Two New Chicagoland Churches Planted Where All Seemed Lost
By Melissa Wuske
Biblical stories are full of surprises—it’s easy to forget that when you become so familiar with them. Seas part, cowards lead, the sick are healed, people with shady pasts are listed in the genealogy of the Son of God. Resurrection is the biggest surprise of them all. Dead things are supposed to stay dead. Sure, a sick person may recover, but what’s dead is dead.
God still uses the element of surprise to remind us who he is and what he’s capable of, to bring his kingdom on earth, and to breathe life into death. For two new churches, the surprise of resurrection is their birth story. Rise Church and LifeWell: A Christian Church both launched in the Chicagoland area of Indiana in October 2018. Together, these congregations are experiencing resurrection life that came when all seemed lost.
To have a resurrection, there must be death—this part is uncomfortable. In both locations, there had once been thriving congregations planted in the 1970s and ’80s. But in recent years, both struggled. Attendance and finances dwindled, and the churches wrestled through difficult conversations. They sought insights from the Solomon Foundation and Ignite Church Planting about what to do next. Through long, difficult discussions, both churches reached a painful decision: We need to close the church.
From a place of grief, disappointment, frustration, and heartbreak—an end came. At the end of 2017, both churches—Town and Country Christian Church in Winfield, Indiana, and First Christian Church of Dyer—closed their doors for the last time.
But instead of viewing closure as a failure, they chose to see through eyes of faith, using the end of their own churches as an investment in future ministry. Both churches had full ownership of their buildings. They donated the facilities to The Solomon Foundation, and Ignite Church Planting agreed to launch new churches in each location. In addition to helping house and fund two new churches, The Solomon Foundation is using the equity of the buildings to assist other churches construct their meeting places.
“For some churches it’s a healthy thing to say we have run our course,” said Matt Reece, lead pastor of Rise Church in Dyer, Indiana. “The fact that this church said, ‘We want a kingdom impact’ . . . it takes great faith. [They decided] it’s not about me, it’s not about our traditions, it’s not about the comfort of our congregation. It’s about something bigger. That’s amazing. That’s a spiritual place you don’t get to every day.”
“The closing of a church is an extremely emotional thing,” said Danny Cox, lead pastor of LifeWell in Winfield, Indiana. “When they were willing to take that remarkable leap of faith [to close], amazing things have been able to transpire.”
That faith-filled investment has made a difference for Rise and LifeWell. For one thing, “Not too many church plants are given a debt-free, 25,000-square-foot church building to start out with,” Reece said. “That is an amazing resource for us.”
For Cox, in addition to the building his church received, “the 45 people from the former church that we retained have been absolutely amazing. They have been excited. They’ve been some of my best encouragers. They’ve been some of my best givers.”
The three days Christ spent in the grave is a peculiar time in the resurrection story. For Jesus’ friends, the pain of death was still there, and there was a void. It was unclear what would happen next. These burial moments happen in present-day God stories too. For Rise and LifeWell there was certainly doubt and uncertainty, but there was also an excitement that grew month by month, because God had promised new life.
As the churches closed, Ignite brought in Cox and Reece. After Town and Country Christian Church closed, the aim was to launch LifeWell on Easter Sunday. “We very quickly realized that the church needed to be closed longer,” said Cox. In both cases, about 10 months passed from the time one church closed until Rise and LifeWell opened.
While it may have looked as if not much was happening as the buildings sat vacant, God was at work, and so were Cox and Reece. They met with members of the former churches to present visions for the new churches. There were prayer meetings, discipleship trainings, and soft-launch gatherings that provided opportunities to worship together.
The churches also renovated their buildings, with help from The Solomon Foundation. This gave the opportunity to establish a new, different identity for the new churches, but for Reece it also helped grow his gratitude for the past.
“We did a lot of the renovations ourselves,” he said. “The people who started the former church—they built the church. I have a great appreciation for the sweat equity they have in this building. So when things are necessarily plumb or square, I can envision, however many years ago it was, these people coming together and building their first building and the joy they experienced.”
