Listening, Prayer, and Renewal: Calvary CRC’s Prayer Journey
The prayer shepherd of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Jon Hoekema, recently heard from a church with an inspiring story of renewal. “It's a wonderful story of how prayer and spiritual disciplines have reshaped a congregation,” he said.
It had been a rough few years for Calvary Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Mich. Contentious national elections had brought political storms into the church family; a much-loved pastor had retired after serving the church for 25 years; a new pastor had already announced their approaching departure; and a pandemic still ongoing in early 2021 had meant online-only services and a lost sense of community and connection.
The congregation’s leaders gathered, some in person and some via online conferencing, to discuss next steps in light of the challenges facing their church. Sensing a need for intentional reconnection to each other and to God, they began the Church Renewal Lab process.
Writing about the church’s journey at the end of the process a couple of years later, elder Jodi Gillmore reflected, “I think we all expected to work hard, to read books, to discuss, to make decisions, to formulate a three- to five-year plan that would put us on a path to numerical growth. And we did do some of that over the course of the next 18 months. But mostly we were instructed to listen so that we could discern God’s preferred future for Calvary Church.”
For the first nine months of the process, Gillmore explained, church leaders listened, praying and reaching out to hear from God, members of the congregation, the wider community around the church, and each other.
Early in this time of listening, said Gillmore, church leaders connected with the book of Exodus and the story of God’s freeing his people from slavery in Egypt and the Israelites’ subsequent wandering in the wilderness. “The wilderness was hard and unknown, so they longed for Egypt where life was hard but predictable,” she said.
Calvary CRC’s leaders realized that listening to and being led by the Holy Spirit can also be unpredictable, while a strategic five-year plan can be more comfortable. But, said Gillmore, they stayed committed to the listening journey. “Like Moses, we begged God for his presence and committed to not moving forward with something just because it seemed like the way to go, but only after spending time seeking God’s face.”
Over time, renewal team members and church leaders sensed that God was inviting Calvary CRC to move from doing things for God to being in God’s presence. Gillmore said, “We knew a lot about God, but we didn’t know him as well as we should.”
As the suggested nine months of listening progressed, church leaders prayed for the Holy Spirit’s leading, committing themselves to prayer and Scripture reading. At the end of the nine months, said Gillmore, they felt that this commitment needed to be brought to the congregation, widening the scope of commitment so that every member could join in this new focus.
Members of the congregation embraced the leaders’ dedication to prayer and Scripture reading. A sermon series – on Exodus – helped to explore the Israelites’ journey and to find parallels in the journey of Calvary CRC. With input from months of listening, the renewal team discerned a new mission, vision, and values for the church. Leadership broadened so that the church structure became less dependent on one lead pastor and more leaders could share their gifts. Church staff were given paid “DAWG” days (Day Away with God). Meetings opened with participants’ sharing about Scriptures they were reading and what they were hearing from God that might shape their journey.
For 14 weeks through the summertime, sermons were based on spiritual practices based on a Thrive resource, Faith Practices: Holy Habits that Help Us Love God and Our Neighbor, Listen to the Spirit, and Become More Like Jesus.
Prayer became a major focus of the church. Church leaders created devotional guides, journals, and other resources to help introduce new faith practices to members of the congregation, and adult education classes moved to a format in which church members could practice spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina.
Evening gatherings of prayer and worship were held, and space was given to create a prayer room in the sanctuary. The church hired someone specifically to lead the prayer ministry; staff and leaders attended conferences and read widely on prayer; and prayer training was arranged for the church’s prayer team. Church leaders learned from other Christian Reformed congregations about their healing prayer ministries and brought lessons home to Calvary CRC.
Members of the church also began to share stories of how prayer had touched their lives. One person shared that they had felt prompted to pray for an old friend serving overseas in missions, so they prayed for this friend whom they hadn’t seen or spoken with in years. Later that day, they received a text from that friend, who had felt prompted to pray for them as well. “Thousands of miles away. Hadn’t talked in two years. Yet both of us heard and heeded the voice of God and prayed for each other,” the person reflected.
Another person shared a story of healing from chronic pain, and another spoke of gaining clarity on a calling to a short-term mission experience. One person, following a prompting to speak with a group of strangers gathered on the church’s playground, made a connection with them that has continued and has allowed the church to meet some of their physical and social needs.
Many people in the church, said Gillmore, have shared stories and reflections on how they feel closer to God and have felt his presence in a deeper way since the church began focusing on prayer and presence.
Calvary CRC plans to continue growing into its calling to be a house of prayer, said Gillmore: “As we continue on this journey of learning what it means to be people of the presence and the power of God, we know that God is leading us to further live into the mission statement he led us to craft during the Church Renewal Lab process – to ‘Reflect the Love of Jesus in the World.’”