Coming from a Wesleyan background with a great gusto for evangelism, Rev. Nicholas Hopkins wanted to share his zest for Christ with his first church: Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Soon after arriving, he went door-to-door, talking to residents, and helped coordinate an outreach gathering for neighbors. But Hopkins, ordained as Shawnee Park’s pastor in September 2012, encountered a surprising challenge.
He learned that Shawnee’s neighborhood, on the southeast side of Grand Rapids near Calvin College, is home to a lot of churches. Many of the neighbors already went to one of the nearby churches.
Given Hopkins’s desire to build a congregation that reaches out to others who have no church home, he realized he needed to change course.
“We had to find a way to reach out to people, for us to become a more missional community,” said Hopkins, who had been considering work as a church planter before accepting the call to an established church.
“The focus became the people we were friends with in our jobs, schools, sports, and hobbies. Who’s in the cubicle next to you? Who is your next-door neighbor with whom you share a lawn mower?”
Over the last year, Hopkins and his congregants began using a Christian Reformed Home Missions tool—Top Ten Most Wanted cards—to become more mission-oriented.
The cards give guidance on how to pray for others to come to Christ, to ask God to open doors of conversation and opportunity, and to summon wisdom and sensitivity. Users are invited to list the top 10 people they would most like to come to know Jesus Christ.
In some ways, this was difficult for members of Shawnee Park, since they didn’t know many non-Christians. But making the list got them thinking.
In the end, said Hopkins, “this Home Missions resource has been quite helpful.”
The cards are one of a number of resources that Home Missions makes available in the effort to expand and renew existing churches, plant new churches, encourage faith formation, and provide ministry to students on college campuses.
Engaging and partnering with churches in various ways is an essential part of Home Missions’ vision of collaboration and partnership. Although that has been its vision for many years, the agency is tackling this effort with renewed energy, said Moses Chung, director of Home Missions.
Chung said that Home Missions is becoming increasingly adaptable in finding creative ways to share God’s message as the agency faces the challenges confronting many churches in the 21st century.
The “top ten” list is one of those ways.
“The value in [using the cards] is in creating an intentional prayer list,” said Hopkins. “We asked members of the congregation to put 10 people on the list who they know are unbelievers and pray that they open up and become receptive to the gospel.”
As part of the effort, church members have shared who they are praying for with the broader church. Although the people on the lists are not prayed for by name, they are included every Sunday in the congregational prayer.
Shawnee Park is not doing this to specifically build its membership, although Hopkins is grateful to see that some of those who have been on the prayer lists have visited the church, and a few have stayed.
“We have been very clear that we are praying for people to come to a belief in Christ. We want to get people into the kingdom of heaven,” said Hopkins.
Hopkins said he is pleased to see how church members have embraced their mission. He has been at events where church members come up to him and quietly identify another person as someone on their “top ten” list.
“Our congregants are owning this process; they are having conversations with and praying for people,” he said.
Praying intentionally is important. But so is reaching out person-to-person with others as a way to build the church of God, especially an established church, said Hopkins.
“It can be terrifying to witness to someone, especially if you don’t know them. Or maybe it’s scarier if you do,” said Hopkins.
Cornerstone Prison Church—Worship Inside the Walls
In following God’s mission, Home Missions has expanded the model of what makes up a CRC congregation.
Take Cornerstone Prison Church, for example.
The members of this church, which has been supported and encouraged by Home Missions, are free while they’re “on the inside” to worship, grow, and serve as leaders in their church, formally organized as an established congregation in September 2013 by Classis Iakota.
Randy, an inmate, is one of six church council members who serve alongside three members from “the outside.”
“We are here long-term to help these guys grow in their faith, to take them beyond the milk of the gospel to the meat,” said Rev. Steve Moerman.
The seed for Cornerstone was planted almost 18 years ago when the Moermans were invited to attend a Prison Fellowship weekend.
Afterward, they began to visit inmates and engage in Bible studies with prisoners. Then, at the age of 40, Steve enrolled in seminary and began planting Cornerstone Prison Church in June 2005.
Through Bible studies, prayer groups, worship, and fellowship, Cornerstone’s members are developing as disciples while forming bonds within God’s family. Often lonely and forsaken by their biological families, the inmates create family ties with one another.
The high-medium security facility holds people who have been imprisoned for murder, armed robbery, sex crimes, and other serious offences. But there is power for change in the gospel.
