I n the late 1980s and 1990s, Zion Reformed Church experienced a significant decline in church attendance, from approximately 800 worshipers down to 200 on an average Sunday. When Greg Brower, pastor of the Grandville, Michigan, church, began in the early 2000s, he found that the attendance had plateaued and the majority of the congregation was older adults. Within the first few years of his ministry at Zion, he had buried about a third of the congregation.
“But we had a vision that God wanted us to reach the next generation,” Brower says. “God wasn’t done with us yet.”
Moving forward meant change. That change was a little chaotic, says Brower, reflecting on the span of 12 months in which Zion switched to a more contemporary worship style, had women on consistory for the first time, and canceled the evening service. That was ten years ago.
Now, another season of change is underway in the church.
“We formed a team of five people to think about what it would look like for our church to get involved in starting a new church,” says Brower. “We wanted to bless the next generation, but we weren’t sure we could do that well.”
The team met and asked questions like What would be the goal of a new church? and Why are church plants better at reaching unreached people?
A new way of thinking
After eight months of deep reflection, the team members realized that, rather than planting a new church, they wanted to help their current congregation act more like a church plant.
The team identified three shifts in thinking for the consistory and congregation: prioritize the people who are not at church above the people who are there already; focus on the needs of the neighborhood; and structure decision-making processes to minimize meeting time and focus on ministry.
“The danger is, if you’re always trying to make the current people happy, you’ll never make the changes that would be appealing to someone who is not yet there,” explains Brower. “Church plants—because they don’t have people [at the beginning]—have to meet new people. They have to meet the needs of the people so there’s a reason for the people to come.”
Armed with a simple policy for starting new ministries, congregation members—including young people—took initiative and dove into outreach opportunities. Reasons for neighbors to enter Zion’s doors now include Camp Zion, a free seven-week summer camp for kids, and the provision of personal care items for 50–70 families per month. Additional outreach includes Hand2Hand, which provides backpacks of food for at-risk kids, and Kids Hope USA, a one-on-one mentoring program through a local school.
The effects of change
But growth was not without loss. Three years ago, Zion eliminated all of its mid-week programs and streamlined the church’s program offerings.
“Part of focusing on the people who aren’t here, instead of the people who are, means that sometimes we cancel programs that people really like but aren’t particularly appealing to unchurched people, or programs that are good at getting people to take things but not necessarily good at bringing them into our church,” says Brower. “That’s been a hard change for the church, understandably so. It’s sad to end that kind of programming.”
In the end, though, there came a silver lining: the church now has 150 percent more kids involved in its programs.
Zion has learned even more about thinking like a church plant as it has helped launch two of them: Lifeline Community Church in Wyoming, Michigan, and City Chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In addition, Zion began partnering with individuals and organizations who are planting churches in Nepal and Kenya.
“Simply being involved in that really challenged us to rethink what we’re doing to welcome and assimilate new people,” says Brower. “What has happened since we got involved in church planting is that our people started getting the vision that it really matters that people learn about Jesus.”
In practice, better hospitality includes a welcome center with information for visitors, a child check-in process (because church members no longer know all the kids), and connection cards that have replaced a sign-in notepad passed down the pews.
Even as all these changes settle and become a new norm, Zion will continue to blur the lines between being an established church and operating like a church plant. The church has set a seven-year vision of developing leaders who will plant one or two local churches of their own.
“We want to plant where the people are,” says Brower. “There are people who were far from God whose lives are being changed. That’s really what this is about. It’s all a vehicle for helping people meet God, those who don’t yet know him or [those who have] wandered away. We’re seeing that happen, and that’s exciting.”
This article was also published in RCA Today, the Reformed Church in America’s denominational magazine.