“We filled in the corners,” said Helen Bonzelaar, retired chair of the Basic English Service at Church of the Servant, a Christian Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids, Mich. The service, which has grown from about 40 attendees at its inception in 2009 to frequently over 100, welcomed so many on a recent Sunday that, holding hands at the close of the service, they lined all four walls of the church gymnasium where they meet.
The service employs simplified English translations of scripture, congregant-written prayers, and global worship music. It grew out of Church of the Servant’s English language learning and refugee ministries as well as from an “awareness of who our neighbors are,” said Andrew Mead, the church’s co-pastor who frequently preaches at the Basic English Service. “(Our congregation) has long been committed to justice. That’s kind of in the church’s DNA,” he said.
Grand Rapids is home to a large number of new Americans and international students. When Bonzelaar and others realized the ecclesiastical language of their liturgy was inaccessible to English learners, the Basic English Service was born.
Church of the Servant’s traditional Sunday morning service takes place at the same time as the service in basic English, and the two meet together every other month. Mead described it as “two fellowships in one congregation.”
Reflecting on how the Basic English Service has enriched the whole community of believers, Mead said what was “initially an outreach, is now an in-reach.”
When the service began, many of the participants did not come from a Christian background, but now many attendees bring a deep understanding of prayer and long experience of church tradition and leadership. Mead hopes to see continued development of diverse leaders for the Basic English Service, looking forward to how new perspectives and gifts will shape the whole church community.
Mead and Bonzelaar each noted that offering a service in basic English has allowed them to rediscover the beautiful simplicity present in Christian communion.
“When you make more space, you expand your own vision of what church should be,” Mead said.
Bonzelaar said the “plant of the church” flourishes from the “input of the grafts. Because we are all grafts.”
Church of the Servant celebrated the service’s 10-year milestone April 7 with cake, songs, and stories. It is seen as just the beginning. Mead looks ahead to the church that the children in today’s congregation will be a part of. “Ten years from now,” he said, “multicultural church is not going to be a new (experience); it is going to be what they grew up with.”