By Bonnie N. Scott
The Rev. Kat Banakis, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, knows her church is well-positioned for growth. Nestled in the northern Chicago suburb, the home of Northwestern University and a city frequently listed as popular among retirees, St. Luke’s benefits greatly from a steady stream of newcomers of all ages.
The population growth of Evanston, however, does nothing to diminish the surprising successes at St. Luke’s in the past three years, when so many churches have seen steep declines in numbers. In 2019, when Banakis became rector, St. Luke’s had an average Sunday attendance of 155. It grew to 170 in 2020 and 173 in 2021, an 11.6 percent increase in three years.
When the pandemic began, Banakis had only been serving the congregation for nine months, and she and St. Luke’s leadership pivoted to the new reality her congregation faced. “Phone buddies” were established to keep congregants connected and checking in on one another. New ministries such as book clubs and adult formation groups were established online. They have since moved to hybrid models, allowing for a broader reach.
“Continuing online worship and moving educational programs online, throughout the pandemic and since, allowed for a far broader reach in terms of formation than we ever thought possible,” Banakis said.
Banakis attributes some of St. Luke’s growth to a renewed focus on justice initiatives and partnerships with other congregations. Since the summer of 2020, St. Luke’s has worked with other houses of worship on projects such as Sacred Ground, an Episcopal film-based dialogue series on race and faith, as well as reparations in Evanston.
“We partnered with 16 other historically white houses of worship from across Evanston in order to make a contribution and a statement about reparations,” Banakis said. “We looked into our racial history as a congregation and shifted our focus to social-justice ministry as a major pillar. This has allowed us to work with the interfaith community in Evanston, which was already quite strong. This has definitely expanded our reach as a church.”
St. Luke’s partnerships have also focused on children’s and young-adult ministry within the Episcopal Church. “Being intentional in our partnering has allowed all of us to offer more than any of us could do on our own,” Banakis said. A confirmation class held with other local Episcopal churches had 15 participants, rather than St. Luke’s normal three or four. With its congregational growth, St. Luke’s has hired a new children’s minister. Banakis believes this increases St. Luke’s demographic reach and makes it a more attractive church for families with young children.
“When you have new families coming in, you have to keep finding new ways of getting them engaged,” Banakis said. Eighty percent of St. Luke’s congregants participate in some form of its ministries in addition to worship.
Since St. Luke’s has experienced large growth on both ends of the age spectrum — young families and senior citizens — this requires programming that speaks to each group. These ministries are not static, but constantly growing and expanding to meet the needs of community and the interests of the congregation, a change Banakis attributes in part to the flexibility and quick changes demanded by the pandemic.
One such change was participating in a multi-congregation initiative to house the homeless in churches during the coldest winter months. While St. Luke’s had not participated in the past, with services and programs online during 2020, it has opened the parish doors for the last two years, with no plans of stopping.
“Now when people come in the doors, what they’re hearing and seeing in the bulletin announcements is beautiful music, preaching, and lived theology, but also an intentional focus on interfaith social-justice work,” Banakis said. “In any congregation, this can often be a small, cellular unit, but when you’re looking at citywide initiative, there is so much more that can be done.”
Banakis sees long-term benefits to interfaith, community-based work. “As we look at the future of the church, there’s going to be denominational shift and change,” she said. “An important responsibility for faith leaders is to prepare congregations for that. What can we do now to be partnering with other congregations in our communities? It’s important that we can embrace these changes now so that we’re really ready for these shifts down the line.”
In many ways, Banakis said, St. Luke’s has already asked many of these difficult questions, and this preparatory work has led the parish to where it is today. In the early 2000s, the congregation dwindled to a fraction of its former size and began serious conversations about its future.
After deciding to remain open, St. Luke’s slowly built back, and then experienced the growth it has seen in the last three years. St. Luke’s story of renewal offers a hopeful vision of what remains possible for congregations struggling with declining numbers.
What advice does Banakis have for other congregations? “Being honest about the demographics in your area and what growth is possible within your context is important. I also think playing to the strengths of your already existing congregation is essential. For us, partnering with other churches has really been life-giving and energizing in a way that we never could have done alone.”