The Christian publishing giants seem to have it all: impressive market share, big budgets, and primo shelf space in Christian bookstores. But there’s one thing they don’t have: a Reformed perspective that runs through each and every product.
That, in a nutshell, is the reason Faith Alive exists. And it’s a mission that lots of people believe in.
Leonard Vander Zee is one of those people. This past December he left his fifth pastorate to take up the reins as editor in chief at Faith Alive. In this interview and the articles on the following pages, you’ll get to know Len, his passion for discipleship, and the agency that shares that passion.
So Len, here’s the inevitable opening question: Tell us a little about yourself and your growing-up years.
Len Vander Zee: I grew up in what was then an average Christian Reformed home. My parents were pious people who had never gone past ninth grade but read the Bible to us every day. My grandfather, who was also uneducated by today’s standards, studiously read Kuy-per and Bavink and could discuss the fine points of election.
I went through the Christian school system from kindergarten to college. My freshman year at Calvin College was a disaster—it seemed to me that college was high school without restrictions. Entering my sophomore year on probation, something had to change. Academically, some excellent professors ignited my intellectual curiosity. Spiritual renewal came from a girlfriend, who later became my wife. Judy Vroon helped me move from knowing Christ as a concept to receiving him into the center of my life. Faith became real and personal.
When did you first suspect you might be called to be a pastor?
LVZ: That time of spiritual renewal in my sophomore year at college was also when it first began to enter my mind that I might be called to the ordained ministry. When I told my parents I wanted to be a pastor, they were incredulous. They said, “Are you sure?”
I enrolled at Calvin Seminary, and I recall those years as among the best of my life. After graduation I landed in a church in Des Moines, Iowa. My mind was full of grand (and sometimes arrogant) ideas, but I really had no clue how to pastor a church. Patient elders and caring congregation members taught me how.
It must have worked, because I’ve served five congregations, the last one in South Bend, Ind., for 16 years.
Tell us a little about your family.
LVZ: I’m married to Jeanne Logan (my first wife, Judy, died in 1996 of complications from multiple sclerosis). Jeanne is an artist and college-level art teacher who concentrates in large fiber installations, especially for worship spaces. I also have four grown up and out-of-the-house children and seven delightful grandchildren who are all in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area (a bonus of my new job).
Leaving your last church must have been difficult, since you’d been there for so long. What interested you in becoming editor in chief at Faith Alive?
LVZ: Deciding to leave pastoral ministry after so many years was an excruciating decision. I was happy in my work but was feeling some restlessness, like I was coasting a bit. Still, I had no desire to pack up and start all over in another congregation.
Then along came this job posting with Faith Alive. I love to write, and, besides weekly sermons that I enjoyed crafting, had produced a couple of books and numerous articles over the years. Editing must be something like writing, I thought.
A year or so earlier, South Bend CRC had produced a new vision statement focused on adult spiritual formation. I became increasingly convinced that one of the major keys to congregational health and mission was spiritual formation and discipleship for adults.
Then I learned that Faith Alive was planning a comprehensive adult discipleship curriculum called Disciples (see “New Products” sidebar on p. 25), and that really piqued my interest.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing Faith Alive, and why?
LVZ: I see two big challenges for Faith Alive today. First, though Faith Alive is a ministry, that ministry happens by selling products. We don’t live by denominational ministry shares but are committed to be self-supporting through product sales. That means we have to compete with other Christian publishers. We don’t always “win”—some of our own churches look to generically evangelical publishers for curriculum material. We embrace that challenge and work hard to produce resources that can compete in the larger marketplace.
Second, there’s the challenge of producing quality materials in the electronic age. We’re actively exploring more use of multimedia and online resources. We now pair some of our books and curricula with web resources and DVD components and expect that we will do more of that in the future.
What would you say is the biggest opportunity for Faith Alive to serve the church today?
LVZ: Faith Alive is primarily known for its curricula for children and youths. Our Walk With Me Sunday school curriculum and the brand-new Kid Connection (see sidebar on p. 25) are the best Reformed curricula available today. We do a great job in helping kids grow in the faith.
But if adults aren’t actively growing in their faith and ministry, kids start wondering what difference faith really makes. That’s why I see providing curriculum for adult spiritual formation and discipleship as the biggest opportunity for Faith Alive today.
Leadership development and training is another important area of opportunity. It used to be that the roles of elders and deacons were fairly clear-cut. Today, churches choose from an array of structures according to church size and ministry goals. We are poised to provide useful resources to help churches discern the best approaches among a dizzying array of choices.
Thanks for your time, Len, and blessings on your work at Faith Alive!
The Times, They Are a-Changin’
Faith Alive Keeps Pace with a Changing Church and Culture
CRC Publications Changes Name to Faith Alive
Effective this April, CRC Publications has a new name. The entire agency is now called Faith Alive Christian Resources (or Faith Alive for short).
Why? Faith Alive’s director Gary Mulder explains: “We changed our name to Faith Alive Christian Resources to avoid confusion regarding the two names CRC Publications (which was our agency name) and Faith Alive (which was the publishing imprint of the resources we produce for churches). That also helps improve the brand awareness and recognition of Faith Alive outside the CRC.”
