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Photo: Sunlight Ministries
Photo by Sunlight Ministries

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Photo: Sunlight Ministries
Agatha Acosta
Photo by Sunlight Ministries

Ed Buikema is pleased to see that his wintertime congregation, Sunlight Ministries CRC in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and the pastor Scott Vander Ploeg, have  become closely involved with the new Center for Church Renewal

The center is part of the Multiply222 Network, which is an umbrella organization for a variety of ministries connected to Sunlight and the innovative methods, programs and approaches it has used to reach people and grow disciples for God.

“There are many issues challenging the CRC. Statistics say many CRCs have lost members in the last several years,” said Buikema, a former regional Homeland Security director who splits his time between Sunlight in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in the winter and Pine Grove Community Church in Newaygo, Mich., during the rest of the year.

Among other things, he has served as a church leader and has watched closely as congregations both inside and outside the CRC have struggled.

“I try to stay informed — and, of course, declining membership is not just a trend in the CRC,” said Buikema. “But, be that as it may, Scott [Vander Ploeg] and others have seen the need to launch an effort to turn things around.”

In fact, his other congregation in Newaygo is now involved in a renewal process, and Keith Doornbos, executive director of the center, is scheduled to speak soon to members at Pine Grove Community to see how things are going.

“This process is not a panacea. There are a lot of dynamics in it. . . . But I’ve been in focus groups at Pine Grove and strongly support it,” said Buikema, who has also served on the church council there.

As for Sunlight, he added, it has a great deal to offer, given its history, its challenges, and its continual focus “on reaching out to others to come to church to receive God’s grace and accept God as their Savior.”

The Center for Church Renewal is a preferred partner of the newly inaugurated Reformed Partnership for Church Renewal (RPCR), which is a shared but independent work of the CRCNA and the Reformed Church in America, said Doornbos.

Included as part of the center is the Church Renewal Lab, which has been in formation for sevral years and is a two-year renewal process to help churches become intentional missional congregations that make more and better disciples. 

"Our real concern is to help churches become mission-focused in everything they do with a particular emphasis on serving leaders who are seeking to help their churches become mission-focused. Growth in numbers is an off-shoot of a mission-focused investment, not our first priority," said Doornbos.

Beginnings in a Storefront

More than 30 years ago, Doug Nagel and his wife, Lois, looked around the Port St. Lucie area and bought a home in which they could live during the winter. Their home base was Grand Rapids. Once they settled into their home in Florida for the winter, they searched for a church.

 Quickly they learned of a small CRC congregation meeting in a storefront in a shopping center. “It was a real informal group of maybe 20 people,” he said, “and we had an old-time preacher” who brought messages straight from the Bible.

In 1990, they called James Vander Slik, who had been serving a church in Chicago, to be their pastor. During his tenure from 1990 to 2003, the church stabilized and grew and bought eight acres of land on which the church and its school, Sunlight Academy, now sit.

“Port St. Lucie was growing like crazy,” said Nagel. “They kept building all over town.”

In fact, hundreds of homes were constructed in the 1990s on vacant property near the church, bringing in families that the church wanted to reach.

When Vander Slik moved to serve a church in Modesto, Calif., the council at Sunlight decided to call a young pastor who had the commitment to reach those families now living near the church and elsewhere in the booming city.

With a core group of snowbirds from the north, the church knew that it needed new direction in order to survive and flourish.

“We decided on this young fellow, Scott Vander Ploeg, who had just come back from Nigeria,” said Nagel. “He had something on his mind. When he got here, he made things happen. We had a leader. People started coming in. They liked what they saw, and they liked his preaching.”

Spreading the Responsibility

Prior to arriving in Port St. Lucie, Vander Ploeg and his wife had served for a time in Africa, and he had a passion to become a missionary — if not overseas, then in this Florida town that was seeing amazing growth.

