The church in North America is shrinking. People who were once faithful attendees of Sunday worship are no longer showing up. More and more people are self-identifying as religious “nones” on surveys. And across the country, church doors are permanently closing.
But as we learned during the COVID-19 crisis, church matters. The community that church can provide makes a difference within and without the four walls of a building.
“Church is a living illustration or picture of an alternative life—one that is focused on following Jesus and his ways,” said Kevin DeRaaf, who directs ministry in North America for Resonate Global Mission.
Resonate, the mission agency of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, is an extension of each CRC congregation in Canada and the United States. Together with you, it plants, strengthens, and equips the global church to follow Jesus in local communities. Here’s a glimpse of why church matters to communities throughout the world.
Church Matters When People Are Learning the Truth of the Gospel
“The church matters because it is the community of faith where God’s story is read, interpreted, and believed,” said Ben Meyer, a Resonate missionary in Mexico.
Ben and his wife, Amy, are working to plant and establish New Life Church in Guadalajara. They’ve seen firsthand how New Life’s faith community has been a place where people can wrestle with doubts.
About 10 years ago, for example, Guadalupe’s husband was kidnapped. She and her two young sons never heard from him again. With no family in the area to lean on, they felt alone in their grief and confusion. Guadalupe believed in God but had trouble understanding how God could let something like this happen.
“In the midst of the current COVID crisis, or any crisis, the shocking immediacy of our present reality can cause us to experience temporary amnesia with regard to the gospel,” said Meyer. “Does God love us? Did Christ redeem us? Is the Spirit making all things new?”
A year ago, Guadalupe and her children started worshipping with New Life Church and found the supportive community they needed. Guadalupe’s sons completed a profession of faith class and have decided to be baptized.
“Although they still have doubts and question why God would allow (their father to be kidnapped) … the gospel they hear preached at New Life Church is like an anchor in their lives,” Meyer said.
Church Matters in Creating Communities Where People Belong
“We all want to belong,” said Larry Spalink, a Resonate missionary who works with churches in Japan, a country where less than 2% of the population identifies as Christian.
Spalink works with local pastors in Japan to strengthen churches. He said it’s human nature to belong, but in Japan, the sense of belonging is a little different than in a more individualistic culture like North America’s. Being part of a community is an important part of someone’s identity, and the church has the opportunity to provide that space for people.
One day, while Spalink was practicing with the choir at a church, he noticed a woman sitting in a pew listening to them. The woman was baptized in a church several years ago, but when members of her church had a falling out, it confused and hurt her. She left her church community and drifted around.
The woman had visited the church a few times, but one morning something changed for her. As she was listening to the choir sing, Spalink went to her and said, “Why don’t you join?”
She did, and shortly after that, she recommitted her life to Christ and became an engaged member of that church. The woman reported that what really drew her in was being invited to join the choir.
“I find many who visit and become part of the church are those who have failed to find a place elsewhere to be accepted as they are and to belong, and even be welcomed to participate,” Spalink said.
Church Matters Because People Are Caring for One Another
“Church matters because it is the community where we discover our brokenness and our giftedness, our needs and our talents. It is where we are shaped into the character of Christ and formed into who God created us to be,” said Mark Van Andel, co-pastor of Hesed Community Church, a Resonate partner in Detroit, Mich.
Hesed serves local neighborhoods through ministry houses that provide discipleship opportunities as well as food and other resources. Van Andel has seen God at work in Hesed through the way the church engages its community. In January, for example, a woman attempting to escape a difficult situation moved across the street from one of the ministry houses with her children.
“Our faith community immediately enfolded her,” said Van Andel. They offered her food and other resources, and when the coronavirus pandemic hit, she saw how the community worked together to care for one another. Without being asked, she began to cook for her neighbors. She and her children started caring for the community garden, where they weeded and planted spring vegetables.
“This type of sharing resources and gifts has become a hallmark of our faith community,” Van Andel said.
Church Matters Because Believers are Sharing the Gospel
“(Church) matters in bringing the message of hope and salvation to a helpless and broken world,” said Resonate missionary Istifanus Bahago, who works with the CRC in Sierra Leone.
When Bahago and his colleagues visited the village of Yirah Filaya Badela a few years ago, the people didn’t have access to clean drinking water or a school for their children. As a predominantly Muslim village, the people had also never heard the hope of the gospel.
In partnership with World Renew, the CRC in Sierra Leone worked with the community to start a school and provide clean water. The people were baffled: why would strangers help them?
“The people wanted to know who we were and why we showed them such love,” said Bahago. “We told them the story of salvation: how God sent Jesus to redeem mankind, and his love is for all who accept him.”
People had a lot of questions about Jesus. The CRC in Sierra Leone sent an evangelist to live in the community and be available to answer these questions as they came up. Over time, many people accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. Today, the village now has clean drinking water, a school for children, and a church that continues to grow.
Church Matters Because Believers Are Loving their Neighbors
“I sense we’re learning through COVID-19 restrictions that the church is not limited to a church building and what goes on in that facility,” said Karen Wilk, pastor of Neighborhood Life in Alberta and a Resonate Go Local catalyst.
“Church looks like God’s people hanging out in their neighborhood, with their neighbors, as neighbors … discerning and joining in what the Spirit is already doing there—and in so doing, learning what it means to love God and their neighbors.”
That expression of church is what Resonate’s Go Local initiative is all about, Wilk said. When Jander and Tiffany Talen joined the Go Local cohort at Maranatha CRC in Calgary, Alta., they started paying closer attention to how the Holy Spirit was working in their neighborhood.
One day, the Talens were walking in their neighborhood when they noticed apples piling up on the ground around a tree in someone’s yard. The couple decided to ask the homeowner if they could use some of the apples that had fallen. When they knocked on the door, an older gentleman answered. He was happy to give them some apples. In exchange, the Talens later brought over an apple cake for him as a way to say thank you. Since then, the relationship between the Talens and these neighbors has grown.
“We appreciate Go Local because it made us think about being better neighbors,” said Jander Talen. “Tiffany and I are taking the approach that these people around us need to be loved, just like us.”
Church Matters Because People Are Growing
“(Church) is an experience of community where people are learning that life is not about themselves, and (they) are learning to grow in their love for God and for others in tangible ways,” DeRaaf said.
The church in North America might be shrinking, but Resonate ministry leaders throughout the world still witness God at work every day. In some countries, such as Sierra Leone, the church is growing rapidly in the number of people who are coming to Christ. In others, the growth of the church might be slower, but people are still finding love, hope, and grace in the gospel.
And no matter where Resonate is working, ministry leaders are seeing believers grow in their identity as children of God, in their gifts and callings, and in their love for neighbors.
“It isn’t perfect, and that’s exactly the point,” said DeRaaf. “Church matters most when people are growing in their capacity to love, serve, and forgive.”
About the Author
Cassie Westrate, Resonate Global Mission