the table and Christians around me where trying to be relevant. As part of my Ph. D. studies at Northwestern University I was in classes at a seminary where the students were trying to apply the theories of social involvement which they drew from their studies of then contemporary theologians – trying to develop their praxis as some would say. A fairly large group of them decided to have a sit-in at the seminary to protest the development of a certain coal burning power generating plant in Chicago. As I walked by one day I noticed that the whole area of the sit-in was thick with cigarette smoke. Later I asked one of the participants if he did not think this a bit odd, that they would protest air pollution yet pollute each other’s air. He didn’t see my point. Of course now, everyone sees that point. This incident really brought home to me that Christians –desiring, as they do. the best for others-- are quick to get on bandwagons, right or left, without considering the wider ramifications.
As my wife and I planted a church, we faced the question: what should be our attitude toward the issues of the day? I took the stance of focusing on planting a church, believing that a church, a group of people committed to Jesus Christ, could best address the issues of the neighbourhood. Thus, most of our programs were in some way or another slated as “outreach.” Friday youth night with a full basketball program run by volunteers from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Door to door visitation, small group Bible studies by the dozens. I kept a written log of my time and sought to spend fifty percent in evangelism. As a result my wife and led more people to Christ and baptized more people than we have at any other point in our lives. It was an amazing period in our ministry.
However I did very little with the structural issues of the community. I would say there were several reasons for this. During that time the government answer to poverty was welfare, and I saw welfare destroy people’s lives. I also observed some effective government sponsored programs, such as one that trained youth in marketable skills. Ironically, that particular program was cancelled during a period of budget cutting while programs that produced few results continued.
In was for sure in Chicago that I developed a deep cynicism toward almost all government run/sponsored anti-poverty programs. At the same time I learned to respect the lives of the working people around me. My father was a member of a union and worked his whole life. The people I knew in Chicago were not rich like the people in the suburbs, but most of them brought home a paycheck and lived happy lives and hoped for better things. At the same time, teens dropping out of high school, a rising gang presence, the insidious entrance of drugs, these and other community dysfunctions were an incoming storm.
In the end I left Chicago for Detroit realizing that just being a church like all the churches I had known growing up was not enough for the tumultuous seas of the inner city. By then I had worked on a number of things beyond youth basketball night, but was still trying to see how the church could truly be a church and truly be a place where people’s lives could be holistically changed.