Soon after arriving, Vander Ploeg saw that he needed lots of help from others to respond to the fast-paced growth around them. “I saw people in the church who were retired and had the latent gifts of time and talent, as well as the resources, experience, and education to help Sunlight,” said Vander Ploeg.

Chief among those he recruited was Jay Smit, who had worked for many years as the chief financial officer for Electronic Data Systems, the company founded by the billionaire and former presidential candidate Ross Perot, who died earlier this year.

“Jay became my ministry partner for more than 13 years,” said Vander Ploeg. “He and his wife, Barbara, are key people in the history of Sunlight.”

When he retired from Electronic Data in 2004 and moved with his wife to the Port St. Lucie area, Smit and his wife joined Sunlight, which at the time had about 50 people, including about five children, attending worship on Sundays, he said.

But Vander Ploeg had a lot of energy, he added, and “was very mission-minded. He wanted to build the kingdom,” said Smit, who became an elder at the church in 2006, a position in which he has served several times, until retiring from the role this year.

“I partnered with Scott,” and over time “people kept coming until the church was full and we were out of room on Sundays, and then we had to start two other services,” said Smit.

Vander Ploeg’s preaching was a big draw, combined with the music and the church’s outreach into the community, he added.

“Building and renewing a church is all about leadership — and we had that type of leadership to help us,” said Smit.

Reaching Out to Lake Worth

Opening a preschool and then expanding it into the early grades also made a difference in building membership. And to accommodate this growth, Smit played a role in helping to guide the church and school into a multimillion-dollar expansion that was eventually finished in 2017.

Smit also helped when Sunlight was asked to enter into discussions with a CRC congregation in Lake Worth, about 50 miles to the south, that was having a hard time as demographics in the community changed.

“It was dying and was thinking of closing its doors,” said Smit. “We agreed to take over [leadership of the church] and called Kris Vos, who had built a successful church in northern Indiana, to be the pastor — and he has done a tremendous job.”

Vos was installed in 2015 and has since gathered a group of people to grow the church. They opened a preschool and continue to connect in different ways with the community, much of which is poor and represents many cultures. “We have dozens of languages spoken in the local high school,” said Vos.

The leadership culture at Sunlight in Port St. Lucie is evident at Lake Worth Sunlight. There is a strong emphasis on the community and on sharing the love of Christ, the message of the gospel, with people who don’t know it. In ministry here, as he did for years in Indiana, Vos focuses on one-on-one discipleship.

In a podcast interview with a church member, Vos explains that he takes a low-key approach: “I don’t want to come from a position of power and knowing, but to approach people in humility.

“Discipleship is not about us. It doesn’t start with me. The focus has to be on God and other people” — a crucial value emphasized by Sunlight Ministries.

‘A Blessing to Be in My Church’

One day life was good for Agatha Acosta. She felt happy. Her daughter Hannah was going to preschool at Sunlight Academy in Port St. Lucie. Then her husband, in trouble with the law, fled the country.

“I was really in a bad situation emotionally and socially,” she says in a video provided by Sunlight Ministries. “I was very depressed. I couldn’t eat. It was painful to breathe.”

One day when she picked her daughter up from preschool, someone suggested she try a Bible study for moms at the church.

She didn’t want to go, but she went. And that was the day her life started to change, she said — not her circumstances necessarily, but inside, where she hurt.

Going to the Bible study, she said, “I knew God was shopping for me, and I learned how to pray and read the Bible. The most important thing is that I had hope.”

That day, she started to develop “a relationship with the living God,” she said. “That was in October 2014, and I started coming every Saturday to learn about the saving God.”

Today, as a regular attendee at Sunlight, Acosta says her life is rich and full, even though her husband is still gone. Her circumstances have improved. She is able to pay her bills. “I’m a single mother. My family is my church. I see God as my [provider]. The best thing is seeing my daughter grow up.”

As if speaking on behalf of her church and the Center for Church Renewal, she said, “Life is not perfect, [but it is so much] easier when you work with Jesus. It is a blessing to be in my church . . . and to learn from leaders who teach you more about God.”