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I n this collection of stories, six Reformed churches share stories of lived-out discernment—hearing from God and faithfully following God’s leading. Some have sought God’s guidance for a new church vision, while others faced a decision and wanted to hear from God before taking their next step. While these stories contain challenges, they stand as inspiring, honest stories of God at work through the church in the world today. The stories also show several approaches churches can take for discerning the will of God.

wooden signs with "future" and "past" words with arrows

Discerning identity: refined, not defined

First Reformed Church (Boyden, Iowa)

When Heath DeJong interviewed for the pastoral position at First Reformed Church of Boyden in October 2021, he asked about God’s vision for the church.

“It was like crickets,” he says. “No one could give me an answer about what that vision was.”

DeJong accepted the position and began pastoral ministry at his first church. Having interned with a nearby church in a similar situation for one year, he thought he might be able to help guide First Reformed toward a vision.

“After the first year or so, I brought it up and we engaged it,” says DeJong. “We needed to know where we were going and to ask: Why are we here? What’s our reason for being in existence?”

A small, cross-sectional team from within the congregation was prayerfully selected, and they began meeting regularly with a coach, who asked questions that team members wrestled with—all to answer the question of what God was calling First Reformed to do.

“Tom asked us phenomenal questions, not always ones we liked, but the right questions without giving us the answers,” says DeJong. “Definitely there were some quiet moments, and some discussions got a little heated, but it was all okay because we were engaging the process and figuring out our unique context.”

De Jong says the church’s vision to “follow God in being a thriving community church” was a slow unveiling, with a lot of exercised patience and trust.

Related: How to share a vision

One of the challenges during the discernment process was facing the reality of a smaller congregation, from about 300 people on a Sunday morning ten years ago to about 65 on an average Sunday now. Logistically, this meant scaling back on the number of church ministries to ease the ask on volunteers, many of whom were plugged in to multiple ministry areas and at risk of burnout.

“We had to come to the realization,” says De Jong. “We’re still the same church in the same community. But it’s not the same number. That was then, this is now. We have to see things for what they are. Someday, we may get back to that level. If we do, great. If not, that’s fine too. We can still be a light for Christ.

“We use ‘defined’ and ‘refined’ often,” he adds. “We still honor the past because those were good things. But it can look different and new. God is using us to refine us into who we need to be, to bring glory to him, to help our community and our church to thrive.”

And the refining is continual as the church’s consistory [leadership board] regularly revisits its two-page vision document to make sure the church remains on the right path, even as new opportunities arise.

“Not every day has been easy, but we continue to be affirmed,” says De Jong. “God has been using this for good.”

kids at church hold number signs while confetti falls

Slow and steady: seeking a dynamic vision

Christ Community Church (Lemont, Illinois)

Less than ten years ago, Christ Community Church identified core values and a new vision statement: “Living and Loving Like Jesus in Our Community.”

“It was catchy and matched the evangelistic courage of our community,” says pastor Chad De Jager. “We could live as an example.”

But the pandemic brought about a recurrence in the congregation’s organizational maintenance, which had led to a new vision process to bring the church out of survival mode. The church leadership now discerned that the vision had not been big enough to bring about true change.

“If you have tried to lead a group of people somewhere that challenges them, you know there is a big difference between support and buy-in,” says De Jager. “For any vision to be successful, we as a congregation need to own it, not just agree with it. In those early years, we knew we didn’t have a big enough vision to force a change in behavior.”

So, a plan developed: host focus groups, conduct congregational surveys, interview staff, and share results. With data in hand, the discernment began—and continued for nearly a year.

“We kept asking questions, petitioning God, and waiting for a vision worth following,” says De Jager. “After 11 months of wrestling, the breakthrough came in two words: ‘hope’ and ‘guides.’ Those words summarized our strengths, opportunities, and greatest dreams. … God was calling us to guide our neighbors to a hope-filled future. With this 7.5-word phrase, we started dreaming of ways to connect with neighbors, train leaders, and develop disciples.”

