Let the Little Children Come
Church recovers its ministry to children, then encourages other churches
To accommodate the growth of renewal at Hope Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, the church staff had to be evicted.
“We just didn’t have room for offices anymore—we needed that space for ministry,” says elder Bruce Reenders.
Pastor Tim Taylor and church staffers had to work out of their homes for more than a year until a nearby house was purchased and remodeled for office space.
That was a small bump in the road on the church’s six-year journey from a stagnant membership with few children to a buzzing center of activity filled with kids of all ages.
And now Taylor is sharing what Hope Reformed has learned with other churches. Through a pilot program begun earlier this year, he is co-leading a transformational learning community of churches in the Classis of Canadian Prairies.
When Taylor arrived at Hope Reformed seven years ago, there were 75 to 100 people in worship.
“And when we came here with our three kids, we basically doubled the size of the children’s ministry,” he says.
Reenders, who was born and raised as part of the church, admits it had been stagnant. And when a call was extended to Taylor, the elder told the congregation they were in for a big change. “When we hired Tim, I remember spending a half-hour with him on the phone and thinking, ‘That’s a guy I could take a bullet for,’” he says.
A church consultant helped the congregation look back into their history. Nearly 80 years ago, Hope was planted by the downtown Grand Haven First Reformed Church as a way to reach the growing number of children living farther out in the township.
“That’s what we had lost and what we really wanted to be,” Reenders says. So the congregation started working toward recovering that part of its history and reestablishing a vibrant ministry for children. That journey included plenty of trial and error, Taylor says.
The church began screening Disney films on Sunday afternoons as a reason for kids and families to gather. Hope also searched for a curriculum that would be relevant to children in the community. As leaders clarified their direction, they landed on an education program that seemed to click with its use of audio-video technology.
“We found that as we changed [curriculum], we had to train teachers to learn what we were asking them to educate kids with,” Taylor says. “We went from four volunteers in children’s ministry for 30 children to 70 persons serving 70 children.”
A weeklong vacation Bible school this summer was Hope’s best attended yet, maxing out at 188 children on a peak day. The church also hosted a soccer camp for 45 kids with volunteer leaders from Taylor University in Indiana.
Worship and facilities
Worship style and method also changed, starting with small things. After Taylor’s first few years, Sunday attendance was trending up and leaders looked to retain their momentum.
Without certainty about where the money would come from, Hope hired a worship leader and used live music with multiple instruments. They replaced fixed pews with moveable chairs, increasing seating capacity.
Those steps of faith proved spot-on. In January Hope added a second Sunday morning service and is now hosting 400 worshipers.
With a renewed emphasis on children’s ministry, the church was welcoming new families. The focus was on not simply maintaining the status quo, but on reaching people in the community. Space became a concern.
Instead of adding to the church footprint and incurring higher construction costs that would divert more resources from ministry, Hope decided to build inside its four walls, reconfiguring a gymnasium to better serve both children and adults.
“Some people didn’t feel it was necessary and that [the building] was good the way it was,” Reenders says. “But I felt we were being called of God, and the other elders and I stuck with it. We saw what was taking place in people’s lives and knew it was something that we couldn’t bring about on our own.”
Architects inserted an “interstitial” floor in the two-story gymnasium building, turning one floor into two. “The upper level was still tall enough for basketball, and we gained an entire lower level for children’s ministry,” says architect Steve Fridsma. Hope dedicated the new space in October 2013.
Sharing what they learned
Taylor shared the developments at Hope in a conversation with Tim Vink, the RCA’s coordinator of church multiplication. Vink wanted to hear more. Their discussion led to the creation of a new learning community.
“There are a lot of churches in our denomination between 75 and 125 [in attendance] which are struggling with how to grow,” Taylor says.
The learning community, designed to help with those challenges, includes the six churches from the Classis of Canadian Prairies, the RCA’s smallest classis. (A classis is a group of churches, usually organized by proximity. Canadian Prairies congregations are located in Alberta and Manitoba.)
Taylor and Vink co-lead the new learning community. Each church was invited to send four participants—their pastor, an elder, and two apprentices (people at least 10 years younger than the pastor and elder, or of a different race).
The group is meeting once a month for a year—all online. Through 12 webinars, participants are focusing on various aspects of gospel-saturated living. Each person has prep work and follow-up work related to the webinars, as well as access to a website with related tools and resources.
“What [Taylor and Vink] are sharing with us is right on with what we need here in Winnipeg,” says Fred Algera, an elder at Place of Grace Church (RCA).
“It’s a biblical as well as practical approach on how to reach out to people, befriend them, and create positive relationships.”
For the last several years Place of Grace has been reaching out to people with addiction problems through a Tuesday evening program called Finding Freedom. It’s led by their contract pastor, Tim Fletcher, who is also an addictions counselor. There are now up to 70 adults involved, with a third of them relating to the church on Sundays as well.
“We are reaching out with open arms to people who are broken,” says Algera. “These [webinar] sessions give concrete suggestions on how to love and receive them.”
Taylor thinks the pilot program will be useful on a wider basis. Future learning communities may focus on the same topics or explore new ones.
Hope Reformed is continuing with several ministries it had before Taylor came—a mentoring program with students at a local elementary school and a mid-week community meal program. But most of the church landscape has a different look.
“We’ve helped grow some other churches in the community because some people left us who didn’t like the changes,” Taylor says. “But we also knew we had to do something different—I don’t think we even knew how much change needed to take place.”
According to Taylor, census and other figures show that 16,000 people within a five-mile radius of the church are unchurched or don’t know that God loves them.
“As we’ve partnered with other churches and ministries and focused on the kingdom, we find that Hope continues to grow,” he says.
Interested in joining a learning community to learn with other churches? Email email@example.com.
Pray for collaboration and learning for participants in this learning community.