The 2006 Small Group Evangelism Conference was not your mother’s Coffee Break convention. And that was intentional.
This year, for the first time, men were included in the conference, accounting for about 25 percent of the nearly 500 people who attended.
Danell Czarnecki and Mary Werkhoven, Christian Reformed Home Missions small-group-ministry developers, co-chaired the conference. “Two conferences ago we changed from being the Coffee Break Convention to the Small Group Evangelism Conference,” said Werkhoven. “So adding men wasn’t a revolutionary move.”
Home Missions, which sponsors the biennial conference, announced the name change in 2000, saying it was time to encompass a larger range of women’s ministries than just the weekday-morning Coffee Break evangelism Bible-study groups held in nearly every church in the denomination.
“This is the first conference to take it to the next level, to include both men and women,” said Rev. Willis Van Groningen, ministry development director for Home Missions.
Rev. Sid Sybenga, pastor of Hope International CRC in Arcadia, Calif., was excited about the change. “They are breaking new ground,” he said. “It’s not about male or female.”
“I’m very supportive of opening it up to men,” said Jacqui DeRaaf, a member of Faith CRC in Burlington, Ontario.
Co-chair Czarnecki said she had some reservations that having men at the conference would inhibit women. “The fears were unfounded,” she said. “Men haven’t inhibited anything.”
However, there was no mistaking the change in atmosphere. The last time this reporter covered a Coffee Break Convention for The Banner was 1992. Fifteen hundred women packed into a huge gymnasium at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Huge banners formed the backdrop of a large stage. Coffee Break and Little Lambs leaders, lugging bags full of goodies, were on their feet learning the motions and words to the latest songs by Christian songwriter Mary Rice Hopkins. Small gaggles of women could be found everywhere, praying, talking, doing art.
This conference couldn’t have been more different from that one. Instead of a large gymnasium, the venue was a hotel ballroom in downtown Long Beach, Calif. Instead of songs echoing from the rafters of the gym, the low ceilings of the ballroom with its chandeliers immediately muffled any reverberation.
It wasn’t that the singing and worship was any less intense. The group worship, led by an excellent praise team from CrossPoint CRC in Chino, Calif., resembled a revival.
Perhaps it was the dimmed lighting and thickly carpeted floors that made the entire experience seem muted.
Perhaps it was also the fact that attendance was less than half the 1,000 women who attended the previous two conferences.
Organizers cited many reasons for the drop in attendance. The location and the hotel were expensive ($135 per night, not including conference registration). They also noted the spike in gas prices and airfare. And they pointed out that the previous two conventions were held much closer to large concentrations of Christian Reformed people in the Midwest United States and southern Ontario.
Nearly half this year’s registrants still identified themselves as Coffee Break leaders, but the majority of training sessions offered were not geared to leaders of Coffee Break groups or Little Lambs. And clearly conferees didn’t show up looking for that. A training session specifically about Coffee Break and Little Lambs was sparsely attended. Far more popular were sessions led by Ray Vanderlaan, who taught on Paul’s work in Ephesus. (More hands-on training was offered at pre-conference meetings, attended by about 150 people.)
The smaller conference didn’t seem bother most people in attendance, though one woman, who asked not to be identified, said there was a lot more cohesiveness and camaraderie when the conference was all women and focused on Coffee Break and Little Lambs.
But others had only positive things to say about the change. Gloria De Maat from Covenant CRC, Cutlerville, Mich., has attended these conferences for many years. “The speakers are outstanding, never better,” she said. “I have no problem with men here, but it changes the flavor a bit.”
“This is way overdue,” said Rev. Cornelius Pool, pastor of Hope Community CRC, Riverside, Calif. “This is not about women or men.”
Diana Klungel, small group discipleship leader for Home Missions, said, “We cannot limit this to one gender. Our calling is to reach the world, in and through community, one body, one faith.”