The pastors and their teams also spent time connecting to the community—and doing marketing campaigns—to show that something different was happening. “We did everything we could to make sure this community knew we were a new church in town,” Cox said. “Same building, but we were brand new.” Both churches have preschools that meet in their buildings, providing one powerful way to connect with and serve families.
Finally, in October 2018, both churches launched—a moment that combined the joy of new birth, the surprise of resurrection, and the culmination of months of prayer.
For Reece it was “nerve-wracking, hoping someone will show up.” But as he looked out over the 186 people who were there, he remembered all the times he’d prayed over the seats, always envisioning them full. I don’t know you, he thought, but I’ve certainly been praying for you, for your life. It was the beginning of a multigenerational, multiracial church.
At LifeWell, “Our grand opening was nothing short of God showing up. It was incredible,” Cox said. A total of 335 people attended, including many of the teachers from the preschool that meets in the building, and soon more than 60 kids were in the children’s ministry from birth to fifth grade. The last Sunday of the former church, Cox remembers, “there were four kids in the children’s ministry and three of them were mine.”
In the months since, both churches are beginning to see the resurrection power of Christ play out in people’s lives. LifeWell had 14 baptisms in the first nine weeks. And Reece is seeing many people from Lutheran and Catholic backgrounds take ownership of their faith for the first time. Said Reece, “People tell me, ‘I’ve learned more about this Jesus thing in one time here than I have in all the years I’ve ever gone to church before.’”
Now, they’re celebrating their first Easter together. What does that mean for two new congregations, living out the resurrection life of Christ? It’s bigger than just one day and it’s deeper than the bells and whistles that often come with Easter Sunday—it’s about taking a big step forward in their mission to reach their communities.
“Easter Sunday is all about preaching the gospel and the right response to it, and giving people the chance to take that next step,” Reece said. “Often I find people who hear the gospel don’t know what to do with it, so Easter is a time of complete clarity. It’s typically a 45-minute sermon, and that’s really long, but if I’m going to get someone once a year, I want them to know what they need to know in case they never come back.”
At LifeWell, meanwhile, “We have a sermon series leading up to Easter about the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, and an Easter Sunday very much focused on the resurrection,” Cox said. “But we’re really trying to focus on the weeks after.” The seven weeks following Easter will focus on questions many people have, such as Is God real? and Is the Bible reliable?
In the months ahead, as the newness wears off, the churches will strive to develop deep roots so they can be a vibrant light to their communities for years to come.
Both congregations will focus on helping people develop transformative relationships with Christ and connect with each other through small groups and other ministries. They’ll also continue outreach events to serve their communities.
But the real focus is mission, Reece said, “helping people understand that they’re recipients of this message of grace, to then become distributors of the message.”
Both Reece and Cox are looking toward the long haul. “I don’t want to be a church that’s sustainable,” Reece said, “I want to be a church that’s transformational in our community.”
Cox sees two keys to longevity at this early stage: the first is being nimble. “As far as traditions,” he said. “I probably will never have a ministry or an outreach that will be referred to as the annual anything. I need to be able to walk away from stuff.”
Keeping it simple is also key: “It’s also very important for us that we don’t overstretch ourselves,” Cox said. “We need to make sure we’re doing a few things with excellence. I can’t tell you how many incredible ideas people have come to me with that I just have to say no to. I’m really learning how to say, ‘Not yet.’”
Life from Death
The life that Christ is bringing through these churches, and the life that’s to come as both grow and become established, wouldn’t have been possible but for the unconventional choice by two churches to close their doors.
“I’m extremely humbled,” Reece said. “The legacy of your church continues to live on.”
That life would come after death, Cox said, “You can’t make that kind of God story up.”
Melissa Wuske is a freelance editor and writer. She and her husband, Shawn, and their son, Caleb, live and minister in Cincinnati, Ohio. Find her work online at melissaannewuske.com.