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Photo: Sunlight Ministries
Scott Vander Ploeg
Photo by Sunlight Ministries

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Photo: Sunlight Ministries
Photo by Sunlight Ministries

Scott Vander Ploeg, senior pastor of Sunlight Ministries CRC in Port. St. Lucie, Fla., was in 10th grade when he had an experience that changed his life, starting him on a journey that helped to make him a pastor and now a leader in church renewal in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Vander Ploeg’s journey began one Sunday when he was attending Ridgefield CRC in Ridgefield, Ore., with his family.  Right after the worship service, the pastor took him aside and asked if he wanted to attend a Bible study.

Thinking the young pastor, fresh out of Calvin Theological Seminary, intended to start a Bible study for teens, Vander Ploeg told him that would be fine. But the pastor had another idea — one that the youth didn’t see coming.

“He wanted to meet with just me on Tuesdays after school at a local hamburger place to talk about the Gospel of Luke,” said Vander Ploeg.

Vander Ploeg had no idea why the preacher singled him out.

But it didn’t take long, as they met, for him to sense that the pastor saw something in him — a sense of spirituality, a calling by God — that he didn’t see in himself.

So it would have been great, said Vander Ploeg, if he could have gotten to know the pastor better. But soon Ridgefield CRC leaders did what they had done in the past to some other pastors. They asked the pastor to leave. Even though his father was on the church council during this time, Vander Ploeg added, he was never quite sure why they had sent the pastors packing.

Then another thing — a realization — took place that helped to change the direction of Vander Ploeg’s life.

As he entered his junior year of high school, he thought about that young pastor, fresh from seminary. “I know he suffered and that being there was hard on him. But I wondered if maybe God had sent him there just for me. . . . I started wondering if God was calling me into ministry.”

Renewing the Church in Port St. Lucie

Today Vander Ploeg is not only leading one of the largest and fastest growing congregations in the CRC; he is also among those working with the new Center for Church Renewal, which works closely with the CRCNA and the Reformed Church in America. Its office is located in Holland, Mich. 

This center provides information, materials, and practices to help churches turn around problems such as declining numbers and address other challenges.

Until earlier this year, much of this work was based at Calvin Theological Seminary, which had helped the move for renewal in the CRC take shape over the last few years.

Now being conducted under the name, Church Renewal Center, the center is an example of the evolution and maturation of tools and processes to help congregations deal with difficulties that are not uncommon in an era when church membership is aging and young people are leaving the established church.

“Sunlight Ministries and Pastor Scott Vander Ploeg have been great partners in learning and serving, and their work now in hosting the Church Renewal Center is appreciated,” said Jul Medenblik, president of the seminary.

A range of other leaders, including Keith Doorbos, Larry Doornbos, Brian Bosscher, Kris Vos, and Elaine May, are also key leaders the Church Renewal Center. Some are based outside of Florida, and they offer a range of renewal resources — from coaching to conferences and seminars and one-on-one meetings with churches — to assist congregations.

And in Port St. Lucie the Sunlight Ministries church, which has lived out and continues to deal with many of the challenges facing the church today, serves as an example and a place of innovation to help other churches and their leaders sort through issues of church renewal and growth.

Slowly Answering the Call

After high school, while he wondered whether the young pastor from Calvin Seminary had been sent by God to speak to him, Vander Ploeg wasn’t sure which steps to take next.

He attended Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., majoring not in religion or theology but in engineering, mathematics, and physics.

Then another pastor saw something in him. During his junior year at college, Vander Ploeg was attending a small CRC in Spokane. One day the pastor announced that he was going on a mission trip to Ukraine and then, out of the blue, asked Vander Ploeg to preach during his absence.

“I was only 20 years old, and he wanted me to fill the pulpit,” said Vander Ploeg. “Again, someone saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. . . . But I said OK.”

The pastor took time to teach him to write a sermon and brought Vander Ploeg before Classis Columbia to obtain a license to preach.

“So I got up there and preached for six Sundays while he was gone. That was when I really started to consider the pastoral ministry and headed toward seminary,” he said.

Enrolling at Calvin Theological Seminary, Vander Ploeg worked toward earning a master of divinity degree and eventually also a master’s degree in theology. Meanwhile, he and his wife, Andrea, went overseas for a time, and he did some teaching and pastoral work in East Africa. “I remember baptizing people in a river in Kenya, and I thought, ‘I can do this.’”

