When God closes a church
What Fruitland CRC can teach us about ending well and leaving a legacy.
For 70 years, Fruitland Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and its congregation in and around Fruitland, Ontario have given faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ over four generations of mostly Dutch-born or -descended members. Before the church was built in 1952, the growing congregation worshiped in a local Legion Hall. Early on, the fledgling congregation bought a 69 by 152 meter lot on Highway 8 for $2,150, plus $100 for the realtor. In the first years, that community of agricultural and factory workers was still learning English and scraping by financially, while trying to feed, raise and educate anywhere from two to eight children.
Once surrounded by orchards, the church’s neighbourhood is now mixed agricultural, industrial and residential properties. After several years without a pastor, Fruitland’s congregation has recently made the sad, but inevitable decision, to close its physical doors and disband. After he heard the church was closing, Rev. Ben Ponsen offered these words with some sadness: “I never would have imagined that I would be Fruitland’s last pastor when I started there in 2011.”
It’s easy to see why Ponsen was surprised to hear of the closure. Rev. Ken De Boer, Fruitland’s interim pastor from 2017-19, describes a church that was very much alive during his years there. “Until recently, the congregation’s Friendship ministry made a significant impact in the community and our denomination. Nine ordained pastors were raised here. Recently the church sponsored Serve Teams three years in a row. The young volunteers accompanied special needs adults working in the area’s many community gardens. Cadet and GEMs programs were still drawing community kids.”
Council Chair Al Voorberg confirmed De Boer’s words. “At their last ‘Cadeteree’ [a day of competition among area Cadet Clubs] five boys went home with a team trophy in knot-tying and another from their winter snow derby.” But the environment was changing. “I’ve done everything in this church,” explains 91-year-old charter member John Koorneef, yet he agreed with the decision. “Sure, it’s sad. Some didn’t vote in favour, but we saw no other option. Young families can’t afford to buy a house here.”
A difficult decision
Voorberg soberly described the long process of the decision. “Six years ago, one respected member wrote a letter to Council, basically asking, ‘When are we going to address the elephant in the room? We’re getting old and losing young members.’ This has been on the minds of many for some time. The decision to close took about four years. It was heart-rending, but unavoidable.” Charter member Gerda Van Staalduinen said with some regret, “I think we could have gone for a few years as a small church, but we only had two families with young children. We haven’t had catechism for two years and not enough leaders to run programs.”
Such decisions are always difficult, sometimes leading to tragic flashpoints and conflicts. Not so with Fruitland CRC. Voorberg commented on the process, “Not all members agreed to close, but we discussed the decision amicably, with no hard feelings developing.” Fruitland CRC celebrated its final service on June 5, with several former pastors participating.
A visionary decision
So, now what? On May 2, Al Voorberg, who chaired the meeting to close, also led the congregation to a generous and visionary decision. Formerly named John Knox Christian School, one of two area grade schools comprising Cairn Christian Schools, shares the church property. Every year, the school attracts more students from different churches whose parents want a Christian education for their children. The school couldn’t survive if the church sold off most of the property. This past winter, church members decided to donate the entire property to the school, with only one dissenting vote.
Principal Bonnie Desjardins has taught at Cairn Christian School for 26 years, 16 of them as principal. She responded to the donation with delight. “The school and church have developed a symbiotic relationship. We use outdoor spaces for ball hockey; we park our buses on the parking lot overnight. In turn, the church uses our gym for dinners or other informal gatherings. We realize that maintenance costs will increase along with other holding expenses, but we’re confident Fruitland’s gift will truly bear fruit.”
Fruitland’s decision to donate is not only generous; it’s also visionary. The school already has dreams for the church building. “We’ll use the great Cadet shop in the basement,” adds Desjardins. “Maybe we’ll be able to sponsor a community parents’ group where they can come with their toddlers.”
But what about the large sanctuary with a balcony? Desjardins is hopeful. “Already we’ve had some inquiries for church rental. Maybe we’ll use the church for weekly chapels to free up the gym. It might take 4 or maybe 5 years before we use the church well.” The school now attends to 200 students and keeps growing through word of mouth advertising. “It was wise to donate to the school right next door,” reasoned charter member John Koornneef. “From the school’s start we shared church property. With the donation we’re still involved and invested. I have five great-grandchildren there.”
Churches have life cycles. Many simply close and die. Maybe some thought that would happen to Fruitland CRC. But members here thought otherwise and decided to let Fruitland CRC live on in a Christian school’s future. What could be more faithful to the Reformed vision for God’s world than a legacy like that.
An excerpt of this article was printed in our June 2022 issue.