John Bouwers, a pastor in Milton, Ontario—a Toronto suburb that is Canada’s fastest-growing urban area—goes to his neighborhood convenience store for the daily newspaper. Over three months, he’s struck up what he describes as a faith-engaging friendship with three Muslim men who work at the store.
“The big thing we talk about at Crosstowne is allowing the rhythms of our life to engage people, grow friendships, and bless people,” Bouwers says, referring to the Home Missions-supported church plant he leads.
One of the men from the store, Nadim, invited Bouwers to come to his mosque and observe a service there. Nadim, in turn, attended Crosstowne’s Thanksgiving celebration.
Ibrahim, who works the midnight shift, gave Bouwers a copy of the Qu’ran to read, and they’ve had respectful and meaningful conversations about each other’s beliefs.
“Ibrahim is, in all but name, a Christ-follower,” Bouwers says.
“Brother John,” as his Muslim friends call him, is amazed at how many people he has met since he moved to Milton in the summer of 2011. Fittingly, “turning strangers into friends” is one of the values prominently featured on Crosstowne’s website.
Bouwers’s work with the people in his neighborhood is changing both him and them—something that doesn’t surprise Moses Chung, the director of Christian Reformed Home Missions. “Programs don’t change a person,” Chung said, “but friendships do.”
Chung, who has been director since May 2011, says Home Missions is undergoing a slow but sure sea change, moving into communities and neighborhoods in fresh, innovative ways and linking with fellow workers in real partnerships.
Many churches may struggle to do the kind of friendship evangelism Bouwers is doing in suburban Toronto, Chung says. The CRC, like much of the Western church, is “losing its power in culture and society.
“In 20 years,” Chung says, “we’ve lost 20 percent of our membership—far less than some mainline denominations, but still alarming.”
According to recent CRC Yearbook statistics, 565 ministries reported no new members added through evangelism in 2011.
In Chung’s mind, this adds up to a crisis situation, but it also is an opportunity to change, grow, and flourish anew. One of the biggest pieces of this is embracing innovation, “learning from the edges,” and creating original ways to reach the lost for Christ.
“We’re now engaged in a major turnaround in the culture and the DNA of the CRC,” says Chung.
“The spirit is moving powerfully in our denomination. How will we be missionaries to those in our own neighborhoods and also to those God brings to our churches, schools, and workplaces? We’re good at being friendly, but we’re not good at making friends.”
Innovators, Not Imitators
Just as John Bouwers befriended Nadim and Ibrahim through a local corner store, other Home Missions partner ministries are moving into communities, forging friendships, and being change-makers for Christ. Tapping into the creative power of the Holy Spirit, they are inventing new ways to be missionaries in their neighborhoods.
One Hope Community Church is bringing dreams and anticipation back to one of Philadelphia’s most defeated neighborhoods: Hunting Park, a community darkened by a 50 percent unemployment rate, crime, and poverty.
“We took a survey (about what to name the new church), and hope is one of those things we all need,” says Pastor Matt Lin. “In Philly, there’s a lot of hopelessness, and for us it comes down to our hope in Christ.”
Hope’s 50 congregants meet in a house they bought from the city and fixed up. “We’ve outgrown the house now,” says Lin. They hope to build on a formerly derelict 7,000-square-foot city lot. Church members and new friends are working together to restore the neighborhood.
In the depressed area of St. Thomas, Ontario, Pastor Beth Fellinger’s Destination Church is sharing Christ’s redemptive power through programs such as a “Mom and Babes” class and “Stone Soup,” a Thursday-night potluck that draws in people who are physically and spiritually hungry.
“Everyone brings one ingredient—it could be an apple, an orange, a jar of jam—and then we all decide what we’re having for dinner,” Fellinger says. “I try to bring a protein or meat, but not always. One night we had pasta with pineapples and tomato sauce. It was really good!”
She says some of the 35 to 40 soupmakers are lonely widows or widowers who long to share a meal. “We have an 82-year-old lady who comes in her walker and brings a soup bone,” Fellinger says.
A new missional endeavor started by Eric Schlukebir in the well-groomed Tomball suburb of Houston, Texas, serves the self-sufficient, financially comfortable families who live in subdivisions.
“People drive to work and drive home and shut their garage doors and stay in,” says Schlukebir. “Many people are not from here. They don’t have community or family ties, so it’s easier to just isolate themselves.”
The core group of organizing families reached out by hosting a “make-your-own-s’mores” bonfire on one couple’s driveway on Halloween night. The women in the group are starting a book club with some of the moms they met at the bonfire.
1,084 Mission Fields
As Home Missions continues to support an established inner-city plant or a freshly-minted missional foray into the suburbs, its director also envisions a movement back to the stalwart cornerstone congregations in the CRC.
“What is God up to in the neighborhoods where he has placed our 1,084 congregations?” asks Chung.
“How can we partner with a 75-year-old church so that church can find newness again to bring a gospel impact to their neighborhoods, cities, and the world?”
The key word is “partner,” Chung says. Learning from the challenges of the past, Home Missions is pursuing change, freshness, and reinvention. But this can’t happen on an island.
“We want to engage, to come alongside churches, classes, pastors, and congregational leaders,” Chung says.
Coworkers for Christ
Adrian Van Giessen, the Home Missions regional leader for Eastern Canada, sees his role as a catalyst, a bridge-builder, a coach, and an encourager. John Bouwers and Beth Fellinger both serve in his region.
“For John I found a certified coach at the start, and I meet with him every month or two to sit down, mostly listening and giving him a space for questions and concerns,” Van Giessen says.
Bouwers’s ministry is supported by its local classis, Toronto, but also by a neighboring classis, Huron. “It’s not in their area, but they believed in his ministry so much that they generously supported him,” Van Giessen notes.
As for Fellinger, “she’s probably the best evangelist I’ve ever met,” Van Giessen says, noting that Destination Church “is reaching so many blue-collar and street people with the gospel. It’s an honor to see the fruit of that.”
Partnerships start with established local churches because without them, pioneering church plants wouldn’t get the traction they need.
Jerry Holleman, regional leader for West Central U.S., says this is sometimes done through a pastoral residency in an established church, “as a primer that familiarizes (evangelists) with the area and the culture they will be planting in.”
Chung adds: “We’ve got to work together as one team to face the massive challenges of 21st-century culture. North America is a new mission field. We are better together and we need each other.
“We want to create a space for you to discover what God is up to in your neighborhood, your circles, and your tribes,” Chung says. “Join us as we join God in mission!”
About the Author
Lorilee Craker, a native of Winnipeg, Man., lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. The author of 15 books, she is the Mixed Media editor of The Banner. Find her on Instagram @thebooksellersdaughter or on her podcast Eat Like a Heroine.