After finishing at the seminary, said Vander Ploeg, he considered returning to serve as a missionary in Nigeria. But that didn’t happen and he switched gears, figuring God had something else for him to do.

And before long, although he had never pictured himself doing it, Vander Ploeg put in his name to serve a local church.

New Life at Sunlight

When Vander Ploeg landed in Port St. Lucie to become the pastor of Sunlight Community CRC in 2004, the congregation was small, totaling less than 100 people, he said. Port St. Lucie, located near the Atlantic Ocean and north of West Palm Beach, had been a small fishing village in the 1950s, and then its population had soared to about 90,000 in 2000 — and Vander Ploeg saw its potential.

“When we arrived in Port St. Lucie, it was quickly turning into a large city with hardly any churches,” he said. “The desire of Sunlight leaders to reach people was [strong], and I was amazed that they wanted to pay me to do mission work.”

Vander Ploeg saw this city of expanding homes, booming businesses, and people from many countries as a mission field, and he hit the ground running, he said — and soon learned he had to pause and take a few deep breaths.

“If I have to name my biggest spiritual gift when we moved, it was that I was naive. I was passionate and eager to reach that community for Christ,” but it proved to be much harder than he had predicted, said Vander Ploeg.

Getting people in the local secular culture to come to church on Sunday proved difficult, he said. There were CRC snowbirds from up north who came to Florida in the winter, but in the local community he found it hard to make progress.

Then came two hurricanes, two “acts of God” that, while very destructive, opened up some opportunities. One after the other, Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne swept through Port St. Lucie in 2004, razing buildings and causing widespread damage.

One of the ruined structures was a day-care center whose coordinator showed up one day in Vander Ploeg’s office. Since the church was still intact, the day-care coordinator asked if they could use classrooms in the church until they could rebuild. It wasn’t long, said Vander Ploeg, before “45 families were bringing their children here. . . . We soon realized we could do this as a mission.”

When the day-care center was rebuilt and the  staff and children moved out, Sunlight Church started Sunlight Academy, which began as a preschool and has since grown into a grade school that serves some 350 children and has a waiting list.

“Many of the kids had no church background,” said Vander Ploeg of the preschool. “We were able to provide the best education, and it was an opportunity for five days a week to be a missionary and talk about Jesus.”

From there, the church found itself connecting with parents, many of whom were curious about the new faith their children were bringing home. A number of these parents began dropping by to check out the church, and Sunlight made sure to accommodate them with programs and courses and Bible studies that taught the Reformed faith in accessible ways.

The going, however, got tough. At one point, the church nearly split over tensions between traditional CRC members and newer members. But they navigated the difficulty and came out stronger for it.

Along the way, Sunlight has planted several churches in Nigeria through connections Vander Ploeg formed earlier, and last year they adopted a new name, Sunlight Ministries. They have also launched a church in Lake Worth, where a CRC congregation needed to close, and they have begun a Spanish-speaking congregation. Resonate Global Mission has helped Sunlight in many of its efforts.

Still worshiping at the same campus to which Vander Ploeg came in 2004, the church and school have expanded to meet the increasing needs of the local community. A $14 million expansion was completed in 2017, and people continue flowing in to fill the sanctuary on Sundays and on other occasions.

Reflections on renewal

Looking back on his 15 years so far at Port St. Lucie, Vander Ploeg sees that a key to church renewal — and one that they teach at Sunlight — is to keep moving and dreaming. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and always view your surrounding area as your mission field, he says. You are there for the people; share the gospel with them.

The core of their success, said Vander Ploeg, harks back to the teaching of those pastors he met in Ridgefield, Ore., and Spokane, Wash., who saw something in him and took the time to disciple him and lead him in the ways of the faith.

And they did this, he said, by relying on the rich, “every square inch” theological tradition they had been given. “Our CRC theology is exactly what the non-Christian world needs to hear,” said Vander Ploeg. “The way we articulate and explain the faith — a faith that is relevant in all places at all times— is needed in the wider world.”

Add to this, he said, an intentional, one-on-one discipleship component, and a church will be “well-placed to discuss with people and explain the three things I always talk and preach about — our sin, our salvation in Christ, and our service for God.”