While there had been support for the past vision, it had been too easy to fall into stability. The new vision was met with enthusiasm, big-scale dreaming, and a capital campaign that invited each family to contribute (with time and finances) to the vision that would make possible the establishment of a community center and thrift store in the church’s neighborhood.

“To my delight, the vision was quickly met with enthusiasm,” says De Jager. “Slow and steady became quick and exciting. … It turns out that people were hungry for vision, and our neighbors were hungry for hope.”

Read the full story here.

"the journey is on" white neon sign on black background

Lessons from the middle (We’re not “there” yet)

Franklin Reformed Church (Nutley, New Jersey)

By Rev. Jill C. Fenske

The first experience the congregation where I serve had with discernment was in 1997, working with The Center for Parish Development in a process of intentional, transformational change. During the three-year process, we learned together what the church could be, once it had been stripped of the nuances of centuries of cultural adaptation and tradition. We learned that the local congregation is not “OUR” church; it is God’s church. To live into the call of discipleship meant we needed to return to the biblical narrative, to find ourselves located in the historic stories of salvation.

For the last 14 months, the Franklin Reformed Church in Nutley has once again been engaged in community discernment as we seek God’s preferred future for this gathering of Christians. We, along with many congregations in a wide sweep of denominations, have been confronted with declining numbers, lack of financial and human resources, buildings that are aging, and a dominant culture that has become ever more secular. The first step in our discernment was to accept the “today” that we are living in.

When I was first asked to share some thoughts about community discernment, the words that came to me were: messy, slow, and frustrating. We have stumbled through gatherings that were tense, unfocused, and sometimes painful. But along the way we have also learned a great deal.

In any theologically Reformed community, discernment begins and ends with the Scripture. Each season requires community members to discern where God is leading us within the Scriptures, and to engage it in terms of what it meant when it was written, which meant a deep dive into the culture of ancient Palestine. How would the people who first heard these words of faith actually hear them? We learned that Jesus, in his day, could be funny, cryptic, honest, hyperbolic, and culturally relevant. For our part, in this season, we have been studying the parable of the pearl of great price in Matthew 13 for six months. Our leadership team (made up of lay leaders with the pastor as “consultant”) determined as we moved forward we needed to identify our values—why we do what we do as a congregation.

During this process, we have hopped down rabbit trails, learned that we needed to refresh our listening skills, created ground rules for conversation through community consensus, and consented together that we would see each person as God-breathed and deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. We have learned to be still and listen. We discovered that questions are often more important than answers. We have learned to wait on God’s good time and wisdom. We have engaged in seasons of intentional prayer. We have discovered that what we were hoping to discover may not be what God intends. We have learned that we need to be ready to be surprised. We have learned how to disagree. We know now that we have both much to be thankful for, and many losses to grieve.

As of this writing, we are still at work. We do not know where this time of discernment will lead us yet; if nothing else, we have learned to be “better” with one another. We are honoring our past, understanding and accepting present trends, and still looking forward hopefully towards the horizon of our future—the one which God holds gently in his hands.

Related: Prayer for transformation

As the pastor of this intrepid, courageous, faithful community of faith, I covet your prayers as we move toward the future that God has in store for us. I do not know where we are headed, but I know that even the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s church. And so we proclaim with the generations, no matter where we are led nor what that church will look like: Glory be to the Creator, and to the Christ, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen!

Rev. Jill C. Fenske is the pastor of the Franklin Reformed Church in Nutley, New Jersey, where she has served God since 1991. It is a Christian community that understands itself to be “small but mighty.”

grinning young Black man wearing headphones

Discernment and innovation: going digital for the next generation

The ROCK Church (Los Angeles, California)

Last year, a group of pastors and leaders joined together to reimagine church ministry for revitalization and new expressions as part of the Aaron and Hur Cohort. The name comes from Exodus 17, in which Aaron and Hur help lift Moses’s hands, giving the Israelites victory in battle. In that manner, participants in the cohort received support, coaching, and resources to help them live out new ideas for church and ministry.

“The cohort has been energizing for me,” says participant Rev. Dr. Patricia Sealy, pastor of Mott Haven Reformed Church in the Bronx, New York. “It has been such a wonderful experience to be in a learning environment with like-minded people who are excited about the work they’re doing and excited about being able to do a new work.”

