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Walking Through Transition Means Loss, Re-vision, New Name for Michigan Church

Now a small congregation with a big building, the remaining members of Trinity CRC have embraced their mission as The Refuge.
Now a small congregation with a big building, the remaining members of Trinity CRC have embraced their mission as The Refuge.

Trinity CRC in Grandville, Mich., has been going through years of change. On Jan. 2, 2022, its now very small congregation hosted its first worship service as “The Refuge.” It’s a sign of embracing a new mission after years of seeking growth. “The Refuge is who we were becoming: a safe place for people who needed us,” said Craig Flietstra, the church’s council president.

What happened could be told in many ways. There’s a story in the numbers: a building built for 500 bodies held 300 in its pews in 2008 and 40 in 2021. But Flietstra sees another story: people within the building who kept pushing forward, forming team after team to hunt down a new vision. “God wasn't ready to close the doors of our church,” he said.

Pastor Gerry Koning said when he was called as minister in 2004 he was asked to focus on church growth. The church began a Friendship program (ministry to people with intellectual disabilities), a community garden, and a stream team (“Michigan Churches Expand Water Quality Efforts,” June 22, 2017). These initiatives were successful, but new members weren’t joining.

In the summer of 2016, four church staff and six congregants joined the Renewal Lab at Calvin Seminary. Over two years, “we developed a new mission statement, vision statement, new values, and new goals,” said Koning. These were accepted unanimously, but the council introduced a more immediate concern: Trinity might not stay financially solvent.

They appointed an “options team” of five church members to propose possible financial paths. By summer 2018, none of the options had panned out. An attempt to rent to a theater group fell through but Trinity still felt that their building was their biggest asset. And something had to change—fast.

Then a neighbor walked into Trinity to ask if their homeschool association could rent some space. More rentals followed, and the church slowly became financially stable. “During this period of time more families left Trinity, yet this is the time when God started bringing people to us who were looking for space to rent,” said Koning.

Then COVID hit. Like many churches, Trinity moved online then onto its lawn. Two staff were laid off, and the remaining three staff members took a 15% pay cut. These were changes “appropriate for a small church” said Koning. They helped the church survive. But “every budget is a step in faith,” said Flietstra.

“We feel that we have a bright future as a missional church and a ministry center providing space for a wide variety of ministries,” said Koning, noting “it was really the direction God had been leading us in for several years.” And that’s how they came upon the new name. “During a council meeting, someone said, God keeps sending us people who need help or are looking for something,” Flietstra said. “The Refuge” seemed fitting. The church approved the name in January 2021 and formed a transition team to help guide the move from one kind of church to another.

Koning believes that The Refuge can have an impact in its neighborhood now precisely because the paring down process of becoming a small church has made them flexible and mobile. People with a missional heart are beginning to join. “We still have a bare-bones budget, but we are excited that when a need arises, like housing for the homeless, with the generosity of our Lord, we have been able to raise thousands of dollars to help.”

Still, the process of change has not been easy. “Seeing friends leave has been the hardest part for me,” said Flietstra. They left because of disagreements, lack of youth programs, disapproval over the name change, the uncertainty. It is the loss for which there are no easy answers.

And what comes next isn’t any more certain. “All  I can say is that The Refuge will be a missional church with the focus on those who live in our community,” Flietstra said. After that? “God holds the future.”

The Banner began an occasional series related to church closure or re-invention in January 2021: “Facing the Realities of When Churches Close” (Jan. 22, 2021),“‘Rebirth’ for a Wisconsin Church” (May 6, 2021), and “Indiana Church Blessed with Ministry to Seniors Decided to Share Assets When It Was Time to Close” (July 2, 2021). Do you have a story of a church coming to grips with closure or transformation? Feel free to let us know at

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