Learning from the Edges

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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!”

‘Being Church’ in New Places

As Home Missions turns its focus to helping churches move into their neighborhoods, the places where missional groups, church plants, and evangelistic outreaches are happening are also changing. Take a tour of some of these novel settings around North America:

Bleachers, Locker Rooms, and Basketball Courts

For Mike Wissink and his ministry to college athletes at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., “church” looks less like walls and steeples and more like bleachers, squeaky gym floors, locker rooms, or even the open road.

“I often drive students with injuries to their doctor appointments and physical therapy sessions in Grand Rapids (an hour away from FSU),” he said. “This is a unique chance to hear their stories.”

Pubs, Restaurants, and Microbreweries

Far from the norm, yet connecting with people who rarely get reached, Bryan Berghoef is willing to take some risks.

“Pub Theology” is an idea Berghoef borrowed from the British and brought to life, both in a book by the same name and in his recent ministry at Watershed in Traverse City, Mich.

“We met every Thursday night in a microbrewery and all were welcome,” he said. “It was designed to be an open conversation about faith and life.” Berghoef is now planting a new church called Roots DC in the U.S. capital.

Community Gardens

The Table, a Home Missions-supported ministry in Denver, Colo., celebrated the end of the 2012 growing season with Croptoberfest, its first annual fall harvest party.

The Table is a growing network of neighborhood gardens as well as deepening communities. Croptoberfest featured a roast pig, apple cider, pumpkin pie, live music, a reading of Johnny Appleseed, and a version of bobbing for apples—with apples hanging from a tree. The Table was able to donate nearly 1,500 pounds of food to two local food banks this season.

A Coffee Shop, a Garden, a Motel

Montana folk are forming small communities in unique places and dreaming up new ways to embrace faith through Imagine, a church plant in Bozeman, Mont., led by Pastor Randy Van Osdol.

“We’re kind of a church for people recovering from church,” said Van Osdol.

“Sprout,” one of several missional groups, began in a community garden. Participants are invited to work and share in the harvest. Extra food goes to a local food bank. The initiative draws people from all walks of life and leads to friendships and conversations.

“Jason” came to Imagine through a gathering at Wild Joe’s Coffee Shop. “We discuss a topic such as immigration,” said Van Osdol. “I bring in a passage of Scripture to give a biblical perspective.”

Drawing from Sprout, the coffee shop group, and other small groups, Imagine meets on Sunday mornings in a Microtel Inn meeting room in Bozeman.

A Rich and Varied Mosaic

God has provided the Christian Reformed Church and Home Missions with many gifted leaders and resources. This family of God, with a rich heritage and traditions, is becoming increasingly multiethnic.

Four leaders representing different ethnic groups—Javier Torres, Hispanic Ministries; Bob Price, Black Ministries; Tong Park, Korean Ministries; and Stanley Jim, Native American Ministries—serve and support local Home Missions endeavors.

Each has numerous stories to tell of how they are involved at various levels in training, equipping, supporting, and partnering with ministries, classes, and Home Missions regions across the CRC. Here are a few pieces of the mosaic.

Wayne Coleman, Imagine Fellowship, Holland, Mich.

Wayne Coleman, the pastor of Imagine Fellowship, says African-Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Holland, Mich., the community in which he’s shepherded his flock for the last four years.

“This is a very transitional neighborhood,” he says of Holland’s core. “We have lots of families who have moved here to escape the violence, crime, and poor schools in Chicago and Detroit.”

One migrant from Detroit, “LaKesha,” found refuge in both her adopted city and in Imagine, her new spiritual home. “She grew up watching her mother murdered by her father, and from that trauma turned to drugs and prostitution,” says Coleman. “Through the church and work of God in her life, she began to change before our very eyes.”

Jose Vazquez, Jersey City Mission, Jersey City, N.J.

In the heart of the densely-packed, multicultural medley of Jersey City, a pastor’s heart beats for the people he serves.

“Jersey City has so many different nationalities,” says Pastor Jose Vazquez, who leads the Jersey City Mission Church, a Home Missions partner ministry.

The church reaches out to Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Honduras, Peru, and Mexico. The needs of the neighborhood are vast; unemployment, poverty, and hunger threaten to choke local residents. Jersey City Mission tries to provide some practical as well as spiritual relief.

“We have ‘free markets’ in the summer where we give away shoes and used clothes,” says Vazquez. “We also have appliances we sell for a very low price or give away if needed.”

John Kim, Holland Korean Church, Holland, Mich.

Engineer expatriates and exchange students from the “Hermit Kingdom” may attend Holland Korean Church for delicious kalbi barbeque and spicy kimchi, but some of them are also encountering God for the very first time.

Eighty percent of the people who come to Holland Korean Church are non-Christians, says Pastor John Kim of the West Michigan church plant he leads, a ministry supported by Home Missions. “They come for cultural reasons, to hear their Korean language and eat Korean food at the lunch after church. So I preach the gospel every Sunday.”

Carol Bremer-Bennett, Rehoboth Christian School, Rehoboth, N.M.

Rehoboth Christian School’s director, Carol Bremer-Bennett, is adopted. Her rich background is a stew of Dutch, Mennonite, and Navajo, all ingredients God has stirred together to prepare her for ministry in New Mexico.

Bremer-Bennett was born to a Mennonite mother and a Navajo father and adopted by a Dutch CRC family. The school’s population is largely Native American, with 70 percent of the students coming from Navajo or Zuni backgrounds. Many of them live on reservations.

“God had a place for me here at Rehoboth and a calling that would bring those worlds together,” Bremer-Bennett says.

Please Pray . . .

  • For small groups, including those in Coffee Break and Global Coffee Break, to be refreshed in discipling others to love and serve Jesus.
  • For churches to respond to the invitation to send their pastor and another person to the second annual Prayer Summit April 15–17 in California.
  • For the Holy Spirit to open doors for established and new churches to minister to those in their communities who do not know the gospel.
  • For youth in churches and on campuses to be transformed by God’s direction in their lives and to follow where he leads.
  • For new churches to have strength and wisdom in reaching their diverse communities with the love of Christ.
  • For the gospel to go forth across North America.

About the Author

Lorilee Craker, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., in a 1924 house full of teenagers, pets, exchange students, and houseplants. The author of 15 books, including Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and Me, she is the Mixed Media editor of The Banner. Find her at Lorileecraker.com or on Instagram @thebooksellersdaughter.

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