The Aaron and Hur Cohort, offered as a partnership between the Reformed Church in America and Influential Global Ministries, is part of a larger initiative to reimagine the Black church, says Rev. Dr. Peter Watts, pastor of the ROCK Church in Los Angeles, California, and leader for the cohort. Participants received monthly peer coaching calls and bi-monthly peer learning around re-discovering contexts and heritage, self-assessments, visioning, and ministry redesign.

Related: Innovation and the past, present, and future church

At the end of the one-year cohort, each participant shared about the changes underway in their ministries. Watch the cohort recap video here.

Participant Tony Davis’s takeaways from the cohort fueled the realization of the vision for the ROCK Church Digital, a new church plant that reimagines the church in a digital space that can engage young people. There had been early iterations of the ROCK Church Digital, but the concept and execution was formalized through Davis’s and Watts’s participation in the Aaron and Hur Cohort and the guidance they received from God and others throughout.

“Most of the young adults don’t feel like anyone is listening,” says Davis, an elder at the ROCK Church. “So how do we draw kids back into the church? These are people we know who grew up in church, always had faith questions and wanted to grow in their faith—they just don’t want to come to a building. So what were we going to do about it? … How do we put out a creative message and put it out through technology and then let [young adults] respond back to it?”

It’s going to feel like you’re out there on a cliff on your own, screaming to an endless echo of nothingness. But over time, you’ll begin to see people start to adopt. ... By the time they catch up, you’re on to the next thing to set it up for them to continue moving forward.

Rev. Dr. Peter Watts

Davis discerned the solution to be a “Let’s Talk About It” digital space, with topics that matter to young people and apply to their everyday life, like faith and mental health, faith and money, relationships, and identity.

“We wanted to be able to funnel them through … [to have them take] these ideas and apply them to life and get fruit,” says Liana Sims, project coordinator for the ROCK Church ministries. “How do these topics and concepts shape who you are and your perspectives—and therefore your decisions—from a kingdom perspective and biblical lens? You actually have nuggets and you have people sharing from their own life journey to help influence your story. What do we know about the past and what has worked that can help inform how we move forward?”

Applying imagination and living out discipleship in digital spaces are hallmarks for the ROCK Church Digital. But innovation isn’t always easy, says Watts.

“If you’re going to do something innovative, you always have to work with early adopters,” says Watts. “A lot of times, there aren’t a lot of people who are early adopters to innovative work. You have to be settled with the fact that a lot of the time, it’s going to feel like you’re out there on a cliff on your own, screaming to an endless echo of nothingness. But over time, you’ll begin to see people start to adopt and catch up to where you were five or ten years ago, but at least you were able to establish something for them to walk into. By the time they catch up, you’re on to the next thing to set it up for them to continue moving forward. The biggest obstacle is actually having people who can see the vision, who can trust and take risks along the way with you, whether it succeeds or fails.”

The vision for “radical hospitality and deep relationships” is what motivates Watts, Davis, and others to discern how to be the church today and to innovate accordingly.

“Before the Black church became an institution, when it was the invisible church in the midst of slavery, it was about deep relationships, community, caring for one another, and loving one another,” says Watts. “That’s something I don’t think we can lose, no matter what form the church takes, whether it’s above ground or underground. We have to continue to have deep relationship with one another, to support one another with whatever it is we all go through.”

Related: The Black Church Still Speaks podcast

people sit at tables in coffeehouse

A rebrand and coffee: following Jesus in mission

The Adventure Church (Muskegon, Michigan)

Recently, following Jesus’s mission led to what Rev. Jim Beezley refers to as a “radical shift” for the church he leads in Muskegon, Michigan, aptly named the Adventure Church (formerly New Life Community Church).

“We rebranded to unapologetically live into being a church that is following Jesus in his mission,” says Beezley. “We want to help people discover Jesus to see if he’s worth following, look at how to actually follow Jesus, and equip people for their mission.”

Related: What is the mission of the church today?

