Grace Family Church celebrated its second anniversary in early 2021 with a worship service in the Art Deco theater they’ve called home for the last few months. But the young church has already been planted twice. At least, that’s how it feels to Pastor Jorge Rodriguez.
Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, Rodriguez later lived in Chicago while he was a student at Moody Bible Institute. After planting a church in Miami, he returned to Chicago to start a new church in Rogers Park on the city’s north side.
What he couldn’t have anticipated was a global pandemic that would make a highly challenging endeavor even more so.
“I felt like I was replanting a church plant, a year into it,” Rodriguez said of a 2020 filled with virtual services and a location change for his church. He’s not alone. Church planters in Chicagoland and across Illinois shepherded young congregations through unprecedented circumstances, and are still navigating challenges.
Some planters launched their churches in front of virtual audiences. Others, like Rodriguez and Grace Family Church, had to find new places to meet when the facilities they were meeting in closed their doors. Financial hardships for the new churches and their partnering congregations meant some planters took on additional part-time work. Some leaders were suddenly faced with great physical need within their churches.
In Rogers Park, the challenges also brought new opportunities—to build relationships, develop deeper connections within a body of believers, and to remember Christ’s promise to build his church.
“Lord, this is your church. This is your body. This is your bride. And I can trust you because you are much more invested in it than I ever can be,” Rodriguez said, recounting what the year taught him about God’s sovereignty and supporting grace. “That’s a message I’ve had to continually preach to myself.”
When Rodriguez and his family moved back to Chicago, one of their prayers was that God would guide them to a neighborhood where he wanted them to plant a church in the future. When Rodriguez and his wife, Belkis, found an apartment in Rogers Park, they saw it as an indicator God was moving them to plant a church there.
The community is one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods and a hub for immigrants and refugees. There are 81 nationalities represented there, Rodriguez said, and 41% of homes are led by single parents. The neighborhood has a higher crime rate than others on Chicago’s north side, and is also home to Loyola University. There is vast educational disparity and ethnic diversity, and Rogers Park is transient, with people moving in and out all the time.
With a core team of 13 people, Grace Family Church launched on January 13, 2019, in a Rogers Park elementary school. Randy Babb, now an elder at the church, said the early days were hectic and challenging, especially with all the administrative details required to establish a church. He recalled “so many days feeling like you’re backed into a corner and all you can say with your palms raised is, ‘Lord, only you can provide for us.’”
The team prayed God would give them a place to meet, and people to worship with, Babb said.
“The Lord was faithful to continue to give us confidence in going forward, and affirming the work we were doing by giving us tangible fruit we could see.” They met people in those early days who are members of Grace Family Church now.
As their small group grew, the first year was dedicated to growing in an understanding of the gospel, and what it means to live that out in community with one another and in the community at large. Rodriguez led his church through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the Book of Ephesians. They prayer walked, preached the gospel on the street and to their neighbors, and served the community.
Near the end of the first year, the church was reaching almost 60 people through worship services and Bible studies throughout the week. Then, just after the church’s first anniversary, their city shut down.
The school where Grace Family had been meeting closed their doors to students and to the church. Like almost all other congregations, Rodriguez’s church moved services online. And, he said, the planting process started all over again. He described it as being like an immigrant family leaving their home with a one-year-old child in tow, and wondering what they’re going to do next.
Church planters across Chicagoland experienced similar upheaval, said IBSA Church Planting Catalyst John Yi. “Overwhelmingly now, most church plants are meeting in non-traditional spaces like theaters and schools,” he said. When those spaces shut down, churches couldn’t meet there either. Even now, with many restrictions still in place, finding meeting space is a challenge.
Yi said most planters also lost at least one partnering church because of the financial fallout of COVID-19. Mission teams that would have come to Chicago in the summer couldn’t travel to the city. Momentum, an important part of church planting, was hard to come by in 2020.
Thankfully though, Yi said, there has been very little attrition among Chicagoland church planters endorsed by IBSA or the North American Mission Board (NAMB). There could be some delays for planters in the pipeline toward starting their church, Yi said, but there actually may be more potential planters interested in starting a church than before the pandemic.
“I’m definitely encouraged by that.”
Because of God’s mercy
Throughout the pandemic, Illinois churches and church plants have worked to meet increased physical need. They have participated in massive food distributions, often aided by Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief and partnerships with other aid organizations. At the other end of the state from Rodriguez’s church, IBSA Church Planting Catalyst Ken Wilson helps church plants provide food for their church members and people in the community.
“There are people hungry right now who have never been hungry before,” he said. It’s a discouraging trend that other leaders have also noted: people previously able to provide for themselves and their families have suddenly found themselves unable to do so. Wilson has worked with church planters in Tamms, Cairo, and Metropolis to get food to people in need. That outreach has opened doors to share the gospel.
The COVID-19 pandemic “amped up” the need for Christ in Rogers Park, Rodriguez said, and exacerbated some ongoing urban struggles. There has been an increased sense of desperation and anxiety, he said. Their neighbors are looking for tangible hope.
It wasn’t just COVID that exacerbated need in 2020, Rodriguez said. In response to racial unrest across the country, the church worked with like-minded churches to put together a peaceful prayer march attended by more than 2,000 people in June. Rogers Park was also rocked by gun violence in 2020. Even now, when there are shootings in the community, Grace Family members go to those locations to pray.
The church has built on an existing partnership with the Chicago Police Department. They worked with CPD and other community organizations for a toy drive in 2019. In 2020, CPD identified 20 families and the church provided them with Christmas care boxes of food, toiletries, personal protective equipment (PPE), a copy of the Gospel of John, and information about the church. The church also gave Christmas care boxes to 45 school families they had been serving and building relationships with for two years.
“As we step into people’s lives in this manner,” Rodriguez said, “we are not only reflecting Christ’s message and love to our neighbors, but bringing glory to God by imitating him and giving expression of the mercy he’s given us.
“God’s stubborn grace and mercy has providentially planted Grace Family Church at this unprecedented time in a community with these present needs. It will also be his grace which will grow us and propel us into mission, as Christ continues to call our lost brothers and sisters back home.”
Photo at top: Church planter Jorge Rodriguez (left) and Grace Family Church spent a couple of years building relationships in Rogers Park before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, they’re relaunching ministry with efforts like the clean-up day pictured above, and learning to view a challenging year as an opportunity to grow in Christ-likeness and community engagement.