Delegates to Synod 2010 packed Grace Community Christian Reformed Church in Oak Lawn, Ill., Sunday afternoon for a service of prayer and praise that showcased rousing hymn-singing, a bell choir of persons who live with disabilities, and a type of discussion-style preaching for which the congregation has been awarded a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.
The service was a mixture of old and new in a church that itself has experienced substantial demographic changes.
Grace will celebrate its fifth birthday in early July as a congregation that emerged from three southeast Chicago-area CRCs -- Park Lane, Evergreen Park, and Kedvale Avenue -- all of which found themselves facing challenges as the neighborhoods and business districts around them changed.
"We are the result of the consolidation of three CRCs, each with deep roots in the community," said Bill Weidenaar, a Grace CRC member who welcomed synodical delegates to the neighborhood church that features a striking stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary showing images of a cross inset in the glass.
"We were all experiencing diminished membership and yet were still convinced that we had a witness in this community."
Creative thinking and a willingness to change, coupled with the faith of long-time members, brought to life a new church that is joining ministries for the elderly with outreach programs for the young. Grace also has started a new church called Jacob's Well in a nearby neighborhood. Jacob's Well features a contemporary worship style.
Both churches are experimenting with the new type of preaching that was reflected in the synodical service. "We have developed a process for preaching that incorporates various members of the worshipping community in both the sermon formation and delivery," says Rev. Michael Kooy, pastor of Grace.
Sunday's service focused on the the parable of the Great Banquet, as described in Luke 12: 15-24, the story Jesus told about a man who was holding a great banquet to which the invited guests refused to come. And so the man told his servant to "go to the roads and country lanes and make them (strangers and wayfarers) come in, so that my house may be full. I tell you none of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet."
Rev. John Wilczewski, pastor of Jabob's Well, joined Kooy in giving the sermon, during which they asked people to break into groups of three or four and discuss this parable that is essentially about the radical hospitality of God.
This process of having the congregation become part of the sermon is what the worship grant from the Calvin Institute has helped to develop. "It is harder for me to prepare for a sermon like this," says Kooy. "It is a process that is being led by the Holy Spirit. I can't control it, and I need to do a great deal of preparation to be ready to go in the direction that the spirit leads."
At another time during the sermon, the pastors invited people to ponder the level of hospitality in their own homes, in comparison with the amazing hospitality of God.
"Project participants in this grant have learned about the role of the sermon in worship and in forming a community of faith, both biblically and historically," says Kooy. "They reflect critically on our current practice, and experience a variety of models of participatory sermon preparation and delivery."
At Grace, the first Sunday service is a traditional worship service with not much back-and-forth during the sermon. A later service on Sunday uses the new approach.
The service also celebrated the Lord's Supper with delegates to Synod 2010, which is meeting this week at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill.
Synod will resume with a brief plenary session Monday morning, after which delegates will continue meeting in advisory committees. One Monday evening, Rev. Jerry Dykstra, the executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, will address the delegates about the state of the CRCNA.