In 1866 German immigrants founded a Christian Reformed congregation among the fertile fields of northern Illinois, 25 miles west of Rockford. A hundred years later Ken Ross, 54, was growing up in that church, German Valley CRC. Ken’s parents were members, and so were his grandparents. In fact, Ken’s grandparents were part of the second generation to make German Valley their home. Ken is an elder, a former deacon, and a praise band member. He and his wife, Cathy, raise corn, soybeans, cattle, and “a little wheat” on a large farm in partnership with Ken’s two brothers.
When Ken was in catechism and youth group, the church was thriving 100 years after its founding. “There were 60 to 70 kids in Sunday school classes and youth group,” he says. Besides Sunday services and educational classes, the church held ice-cream socials and other get-togethers, including two-day “Mission Fests” to get reacquainted with missionaries on home service. “If you held something, everybody came. The commitment was very high. Church was fun. Even catechism!” Ken remembers. “The Christian Reformed bond that was common to all was evident, even if we didn’t really talk about it.”
But over the following two decades, this country church began to bleed, then hemorrhage, members to the point that a CRC agency official bluntly told the church council, “This is the deadest church I’ve ever seen.”
Ken admits the church had begun to die during the late 1980s and into the ’90s. “We weren’t growing evangelistically. The culture started to pass us by, and we weren’t adapting. Young people weren’t staying, people were moving out, and many of the older people were dying. . . . People realized that the church would be dead if we didn’t finally initiate major changes.”
Thankfully “the Spirit is always thinking way far ahead of where we’re at,” says Ken. And the “deadest” church is now anything but, and growing. And Ken clearly relishes it. “The Spirit has come back in a big way,” he says. “The preaching’s exciting, the music’s exciting, people are friendly and ready to accept new people.” Ken credits their pastor, Jake Ritzema, for “‘infecting’ everybody who was sort of waiting for something to happen.” Infecting them, that is, with enthusiasm and renewed commitment to being wholehearted Christians.
Part of the change involved switching to less formal worship and to mostly contemporary music accompanied by a homegrown praise band. Cathy Ross chooses the songs. “We still sing some hymns, just in a set with contemporary songs,” she explains. “There are a lot of fluff songs out there. That’s why I have to be very discerning. . . . I look for Scripture-based songs that are singable and have a ‘take home’—something that sinks in.” Ken adds, “Maybe we show we’re still a German church in that, when we get to the music, we just sing; we don’t repeat choruses over and over.” Most importantly, “People can say, ‘I met God here.’”
German Valley CRC would not be what it is apart from the Christian Reformed Church, Ken believes. “When our church thought it might close, we thought, ‘Where would we go?’ We didn’t have a good answer. The CRC has lots of strengths. It’s a denomination that thinks the deepest about the Bible. If there is a way to rate how a denomination thinks about God, who thinks of God as the biggest God, the CRC does that. That’s key. God is the center of everything.”
Ken acknowledges that “the CRC sometimes thinks itself into a corner,” but as long as we remain “big-God people,” and our thinking is accompanied by action and service, it’s the best of all worlds.