Nimble Enough to Respond: Church of the Advent, Logan Square

August 13, 2014

The Rev. Peter Siwek of Church of the Advent in Logan Square doesn’t romanticize doing ministry on a shoestring, but he is clear that it has some advantages. Siwek, who is the quarter-time vicar at the parish on the northwest side of Chicago, says that the congregation’s modest resources help people focus on the reasons they’re at church.

“The greatest spiritual gift is that all we have to offer is the Jesus story in community and the desire to help other people,” said Siwek. “It’s not fancy. It relativizes everything. There are so many things people will bicker about in an institutional religious setting. Not here.”

The congregation, which recently received a vitality grant from the Diocese of Chicago, shares space, utility costs and other operating expenses with Nuestra Señora de las Americas, the diocese’s oldest Latino congregation. Siwek describes the two congregations as partners.

Five years ago, when Siwek was called, things were different. Logan Square was changing, and the Advent congregation was struggling to respond.

“I hate the term gentrification because it means all the wrong things,” says Siwek. “This culturally diverse neighborhood was developing and attracting hipsters. Back then, most people attending Advent were not of the neighborhood, and there were lots of questions about how to embrace mission outside our doors. A number of things had to change. We needed to jump off the deep end, be mission-focused, and not think about ourselves.”

To catalyze the change, Siwek held congregational meetings on two consecutive Sundays. Using mutual invitation, a technique for fostering conversation that he learned in a seminary class at Seabury-Western, he asked the congregation to clarify its worship and mission priorities. To him, the survival of the church was at stake.

“I can’t picture this church staying open forever, especially when we have this situation when our worship creates the sense that ‘we’ are over here and ‘they’ are over there,” he remembers saying at the first meeting. “And I don’t want to triage a dying congregation.”

The next week, he described his plan for transforming Advent’s worship and asked the congregation to trust him. “I told them some things they dreaded,” he said. “We needed to have an altar table at floor level and to remove some front pews to make room for it. The choir needed to sit in the congregation rather than being vested and processing around in an empty space. And a large image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that is so special to our sister congregation needed to move from the dark corner where it was tucked away to hang over altar in the chapel.”

“We did it in a week,” he remembers. Siwek, who is a carpenter in his spare time, built a new altar in his basement and, with the help of members, made the necessary renovations to the church. He also shaped the liturgy to have “more open-ended contemplative space.”

Most people loved the change, says Siwek, and the congregation, which also increased its involvement in several ministries for homeless people in the neighborhood, began to attract the young adults who lived in Logan Square. The innovations in liturgy continued after a new director of music introduced diverse styles of music and encouraged congregational singing.

Siwek has also experimented with how to shape worship that includes both English and Spanish for the congregation that includes many people who are native Spanish speakers but completely bilingual in English.

“We initially tried to make worship as even-steven as possible,” he said. “That became cumbersome, so our worship has evolved with us, rooted in the understanding that prayer is most natural in our native language. We’ve learned how to engineer bilingual worship so that people don’t get bored or confused. That’s one of the things I’m really proud of—shaping worship so that at any point a newcomer can figure out what’s going on and engage.”

The changes at Advent have not come easily for everyone. Some long-time members who didn’t like the liturgical and musical innovations departed, and now the congregation is more representative of the Logan Square neighborhood, which is home to many young adults.

“The younger people who were deciding whether they wanted Advent to be their spiritual home really stepped up. People in their 20s and 30s are claiming Advent now,” Siwek says. “There are challenges, because the population is transitory. People move in and get involved, but then a year or two later, they have a new job prospect or go to graduate school and they move. It hurts like hell, but that’s our life.”

Pledging is a difficult concept for many of Advent’s young adults, many of whom have limited resources and have never been involved with a church before. “We talk about people being as generous as they can,” Siwek says. “We try not to be ham-handed about stewardship, but when some folks left the congregation a few years ago, we said to those who remained, ‘Let’s be honest. Is this the best you can do?’”

The vitality grant from the diocese has given Advent not safety or stability, says Siwek, but “a certain firm footing. It makes us nimble enough to respond.”

“We’re really clear that we’re here for the people who want to experience community with Jesus. Embracing the story of Jesus and realizing that we need to help other people. That’s it.”