Pastor Learns Lessons in Church Renewal

“I was three months into the Renewal Lab journey when this exciting and daunting realization struck me: Nothing’s gonna happen around here unless I start doing something around here! And the number one thing I had to start doing was have the right attitude about renewal,” recalled Rev. Zach Olson.

Olson is the pastor at East Leonard Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. In June 2015, he joined others as part of the third cohort of churches to participate in a pilot project of Calvin Theological Seminary called Church Renewal Lab.

Under the leadership of project director Rev. Keith Doornbos and a five-member teaching team, the Renewal Lab creates a learning environment where pastors and church leaders come together to talk about their current ministry and gain tools to foster renewal in their congregations.

"True renewal begins when a church joins Christ on his mission of making more and better disciples," explained Doornbos. That mission, he said, is supported by four essentials: abiding, vision, leadership and health.

To train people in these renewal essentials, the Renewal Lab coaches pastors and their 10-member renewal teams on a two-year journey toward making more and better disciples. At any given time, 20 to 30 churches are involved in this process and participate in learning labs, team development, congregational engagement, reading assignments, and accountability.

During this same two-year journey, Doornbos explained, congregations invest in a three-step process of listening, imagining, and doing, with an ultimate goal of creating a strategic missional plan.

The experience has taught Olson, who completed his two-year term with the Renewal lab in June, a few key things. The first was that he had to take ownership of his role in the renewal process.

“Even with all the books and coaches and renewal team retreats, no change was going to happen in our congregation if I didn’t lead it,” he said. “So I started to lead. I restructured our time together as elders to be more about renewal than business. I gave them the books we were reading as a Renewal Team. I structured my week and my work so that renewal wasn’t something I added to my calendar but gave shape to what I did.”

The second thing Olson learned was to start delegating.

“Handing people the reins and giving them permission to develop ministry is making our ministry better—and me a better leader,” he said.

This included accepting the significance of existing programs and the people whose passion had led to their existence.

Lastly, Olson said that he learned that churches and leaders need to trust that all of God’s people want to see God work. This is a joint effort of everyone in the congregation. When we trust this process and allow room for God to work, over time the renewal will happen.

“I’m committed to renewal because I believe that nothing will make our community more alive than a genuine experience of the living God at work among them,” said Olson. “If what we’re doing right now isn’t making that happen . . . it’s time for something new!”

And that’s just what the congregation has done. East Leonard CRC has seen several results come out of this Renewal Lab process. The church has placed a greater emphasis on discipleship and gospel preaching. As a result, they now have a greater openness to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. They’ve seen leaders develop and the congregation has a clear direction for the church’s future.

“That's one of the reasons East Leonard joined the Renewal Lab in the first place,” Olson explained. “We were a healthy church experiencing slow and steady growth, but we wanted a God-honoring trajectory for our future. Renewal Lab helped us ask the right questions, have the right discussions, and set the right priorities. I think the Renewal Lab would benefit any church that wants to make meaningful kingdom impact in their spheres of influence”

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