A few years ago, Beezley began to wrestle with what mission looked like for the church, asking key questions like, “What can we do based on our context and who we are? How do we better live that out? What does it look like to give tools so that other people can be teaching the gospel as well?”

The answers pointed toward significant change—and a bold pursuit to reach the 74 percent of their Muskegon community that is disconnected from the church.

“Our community is isolated and alone, and church is not the answer for them, whether that’s because of baggage, hurt, excuses, or [seeing church as] a waste of time,” says Beezley. “That’s our mission field.”

The church leadership team discerned it was time to shift from an attractional church plant model, which draws people into a center of community and resources, to a missional model, a gathering of people who are then sent out into the community. The pandemic had also revealed truths about church attendance that necessitated change.

Related: How the pandemic revealed a paradigm shift in our approach to giving

“Our leadership team decided we needed to cast a vision that would either repel or inspire people—it had to be one or the other,” adds Beezley. “We didn’t want to play the game of staying alive, or playing to convenience Christians or consumer Christians. We needed a compelling vision, truly living out what Jesus is calling us to do.

“Anytime we do vision shifting, we look at God’s why and our why,” he adds. “How we do [mission] will always be unique to current context and culture. If we are Reformed and always reforming, we should always wrestle with the question: are we doing what we’re supposed to be doing?”

Our leadership team decided we needed to cast a vision that would either repel or inspire people—it had to be one or the other.

Rev. Jim Beezley

The Adventure Church leadership team discerned that the building could—and should—be used as a missional tool.

“At one of our consistory meetings, Jim brought up the idea of looking into starting a coffee house to help offset losses, but more importantly, provide us access to part of the 70-plus percent of our local community that doesn’t know Jesus,” says Meggan Muchna, an elder. “I listened with an open heart, and I was excited about what was bubbling to the surface.”

The Community House: Coffeehouse and Social opened last fall in the church building, and it is “an ecosystem of all kinds of people,” says Beezley.

“It’s a space they can feel welcome to connect around other affinities like our karaoke or game nights or senior socials,” he says. “It’s also a place for our church to bless and engage other people. Relationship is our mission, and we pray that God would work in their lives.

“It’s not a hip trick to get people into the church doors,” adds Beezley. “The Community House is a place to build connections. We bless people and have conversations. We’re not pushing Jesus on to them, but listening to them and helping them discern what is that next step?”

Related: The importance of relationships in ministry

Now on the other side of the radical shift, the Adventure Church is still waiting to see the full effect of its changes.

“We’re not seeing huge changes yet,” says Beezley. “We’re not doing a fancy thing and immediately having 100 new people [show up on Sunday]. There’s been some impact, but the bigger picture is the daily basis. If we have 25 to 30 people a day at the coffeehouse, multiplied by six days a week—that adds up to about 6,000 engagements we’ve had since September. And those are people not from church.

“It’s like the parable of the sower,” he adds. “There’s a lot of cultivation to do—softening hearts, sowing seeds of hospitality, blessing, and listening well. Hopefully there will be a gospel harvest to come.”

Read the full story here.

white arrow painted on blue brick wall

One step at a time: trusting God without a roadmap

Trinity Reformed Church (Orange City and Hospers, Iowa) | Maria Magdalena Reformed Church (Sioux Center, Iowa)

The to-date history of Trinity Reformed Church is a beautiful story arc of God’s faithfulness. It’s one that has come “full circle” in some ways, but that path wasn’t one that was always clear.

When Rev. Brian Keepers stepped in as lead pastor in 2017, the church had already been discerning how to be engaged in regional ministry, both in Orange City and beyond. The calling was—and is—to be a church that seeks the flourishing of the community it’s most directly connected to (Orange City) and to seek the flourishing of the region.

Related: How a church can love its neighborhood and partner with its community

“We continue to find ways to break down barriers between communities,” says Keepers. “There’s a broader call to be in this region and to reconciliation work and bridge-building.”

Four years ago, as the church connected with people in different communities, there arose a possibility to enfold a struggling neighboring congregation. Together, the churches’ leadership teams asked: what would it look like to be one church in two locations? 