Every week, God’s imagebearers come to their own place of worship inside prison walls, ready to receive grace. “We all come to the cross absolutely empty-handed,” said Moerman. “What these guys once were, they no longer are.”
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Orangeville CRC is, in many ways, a fairly typical southern Ontario congregation. But this spring, as part of an ongoing desire for renewal, the leadership of the church, which is pastored by Rev. Andrew Vis, connected with Ridder Church Renewal.
Home Missions works to come alongside established churches like Orangeville and several others in Ontario and across the U.S. and Canada to discern what God’s plan is for each church and its community. Sometimes this involves helping the church in the process of renewal.
Ridder, described as “a process, not a program,” is based at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich. Vis and five other leaders from the church have made a 30-month commitment to faith renewal for themselves and their church members.
Change starts by challenging time-honored assumptions about what makes a congregation healthy and vital. “Often our assumption is that we want to make good church members,” Vis said. “But at Ridder, the goal is to make disciples and live missionally.”
Participants attend five retreats over the course of 30 months. They learn from facilitators and then commit to practicing their learning in their own community.
“The missional piece is the willingness to live out the gospel in our neighborhoods,” Vis pointed out. “The question we ask is, how do we want our community to be different in 10 years?”
Vis has seen changes within himself.
“I’m practicing missional living by making intentional efforts to get to know my neighbors,” he stated. “Usually when I get home I want to go straight into my house; I don’t want to talk to anyone. But now I’m engaging with my neighbors as often as I can.”
Developing Disciples and Leaders
Campus ministry is a vital part of Home Missions that also supports the work of starting and strengthening churches.
As a voice within the academic communities in North America, Home Missions is able to identify, equip, and send disciples and leaders into all walks of life.
Local bodies of believers are the best tools for developing leaders who join God’s mission to transform lives and communities worldwide.
Home Missions works on the campuses of Christian colleges where many students have a faith background.
But faith is also an important aspect of life at such publicly funded schools as McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
At first glance, McMaster’s motto “All things cohere in Christ,” seems out of character for a secular university. But the school’s founder, William McMaster, was a devout Christian.
Michael Fallon, who leads the campus ministry at McMaster, says the motto dovetails perfectly with the campus ministry as well as with Reformed theology.
“Our CRC fellowship . . . called ‘All Things’ from Colossians 1:15-20 . . . in a nutshell says that all things were created in Christ for Christ, [that] all things fell, and that Christ has come to reconcile all things back to himself,” said Fallon, who also leads a campus ministry at nearby Mohawk College.
“Christ has come to save human souls, but also all of material existence. It’s a cosmic restoration.”
Fallon encourages students, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to be “agents of re-creation.”
He also listens for such prompts from the Holy Spirit himself as he proclaims Christ on a campus with sky-high academic standards. Several of the alumni and staff are Nobel laureates.
Fallon tells the story of Chung, a Chinese graduate student and medical doctor, whom he met in the line at Tim Hortons one day.
They became good friends, and Fallon learned that Chung came from a long line of surgeons and physicians.
One day the two discussed the symbol for medicine: a snake winding around a staff. Chung cherished the emblem as “his family’s symbol.”
He was fascinated when Fallon told him that whereas most think the symbol’s origin springs from the Greek story of Acelepius, there is a scriptural account of God telling Moses to display a bronze serpent on his staff as a means of healing the Israelites who had been bitten by snakes, prefiguring “Jesus Christ, who brings healing to the world.”
Eventually, Chung and his wife came to believe. “Most students don’t relate their studies to faith. I connected those things for him,” said Fallon.
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By placing someone on a prayer list, you are placing the person in God’s hands and then asking God to help you, when the time comes, “to be faithful witnesses in their lives. The ‘top ten’ has given us a common experience and framework to do just that.”
Together in Mission
Home Missions director Chung said he is glad his agency can help established churches such as Shawnee Park adapt to current circumstances.
“That’s always an indication that God is up to something. Home Missions is working to address our challenges in new ways. We are approaching our work with renewed energy and focus—developing experiments, cultivating partnerships, and setting out on the next phase of our journey with the CRC,” he said.
There is a feeling out there—at Christian Reformed churches, within Christian Reformed communities, and even from the outside looking in—that the denomination is facing a crisis, said Chung.
In reality, he said, the denomination is facing its greatest opportunity yet: North America is rapidly becoming one of the largest mission fields in the world.
“God is on the move in our churches, our neighborhoods, and our communities,” he said.