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The Gift of the City

“The urbanization of Christian missions is an urgent and serious need. Cities determine the destiny of nations, and their influence on the everyday affairs of individuals is incalculable.”      —Roger Greenway


A few years ago a group of urban ministry practitioners from various churches and agencies of the Christian Reformed Church set out to explore the potentiality of a “Center for Urban Mission.” The concept for such a “center” was focused around the need for celebration, connection, mobilization and formation of an urban ministry movement, serving congregations of the CRCNA, the global network of Resonate Global Mission, and other denominational agencies and organizational ministry partners.

A series of nearly 125 interviews ensued as research into past and present urban mission work connected to the CRCNA and THIS CONCEPT PAPER was produced. A great legacy of vibrant urban mission associated with the CRCNA was uncovered as well as current expressions of innovative urban ministry. The lack of a coordinated strategy of connecting, resourcing, and learning from urban ministry leaders, congregations, and diverse projects was identified as one of the primary challenges. 

In the past, there were many on-ramps and pipelines in the CRCNA for emerging leaders in the city such as urban ministry internship experiences, urban ministry peer groups and even an Urban Mission Board (UMB). The UMB was set-up by urban ministry practitioners for the purpose of networking and community building including the organizing of informal annual gatherings where urban ministry leaders rotated between each other’s cities. Part of the impetus for the Urban Mission Board came from encouragement of Dr. Roger Greenway who wanted the denomination to intentionally focus on urban churches in racially and economically transitioning neighborhoods. CRC Home Missions encouraged the activities of the UMB with grants for ministries and for leaders attending Calvin Seminary. The UMB, however, was disbanded in the mid 1990's.

Another entity that disbanded around the same time was S.C.U.P.E.​ (Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education). Founded in 1976, there were several key CRCNA leaders involved in the founding and running of S.C.U.P.E. during its 20 year existence. S.C.U.P.E. ​provided a variety of opportunities for seminary students to experience urban life in Chicago in a context of theological reflection and sociological analysis. The S.C.U.P.E. program gave academic credit to participating seminary students from a consortium of seminaries with Calvin Seminary acting as the lead. The most visible activity that emerged from the work of S.C.U.P.E. was the “Congress on Urban Ministry” that was held in Chicago every two years as a training and networking event for urban ministry practitioners.  

Several interviews brought to light that since the late 1950’s there were multiple innovative leaders in cities around the world. They were pastoring and planting churches, engaging in Christian Community Development, and fiercely advocating for racial equity and social justice reform. Sadly, many grew tired of trying to advocate for change in denominational systems and structures. Thus, they poured their energy into their own neighborhoods, organizations, and congregations with decreasing incentivization to connect and engage with denominational interests. A​ concern that became evident in the research process was that most verbs used when describing denominational engagement in urban ministry were in the past tense. 

In spite of the dominance of past tense verbs, there also surfaced several some recent signs of hope. One of those was the vision shared at the inaugural Van Zanten Urban Ministry Lecture entitled “Have You Heard of the City?” The event was held at Calvin College in April of 2019. Sponsoring the lecture in April was the Van Zanten Urban Ministry Scholarship fund which was established to honor the legacy of Rev. Tony and Donna Van Zanten and their decades of commitment to raising up leaders for the urban church.​ 

Another recent sign of hope surfaced in 2015 when Resonate Global Mission (then Christian Reformed World Missions) helped birth, along with Street Psalms, the Urban Training Collaborative (UTC). ​The UTC is an organic network of like-minded organizations, academic partners, and training hubs who collectively serve as a community in mission committed to freeing leaders from all walks of life to create cities of peace for all people. There are currently 25 established training hubs of the UTC around the world and another dozen or so at different stages of onboarding. Of the current 25 established and onboarding Hubs, 10 have formal connections to Resonate Global Mission and the CRCNA. 

While “innovation” is often conceived as “leaving the past behind,” the reality is that current urban work in the CRCNA is firmly rooted in a historic Reformed tradition that has been committed to holistic social and spiritual urban renewal out of an uncompromising commitment to Biblical justice. The primary challenge before the denomination today seems to be connected to the task of how to effectively engage the work of urban mission in appropriate ways commensurate with the changing demographic landscape of the current global context. 

