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Renewal to Be Focus of Classis Gatherings

February 28, 2024

When Rev. Zach King was tasked by Synod 2023 with the responsibility “to arrest and reverse the trend of [membership] decline and bring about a positive trend of membership growth to our denomination” (Acts of Synod 2023, p. 976), he said he wasn’t sure how to begin.

“It was a large task with serious ramifications for our denomination,” said King.

He noted that since the mid-1990s the CRCNA has experienced a steady decline in membership. Cultural divisions, demographic challenges, struggles with evangelism and church planting, and differing views on women in ministry have all played a role.

“Political polarization, the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, issues about binationality, and debates around human sexuality are the most recent issues affecting us and our ability to engage mission locally and globally, but this is not a new issue,” he said.

However, he also noted that his vantage point as general secretary of the denomination allows him to see and hear stories from across North America that also play into this situation.

“We know there are significant pockets of renewal and growth in our churches, even in the midst of such challenges,” he said. “In fact, paradoxically, some of our churches that are facing deep challenges are also ones that are showing the greatest signs of renewal.”

In the midst of this juxtaposition King and others discerned a first step in the response to synod’s request – a replicable, grassroots, storytelling process to help churches learn from one another how to move faithfully into the future. This plan was supported by the Council of Delegates at the February 2024 meeting.

Called Gather, this initiative will include 10 regional events with lay and ordained leaders throughout the United States and Canada. Each two-day gathering will include prayer, worship, fellowship, storytelling, and facilitated dialogue.

“The goal will be to facilitate a process of discovery for congregations and leaders, revealing to them and us how God is already at work renewing the church,” explained Rev. Elaine May, Congregational Renewal Leader at Thrive, who is leading the project. “As we build a culture of narrative testimony, we anticipate that churches and classes will develop a receptive, open, and hopeful imagination based on the existing work of God in our midst.”

Through their participation at Gather, attendees will identify what is happening on the leading edge of missional ministry, how God is renewing his church, and what the CRC’s role in that work should be. They will watch for barriers to renewal that our churches are experiencing, and they will seek to discover how to overcome those barriers.

“This project will strengthen our corporate discernment practices so that together we can evaluate, clarify, and align the churches of the CRCNA with God’s ongoing missional purposes,” said May.

The first event is scheduled for April 19-21 in Minneapolis, Minn. It will include representatives from classes Columbia, Hackensack, Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior. Each classis can send 10 delegates. Up to five more will be recruited, in partnership with the classes, for their unique experiences in renewal, church planting, and outreach. All travel and accommodation costs will be covered through generous donors.

Additional events will be scheduled in fall 2024 and in the winter and spring of 2025. Dates and locations can be found on the Gather website.

“The idea is not to come to these events with preconceived answers or prescribed strategies. Instead we will pray together, worship, share our stories, and discern collaboratively what God is telling us,” said May. “As we take turns sharing about our own churches, we hope that everyone will be encouraged in their ministry, inspired with new ideas for their local contexts, and equipped to return home and give witness both to where God is already at work and where he is leading us.”

“Gather events are the first step in response to synod’s encouragement to assist CRC congregations in their renewal,” added King. “Discoveries from this initiative will be integrated to inform the development of an adaptable renewal strategy for congregations as requested by synod. It is our hope that having representatives participate in these gatherings will help congregations and classes develop interest and buy-in for that eventual synodical plan or pathway.”

As more details about future events develop, information will be sent to classes and churches. In the meantime, an FAQ link has been added to the Gather website to address initial questions that people may have.