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Photo: Chris Meehan
Members of the two local cohorts
Photo by Chris Meehan

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Photo: Chris Meehan
Chris Williams (left) talking to David Knibbe
Photo by Chris Meehan

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Photo: Chris Meehan
Cohorts talking about the future.
Photo by Chris Meehan

Wrapping up an 18-month journey of discernment they engaged in with other churches, leaders at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Mich., gathered last Sunday to talk about the process — which held many surprises — and to discuss what might happen next.

The leaders are part of a “guiding” team for their church and have participated in a process known as Go Local. This is an evolving Resonate Global Mission initiative designed to intimately connect people in a Christian Reformed congregation with one another and to their communities by following a process involving Scripture reading, individual and group reflections, and experiments to find where God is at work in their lives, their church, and their neighborhoods.

At Sunday’s meeting, Covenant Life members spoke of how they came up with a plan to make the church parking lot more available to people working and living in or visiting this Lake Michigan resort town. That was their first experiment — and it didn’t bear as much fruit as they had initially hoped, but it did open people’s eyes to new opportunities around them.

“It was so great to listen to them and hear their story,” said Moses Chung, director of mission innovation for Resonate Global Mission. Chung has partnered with the church and has served as a coach to help them through the Go Local process.

“I think Covenant Life is a great example of what can happen — of how a small team can discover God at work in marvelous ways and then start to invite other people in their church into the process,” said Chung.

Other churches involved in this Go Local cohort are Ferrysburg Community CRC, Spring Lake, Mich.; Oakwood CRC, Belding, Mich.; African Community Fellowship CRC, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Shawnee Park CRC, Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Covenant CRC, Cutlerville, Mich. There are now seven Go Local cohorts in North America and one that meets online.

The Parking Lot

Larry Schutt, a Go Local team member who has attended Covenant Life for 16 years, said that the team read, reread, and read again Luke 10:1-12, their seminal text in which Jesus sends 72 disciples out into surrounding areas to carry the gospel message. They searched the passage, said Schutt, for meaning and kept asking, If we are being sent out, what are we to do?

They took many walks around the neighborhood — an area of refurbished, upscale warehouses turned into residences and business, located near the Lake Michigan shore — and carefully noted what they saw and tried to listen to and sense what God might have them do. Again and again, they kept coming back to the need for additional parking in the area.

“We realized parking was a major issue [for neighbors and visitors] and our church had a huge lot that sits empty during much of the week,” said Schutt, a retired certified public accountant.

Seeing the need, and initially thinking the Holy Spirit was leading them in this direction, they kept wondering how to move the idea forward. They talked with others in the church, to people living or working in the area, and considered forming a plan to present to the broader community. But they kept coming up short; it was hard to get momentum.

As their coach, Chung stood back. “I waited and watched, and eventually, as it became clear that the parking-lot idea was not going anywhere, they began to see that God wasn’t showing them that was what they were supposed to,” he said. “They began to realize, as they continued to meet and to read Luke 10, that Go Local is about listening and paying attention to small, ordinary, everyday things and not necessarily creating a big program.”

Launched about four years ago as a pilot project in St. Thomas, Ont.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Vancouver, B.C., Go Local is a process in which congregational leadership teams and pastors agree to listen, experiment, and reflect together for 18 months.

At its foundation, said Chung, Go Local is not about getting more people to join your church; it is more about learning to ask different questions about church, building trust and friendships between Go Local team members, and slowly, patiently, and, often in small ways, connecting with the Spirit of God who is at work in the world around you.

“Go Local is not about having a program in which you do things to please God,” said Chung. “So often people think they are doing something wrong and maybe they should pray more, serve more, do more, go on more mission trips. But that can be a rat race. You never feel like you are good enough.”

Joining God in the Neighborhood

Claudia Williams responded right away to Go Local when she was called to serve two years ago as pastor of belonging and mission at Covenant Life, a large church that meets in a remodeled piano factory in Grand Haven. Covenant Life has multiple worship services and programs and is very active in missions outreach. While working at a church in Chicago, Williams had sought to start an experiment similar to Go Local.

She was attracted to and inspired by the work of Alan Roxburgh, author of the book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, in which, says a description of the book, “he calls Christians to re-enter their neighborhoods and communities to discover what the Spirit is doing there — to start with God's mission. He then encourages readers to shape their local churches around that mission.”

Things didn’t really come together with the experiment in Chicago, said Williams. But when she learned Resonate was beginning a Go Local cohort of a handful of churches in western Michigan, Williams spoke to church leaders at Covenant Life and got their buy-in to give it a try.

“I started to look for a group of people who would want to go on this type of journey,” she said. “I prayed that God would put the right people together to do this.”

Made up of six church members, they formed what is called the guiding team — which steps into the process and seeks the best way forward.

To begin, they gathered and read Luke 10, and then discussed it, trying to discern — every time they read it — what it was saying to them about what it means to go on mission into unfamiliar places “like lambs among wolves” — as sent ones for Jesus into places where they might not be welcome — and yet also to find places where people are open and welcoming, and so on.

