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Revival, Not Revolution

By Matt Waterstone

You know how the story goes—the church starts shrinking a little at a time.

Soon it divides itself even further between traditional and contemporary services, thinking worship style is the problem. Or it sells the building and heads to the 'burbs, thinking location is the problem. Or it does nothing, figuring the last one out will turn off the lights, because it's convinced culture is the problem.

The story of First Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois, is a bit different and goes something like this.

One hundred sixty-three years ago Dutch immigrants settled on the fertile farming soil on the south side of Chicago and formed First Reformed Church of South Holland. In the 1950s and '60s First Church was growing faster than the onion sets that made this community "the onion set capital of the world." Pastors like Zandstra and Punt stewarded the pulpit and saw the membership balloon to well over a thousand people. Unfortunately biological growth only goes so far.

In the mid-'90s, the Village of South Holland began to change. Popeye's Chicken replaced The Dutch Kitchen. Greenwood Elementary School was no longer an all white, all Dutch, watered-down version of a Christian school in the public school system. And the major divide on the block was no longer whether you were members of a Reformed Church or a Christian Reformed Church.

It wasn't too long before this once flagship RCA church of the Midwest was humbled to her core. Elders' meetings were run with a funeral-like tone, listening to reports of yet another family transferring out. By 2008, about 175 people were left to spread out on a Sunday morning for worship. There was even talk that the conclusion of the story was right around the corner.

Taking action
In 2008, the leadership of the church got together and had the harebrained idea to call a 24-year-old senior at Western Theological Seminary to be their twenty-fifth senior pastor. A 25-year-old director of worship was brought on to blend the richest hymns of the nineteenth century alongside the robust soul of contemporary worship songs. A 30-year-old African American director of mercy and justice ministries was brought on to help the congregation roll up its sleeves and do less talking about faith and more living it out. And, to make sure none of these young guns had too wild of an idea for ministry, a pastor emeritus, now age 87, was brought on to tend the flock.

The story today
The chapter of the story that's being written today is one of revival. It's one where black and old, and white and young can together reflect a slice of heaven. It's not forced from the pulpit. It's not coerced through programs. And it hasn't been manipulated by affirmative action. It has just happened. The culture where there was a lot of talking and thinking about being a follower of Jesus has been replaced by a culture that rakes neighbors' leaves and throws community car-washes and opens up a food pantry right on campus.

The culture that thinks Jesus came to die for those who look like me and talk like me and dress like me and vote like me has been replaced with a culture that realizes Jesus came to live and laugh and die for everyone. And the culture of being the wealthy country club congregation has been replaced by a compassionate, gracious, and joyful congregation that can laugh at a joke during the sermon and raise their hands (only halfway, of course) during a song of praise. In 2009 the first African American was elected to the office of deacon. Today, nearly 18 percent of the congregation is not white. And a new reality is being created that honors the past but isn't suffocated by "what we've always done."

Fruits of revival
With revival have come more baptisms than funerals. With revival have come more Methodists and Baptists and Catholics joining the church. With revival have come RCA drifters coming back to the church and a whole battalion of believers that have never heard of the "Reformed" Church. With revival have come lifelong members doing the seemingly unthinkable and lovingly sliding down their usual pew to make room for a few more visitors. And with revival have come a smaller budget and larger offerings.

One hundred sixty-three years hasn't been enough time to tell the story of First Church. There are new characters and new ministries. But what's interesting is that revival didn't necessarily mean revolution. You can still hear the words of the Lord's Prayer being prayed. You can still add your voice with the choir when the organ and the guitar play nice in worship. And you can still hold a bulletin and see words like "Approach," "Word," and "Response." This is their story.

Forget "once upon a time." This is real and it's happening at First Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois.

Matt Waterstone is senior pastor of First Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois.

Posted 03/15/12

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