Photo: Bill Whitt
All conference attendees came together at Sunlight's 11:00 service for worship. This modern worship service is led by Worship Pastor Bill Whitt and Senior Pastor Scott Vander Ploeg.
Photo by Bill Whitt


Photo: Bill Whitt
Students at the Next Conference study Scripture passages during a morning session.
Photo by Bill Whitt


Photo: Bill Whitt
Speaker Ron Carter teaches students at the Next Conference.
Photo by Bill Whitt


Photo: Bill Whitt
Jen Fleschner leads worship for conference attendees at Sunlight Community Church.
Photo by Bill Whitt


Photo: Bill Whitt
Senior Pastor Scott Vander Ploeg offers a benediction to the conference attendees during 11:00 a.m. worship at Sunlight Community Church.
Photo by Bill Whitt


Photo: Bill Whitt
Discover Your Bible conference attendees pause to say hello before the morning's session begins.
Photo by Bill Whitt


Photo: Bill Whitt
Cindy Peterson, Arlene Joling, Lydia Dykstra, Brian Smilde and Allen Shoemaker take a break between session of the More & Better Conference to discuss how to apply what they're learning.
Photo by Bill Whitt


Photo: Bill Whitt
Worship Pastor Bill Whitt leads a modern praise song at 11:00 a.m. worship at Sunlight Community Church.
Photo by Bill Whitt


Photo: Bill Whitt
All conference attendees come together for lunch in Sunlight Community Church's new Fellowship Hall.
Photo by Bill Whitt

Dozens of Christian Reformed Church leaders and members, both young and old, and representing several ethnic groups, gathered recently for a time of learning, reflection, and fellowship at Sunlight Community CRC in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Coming from all over North America, they enjoyed the sunshine and warm winter weather as they met to attend at least one and, in some cases, two or more of four overlapping events at one location.

Taking place in early February, the events included a Discover Your Bible/Coffee Break retreat; NEXT: A Summit for a New Generation of Leaders; a meeting of stated clerks from CRC classes in the United States; and the More and Better conference put on by the Church Renewal Lab at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Nathan Reicha, a student at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., attended NEXT and parts of the More and Better event.

“Being there was amazing. It was such a blessing to be worshiping and learning alongside brothers and sisters of different ages and ethnicities,” said Reicha.

“I truly feel that we were united in our diversity, with our different backgrounds encouraging and informing each other,” said Trey Tirpak, a Calvin College student, who found that being at the gathering in Florida gave him — and likely others — a better sense of what God’s purpose is for his life.

“It was a specific time and space for equipping those who have been called to the work of leading and cultivating communities,” he said.

“It reminded us of who we are and who our God is, specifically the healthy practices and the focus that comes from those realities, as well as just having a time to rest and fellowship with others who do similar work.”

A conference highlight for Steven Timmermans, executive director of the CRC, came during Saturday's NEXT session when one of the college-age participants revealed some of his anxieties in discerning his pathway toward leadership in the church.

“The session leader, Ron Carter, stopped at that moment, and led the group in prayer for this young man,” said Timmermans.

Another highlight occurred at the end of the conference in the airport before going home.

“I was sitting with two of the campus groups, those from Grand Valley and those from Calvin College, and they told me that one of the best parts was that they were able to interact with other church members and leaders of the ‘older’ generation,” Timmermans said.

“I was glad they mentioned that, because I think we need to connect intergenerationally as the church to best understand God's calling for this current era.”

Having the four different groups meeting at the church over the same weekend “provided a beautiful picture of Christ’s church and fostered networking and relationships that would never have come otherwise,” said Sophat Duch, a Cambodian youth pastor in Holland, Mich..

At the gathering for stated clerks, Al Postma, the CRC’s classis renewal coordinator, talked about the evolving role of stated clerks, and Kathy Smith from Calvin Theological Seminary spoke about a new video series funded by the Office of Synodical Services that can help classis clerks and others learn more about the Church Order.

“The conference was a wonderful event—especially having the various groups together for worship, breaks, and meals,” said Smith.

Smith said that several of the stated clerks “were very grateful to be together to share questions as well as best practices. And they really enjoyed the sense of camaraderie they gained from their shared interests—from those who have been stated clerks for 16 years or more, to those who were just beginning.”

The Church Renewal Lab held its More and Better conference for 30 pastors and congregational leaders from 16 Renewal Lab churches — which are involved in a process of self-examination and of gaining skills to help transform lives and communities for Christ, said Keith Doornbos, director of the Renewal Lab.

Also participating for portions of the Renewal Lab conference were 25 student leaders from CRC congregations and ministries and 20 ethnic ministry leaders who had been attending NEXT.

“Our conference focused on decisions and practices that lead to making more and better disciples of Jesus Christ,” said Doornbos. The Renewal Lab, he added, is a service that the seminary offers to local churches.

The conference was held at Sunlight Community CRC because the congregation has had a significant impact on its community over the past decade, during which nearly 600 persons have joined the church through outreach and evangelism.

“New believers at the church have, subsequently, been discipled into a deeper life in Christ,” said Doornbos, adding that a few have been licensed to preach, some others are pursuing seminary education, and two have become church planters.

James Lee, English ministry pastor at Korean Grace CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that because it brought together young people from so many backgrounds, attending the NEXT conference offered him a chance “to learn the similarities that [his] faith story as a Korean American has with [the faith stories of] African American leaders.”

He also said he learned that some of the second-generation struggles that he as a Korean-American is going through mirrored the same struggles that his “Chinese American brothers and sisters are going through.”

He said he was particularly surprised and pleased to see how diverse the denomination is becoming.

“Especially in the Sunday-morning session, we were asked to go into small groups with individuals from different groups. Being able to hear different stories and testimonies was such an inspiration,” said Lee.

This weekend of conferences was the latest in a series of gatherings that the Christian Reformed Church in North America has been hosting in the past year.  Others have included a Canadian National Gathering in May 2016 and Engage — a multiethnic gathering that took place in June 2016. This series of gatherings will culminate in Inspire 2017, scheduled to take place in Detroit from August 3-5 and to which people from all 1,000-plus CRC congregations are invited.