Church Closure Blesses Ministry
“There's a proverb I heard in Nigeria,” said Mike Ribbens, who serves as a missionary with Resonate Global Mission: “You can count the number of seeds in a mango, but you can’t count the number of mangoes in a seed.”
In other words, you can never tell what the future impact of today’s actions might be. Ribbens and his wife, Megan, are experiencing a bit of that “mango growth” right now, thanks to a gift from Ridgewood (N.J.) Christian Reformed Church.
Ridgewood CRC is a congregation that was founded in December 1942, and they constructed their church building on Lincoln Avenue in Ridgewood, N.J., in 1949. This year, on the cusp of their 80th anniversary, the congregation made the difficult decision to disband and sell the church property. They donated a portion of the proceeds to the Ribbens’ work.
“The congregation peaked in membership in the 1960s and ’70s,” said Mary Stegink, the outgoing pastor at Ridgewood, as she explained the church’s history.
Over the years, the congregation also helped to birth other congregations. In 2000, for example, Ridgewood extended a call to Marco Avila to plant a church in partnership with Classis Hackensack and Resonate. The fruit of that effort was the New Horizon CRC in Paterson, N.J., which became an organized church in 2008.
"I always think of Ridgewood CRC as a great and good example of what a calling church should be," said Avila.
And yet, like many other congregations, Ridgewood began to decline in membership as years passed.
“Before I came to the church in 2012,” said Stegink, “the congregation had had a conversation about whether they should try again. They were down to 45 or 50 members at the time. They thought they would give it one more go with a new pastor and see what happened.”
The congregation did see growth in the next few years. In 2015 and 2016 their membership numbers went up, but that increase took a hit when a few key families moved away and five long-time members died in 2017.
“I wondered if we’d be able to pull out of that downward spiral,” said Stegink. They couldn’t.
And yet, despite their small number of members, the congregation remained faithful to their mission. They met regularly, grew in faith, and did what they could to support ministry in their local community and around the world.
“This church nurtured Megan, Amira, and me as I started my formal journey into ordained ministry,” said Ribbens. “I served as their summer intern pastor in 2004. Different leaders in the church mentored me. I was invited into their most vibrant stages of life (the church used to host service groups of over 60 young people). We walked through difficult seasons of life as well. As the church began to shrink in number and Megan and I had transitioned to international missions, we stayed in contact. On a couple occasions, different members in the church were teary because we showed up for in-person visits when they were feeling forgotten, maybe even abandoned.”
In January 2020, the council of Ridgewood began to have a conversation about disbanding. A few more families had made the decision to move elsewhere for more affordable housing, and the remaining members weren’t sure if they could keep the church running. Then COVID-19 hit.
“The COVID-19 pandemic ended up being a blessing for us,” said Stegink. “We went online, and it stabilized us. We had nearly 100 percent attendance at our online services. Two thirds of our members would show up for Zoom coffee. Without having to pay to heat the church building, our finances weren’t that bad. COVID gave us more time together.”
The pandemic, despite the many challenges it brought, also gave Ridgewood time to think about how they wanted to close and what they could do to bless others. Because of his connection with the congregation, Avila was asked to help lead the council through the process of closing.
“In June 2020, Marco and I went to lunch, and he introduced me to Living Hope Church,” said Stegink.
Living Hope was an independent church that had started with primarily Korean leadership and members but had been growing into a truly multiethnic congregation. They were in search of a church building to house their growing membership. They were also looking to affiliate with a denomination, and the Christian Reformed Church in North America seemed a good fit.
“God answered our prayers in more ways than we could have imagined,” said Stegink. “Here was a Christ-centered, biblically based church that was looking for a building and looking for a denomination. We could have sold our building to a developer or to a mosque at market value, but we didn’t want to do that. The point was to keep ministry going.”
In the fall of 2021, Ridgewood CRC signed an agreement with Living Hope to sell them the building. Living Hope agreed to let the congregation continue to use the building for three years, rent-free, as long as they moved their services to Sunday afternoons. It gave the church time to finish well.
Moving to afternoon services also allowed Stegink to pick up a second, interim pastor position with a nearby Reformed Church in America congregation. She would lead worship there on Sunday mornings and then with Ridgewood in the afternoons. In May 2022 that RCA congregation called Stegink to serve in a permanent role. Many of the 28-30 remaining Ridgewood CRC members followed her, and the former CRC congregation officially disbanded in June.
As a last act of ministry together, the church members went through a multistep discernment process to decide how to distribute the proceeds they had received from the sale of the church and parsonage.
“The Ribbens family and their work were among the top five causes,” Stegink wrote to Ribbens as she sent a check for $67,000 to Resonate Global Mission in support of the Ribbens' ministry. “I tell you this because we haven’t been able to support you in recent years as we had hoped, and yet you are never far from our thoughts and prayers."
The congregation also gave sizable gifts to several other causes both in their local community and around the world.
“Making a decision to disband as a church was an incredibly painful thing to go through. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” said Stegink, noting that several of the members had spent their whole lives as members of this church. “And yet, being able to bless others as a result has helped us with letting go. We can see beauty rising out of ashes in our neighborhood and across the globe.”
God has used the church on Lincoln Avenue in Ridgewood, N.J., for the past 80 years. Now he will continue to use it, both as the home for a new and vibrant worshiping community that is hoping to affiliate with the CRCNA, and through gifts that have blessed ministry around the world.
“A seed fell on Lincoln Ave. in Ridgewood, New Jersey, as Ridgewood CRC closed their doors,” Ribbens concluded. “But one day there will be a mango orchard.”