“We sensed God was calling us to invest in Hospers, which had experienced loss after loss,” says Keepers. “So much was moving out of that community—a grocery store, an elementary school. We discerned a call to be a gospel presence in the community [of Hospers] and to seek its flourishing.”

With the clarity of God’s leading, Trinity Reformed became a two-campus church family, with each campus as distinct but not identical. That distinction comes down to context, says Keepers. Even though Hospers is only ten miles away from Orange City, the shared mission and values need to be lived out in different ways to meet the particularities of each community.

Related: Discernment Q&A with Kurt Bush, pastor of Trinity’s Hospers campus

As Trinity continued to live out its calling to seek the flourishing of the region, a new opportunity for growth came through exploring how the church might continue building bridges between the historically Anglo population in Northwest Iowa and the growing Latino and Latina populations.

“We had taken steps to do that on both our campuses, but we were asking big questions about living into the Revelation 7:9 vision of a multi-ethnic kingdom, right where we are,” says Keepers.

Then Martha Draayer, a member of Trinity Reformed, called. God had put a bilingual (Spanish and English) church plant on her heart years ago, and she discerned it was time to make this a reality in Sioux Center.

Related: Martha’s calling to ministry

“She called me and said, ‘I sense God calling me and others to [do this]. You’re part of my discernment community; tell me why I shouldn’t do this,’” recalls Keepers. “And there was clear consensus from our team: we want to support Martha in this vision. And someone said, ‘We just need to make sure we don’t get in the way.’

“We didn’t have a roadmap,” adds Keepers. “But we wanted to follow Martha’s lead as she followed the Spirit.”

The Spirit’s leading resulted in the planting of Maria Magdalena Reformed Church, which started bilingual worship and gatherings in a coffee shop. It quickly became a multilingual congregation that outgrew the space.

“There’s really not any single ethnicity that is the majority there,” says Keepers. “I doubt you will find a more racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse place in Sioux County. … This congregation is helping lead the way now in terms of missional engagement in the broader region.”

We don’t need to have complete clarity for the whole road. We just ask: what’s the next step? Can we trust God in the next step?

Rev. Brian Keepers

Maria Magdalena RCA stands as a fresh, exciting answer to how Trinity Reformed is living into its call to build bridges. But it is also a beautiful bookend to Trinity’s own origins as a bilingual church plant—Dutch and English—100 years ago. This kind of mission is indeed in the church’s DNA as the Holy Spirit continues to lead.

“We get to be a part of another bilingual church, to follow this vision and see where it goes,” says Keepers. “There’s a shift in church planting [today] that is such an empowering model, like what we see in the book of Acts. We learn as we go. We don’t need to have complete clarity for the whole road. We just ask: what’s the next step? Can we trust God in the next step?

“And then you’re surprised. It ends up being more than we could have asked or imagined. I continue to be amazed at how God works, especially in times of pain, loss, and uncertainty. I’m seeing creativity and a generative spirit that is truly of God. My heart is so encouraged to see how God is moving, and I’m grateful to be a part of that.”

Related: God has called me to trust and obey, even when the picture is unclear

As for the next step? Trinity will continue to live into its calling to seek God’s will for the flourishing of its neighboring communities, with imagination and hope.

“We hope to be the kind of disciples, leaders, and congregation that is able to discern well and respond when we have enough clarity that we believe God is calling us to move,” says Keepers. “We trust the Holy Spirit to work through good and faithful process, not just in ourselves but in community. I’m increasingly convinced that God honors one step of obedience. Be ready to adjust and to go. Embrace a spirit of experimentation. In that posture is where imagination is enlivened and new possibilities arise. Wanting to know all the road is really us wanting to be in control. There’s something so exhilarating about stepping out and holding this loosely if we sense God is leading us. If God isn’t, that will become clear. But if this is really of the Lord, what can stand against it?”

Want help discerning the will of God?

Check out our spiritual discernment toolkit, complete with resources, spiritual practices, testimonies, and more.

Spiritual discernment toolkit

Becky Getz is a writer and editor for the Reformed Church in America's communication team. You can contact Becky at