Q I’ve tried to get my fellow church members to get excited about evangelizing our community, without much luck. Can you help?

A According to Rev. Keith Doornbos, director of the Church Renewal Lab, most Christian Reformed churches believe their lives are centered within the church walls. This makes it difficult to imagine reaching people beyond the social networks of church, home, and Christian school. Because most church members don’t feel the need to break away from their strong social relationships, trying to build a bridge into their communities becomes a hard sell.

In light of that situation, Doornbos makes a statement that’s worth considering: “Churches are perfectly structured to get the results they are getting. So unless they are perfectly happy with how they are making more and better disciples who transform lives and communities for Christ, things need to change.” In other words, more of the same doesn’t work.    
Perhaps the following suggestions will help.

First, try gathering a small group of members to take a walk and talk with people about their needs. What problems, hopes, and dreams for their community are people expressing? Record the answers and make them a matter of prayer and reflection. Then make these needs the focus of the church. Second, don’t the deny the current reality of your church and community. Deal with it head on; engage leaders and members to reimagine the church with people different than yourself. Third, get help. The Church Renewal Lab housed at Calvin Theological Seminary has a two-year process of helping churches to break the cycle of insularity toward missional engagement. Sometimes we need others to help reimagine a better way to be the church. Might the Lord be nudging your church to take this step?  

About the Author

Reginald Smith is director of race relations and social justice for the Christian Reformed Church. He attends Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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As I see it, our perceptions of the church, in the CRC, has changed over the years, as have our ideas of evangelism, as well as our culture’s impact on the church.  In our denomination’s heyday of growth, evangelism was seen as especially taking place from within the church. The church was considered the body of believers and structured for the growth of its members, as well as its nurturing a mutual identification of its members.  The church could almost be equated with a private club structured for the spiritual and social growth of its members.  The church tended to be inward looking and structured for the benefit of its members. As members grew in their relationship to God, they would go into the world (everyday life) and be an influence for God in everyday living.  That was evangelism,  As the children of the church were nurtured in their relationship to God, they naturally made profession of faith and become the new generation of leadership in the church.  And this process of inward growth and identity of the church continued to increase the numbers of our membership.

But time changes things.  Increasingly the church has identified with parts of our culture and society.  The church is not as inward looking as it was in the past.  Young people (as well as adults) are not so satisfied with identifying mainly with the church.  A sheltered Christian education is not the only path that is valued in our churches anymore.  And evangelism is increasingly seen as a function of church programing, sometimes, even seen as the main function of the church.  As this trend has impacted the evangelical church world, it is increasingly impacting our church and denominational thinking.  Church planting and church programing is more interested in building outward facing churches than in building close knit communities of believers that have a common identity.

I think our denomination is struggling with an identity crisis.  From Reginald Smith’s suggestions for this questioner, the direction that our denomination wants to take is obvious.  We have to re-imagine the church from what it has been in the past.  It’s time to move on from insular thinking to a new way of thinking about the church.  But does this new way of thinking really work? We still continue to lose members at ever increasing rates. We lose our young, but also our older members who don’t feel comfortable contributing to or being part of this new vision for our churches.

This seems like a typical CRC response that doesn't dare question the status quo. This questioner has already said that they've tried to spark missional interest for the neighbourhood within their congregation. And the response is basically to say: "Try harder."

At some point it might be worth asking if groups of people who are only interested in what's happening within the four walls of the building are actually a club and not a church. We protect ourselves from this question with our reliance on the 16th century marks of the true church (pure preaching of the Word, pure administration of the sacraments, and church discipline). And yet this completely side-steps Jesus' final instructions to go into the world (out from the church building) and make disciples of the nations. How convenient to absolve ourselves of having to deal with Jesus' clear teaching with our doctrines and confessions!

It seems to me that in addition to providing additional denominational resources to this questioner that they may not be aware of, the answer might want to raise the possibility that if "most Christian Reformed churches believe their lives are centered within the church walls" then most CRC "churches" are in fact (religious or ethnic) clubs.