In June, to honor the CRC’s oldest congregations at the denomination’s annual synod meeting, Dr. Steven Timmermans, executive director of the CRCNA, took time to recognize churches that have passed the milestone anniversary of 150 years. Each will receive a special plaque.
In all, more than a dozen CRC congregations have reached this mark. But, in a small paperwork snag that was quickly rectified, one church, First CRC of Zeeland, Mich., was missing from the list announced at synod.
But as soon as Hero Broekhuizen from the Zeeland church let us know about it, we apologized, and the church will join those receiving a plaque.
As a courtesy, Broekhuizen sent me a copy of the church’s history, written a few years ago by one of their pastors with the help of a committee.
And the historical account is fascinating and offers an in-depth look at one of the churches that have reached the milestone spotlighted by synod.
For one thing, First CRC of Zeeland is the first organized church in the CRC, having been birthed by Noordeloos CRC, one of the four founding churches that started the denomination in the 1850s.
Reading through the timeline of events First CRC has experienced reminded me of the tendency we have to believe that the problems many churches now face — lack of funds, questions about mission, dips and declines in membership — are new. The challenges of our day, we sometimes think, are worse than ever before, and we need new strategies to solve them.
Sometimes we do need new strategies and approaches. In fact, synod this year again took up the issue of declining membership and wants to help congregations find ways to address the problem.
Meanwhile, the denomination has restructured itself in a variety of ways, from the creation of a unified Resonate Global Mission to the launch of the Connections project and other resourcing initiatives, to help churches such as First CRC of Zeeland meet the community and demographic changes they are facing.
At the same time, though, there are uplifting lessons to learn from history, especially from congregations such as First CRC of Zeeland.
The history of First CRC helps tell the story of an immigrant church that grew slowly, facing many obstacles and successes along the way.
It is a history of times when people left the church for various reasons, of times when money was tight, of times when arguments raged over theology and worship style, of times when church members strongly disagreed about which pastor to call and what to do with a pastor who didn’t work out.
But through good times and bad First CRC has kept a steady course in honoring and expressing their Christian convictions.
From the start, this church has had a heart for people in need, said Broekhuizen when I met with him in the office of Tom Pettinga, who is serving as First Zeeland’s transitional pastor.
Over the years, the church has donated clothes to needy people, paid medical expenses for young mothers, sent money overseas to feed the hungry, paid to support children on mission fields, had a radio ministry, and hooked up a TV system so that church members in the local nursing home could watch Sunday services.
They also served a weekly meal to people in the community and established a correspondence course that was used by students across North America.
And at the top of First CRC’s list has been ministry to youth. In the early 2000s the church opened The Bridge, a $1.5 million youth center on the town’s Main Street. It includes a full-size gym, recreational activities, big rooms for youth to gather in, and small rooms for students to do homework in or to meet quietly with friends or adults.
“This is a church that has cared for its people in powerful ways — through cards, visits, meals, by inquiring how someone having a hard time is doing,” said Pettinga.
In fact, for many years there has been a strong sense of continuity and even comfort for church members, a solid ground that was provided by the church and denomination.
But in recent years some of the continuity and comfort has begun to erode as, among other things, the children of the church have grown up and moved away, leaving behind moms and dads and grandparents, and thus a graying membership, to carry on their family traditions and practices of faith.
Now, said Pettinga, the church holds a regular time in which older members can meet to pray and talk about the fact that they are empty nesters and their kids don’t live down the street to participate in Sunday worship or come for Sunday dinner.
On Sundays, the sanctuary, which can seat some 1,000 people and was once one of the largest in the CRC, is by no means empty. But numbers are down.
In the midst of constant change, the church is having to confront something that has become familiar to many congregations in the CRC, said Pettinga.
“We are in a different place and a different time. The world has come into Zeeland, and we are asking, ‘How do we go forward?’” said Pettinga, who was brought in to help the church sort through ways to answer this question.
As they do this, church members are looking more closely at their community and have found that “God has sent many needy and broken families [to Zeeland] who need friends,” said the pastor.
So the church is searching out ways to reach out by, for example, serving as mentors for students in the local elementary school, holding events specifically for young people, and continuing to support the work of The Bridge.
This is a church with a rich history that has weathered many challenges and is seeking to keep doing the same — to survive and even thrive — in a time when the teachings of Christ, and the people who follow them, are needed more than ever.
“This is a church that has done a wonderful job over the years and is now finding added purpose and investing it in the kids of this community,” said Pettinga.
Among other things, the church recently appointed a young deacon to be president of the church council. The church is also discussing how it can play a role in a time when there is strong employment and yet a serious shortage of housing in the area.
And there’s more. This year’s joint meetings of the CRC and Reformed Church in America synods celebrated the coming together of the two denominations in a way that hopes to heal the fractures of the past.
But First CRC in Zeeland made steps in this direction more than 40 years ago. Let their history tell it:
“It was on October 24, 1976, [that] a significant event took place. Rev. Bolt exchanged pulpits with Rev. Ron Geschwendt of the First Reformed Church in Zeeland. This was the first time in the custom of the two churches.”
They broke new ground then and, as their journey continues, First CRC of Zeeland is finding ways to forge new paths into the future.
No stranger to addressing hardship, this church is convinced that God’s hand has been on it and God’s grace has been with it for some 156 years — and those things aren’t about to change now.
In order to respond to the community and demographic changes facing First CRC in Zeeland and other churches, as well as the denomination in general, the ministries and agencies of the CRCNA have been working toward five identified goals (desired futures) outlined in the denomination’s ministry plan, Our Journey 2020. As a result, a variety of tools, resources, and programs are available to assist congregations as they seek to flow into their communities, nurture disciples, cultivate leaders, work in partnership, and tell their story. For additional information, visit crcna.org/Resources or call 1-800-272-5125 with your ministry questions.