So now Banner staff, World Literature Ministries staff, customer service reps, editors, and marketers all work for Faith Alive. (Old habits die hard, though, and some people—you know who you are—still call Faith Alive the “Board of Publications,” but that’s going way back.)
Publishing in an Electronic Age
Living in a technology-crazed society has its drawbacks, but the electronic age makes yesterday’s publishing methods look like the Stone Age.
Editors, for example, used to handwrite changes on manuscripts prepared on typewriters. Using computers has streamlined that process, allowing them to make instant changes to an electronic document, share that document easily with others, and communicate efficiently and speedily with authors.
Not so many years ago a debate raged about whether people would ever use the Internet to do their banking, bill-paying, and shopping. Today, Faith Alive’s marketers routinely use e-mail, websites, and online advertising to get the word out. Now 25 percent of sales are placed through the online catalog at www.FaithAliveResources.org, and that percentage keeps increasing. Online sales are expected to exceed $1 million in the 2006-07 fiscal year.
Editing and marketing aren’t the only processes that have changed in the electronic age. Years ago, getting a document ready for printing required pasting strips of type on paper into position on a page. Then the pages were photographed and the resulting film needed further hand assembly before it was used to make the printing plates to run on the printing presses.
These days, designers receive art and photography electronically from artists the world over and assemble documents electronically. These documents are then used to directly image plates headed for the printing press.
“On one hand, it’s sad to see the expert work of craftspeople replaced by machines, but the changes have allowed for lower production costs and quicker turn-around,” says Dean Heetderks, director of CRC Product Services, the creative, production, and distribution services group for the Christian Reformed Church.
“Technology has also allowed us to be more environmentally responsible. Because we’re not using film, we don’t use and dispose of the chemicals needed to process it. In fact, all the way through the printing process we’ve eliminated all of the hazardous material.”
A New Focus on Training
When churches implement a new curriculum, the availability or absence of training can make or break its success. Jolanda Malburg, Faith Alive’s new coordinator of teacher training and consulting, is leading the effort to make sure teachers of Walk With Me and Kid Connection are prepared and inspired.
Thanks in part to funding from the denomination, new training opportunities for users of the Walk With Me and Kid Connection curricula include a two-day conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., and regional conferences in Wyckoff, N.J.; Vancouver, British Columbia; and possibly Bellflower, Calif.
Other available teacher support and training includes e-newsletters, downloadable workshops to use in your own church, and online articles.
For more information on training workshops and resources, visit www.faithaliveresources.org.
Faith Alive at a Glance
- Faith Alive Christian Resources publishes Sunday school curriculum for preschool through high school, small group studies and a new discipleship curriculum for adults, music and worship resources, and resources for church leaders.
- Faith Alive also publishes two periodicals: The Banner and Reformed Worship.
- Faith Alive’s World Literature Ministries is the world’s leading publisher of Reformed materials in the Spanish language. WLM assists in the publishing and distribution of materials in several major languages, such as Russian and Korean.
- Faith Alive’s customers include more than 30 different denominations.
- More than half of Faith Alive’s sales come from outside the CRC.
Innovative New Products Take the Stage
The Disciples curriculum for adults and the Kid Connection curriculum for small churches are two of the most innovative products Faith Alive has produced. Here’s the scoop on why, and what that could mean for your church.
Disciples Helps Adults Grow in Christ
Faith Alive’s new Disciples program is a multiyear curriculum that helps adults grow in their faith at home, at church, and in small groups.
The program has three interconnected components:
- small group studies with discussion guides
- thought-provoking devotionals for personal or family reading
- worship resources and service plans for churches
Follow Me, the first study in the series, is an overview of what discipleship is and how it can change our lives. Four subsequent studies, titled Created, Called, Crafted, and Commissioned, delve more deeply into the topic, each addressing specific aspects of discipleship.
This spring, all CRC and RCA churches received a Disciples preview packet, and the curriculum is now available for purchase by your church. Check with your pastor or ministry staff to see if your church will be using Disciples this fall.
To learn more about the Disciples curriculum, visit www.GrowDisciples.org.
Kid Connection: the Perfect Fit
If your church has only 10 kids total, and they range from kindergarten to sixth grade, how do you find (and afford) a Sunday school curriculum to fit them all? It’s a problem! But now it’s a problem with a solution.
Faith Alive’s new Kid Connection curriculum is the first North American curriculum in 10 years designed just for small churches or churches with few children.
Kid Connection employs a large group/small group approach that experts say is the best way to help kids grow and connect with each other.
In each Kid Connection session, a spunky, fun Bible story is told by a large-group leader, followed by creative small-group activities.
Because of its fun, fresh approach, Kid Connection is also an excellent choice for midweek programs at small or large churches.
To learn more about Kid Connection, visit www.KidConnection.org or call 1-800-333-8300.
About the Author
Sandy Swartzentruber serves as the resource coordinator for Faith Formation Ministries and is a member of Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.