Not too long into the process — just as other Go Local efforts across the CRC have done — they began to walk through their neighborhoods. As they went, they tried simply to be open to what they saw, to whom they met, to what they learned.

At Covenant Life, that is where the parking lot idea took hold — in a sense, a “big-idea” missional effort. But when that idea hit a dead end, team members needed to pause and seriously ask what this journey meant, if it wasn’t about coming up with big changes for the church.

Finding God in the Cobbler’s Shop

Chris Williams, owner of a cobbler shop in Muskegon and a member of the guiding team, had already been seeking for several years to find God at work in his life, even if he wasn’t quite aware of it, he said..

When Williams (no relation to Claudia) started his cobbler shop about 10 years ago, they had a customers-only restroom policy. “To say that the homeless/poor community was frowned upon by most of the staff would be an understatement,” he said.

But it wasn’t long before he rolled out a policy stating they would treat every person who came into the shop as if they were there to spend a million dollars. Williams said their shop needed to be like “a warm seat on cold days, a dry seat on wet days, and a cool place to sit when it’s blazing hot. . . .”

“A lot of people now know they can come here and be treated like people,” he said.

But lacking for Williams was a way to connect what he was doing to God. He said he had been struggling in that area of his life and with church: How did it all fit together? Then he joined the Go Local effort — and it all hit home when James came in one day this past summer.

“James is a local guy who, I’m pretty sure, is suffering from schizophrenia or something similar. We collect cans and bottles for him for his monthly visit.”

When James showed up, he picked up his cans, but then, from across the room, he also spotted a container of cookies sitting on Williams’s shoe-repair bench, and shouted, “Are those cookies?!” Williams brought him the container and offered James as many cookies as he wanted. Sticking in his hand, he took three.

About 30 minutes after James left, said Williams, “my apprentice cobbler looked at me and said, ‘So, what’s up with that? I’ve noticed you go out of your way to treat [those] people well. You’re, like, actually one of those Christians, aren’t you?’”

“Yes,” he said — and from there Williams has had a chance to share more about his faith with his employee, a faith he has had all along but that Go Local has helped him to see more clearly — particularly in the day-to-day occurrences of his life and business.

Running into God at the Grocery Store

Angela Vanmeurs, a substitute teacher, has come to see that opening the church parking lot for more people would be nice — and to an extent that is happening without a formal program in place. Signs that are more welcoming to the public have been set up.

But, like Chris Williams, she has seen that “little things” connected with the nudging and delicate movement of the Spirit are what matters.

When she goes grocery shopping, for example, she often sets aside time to talk with friends and others she comes across at the store. She now does this with more intentionality, she said — God is in that grocery store and in the conversations she has.

“It’s really fascinating what happens when I really listen,” said Vanmeurs, who works with youth at the church. “I’m always there [at the grocery store] a very long time.”

Taking It to Another Level

As the 18-month period of the Go Local process approached its ending, members of the team at Covenant Life decided to take on an experiment that, Chung said, reflects a way in which the initiative could grow in a church.

Claudia Williams said they recruited a few church members to go through a short, six-week Go Local cohort. And as Covenant Life’s 18-month cohort finished last week, the six-week experiment also came to a close — and the two groups met to assess how it had gone.

“Do we go beyond the six weeks?” Williams asked. “How do we move Go Local beyond this group?”

Sharon Knibbe, a hospital chaplain and member of the guiding team, said she appreciated the participation of new people during the six-week cohort; it struck her that planting seeds like this can bring new growth in lives and in the church itself.

“Seeing the movement of the Spirit through each of these people stepping out of their comfort zone was an example of what grassroots involvement can do in a community,” she said.

Doug Enfield, a retired hospice chaplain, and his wife, Nancy, took part in the six-week experiment to see if participants would be willing to go on a longer Go Local journey.

Enfield and his wife have been interested for years in small-group ministry, believing that the mainstream church is missing the boat. “It seems that the church culture sits on an island; church people spend a lot of time with church people, but the broader culture believes the church has turned its back on them,” said Enfield.

As a hospice chaplain, he had the privilege of entering into the lives of people from all walks of life. He had opportunities to learn from them and offer ministry. And after he retired, he said, he yearned for a way to connect with others who want to change the church — and to change it in low-key, enduring ways promoted by Go Local.

“My wife and I have sincerely appreciated the chance to meet and pray and strategize with people seeking to find how God is active” in their lives and in the world around them. “I hope we can continue to go on in this journey,” he said.

Go Local helped him to see that his leadership on the board of his condominium association provides a small way to stay connected to his neighbors.

His prayer is that Go Local helps to reveal a new spirit — the Holy Spirit — more fully in the life of the church. He hopes people can learn to see that the Spirit is already present in so many ways and that, with intention and in community, and with the emphasis laid out in Luke 10, people simply need to follow the Spirit’s lead.