When Rev. Bob Lyzenga arrived in Lafayette, Ind., to pastor Sunrise Christian Reformed Church, the members told him they wanted to reach out to the community. And they meant it. They restructured almost everything to become a welcoming church.
Sunrise reaches out by bringing people in. In the past five years, it has grown from fewer than 100 people to 200. New members join nearly every month.
The church pours energy into its Sunday morning services, removing things that might be barriers to first-time churchgoers.
With that in mind, Pastor Bob is careful to explain parts of the service that people unfamiliar with church might find odd or confusing. His goal is to hear visitors say, “It’s like you were expecting me. You knew I would wonder when to sit and stand, and whether I would know the songs.”
Members invite friends without hesitation, knowing their church is hospitable to newcomers.
Tobin Cho, a Korean doctoral student, has attended Sunrise for a year. Five of his friends now attend regularly and have invited friends of their own. Two of them are Buddhists and three were not following any particular religion, but they like attending Sunrise.
In his sermons, Pastor Bob balances biblical content with creative illustration. Last summer the church did a series on the seven deadly sins, connecting each with a character from the television show Gilligan’s Island. An SS Minnow life preserver and a hammock decorated the stage, and every week a new prop showed up as people got into the theme.
Church members see fellowship time as an opportunity to welcome visitors. Mitch Nettesheim recalls that on his first visit to Sunrise, people who didn’t get to chat with him during the greeting time sought him out after the service. He never had a chance to feel awkward or lonely.
The fourth Sunday of each month, the church gathers for a potluck. After lunch, newcomers are invited to the Discovering Sunrise class. Since the class meets only once, rather than for six or eight weeks, and is offered monthly, people are able to begin participating early on.
In the class Pastor Bob explains the Christian Reformed Church to those who aren’t familiar with it—which is the majority of the people who come. He explains the value of being part of a denomination. “I am accountable to council, and Sunrise is accountable to classis and synod, which means the church won’t go off into weird places.” He also provides a glossary of unfamiliar words or acronyms they might encounter.
Each year, council assesses Sunrise’s strengths and weaknesses and determines priorities. These are written on huge pieces of paper and stuck to the wall in Pastor Bob’s office. Every six weeks the church has a Family Meeting after the service, in which council and the congregation talk together.
Both leaders and members seek to create a welcoming place for everyone entering their church’s doors. Newcomers are brought in, and they stay.
About the Author
Kristin Niehof is a graduate student at Regent College, Vancouver.