This Sunday, April 12, will begin our Fifty Year Anniversary, a time in which we set aside three weeks to celebrate God’s goodness and grace to our church. A particular highlight for me in preparation for this occasion has been collaboration with Professor Edith Blumhofer, for whom I give special thanks. Edith has spent many weeks combing through archival documents in the formation of our church’s story. We anticipate having a booklet at the end of these three weeks in which we get to read the story for ourselves. Trust me, you’re in for a treat.
Our story is one of divine grace, the reality of a gospel that transforms lives and powerfully advances through the world. It’s also a story of faith, active trust in God himself, whose love is cruciform, costly, and personal. Our story is rooted in the Bible, relying upon the revelation of God in which he gives us his redemptive promises. Our story is one of unity, in which peoples from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds enjoy solidarity in Christ. And it is a story of service, whereby men and women step beyond their comfort zones to embody and proclaim the good news to our neighbors. What a story.
In this brief blog post, I would like to highlight one thread that runs through the fabric of our history: vision. It was gospel vision that led sixteen people to gather on Saturday, July 13, 1833—two years after Naperville was established—to initiate The Church of Christ in Naperville, the town’s first congregation. It was the following day when the new congregation gathered in a grove to celebrate communion, welcoming three people into membership, and ordaining three elders. “It was a cheering scene,” an early historian noted. “Few had dared to expect such a scene at this early period in the settlement of our frontier. The grain of mustard seed will, we trust, become a great tree, so that multitudes shall yet rest under its delightful shade.”
The church planter, Nathaniel Clark, served as pastor until 1836, preaching Sunday mornings in south Naperville and Sunday afternoons in the town center. After the church was sufficiently established, Clark resumed his evangelistic work, planting at least 27 more congregations in the area. What drove Clark to cast and pursue such a compelling vision? The answer is found in his personal background.
It was in the fires of spiritual revival, which illuminated the east coast at the beginning of the nineteenth century, where Nathaniel Clark acquired his vision. This was a period of revival meetings where the new birth was preached with great enthusiasm and new churches were frequently started. About this centrifugal movement of grace, As Edith Blumhofer writes,
Men like Nathaniel Clark dedicated their lives to transplanting the moral and spiritual hopes born in East Coast revivals on the frontier. Troubled that ‘little light or no light’ shone on the frontier to invite settlers ‘to the world of felicity or to warn them of that dark abyss to which they rapidly hasten,’ home missionaries like Clark soon made Illinois second only to Massachusetts in the number of Congregational churches.
This is what happens when the Holy Spirit ignites a burden in the hearts of God’s people—vision. It is the sort of sight that looks upon a valley of dry bones and believes that God brings forth life. Crazy as it sounds, indeed, “foolish,” according to Paul, a biblical vision believes it is possible. Why? Because Jesus Christ swallowed up death, the Savior who shed his blood and rose victoriously from the grave, we therefore have the audacity to embark upon a God-sized vision.
In the coming weeks, we will enjoy looking back together to celebrate God’s kindness to our congregation. Furthermore, our desire is for this retrospective rejoicing to also be a catalyst into fresh, kingdom-advancing vision in our present. Indeed, may we have the audacity, like our brother Nathaniel Clark nearly two hundred years ago, to believe that our God will bring gospel transformation today as he did then.