Grace Valley Christian Reformed Church in German Valley, Ill., spent the summer celebrating its 150th birthday.
The oldest German Christian Reformed Church in North America, Grace Valley CRC is the mother church of many of the CRC congregations that were German-speaking when they were planted in central Iowa and south central Minnesota.
Surrounded by corn and soybean fields, Grace Valley is home to people from more than 13 communities within a 30-mile radius.
Rev. Jake Ritzema, who has served Grace Valley for 16 years, said his marketing background is helpful for ensuring people know where to find their building. “We’re three miles off the main drag where 5 million cars go by, but you’d never know where our church is, so it’s important to have great signage,” he said.
Being in such a rural location might be a disadvantage for some churches, but Grace Valley makes the most of it through good, old-fashioned hospitality. “This is a really proactive congregation,” Ritzema said. “They’re not afraid to try new things and are extremely welcoming. That has been a huge blessing. It’s not ‘What are you doing in my pew?’ It’s ‘Where are you from? That’s cool! Have some more to eat!’ We have quite the feed after church on Sunday.”
For a church that is and has always been surrounded by farms and farmers, food plays a big role in how they connect with and minister to their community. For the last 11 years, they have hosted a free community corn boil that features food, petting zoos, horseback rides, inflatable bouncy houses, and music. The event attracts upwards of 500 people each year.
“To be a part of a church that is still, after 150 years, thriving and growing is so much about God’s grace,” Ritzema said. “That many years is a lot of people doing a lot of good work and caring a lot about their faith. We plan to continue to make a greater impact in our community because in the end, it’s not about us, it’s about [God] and them.”