Near Chicago, a Lutheran church finds new life at the YMCA

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (Rockford, Ill.) will continue to meet in a chapel when the rest of the property becomes the Good Shepherd YMCA. — RNS photo/Bob Smietana

In early April, just a few days after Easter, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church was filled with sounds of new life.

And hammers.

Two years ago, the church, which has shrunk from a congregation of 400 to a few dozen worshippers, decided to donate its building to the YMCA of the Rock River Valley in hopes the building could be reborn as a local Y. After months of planning and fundraising — the project will cost about $3 million — the rebirth of Good Shepherd got finally underway in late March 2024. 

On Tuesday, April 2, the Rev. Eric Lemonholm, pastor of Good Shepherd, and Brent Pentenburg, CEO of the YMCA of the Rock River Valley, took a tour of the 1950s-era church, which is being transformed into Good Shepherd YMCA.

There were smiles all around as a long-anticipated dream was becoming a reality.

“We were once a big congregation in a big building,” said Lemonholm. “Then we became a small congregation in a big building for decades. The congregation knew something had to change.”

In recent years, the people of Good Shepherd, like thousands of congregations nationwide, found themselves dealing with the new math of American religion. In 2000, the median-sized congregation in the United States had 137 people, while today that number stands at about 60, according to data from the Faith Communities Today study. That has left congregations like Good Shepherd with buildings they can’t fill or afford to keep up.

Rather than closing its doors, the congregation at Good Shepherd decided to find a partner to share their space and continue the congregation’s work in the community. When the renovations are complete, the church’s former classrooms will house a fitness center and changing rooms, and the boxy sanctuary will be a brand-new gym.

The congregation will continue to hold services in a small chapel at the new YMCA facility when it opens. In doing so, they’ll become part of a small but growing group of churches who decided to make the Y their permanent home.

“We’ll be the church in the Y,” said Lemonholm, who splits his time between Good Shepherd and another small Lutheran church.

Founded in 1844 as the Young Men’s Christian Association, the YMCA’s official mission is “to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all,” but the group has no official ties to any church or denomination, instead partnering with people from all backgrounds. In some communities, the Christian part of the mission is stressed more than in other communities.

The YMCA’s history and mission often make it a popular spot for startup congregations to meet before they can afford a building of their own. According to Tim Hallman, a former pastor and director of Christian emphasis for the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne, Indiana, several churches like that rent space from the Y in their community.

“They’ll do their church plant at the Y for a couple of years,” said Hallman, “and everyone knows the plan is that they move out.”

But some decide they love the Y so much they end up staying long-term.

That’s the case for St. Joe’s United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne, which launched a new campus at Jackson R. Lehman Family YMCA when it opened in 2018. Ashley Moreland, pastor of St. Joe’s at the Y, says that — in a time when people don’t go to church — bringing the church to where people are already gathering makes sense.

St. Joe’s holds services on Sunday mornings and has a “ministry of presence” that provides prayer chaplains for Y members, said Moreland. The church also cohosts events during the year with the Y, providing volunteer support, and opens up some nearby athletic fields it owns (known as Praise Park) to the Y for its summer camp programs.

She said folks who come to the Y already want to make changes in their lives — to lose weight or feel healthier — so they may be open to improving their spiritual health, said Moreland. 

Plus the church can also offer a friendly and supportive presence.

“It allows us to meet people where they are and show them that there’s a God who loves them and there are people who love them,” she said.

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