The Sin of Not Seeing

One of the books I’m reading this Advent season is a recommendation from Robert Cathey, professor emeritus at McCormick Theological Seminary. The back cover reads, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi is one Israeli’s powerful attempt to reach beyond the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians.” The book is full of wisdom that transcends the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It shines a light on what it means to be human in any conflict including conflict with one another, a different nation, race, or even conflict within ourselves.

In the letter entitled “Six Days and Fifty Years, Yossi reflects on the Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. He writes, “…curfew became for me a metaphor for the fatal flaw of the settlement movement: the sin of not seeing, becoming so enraptured with one’s own story, the justice and poetry of one’s national epic, that you can’t acknowledge the consequences to another people for filling the whole of your own people’s dreams.”

As I read this, I am reminded of a beautiful testimony given by Joyce Perry at this pastPresbytery Assembly about her history with anti-racism work in the Presbytery of Chicago. Joyce currently serves on the Commission on Antiracism and Equity (CARE) and is the moderator of the Facilitators of Antiracism and Equity (FARE). She has spent over a decade trying to gain traction and make progress in anti-racism work. Steps have been small, and victories have been few. I wonder if the deeper issue of racism in the presbytery and Chicagolandis like the sin of not seeing that Yossi writes about. What does it mean when one race is so enraptured with their own story, that they can’t see the consequences and damages to the dreams of another race? What happens when we are so focused on making sure we live in the best neighborhoods and our children attend the best schools, that we can’t see others who are boxed out of the same opportunities? What happens when our job security means unemployment for someone else? What happens when our vision is of one slice of pie, and anything one has means less for another?

Maybe empathy is the answer to the sin of not seeing. To put ourselves in the position of the other could help us to see circumstances beyond our own and make us willing to address the disparities that exist. As we focus on the God who becomes flesh and comes to us this Advent season, may we also be present in the lives of others who are very different from us. In this way we may find bridges and pathways to help close the racial gaps in our community and our world.

Rev. Craig Howard

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Witness of Divine Redeemer

It began as a simple prayer meeting in a small apartment. Hector Morales is pastor of Divine Redeemer, a New Worshipping Community. They are nesting with Good Shepherd Presbyterian church on the southwest side of Chicago. Hector explains how the neighbor above him overheard the people praying and came down to ask if she could join! From there, others were invited and before long they’d outgrown the apartment. One of the members of the prayer group offered his mechanic’s garage as a location. Within one year the group had grown too large for the garage! Eventually, Good Shepherd offered a space for worship and prayer.

On Sunday afternoon of November 6th, Divine Redeemer celebrated nine years. Over 80 members were present, with very few over the age of 40. The music was vibrant and the singing outstanding. Plenty of children walked between chairs as some played games at the tables set up in the vestibule. My sermon focused on resurrection- “Divine Redeemer must die as a fellowship and be reborn as a congregation!”

I have chosen to focus my first year as your executive presbyter on New Worshipping Communities. Divine Redeemer is an example of how these new expressions of worship can be formed organically by a community that is willing to usher God’s presence into their space. Hector is a lay leader who preaches, teaches, and leads a vibrant community. And God is providing the increase.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is touching your heart with ideas of creating a holy space where you are. It may be a prayer meeting, Bible discussion, or listening session. You may only have a living room or basement in which to gather.

After starting my insurance agency, I had a strong desire to start a church in my house. I imagined several people seated in the living room talking about the Bible, praying for one another and the world, and living transformed lives. I even had a similar idea of hosting it in my office. There was no support from my denomination and regretfully, I didn’t carry out either idea. The energy and imagination dissolved as I grew older and became surrounded by the cares of life.

I offer my testimony to encourage someone to form a New Worshipping Community while they have the desire to try. The presbytery supports your quiet ideas and initiatives. If you have a dream that needs nurturing, please email or call. The New Worshipping Community committee and presbytery staff are here to help.  

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Future of the Presbyterian Church

In the past two articles, I focused on the past 5 years of membership and attendance trends in the Presbytery of Chicago. What is apparent is that the church isn’t growing. At best, we are stable; at worst, we’re in decline. Furthermore, we are a presbytery of small congregations. 80% of our congregations have 100 people or less in the pews.

The desire to grow creates anxiety in our pews and consternation in our session meetings. Pastor Nominating Committees are laser focused on finding the next pastor with a young family that can grow the church. The obsession with growth creates injustice, as qualified women, people of color, and older pastors are overlooked. It creates anxiety for church members and for the young pastor who fails once again to grow a church.

And yet, we insist on growing.

In an article by the church consultant group, LeaderWise, Mary Kay DuChene challenges the idea that the church is supposed to grow. “The only thing that grows without receding is cancer,” she writes. She proposes that instead of a season of growth, the church may be in a season of fallow ground. She writes, “Growth is always followed by decay/decline. Death happens and so does resurrection.”

I dream of a presbytery that focuses more on ministry impact and less on membership numbers. There is so much that can be accomplished through leveraging resources, partnerships, and community involvement, instead of just worrying about filling the pews. If congregations could take a long-view and focus on legacy, I believe a path forward can be found. Legacy means investing in a future that may not resemble the present. Friendship Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s northwest side is one example. Two congregations that were closing came together and envisioned a church that would have the community at heart. Their vision allows Friendship to do the fantastic mission and ministry that it does.

