In Tough Times, Ministry Remains Focus

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By Chris Meehan How churches serve their neighbors in a tough economy.

Like many churches, Imlay City Christian Reformed Church, about 25 miles (40 kilometres) northeast of Detroit, Mich., is not exempt from these difficult financial times.  Come the New Year, things may get even tougher, since several of its members are connected to the auto manufacturing industry, which is struggling. Layoffs are looming.

Yet, Imlay City CRC remains committed to doing the work of the church, even if it means finding more creative ways to accomplish it. For instance, to help a young man in financial difficulty, the deacons connected him to nearby Christian school and helped to find the money to pay him to do tutoring.

And the congregation used a $50,000 bequest to make their building more energy efficient. "We continue to try to be good stewards of what we have and ask what can we do now to allow us to sustain ministry in the future," says Rev. Ken Vander Horst.

As Christian Reformed Church congregations across North America come face to face with a faltering world economy, they find themselves dealing with the challenges in different ways.

A recent e-mail poll of congregations in the CRC found a couple that reported they are barely hanging on, but they remain focused on ministry.

In Wyoming, Mich., for instance, West 44th CRC had seen a drop in membership and giving over the last several years and decided to close its doors and dissolve the congregation early next year. When that happens, the church building will be donated to a nearby food pantry that helps about 300 families a week and needs more space.

Other churches are holding their own and still others are thriving. Some are even seeing a slight increase in attendance.

But in whatever ways they are being affected, one thing remains: maintaining ministry programs to help church members and others weather tough times.

Tillsonburg CRC in Ontario has some members in the auto industry who have been laid off or are facing layoffs. But in the local community, "the number of layoffs is staggering. Our congregation is directly involved in several initiatives," says Rev. George Rowaan.

First, he says, they are planning a community-wide prayer service for Jan. 14 that will focus on the economy and its impact on people in Canada and beyond. "We are trying to remember that this is not just a local issue but also a global one. We want to emphasize matters of global justice and also local needs."

The church is also joining an effort to connect hurting people via a phone number to others who are willing to listen and offer support. "Beyond this we also provide assistance to those in need through our local food bank and the Salvation Army," Rowaan says.

Rev. Chad Steenwyk, pastor at Central Avenue CRC in Holland, Mich., says the church has been working to find ways to respond to the significant increase of "knocks on the door" from people asking for assistance, such help to get Christmas gifts for kids and grandkids. He says this year's Thanksgiving offering "was the largest on record, when we expected it to dip a little."

Donations for ministry efforts locally and worldwide was also up in November at Delavan CRC in Delavan, Wisc., says Rev. Dan Roeda, pastor. Meanwhile, deacons at Sunrise CRC, a small congregation in McMinnville, Ore., have been using resources from the congregation's care fund to purchase gift cards for groceries and help with utilities, says Rev. Bill Wilton.

"As a church we also participated with a local foundation in our community that helps families going through a medical crisis."

Some churches, despite a dip in giving, are nonetheless partnering with Christian Reformed Home Missions to help start new congregations in their communities.

And Rev. Henry Lendkeek, pastor of Bethany CRC in Bellflower, Calif., says home foreclosures are a major issue for some of the people in his community. "We have sought to reach out to our community through a free meal and we have noted a growing number of lower middle class attendees. We have also begun conversation with a group to do workshops to help people facing foreclosures and give them hope and a plan," he says.

Pastors report that the economy continues to be the focus of many sermons and prayers.

"I have addressed this from the pulpit and in congregational prayers, praying for those facing unemployment, those whose savings and net worth have been massively eroded," says Rev. Norm Steen, pastor of the CRC of Washington D.C.
"I pray that all of us will take stock of where true security lies, and become more clearly focused on what really matters in life, what matters for eternity, and build our hopes only on Christ, our Rock and Redeemer."

Rev. Coleman Moore, pastor of Oakwood CRC in Belding, Mich., says he works to keep people's attention on God. "Unemployment, foreclosures, and a Christmas morning without gifts to give is experienced by all in our church as a source of significant anxiety and stress," says Moore. So he continues to preach about the blessings of the sovereignty of God.

Some 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, people also faced tough times, notes Moore. But he says that God “will once again bless us . . . if we are willing to carry this cross and submit to it."

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