The conviction, therefore, that lies at the heart of this blogpost is an invitation being extended to the CRCNA to embrace anew the deep well of experience and wisdom present in the celebrated history of our faith tradition. All the while also re-imagining that experience and wisdom through the lens of the fresh challenges and opportunities being afforded to us by a rapidly urbanizing world. 

Upon the foundation of this rich history and encouraging activity from both the past and the present, we are offering up the first in a series of forthcoming Podcasts called “The Gift of the City.” We want to feature a series of conversations that explore ways to help catalyze a movement towards holistic, integrated Christ-centered social and spiritual renewal in the midst of an expanding urban world. 

At the heart of these conversations lies the art of “learning to ask the question before the question.” As the team dove into the task of personal interviews with urban ministry leaders, it became clear that the initial animating question of “how does a 150 year old denomination give its gift to a rapidly urbanizing world” needed adjusting.  A pivotal moment in the interview process came early on from the reaction to that original animating question by Rev. Clarence Presley, U.S. West Coast Regional Leader for Resonate Global Mission. 

Clarence is a seasoned city Pastor and urban Community Development leader who was not born nor raised in the CRCNA. He lovingly responded to the animating research question from a posture of humility and seasoned with grace. “I appreciate the question and will be happy to answer it as best I can from my perspective. However, are you willing to consider that there might be a question that needs to be asked before your question?  

He continued, “perhaps before the CRCNA can consider giving its ‘gift’ TO the city, she needs to ask herself as a denomination if she’s been willing to ‘open up’ the gift OF the cities around her? One cannot give a gift if he/she is not willing to also receive and open the gifts of others.”    

Clarence’s challenge to consider the “question before the question” became very generative for the over 100 interview conversations that followed. What questions might we need to consider before asking the questions that we are currently asking? “Always the beautiful answer,” wrote e.e. cummings, “who asks a more beautiful question.” 

In that light, we invite you to listen to the inaugural “Gift of the City” podcast. You can access it HERE. This inaugural episode is a conversation between Rev./Dr. Reggie Smith, (Thrive Ministry Consultant - Diversity) and Rev. Jim Wolfe who has served as Pastor of Lawndale Christian Reformed Church in Chicago for 45 years. Part of what we set out to explore with Pastor Jim was his long-time relationship with Eugene Petersen that was deeply formation in Jim’s pastoral call to the city. Eugene was known to refer to Jim as “my urban pastor.” 

Please give it a listen and be on the lookout for additional interviews. Let us know what you think and if you have ideas of others who should be in our queue of forthcoming conversations. 


Thank you, Joel Van Dyke, for this posting.  I grew up in First CRC of Detroit during the 1960s.  I was formed by the 1967 riots that devastated that city (I even wrote a book about the experience).  I came to Calvin College (now University) and Seminary as an adolescent burning questions (literally) in my heart about how to reach places like Detroit.  Much of the teaching in those days centered around theology that originated the Netherlands, which I found hard to relate to.  I spent a year in Chicago in the S.C.U.P.E program, which helped me make some sense of my journey, but ended up serving the CRC in rural congregations as that was where pastors were needed.  I see much of our current denominational struggle as being an urban/rural one.  We remain a largely rural denomination, and our rural members believe their way of life is being threatened.  One of our urban churches-- Neland Ave-- is wrestling directly with the LGBTQ issue while many in the rural communities seem to have the answer.  I am a city boy.  I have no nostalgia for the simple, hardworking, small town or family farm life.  I thrive living in places of diversity (I loved my 20 years of service as a military chaplain, where I ministered to sailors and Marines from every walk of life in America) and am comfortable with people having different perspectives than mine on an issue.  Is there a place in the CRC for people like me? 


Thanks for your work on this!  I look forward to the updates.  To add some data:  I was a long term board member of SCUPE and a founding member of the UMB.  SCUPE morphed into Omnia in 2016.  


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