“God always finishes what he starts.” That was a word of encouragement heard on a February evening in a south Suburban Chicago church. But just like a relay race, sometimes what looks like the finish line is instead a hand off: the baton is passed, and a new runner continues the same race with fresh energy.
Members of Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Frankfort gathered for a legacy service celebrating 61 years of faithful ministry and officially recognizing the passing of the baton to become a campus of Ashburn Baptist Church.
“The gospel has been, and the gospel always will be at the forefront of everything we do as a church,” Tommy Thompson, Senior Pastor of Ashburn told the crowd. “There will always be a need to plant new churches, to replant churches, to revive and revitalize churches… and the work we’re doing to replant is not for the benefit of Ashburn. It’s for the benefit of the Kingdom of God.”
Lighthouse was started in 1961 as Palmer Park Baptist Church in Roseland by founding pastor J.B. Clymer. The church’s motto was “a going church for a coming Lord,” said Peggy Farris, Clymer’s niece and a member there since 1965. The church was marked by outreach and love for the local community, she recalled, with many people, including her husband, coming to faith.
“We (also) have some experience with a church merger,” Farris said, referring to the church’s move to Dalton in 1971. That move came at the invitation of a struggling church to merge with them and take ownership of their building. Two decades later, the congregation moved again, purchasing the present campus and changing its name to Lighthouse Fellowship.
The suburban congregation experienced a surge of growth through the late 1990’s and early 2000’s under the leadership of Matt Woodford, now pastor at Springbrook Community Church in Plainfield. However, the church eventually experienced the same declines in attendance as many other churches, both in Illinois and across the U.S.
Statistics show that the median worship attendance in U.S. congregations has declined from 137 worshippers per Sunday in 2000 down to 65 in 2020. During a season of pandemic-driven decreases due to inability to meet, members’ concerns about health risks, and difficulty discerning who was connecting online, most churches didn’t know the real number of their congregation size.
The past year or more of resumed in-person gatherings has shown that number to be at least 20% less than the pre-pandemic attendance for many churches. For Lighthouse it was closer to 40%. During a time of pastoral transition, church leadership reached out to IBSA for help navigating the next season. IBSA’s Health Team Leader, Scott Foshie, met with the church to assess their current health, to pray, and to consider how best to move forward.
During those months of prayer and conversations, an opportunity presented itself. Ashburn Baptist Church, located 12 miles away in Orland Park, was also going through their own health consultation with IBSA. Though at a very different place in ministry than the Frankfort congregation, they, too, were prayerfully considering the next step they needed to take to move forward in ministry.
Under Thompson’s leadership, the Ashburn church had decided that their next step was multiplying the reach by planting another campus. They already had two campuses, their namesake location in Chicago’s Ashburn neighborhood and the main campus in Orland Park, as well as Hispanic and Arabic congregations and plans to start a Filipino congregation. But they were praying about the right physical location and thought the village of Frankfort, population 20,000, could be a good match.
Foshie made the connection between the two leadership groups, then took a hands-off approach to allow the churches to decide what they wanted to do. “I just gave the Lighthouse leadership different options to consider and pray about,” Foshie said. “I was simply there to help them move forward with whichever option they chose.”
Lighthouse, which had been facing the possibility of finishing the ministry at their Frankfort location, decided to instead pass the baton. On February 12, the members voted to be “adopted” by Ashburn.
The legacy service two weeks later was a reminder of the value of cooperation that has been a hallmark of Baptist associational life for more than 300 years. It was facilitated by the Ashburn church and Pastor Thompson. He had led the former independent Baptist church to join IBSA in 2021, recognizing the advantage of cooperating with like-minded churches to reach Illinois and the world with the gospel.
Representatives of IBSA were present in-person and on video. The North American Mission Board’s Chicago Send City Missionary, Scott Nichols, who is also pastor of the multi-campus Gospelife Church in Carol Stream, encouraged the gathering as they honored the past and looked forward to the future. And former Lighthouse Fellowship pastor, Matt Woodford, delivered the message.
The former Lighthouse Fellowship Church plans to re-launch officially to the community on Easter Sunday as Ashburn Baptist Church, Frankfort campus.