If you come to Riverside Presbyterian Church this Sunday you’ll find a sign on the door saying that the “service” today is at the Arie Crown Forest and that that the service will be doing ecological restoration.
It will be the third installment of the congregation’s Fifth Sunday program which began on April 29 when 50 members of the church travelled a mile to Caledonia Senior Living — formerly the Scottish Home — to lead a worship service complete with music and then shared a picnic lunch with residents.
The next time a month had five Sundays was in July when 45 church members carpooled to the Garfield Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side where they did landscaping, served a meal and played bingo with residents at The Boulevard, a residential nonprofit which serves formerly homeless people in their transition from being hospitalized to finding permanent housing.
A smaller number of church members had already been serving a meal at the nonprofit once a month for years.
Patti Friend and Matt Lisle, who were both church elders when Rev. Dale Jackson became pastor two years, said that his arrival marked the beginning of refocusing the church’s longtime emphasis on mission. The congregation was already doing outreach in the form of an annual youth mission trip, a group of women who did various mission projects and financial support of global mission.
Lisle said that what Jackson helped the congregation to do is to “get the entire congregation on the same page at the same time in the same place.” He said, “There’s power in that collectivity and a resonance with us. There’s always been a solid local mission focus here. We’re trying to elevate to the attention of everybody.”
Friend added that “everybody” includes the congregation’s children, that there has been a genuine attempt to make the Fifth Sundays and everything the church does truly multigenerational.
“It’s our belief,” Lisle said, “that the message of the New Testament is one of service to those in need. We started this to put that into action. We’re showing our kids what the right thing to do is, that religion is not something that is staid and static. It’s a dynamic thing.”
Friend acknowledged that like many mainline churches her 146-year-old congregation has gotten smaller. The membership has declined from a record high of 1,124 in 1950 to 400 today. She nevertheless insisted that the Fifth Sunday program is not a marketing gimmick. “We’re not out there with the intention of bringing in new members,” she said. “If people notice, it will be a byproduct of what we’re doing. We believe in what we’re doing.”
Lisle and Friend both feel that what their pastor and the congregation’s leadership have been successful at is being creative with the Fifth Sunday program while making it clear to members who are already involved in mission that they are not replacing what they have been doing but adding organically in continuity to what is already being done.
Recognizing that church members can get focused on maintaining their building at the expense of doing mission, Lisle said, “What our leaders are trying to cultivate is that while the church as an institution and the building and grounds are important, the most important thing is communion with your fellows and helping those in need.”
Friend said that evidence of this perspective is how the current capital campaign is being conducted. Thousands of dollars, she said, are being raised to do things like install new carpeting, remodel the sanctuary with new acoustics and do tuck pointing. “But,” she added, “while we want this historic church to still be here for the next hundred years, we’ve designated a percentage of the money raised to go to mission.”
RPC’s focus on mission is also evidence that residents of an old village “can learn new tricks.”
The congregation’s website says that in 1869 the members of the Riverside Improvement Company intended to create a village which would be an escape from the city, a community “outside the city limits of Chicago for cleaner, quieter and more spacious websites, a village in a park.”
Riverside Presbyterian Church is located at 116 Barrypoint Rd in Riverside. For information call 708-447-1520.