I was hired for a unique job at Hope CRC: Neighborhood Outreach Coordinator. I didn’t know what all that would entail, but I knew it involved being a part of the neighborhood youth program. I met with Pastor Dale when I was first hired to go over a few things. Little did we know, we both had the same idea. In both of our pockets was the brochure for the Renewal Lab. We each wanted to share it with the other. Well, that was easy! Hope Church is 99 years old right now. We have a long and rich history of witnessing God’s faithfulness to his people. We had seen periods of time where we were so full we had standing room only in our large sanctuary. We had seen the youth involved in some amazing service projects. But over the years, we learned we were missing something. The sanctuary was slowly emptying out. We were losing young people. We were losing vision. But worst of all, we were losing the very thing we claimed to be full of: hope.
The Renewal Lab seemed to get started at just the right time for Hope Church, certainly for me. What drove me to Calvin Seminary was a desire to witness God turning things around in the Christian Reformed Church. So the job at Hope and my new role as intern for the Renewal Lab was my opportunity to see this unfold. So I came in with guns blazing, wanting to make big changes right away. In my mind, the church needed passionate preaching, expressive worship, and an inner sense of calling to preach the gospel to friends and neighbors. I began preaching occasionally, always passionately talking about the mission of God’s people. “If you’re not doing these things, you’ll be the same old church you’ve always been,” I’d say. These were all good things, but I realized I was developing the idea that people who didn’t want change were just stubborn to the will of God.
But I’ve learned something over the time that I’ve been here. I’ve talked to some of the members who have been here their entire lives, who got married in this church, baptized their kids in this church, baptized their grandkids in this church, and experienced great grief in this church. It took some time, but I began to realize that Renewal is not simply about technical changes. Renewal is about the self and the community as a whole becoming more of who God created us to be. So here are a few of my reflections of the year and a half that I have been a part of the Renewal Lab journey.
Number one: Renewal always starts in me. Jesus says in John 15:4, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” This is God’s work, not my own. I am just joining him. This church is 99 years old. God was at work here long before I ever existed. And he has been faithful for so many years to many saints. What I can do is abide in Jesus Christ and stay connected to him for guidance. I need to be renewed before I can expect renewal in my church.
Number two: Get to know the people. The Church is people, not an organization. So I take advantage of every opportunity I can to get to know people. I go to potlucks, outreach events, catechism, youth group events, and others. Not known for its bustling conversation before the worship service, my wife and I just began walking around and talking to people in the pews during the prelude. I’m sure many of our members think it’s strange that we don’t just find our seats, but we’ve gotten to know some people really well just through this simple exercise. Hearing the life journeys of people who have been at Hope Church for 75 years is a wonderful gift. We need to remember and celebrate the past, while looking forward to God’s future for us.
Number three: A leader needs to be relentlessly positive. I’m used to hearing complaints about how things are not progressing. Some people don’t want change. Others are frustrated that we aren’t changing fast enough. Sometimes, the church is going to fail to meet our expectations. The prophet Hosea is a great example of how committed God is to his Church. Hosea is told by God to “go marry a promiscuous woman.” Hosea complies and experiences incredible marital unfaithfulness. But he remains committed, because God remains committed to his Church. Sometimes the Bride of Christ doesn’t look that pretty. Sometimes it we are unfaithful. But in the eyes of Christ, the Church is still his cherished Bride. He loves her. He bought her at a price. He gave himself up for her. There are times when our church community may disappoint us. But God loves us and has a purpose for us. Keeping our eyes on this truth reminds us that our church is not our own. Our church belongs to Christ. We the Church now have a calling to thankfully and joyfully follow God’s lead for the future.