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The Ties that Bind

Part III: How reconciliation can lead to resurrection.

In Vancouver, Washington, Richard Liedtke greets up to 1,000 people by name every Sunday. If he doesn’t know someone, he makes a point of introducing himself and learning a new name. A finish carpenter by trade, Liedtke shares his theology of hospitality in his terrific booklet Master Greeter. He’s always looking for the next member.

In this three-part series for Christian Courier, I have looked at growth patterns and membership dynamics in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a denomination that has lost 88,000 members since 1992 (Part I, Jan. 14). In the second article, I argued that unresolved conflict is the root cause of this membership loss (Part II, Jan. 28), and as such it must be addressed. In this third article, we ask: What exactly do we do next? I believe that we need to focus on reconciliation, connection and outreach. 

One of Jesus’ pastoral parables tells us that if just one of your hundred sheep is lost, you’ll go looking for it. That’s what shepherds do. Is your church missing some sheep? Maybe it’s time to go find them.

MATTHEW 5 
Synod 2018 adopted Overture 18, which outlined the polarization causing problems in our churches. Synod (properly) stopped short of linking membership loss exclusively to conflict but did decide to “include a focus on reconciliation in the CRCNA’s next ministry cycle.” 

As a prayerful response to Overture 18, Synod chose Matthew 5:23-25: If you are going to the Lord’s Supper and remember you have hurt someone, and they are angry with you, then don’t go to church. Before you do anything else, go find to the person you hurt and be reconciled (paraphrased).

I believe forgiveness and reconciliation are the fulcrum on which the church turns, for forgiveness is the core of our relationship to God and one another. If God does not forgive and reconcile, we are hopelessly lost. If we do not forgive, we are not like Christ.

So if you even suspect your actions have hurt someone, then stop! Before the next communion, go, and be reconciled to the person who is hurt. 

If you hold resentment in your heart, Jesus’ instructions are similarly precise: If you forgive you will be forgiven. If you refuse, you will not be forgiven. 

I have been teaching forgiveness for 20 years and I assure you, there is nothing more triumphant in the spiritual experience than forgiving someone just as God in Christ has forgiven you. Forgiveness restores your future. 

START LOCAL
After taking steps toward reconciliation, what’s next? The simplest predictor of a congregation’s viability and durability are its connections, first to its cluster of nearby CRC churches, and secondly to its community. When these two elements are strong, the congregation has staying power. Remember Fraser Flats in 1910? They didn’t fix all of Edmonton. They built local bonds, focused on their situation, came together in praise and worship, and found strength. With that in mind, here are three further steps for your church to consider as it pursues health.

BE PURPOSEFUL
We’ve seen the results of conflict and of avoiding conflict resolution. Take the initiative to ensure that your congregation is on good terms with every other church within a 30-km radius. This is where your strength is. Pray for all the congregations in your cluster on a regular basis. Swap pastors for a Sunday to build trust. Send money to a needier congregation. Do one pro bono thing each week because you treasure the community and your common ministry.

As the pastor of an isolated church plant in the most secular part of the U.S. – the Pacific Northwest – I was constantly in need as we ministered to a transient military community. Three times, Second Lynden CRC took pity on us from 120 miles away. They repaired a broken building, helped us build, sent money and prayed for us. Why? Because a relative of mine has been a member of Second Lynden since 1922. They built bonds of affection in Lynden which lasted – and still endure – nearly 100 years. Love never dies.

BE ENGAGED 
You probably live in an increasingly secular community. This is like job security! 

In the first article, I mentioned Grand CRC, which died at the 64-year mark because that is the typical lifespan of homogeneous, urban-migration cluster congregations. 

I also mentioned two other congregations which did not die at age 64. Those congregations did, in fact, lose their core founding members – it’s the nature of human mortality. But those congregations found replacement members. They did this by establishing strong bonds with non-Christians in their community, thereby creating a “new” cluster.

Liedtke is right. Visitors and guests are God’s provision for our future, and we will do best to treat guests like answers to our prayers. I believe the most holy ground inside our building is the two square meters by the front door where guests are greeted into God’s house.  

Pray that God will entrust you with guests and visitors. Ask God to show you people who need your ministry. Your congregation has an eternity of hope and redemption to offer the weary souls of your neighbours. Make your church welcoming. Buy a knockout church sign. Put world-class sayings on the sign. 

I have visited 40 congregations in the past four years. Most declare they are the friendliest church in town, but many can’t see their own closed social groups. Open your hearts.

Find a way to get into the community and to get the community into your church. Basketball.  Hot dog roasts. Recycling Day. AA. Just find a way. For 34 years I supervised community service youth from the county jail. Some sang with the praise team on Sundays, ran the PA system as needed, and helped type the bulletin. Everyone was welcomed.

BE PREPARED
Think of the One-Generation-Wonder Rule of 60 years. When was your church founded?  

Within 10 years of founding, you want half of the congregation to be from the community.

Collaborate with the churches in your cluster and write your own guidelines and entitle it: How Our Congregations Can Thrive Together. Compose your plans to ensure your cluster of congregations remains strong and viable, filled with God’s grace and calling for the next century.

I spent my career in an isolated church in Minnesota and an isolated Home Missions church on Kitsap Peninsula west of Seattle. I know all about the impossibility of obtaining new members in a secular environment. I know the difficulties inherent in the very things I am encouraging you to do.

If you don’t have a community of CRCs, you can synthesize one from your community, as we did. We shared our building with other many churches. I know the power of sharing Good Friday with Messianic Jews, evangelical Adventists and Charismatic congregations. The pageantry of Filipino children performing a flag. We prayed and worshipped together and created our own cluster.

Every congregation needs to break its own closed membership loop, so it doesn’t fall into a closed cycle. In other words, you need to add new members on a regular basis. Swap them, rotate them, but do whatever you can do to build lateral relations in the community.

Is it difficult? Of course it is. It was difficult in the mega-cluster of Jerusalem on Pentecost when thousands were converted. It was difficult in an isolated Athens assembly when the philosophers laughed at Paul. Despite the dramatic differences of culture, Athens and Jerusalem learned to work together – Paul and Peter – to serve and build God’s Church.  

  • David has been studying growth patterns in the CRCNA since 1976, when he discovered a box of abandoned Jaarboekje dating back to 1901. He’s written an MDiv and an DMin dissertation, as well as an Overture to Synod in 2018, on church growth and decline.

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