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Photo: Jonathan James Photography
Attendees worshiping together during Inspire
Photo by Jonathan James Photography

Steven Timmermans smiled as he looked out over the more than 800 people gathered for the opening session of Inspire 2017 in the large conference room at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Mich.

“I’m happy to see so many of you who have come here from sea to sea, from all across North America,” said Timmermans in remarks that began the three-day event gathering people from across the Christian Reformed Church to focus on serving as parts of the body of Christ in the various ministries of the church.

“I hope you will be strengthened and encouraged this weekend to help you as you pursue the ministries in which God has entrusted you,” said Timmermans. “I would like us to be focusing on the vision of being Christ’s body, his church.”

Inspire 2017, which ran Aug. 3-5, featured main presentations, break-out sessions, lively times of worship, bus trips to inner-city Detroit ministries, a prayer walk along the Detroit River separating the U.S. from Canada, and ample time for fellowship among participants.

From the start, the atmosphere was charged with high energy and a welcoming spirit. It was all about connection and renewal and doing so animated by the vitality of God. A praise band, made up of people of different ethnic groups, led participants in music ranging from favorite hymns to contemporary tunes.

Held as an outgrowth of the CRC’s Our Journey 2020 Ministry Plan, which emphasizes the denomination’s working closer with congregations, Inspire 2017 aimed to be an occasion in which the church both celebrated its present ministry and looked at how it can best face the challenges of the future.

Paul Vander Klay, pastor of Living Stones CRC in Sacramento, Calif., came to Inspire at the urging of others and wasn’t sure what he would find. He was, in fact, skeptical, wondering if this would be simply another conference.

But he agreed to come and participate in one of the breakout sessions. In doing so, he was surprised and pleased by what he experienced.

“I began to appreciate the setup of Inspire as a sort of working laboratory for ministry without having to be too self-conscious about it,” he said.

He liked that there were so many breakout sessions offered by ministry practitioners, by people in the field reporting on what they were doing and what they are finding.

But the real benefit of the conference, he said, was in how it brought CRC members — and not just office-bearers, as occurs at the yearly synods — together in a temporary learning community.

“Part of the genius of it was the generalism. Once I was there, I began wishing that many more of my friends and church members were there too,” he said.

The spirit he saw moving through the meeting, said Vander Klay, could “help the CRC do the real body work it needs to do to forge its new identity for the far more complicated and diverse world it is emerging into.”

Inspire participants attended for many reasons — to be encouraged by the fellowship, to join in the worship, and in practical ways to gain a sense of where the CRC is headed and how their local congregations fit in.

Simon Feddema had just finished a stint on the church council at Bethel CRC in Acton, Ont., and he attended a breakout session presented by Chris DeVos, director of the Ridder Church Renewal Institute based at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Mich.

Like members of many congregations, Feddema attended that session because he wondered whether his church is up to meeting the challenges of the future, as posed by DeVos, who spoke about ongoing decline in church membership and the need for churches to significantly rethink their mission going forward into an uncertain future.

Especially, said DeVos, churches need to get more deeply involved in the lives of people in their communities. After the breakout session, Feddema said it sounded like his church is on the right track.

“We are doing a lot in our community, and we know that the outcome always has to be to spread the Word. We know the Spirit constantly challenges us to reach out to those who don’t know Christ,” he said.

Sally Fennema-Jansen came to Inspire from Kenosha, Wis., where she is an active member of Kenosha CRC, a small congregation also sorting out its future.

Although Inspire didn’t offer all of the answers on how to help their church navigate an age in which younger people especially are steering clear of organized religion, it did offer something she didn’t quite expect:

“It has been wonderful to see that there is such diversity in the CRC. We are a small church and can feel isolated. But we forget we have a denomination that we are a part of and that it is way bigger than we are.”

Reggie Smith, the CRC’s director of the offices of Social Justice and Race Relations, is another who was surprised and pleased by be part of Inspire.

“It was great to see so many people and to be able to spend so much time with them,” he said. “There was this feeling I got from being at Inspire. It was really good.”

As an incoming Calvin Seminary student for this fall said, in  a survey after the event,  that “Inspire 2017 has left me feeling incredibly encouraged about the current state of the CRC, as well as its future. God is doing amazing things through the denomination's ministry.”

On Saturday morning, as Inspire neared its end with a communion service, Colin Watson, Sr., the CRC’s director of ministries and administration, said he especially appreciated the times of worship and praise.

Drawing him were the songs that were sung, often in other languages, and the range of musicians on the stage who led it all with their lively sounds and accompaniment.

“Inspire has shown us that we can worship together in a multicultural way,” said Watson.

“We can learn other languages in praise of our God. We can have a worship service praising God for 48 hours and not get tired, and still want more."

Looking back on the event, Timmermans said it lived up to his hopes and expectations, particularly in how it reinforced for him the vitality in the body of Christ.

"Inspire has convinced and reminded us that the CRC is a gift of God that will help us extend to the ends of the earth,” he said.