I remember witnessing door-to-door as part of my congregation’s youth group in the 1970s. One year, we biked about 60 miles away and the next—probably based on the confidence we gained from the first year—to a community more than 200 miles distant. We’d hop off our bicycles in front of every house we came to, knock on the door, and invite the person to participate in a Bible correspondence course.
Since the 70s, the Christian Reformed Church has participated in a number of evangelistic and church planting efforts, but the fruits of our labors haven't always resulted in growth. In fact, an overture came to Synod 2017 saying that the CRC is shrinking and asking for a strategy to reverse the decline through evangelism, church renewal, and planting.
Synod responded with these instructions to the executive director:
. . . to work with each agency and educational institution to seek out best practices and resources related to church renewal in the CRC and similar denominations and share these with classes and congregations in order to more faithfully carry out our commitment to Church Order Articles 74-76.
. . . to work with each agency and educational institution to collaborate in finding areas of convergence related to church renewal and to develop effective strategies for implementation by classes and churches.
. . . to keep the call to prayer for church renewal, church planting, and evangelism continually before God’s people.
Before you read further, understand that these instructions are not for me alone. The choice of words signals ways in which I, the executive director, am to work with denominational agencies and services to connect them with the needs and opportunities of our congregations.
I’m penning these words just a few weeks after synod and, although the specific response to synod’s instruction has not yet begun, much of this work is already happening. Why? Because we already have resources—resources that some of you are using and benefitting from. These include the Church Renewal Lab through Calvin Theological Seminary and the Ridder Church Renewal initiative through Western Theological Seminary.
Resonate Global Mission—the name for the new agency made up of CRC Home Missions and World Missions—has specific efforts such as “Go Local” that assist congregations. Other resources include the Healthy Church Index as well as regional resource consultants and coaches.
Our Journey 2020, the CRC’s ministry plan, has been underway for a year. It, too, will help us to move forward in focused, unified ways. The plan’s first two strategic foci are (1.1) Congregations discover and discern how God is at work in their churches and communities, bringing renewal and transformation, and (1.2) Ministry leaders, both ordained and lay, discover and discern how God is at work in their communities, resulting in the birth of new churches and discipling communities.
As we move into this new chapter of working for church renewal and growth, keep in mind:
First—although people are coming to Christ, some congregations are growing, and we can find many examples of where the Spirit is at work—the problem of declining membership is real. CRC Yearbook numbers from 2006 to 2016 show membership in Canada decreasing by 14.4 percent, while in the U.S. it declined by 12.5 percent.
Second, we need to think beyond the data and consider our responsibilities. We are the sheep of God’s pasture. Certainly, God’s pasture isn’t shrinking. Christ’s instruction to go and make disciples hasn’t changed.
Earlier in our history, our growth benefitted greatly from the baby boom and immigration patterns. While we continue to reproduce and immigration still occurs, we must open our doors even wider with Spirit-led hospitality to those in our communities and neighborhoods.
When Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbor?" he responded with a parable where some avoided, but one responded with care. We too must respond to those around us who are oftentimes quite different from us with needs both hidden and evident. The fields are ripe for the harvest, whether it's biking 200 miles with a youth group, sending a missionary overseas, or looking in our own backyards.