On May 2, 2021, Kenosha (Wisc.) Christian Reformed Church celebrated a rebirth—its first satellite worship service as a “campus” of First CRC in Oostburg, Wisc., a congregation an hour and a half drive away. Complete with balloons and cupcakes, the celebration was not something the church’s pastor, Verlan Van Ee, would have seen coming nine months ago.
“We were looking death in the face,” said Van Ee, describing how in August 2020 the church’s deacons came to the conclusion they could no longer survive financially. The congregation was down to about 50 people and affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It would have been the final nail in our coffin, but it hit so swiftly, so sharp that it woke us up,” Van Ee said. “For the past seven years I have tried to lead the church missionally,” he said, but nothing really changed. Now there is a new impetus to engage the community.
A Boaz Story
In September Van Ee started making phone calls to community organizations and found the local YMCA looking for a church to host tutoring and family food services. As Kenosha partnered with the Y’s Feeding Families program, it had an impact it hadn’t seen in a long time. “We have seen more people through our doors in four weeks than in the last four years,” Van Ee said. But it wasn’t completely smooth. Van Ee said additional members—roughly half of those remaining—left with these changes, but some former members returned, excited to have new mission work to attend to.
That’s when the church’s “Boaz,” as Van Ee likens it, stepped in. In the biblical story of Ruth, Boaz is the kinsman-redeemer (caretaking relative) who provides for Ruth and Naomi, two widows in ancient Israel with no means of support.
On Oct. 16, 2020, Van Ee drove to a pastors’ encouragement lunch. Only two other pastors were there, and Van Ee shared Kenosha CRC’s grim situation. Drew Zylstra, pastor of First CRC Oostburg, proposed the partnership that has now come to fruition: Kenosha would become a satellite church of Oostburg. In December, Oostburg voted on the partnership, making a formal proposal to Kenosha CRC. The smaller congregation voted between Dec. 27 and Jan. 10, with council reporting an affirming vote Jan. 10.
‘Restart’ a Common Approach
The “restart” Kenosha CRC is experiencing is not uncommon in the CRC. Crossroads Discernment Process, a church resource created by the CRCNA’s Pastor Church Resources and Resonate Global Mission, names restarting as one of many ways a struggling congregation may choose to respond to its circumstances.
Peter Kelder, the Central U.S. regional leader for Resonate, said seven congregations are in some form of “restart” in his region right now.
For Kenosha that looks like Van Ee taking a discipleship and evangelism focus while worship services are led by pastors from First CRC in Oostburg. First CRC is also contributing some financial support, as is Classis Wisconsin, the regional group of Christian Reformed congregations to which both churches belong.
Classis approved a $50,000 grant to Kenosha at its Feb. 23 meeting, recognizing the work as “a RESTART” through its Classical Home Missions Committee.
First CRC also invested months toward establishing relationships through joint worship services at the Kenosha location. Since March, Zylstra and associate pastor Zack Flipse drove back and forth with a contingent of Oostburg parishioners to lead an afternoon service in Kenosha while also leading two morning services and an evening service in Oostburg.
“We felt it necessary to be consistently present in Kenosha for a period of time in order to cast a vision for this new entity and establish relationships that, God willing, will continue to grow as we enter into a new season of fruitful ministry,” Zylstra said.
By May, the churches were ready for the first satellite service—no driving back and forth.
Future in ‘God’s Hands’
The restarting church is still legally known as “Kenosha CRC,” but it is working on a new vision statement and a name that will convey its renewed mission. The church now stands at about 40 regular attendees.
Kenosha and First CRC haven’t fully defined their strategy, but Van Ee and Zylstra see promise in the networking.
“I have high hopes for the future of this partnership,” Zylstra said. “God has already been at work in our midst, giving us the daily victories that keep us engaged and excited. We are constantly reminded that the ultimate success or failure of this endeavor is in his hands.”
Van Ee said, “We may remain a satellite and be the first of more to come, and we may at some point choose to be an independent congregation again … or we may be only a COVID-conceived guinea pig that simply survives long enough to learn some important missional lessons.
“But this I know: God made a way for us to be rebirthed to at least reach our neighborhood in this present crisis through our own mortal crisis.”
In January The Banner ran a story looking at what happens when churches close and invited readers’ feedback. We learned about the experience of Kenosha CRC after receiving a tip from Pastor Verlan Van Ee. Do you have a story of a church coming to grips with closure or transformation? Feel free to let us know at email@example.com.