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Community Engagement Event Helps Churches Move from ‘Individualistic’ Approach

Community Engagement Event Helps Churches Move from ‘Individualistic’ Approach
A group brainstorming discussion took place at Classis Grand Rapids East’s “Collaborating on Community Engagement” event.

How can congregations within the Christian Reformed Church better engage with the neighborhoods they serve?

In Classis Grand Rapids East, a regional group of 16 congregations in western Michigan, church leaders wanted to help answer that question. On May 30, they hosted a “Collaborating on Community Engagement” event at Neland Avenue CRC. Pastors, deacons, and elders came together to meet representatives of faith-based organizations working in their neighborhoods.

More than 60% of the congregations within classis sent at least one representative to the forum. Ten faith-based community organizations were present. Operating almost like a speed-dating event, participants went from table to table every 10 minutes, brainstorming ideas on how to address issues ranging from economic development to housing to racism.

The idea for the event came out of discussions at Neland Avenue CRC, a congregation in an urban Grand Rapids neighborhood which was facing some challenges in addressing the needs of the surrounding community. Those led to further discussions about what could be done at a regional level, said Andy Ryskamp, former director of World Renew who consults for the CRC on initiatives related to the office of deacon.

“If our churches are going to be relevant in our context today, we need to partner. We need to partner with (community) organizations, we need to partner with other churches,” Ryskamp said.

“My sense of the classis, as long as I’ve been here, is that our churches function fairly individualistically. This is a neat effort for us to come together,” he said of the discovery evening.

Classis GR East has a community engagement team that provides funding and in-kind support for churches and faith-based organizations within the region. “This team’s mandate is to strengthen our communal witness of loving mercy and doing justice in our neighborhoods and city,” said the team’s leader, Lori Wiersma.

Several congregations within Classis GR East already participate in collaborative efforts with other churches outside the denomination, as well as with faith-based community organizations, to address challenges such as poverty, Wiersma said.

Classis provides about $40,000—by way of small grants of $3,000-$5,000—in funding support each year to 14 community organizations that partner with local churches on outreach initiatives, Wiersma said.

The grant size depends on how many years the work has been in development. “A lot of it is seed money for new ministries coming out of the (neighborhood collaborations),” Wiersma said.

The discovery evening was meant to allow leaders from the churches to explore a deeper involvement.

Ryan VerWys, chief executive officer of the Inner City Christian Federation, a housing development agency in Grand Rapids, said his organization has formed partnerships with several CRC congregations on projects over the years. He said congregations can become so caught up in addressing immediate needs that they don’t get to looking at the root causes leading to those needs.

“Looking at the larger issues—housing, food insecurity, advocacy—how do we take that same energy and work together upstream, how do we leverage the collective strength of classis, to move the needle on some of these issues from a broader perspective?” VerWys said.

Following the evening's discussion, the classis community engagement team will now consider an action plan from the suggested ideas for collaboration, Ryskamp said.

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