By Sarah Carson
In the 1940s, Our Savior’s United Lutheran Church was faced with a problem: Their congregation was growing too big for its west side Chicago building, but the funds for a new one just weren’t there.
So they approached another Lutheran congregation in Chicago, Ebenezer Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was facing similar circumstances. They, too, were growing and exploring building a new facility. By combining their resources, the two congregations would be able to build something even better than they could have alone.
And thus Atonement Lutheran Church was born. A beautiful, gray stone building at the corner of North and Rutherford avenues, its large, welcoming doors and sprawling green lawn were an achievement to be proud of. The sanctuary provided plenty of room for the new, combined congregation, and the meeting rooms could house Sunday school, Bible studies and special events for years to come.
As the years passed, though, residents in the neighborhood around Atonement and members grew older and moved out of the area. By the mid-90s, attendance had begun to dwindle to only 15 or 20 worshipers each Sunday.
Ken Stangeland, an ELCA pastor, was called in to begin the process of closing the church doors. “They were a small congregation,” he says. The ELCA Metropolitan Chicago Synod “asked me to go over to help them close and gave me a couple of months to (do so).”
But for 17 more years, the small congregation held on — meeting weekly for worship and renting out the building to other organizations or for special events.
“We tried over the 17 years in various ways to reach out to the neighborhood,” says Ken. Ultimately, in 2011, the congregation decided to put the building up for sale and give the proceeds and assets back to the Metropolitan Chicago Synod.
Meanwhile, a few miles north in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, another ELCA congregation, Redeemer Lutheran Church, was growing rapidly. Their membership had tripled. They had a thriving young adult ministry, two Sunday services, a Friday night coffeehouse, outreach ministries and leaders who were excited and optimistic about the future. So optimistic, in fact, that they had begun to explore the possibility of becoming a multi-site congregation.
“We had been exploring for a number of months (the idea of) becoming a multi-site,” says Fred Nelson, pastor of Redeemer. “We felt we had the leadership, the passion and the vision to be doing something and knew there were some assets and opportunities in the city.”
A ‘fantastic location’
And that’s when he heard about Atonement Lutheran Church. “I heard that they were closing and drove down and took a look. It was a fantastic location,” says Fred.
He decided to speak with members of Atonement about the possibility of Redeemer using the location as the first urban offshoot of their growing suburban congregation. “I talked to the congregation, and they said sure and pulled it off the market and passed the baton on to us.”
Atonement effectively handed the keys over to Redeemer, and now the building, for the second time in its history, will become home to a growing, invigorated community of members.
Redeemer has already begun the process of renovating the building. The congregation has been putting together what they call “work weekends,” where teams of 40 people come to help in the remodeling process.
Fred says the church has undergone “a huge metamorphosis inside.” They’ve removed the original pews and repainted the entire sanctuary, and now they’re on track to begin doing outreach into the surrounding community for the services they hope to begin in the fall.
And for the small congregation who thought they’d have to say goodbye to Atonement, the change is welcome good news. “We closed down and opened our hand to them,” says Ken. “I wish them the best. I really do.”