I encourage the 20% of congregations that are experiencing membership growth to keep it up! These growing congregations often include Chicagoland as part of their mission and ministry. It is important that suburban congregations recognize the value of local ministry, even as they continue to serve mission throughout the world.

There will be a Presbyterian future, and every congregation that is in existence today will be a part of it. These congregations will either be a living congregation or a living part of another congregation through legacy and presbytery support. Like tall trees in a forest whose death brings life to young foliage, the death of one congregation brings life to many others. But this future church may not look like or function like the church today. We must be willing to usher in the future of New Worshiping Communities and other expressions of faith into existence.

There is a book title I often remember when I’m feeling anxious about membership numbers and metrics. It is a book on finances in Christian organizations. The title is, “When the Bottom Line is Faithfulness.” May we keep this bottom line in focus.

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Latest Church Surveys: The Presbytery of Chicago

Yesterday I attended the 27-year celebration of Clement Presbyterian Church. Clement is a Latinx congregation located in Cicero, a near west suburb. Although Clement has 45 members, there were over 130 in worship! Furthermore, six new members were added! What a joy to be part of their celebration and demonstrate the presbytery’s support.

Clement has the characteristics of a growing congregation in the Presbytery of Chicago. It is small (less than 100 in worship), located in the west suburbs, and is majority people of color(POC). Chicago is a presbytery of small congregations. According to the Faith Communities Today study, there are advantages to being a smaller congregation.

Smaller congregations have a higher level of membership commitment.
Smaller congregations have a greater percentage of members attending on Sunday.
Members of smaller congregations give more money.
Members of smaller congregations are more likely to volunteer.
These congregations give a higher percentage of their budgets to mission.


As I’ve combed through the statistics of the Presbytery of Chicago, I have focused on the numbers from the past 5 years. Presbyteries have a difficult time collecting data from congregations. Some congregations go years without reporting their membership numbers while others hardly ever report their attendance. Given these limitations here are some takeaways from the past 5 years:


Geography and Growth

46 of 80 congregations experienced growth at least once in the past 5 years (57%).

11 congregations experienced growth 2 out of 5 years (14%).

5 congregations experienced growth 3 out of 5 years.

The presbytery has 19 congregations that are majority POC.

12 POC congregations grew 1 in 5 years (63%).



# of Congregations

Membership | 

Growth 1/5yrs |    

 Growth 2/5yrs |     

Growth 3/5yrs







North/NW Suburbs






West Suburbs






South Suburbs








Most congregations and members are in the north/northwest suburbs.

Presbyterians are growing fastest in the west suburbs with 65% of congregations growing over 5 years, and 10% growing in 3 out of 5 years.

We are in danger of losing our Presbyterian presence in the south suburbs.


Membership size

Number of Congregations

Under 100






Over 500



The presbytery has 37 congregations with less than 100 members.

On any given Sunday morning, the preacher sees an average of 72 people in the pews.

Most Presbyterians are in large congregations with 51% belonging to 10% (8) congregations.

When ranking congregations by size, the largest congregation is larger than the smallest 58 congregations (75%) combined.


My final blog on this topic will be strategies for the future for congregations in the Presbytery of Chicago.


Rev. Craig M. Howard


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Latest Church Surveys Part 1

I spent the weekend reading over two congregational studies. One is “Congregations in 21stCentury America”, published by Duke University. The other is “Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview”, published by Faith Communities Today. In this blog post, I just want to share some of the highlights from each report. But first I would like to share some common survey results.

The pandemic has served as an accelerant of previous conditions in a congregation. If a congregation was doing well, they are doing even better. If a congregation was struggling before COVID, they are struggling even more now.

Mainline churches have suffered the worst decline of all denominations with a loss of -12.5% over the past 20 years. The PCUSA has lost 39% of its membership during this same period. Median attendance of all congregations in the USA is 65 members. In the presbytery of Chicagothe median attendance is 72.

There is also some good news in the reports. Faith Communities Today reported the following:

Despite continued declines in attendance overall, about a third of congregations are growing and are spiritually vital.


Congregations have continued to diversify, particularly in terms of racial composition.


A dramatically increased utilization of technology can be seen over the past two decades, even pre-pandemic.


The fiscal health of congregations has remained mostly steady.


The Duke University report highlights some positive trends as well:

 Religious diversity is steadily increasing.


People in smaller congregations give more money to their churches than do people in larger congregations.


Worship services have become more informal and expressive across all Christian traditions.


There is increasing racial and ethnic diversity over time both among and within American congregations.


Food assistance is by far the most common kind of social service activity pursued by congregations, with half (48%) of congregations that engage in social services listing food assistance among their four most important programs.


Acceptance of female lay leadership is widespread, with 89% of congregations allowing women to serve on the governing board.


Congregational acceptance of gays and lesbians as members and lay leaders has increased substantially in recent years.


There is so much to glean from these reports. Next week, I will share insights and how congregations in the Presbytery of Chicago fare when compared to the national average. Latest Church Surveys Part 1Latest Church Surveys Part 1

Rev. Craig M. Howard

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