August 15, 2010

Sometimes our south suburban landscape seems pretty bleak. Leaders of churches, cities, schools, businesses and community groups all over our region, all over the Chicago area, feel bowled over and knocked about by a bewildering array of social, economic and environmental concerns.

Homelessness and hunger are on the rise. Guns are more widely available than ever. All of our president's efforts to create prosperity and jobs get crushed by a recalcitrant Congress.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) recently told the SouthtownStar that today's crisis is caused by one political party dedicated to delaying, denying and obstructing all progress, growth and reform until it is back in power. While most of us agree with Madigan, we still listen politely to the arguments of the other side.

Ministers go to a lot of meetings to deal with these problems. Many south suburban ministers, like me, have participated in countless hours of city council meetings, planning boards, school improvement committees, etc. Many of these meetings have a positive effect as church and community leaders plan and take action to solve unsolvable problems.

The meetings I enjoy the most are the meetings of the Ministers Conference of South Cook County. We are a group of small, strong and active churches committed to addressing and healing the wounds that touch so many people in our area. We recently met with the Bankers Community Action Committee (comprising several banks that serve our communities) and made great progress on a program to return businesses, jobs, prosperity - along with improved and credible banking services - to underserved south suburban communities. We hope to see good results soon.

Some people say the church should concentrate on the spiritual work of saving souls from sin and celebrating the sacraments but not on solving social problems. Sin is not just personal and moral failing. Today's sins are the conscious acts that destroy jobs, create poverty and degrade communities. The church is here to confront sin and to proclaim the message of repentance and salvation. To most clergy, the BP oil spill, closed factories, violence, hunger and homelessness certainly look like the results of sin (neglect, recklessness, bad planning). It is our job to call for repentance and change.

People say we have no Chicago-style hunger, poverty, homelessness or violence in the south suburbs. But my food pantry at St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Harvey and scores of other food programs in our region are at capacity. The recent gang killings of Adam Martinez in Park Forest and other innocent young people place us next in line to Chicago. We pray that the new Supreme Court ruling on guns will not bring fire and Armageddon to the south suburbs.

When you write a religion column, you must do more than preach and complain. Sometimes, you have to inspire church and community leaders with ideas and advice that give hope, courage and strength when life is rough and times are hard.

My good friend the Rev. Mike Stephenson and I recently compiled just such a list. Here it is.

Mike and Rod's 12 Rules for Church Survival, Mission and Growth

1. Don't wallow in powerless self-pity. Go out and do ministry.

2. Don't be paralyzed by depression and fear. Find new and effective ways to take action for God.

3. Get active as a congregation. Concentrate on growth and not on shrinking.

4. Find new ways to get the message out. Don't rely on silence to accomplish your goals.

5. Even if the community is not conducive to church growth, don't give up.

6. Unite around your goal of growth and ministry. Don't just struggle for survival.

7. If everything seems against you, God and the church still are on your side

8. If you go down, at least go down swinging.

9. Keep your ears and eyes open to the Holy Spirit. The spirit moves in very unexpected ways.

10. Never give up on the ministries God gives to you. If they are from God, God will not let them die.

11. Money is important, but mission is not only or exclusively about money.

12. Don't abandon ship. Don't go down with the ship. Bail and pray. God will keep you afloat.