What beautiful church buildings the Presbyterians inhabit in the Chicago area. I have not, of course, been inside each one yet. But, the ones I have visited—even if they are showing their age a little—tell a story of the care that went into their design and a willingness by their members and friends to contribute large sums of money to create a building that inspires awe.
Before I came to this call I had been in Fourth Presbyterian Church many times. Chicago was, to me, Michigan Avenue shopping, museums, the Nutcracker, Marshall Fields on State Street (I don’t think I will ever be able to call it Macy’s), an annual train ride with my mom and grandma on the Rock Island Rocket from Peoria, and, in more recent years, the annual meeting of the collegium of presbytery executives in our synod. For many years that group met in December in the old manse at Fourth Church for our Christmas celebration. Sitting inside in those homey surroundings and watching the snow fall among the lights on Michigan Avenue was always a treat. It was also awe-inspiring to see how the building was decorated for Christmas and to experience again the majesty of that beautiful sanctuary.
On Ash Wednesday this year I worshiped at Second Presbyterian on South Michigan avenue. Talk about an awe-inspiring sanctuary! It was a little dark in the upper reaches that evening but I could still see the angels and the woodwork. I was told I need to come back to see the windows in the daylight.
Just imagine the city of Chicago in the 1890’s with those beautiful, awe-inspiring buildings dotting the landscape of the city of big shoulders. They told a story of Presbyterians as people of influence and importance. They also, I am sure, told a story of Presbyterians as people with money. Did our ancestors use that money well once they got their beautiful buildings built? Did they continue their high level of giving to their congregations so that people’s lives could be changed in the name of the gospel?
What collective story are the Presbyterians of Chicagoland telling today? What do our neighbors know about us from what they can see on the outside of our buildings? Do they get a sense of who we are by the way we interact with them? Do they even know that we are there?
I was in Barrington recently (another beautiful building) and drove by the campus of Willow Creek which I had never seen in person. I was telling someone about that and they told me this story. One of the pastors walked into the parking lot at the church one day (it really looks more like a small college campus). In the parking lot the pastor saw a distressed man and asked if he needed help. The man said his cat was lost and so the security staff was called to help look for the cat. In the midst of this, the man said, “What is this place, anyway?” He lived close enough to the church to think his lost cat might be there, but he had never been enticed to find out what this place was.
Our beautiful buildings tell a story about who God is, how we worship God, and the importance of the church in the lives of its members. What story are they telling to people who pass by them every day? How do we take that sense of awe and wonder into people’s lives in such a way that they will know for sure that our intention is to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ?
Presbytery of Chicago