It seemed like a painful ending. First Christian Reformed Church in Haledon, N.J., one of the oldest churches in the CRC, closed its doors in the fall of 1999. It had become unhealthy and, finally, it died.
Fifty members decided to stay and try a church rebirth with the help of Christian Reformed Home Missions. One elder says the decision was like jumping into a swimming pool and not knowing if there was water at the bottom.
But out of death came new life: Bridgeway Community Church was born.
The church was closed for eight months. The new pastor, Andy Sytsma, led the group through intensive training. Realizing that the church’s health began with their health, the group concentrated on personal devotions and worked through unconfessed sin.
During this incubation period the group didn’t invite anyone to its Sunday morning sessions. And yet people kept coming, walking in off the street. By the opening the next Easter, the core group had grown to 80.
Seven years later, Bridgeway has 200 members. Those who stayed say it is the best decision they ever made.
Haledon is a suburb of Paterson, a city built on the silk industry. While the old church hadn’t changed with the surrounding neighborhood, Bridgeway has. The congregation better reflects the diversity in its community, which is half Caucasian with growing Hispanic, Arabic, African American, and African Caribbean populations.
Harold Sweetman, a lifelong member of First CRC, revels in the new diversity. Along with other members, he has adapted himself to the customs of many cultures. Time schedules are one such adjustment. Though the service begins at 10 a.m., those who come at 11 are just as welcome.
Some adjustments have been easy. At potlucks, people enjoy Kenyan and Puerto Rican dishes. Sweetman says he doesn’t miss the old days: “The same Dutch food got boring after a while!”
People continue to walk in off the street, and the leaders try to get visitors involved right away, realizing that people are most productive and energized when using their skills.
After months of jogging past the church, Antonio Rivera stopped in for an Alpha meeting one Thursday. He stayed.
Rivera has struggled with drugs and been in a 12-step recovery group, so he has years of experience leading men’s groups. Now he is using his skills to lead a men’s accountability group.
Aware that they set the tone for the church, Bridgeway’s leadership team strives to stay healthy. Conflict is dealt with openly, and every second staff meeting is spent in prayer and building relationships.
Bridgeway’s goal is to pass on its blessing. Whether it’s hosting AA meetings, playing basketball with youths or hosting carnivals, the church gets involved with neighbors who aren’t members. It started a food pantry that has grown into a separate nonprofit organization and serves 100 families. It also is helping to plant a church in lower Manhattan this year.
From the original core, through the current leadership, and out into Haledon, Bridgeway’s health is spreading. Like the gospel, it’s contagious.