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As a missionary with Resonate Global Mission, my wife Sara and I recently finished four months in the US visiting supporting churches, friends, and family. It was a blessing. During our cross-country road trips, we had ample time to reflect on the Church and on American life and culture. In this article I’d like to share some observations about the Christian Reformed Church which I love.

I’m sharing only my personal reactions and observations. I invite you to comment and post different observations that you may have. My experience is limited by not visiting any churches in Canada, and visiting only few of the many churches in the US. I am reflecting on our visits to supporting churches but also on conversations with people we visited from many other CRC churches.

 

The Good

1. The Christian Reformed Church is generous!

Blessings and provision are continually poured out on us by churches and individual Christians. I can’t complain of a difficult life when we spend months going around having people serve us their favorite dishes and desserts and everyone is encouraging me to take extra helpings. I gained 15 pounds in the first two months before I realized and scaled back!

People took us into their homes. They took us out to sushi, fine dining, and to ice cream parlors. They paid for us to go to sporting events, hiked with us, and let us hold baby goats. One family gave us a vehicle to use for the whole trip. Supporters gave us their undivided attention as they asked about our life in Uganda. They encouraged us and affirmed us. People intentionally prayed for us.

And they gave financially to meet our needs and continue to do so. Resonate Global Mission and the CRC in general makes sure that their missionaries are materially well taken care of, possibly better than any other mission organization.

2. The Christian Reformed Church cares greatly about the poor.

Supporters love hearing stories about how the poor are being empowered and encouraged in places like Uganda through our ministry and through other CRC ministries such as World Renew (and someone always asks for stories of how Resonate and World Renew work together or cooperate). CRC members seem to be very outward focused, always looking for ways to make a difference, looking for ways to help others, both locally and around the world. We were struck by how many church members have spent time in Africa through organizations they partner with or even founded themselves.

People are eager to give financially to help the poor and support development. Many people asked where they could give financially to help those in need in Uganda. A number of people expressly told us that if we ever have a specific project to help people in Uganda, that they are ready to give and to mobilize their church to give.

This passion cuts across the diverse political and ideological spectrum of churches in the CRC.  All share the same desire for helping those in need, though expressed in many and varied ways. And what is encouraging to me, as someone who is passionate about the principles in the book “When Helping Hurts,” is that CRC members have an eagerness to learn and reform their specific practices in poverty alleviation so that they can help without hurting. We were honored when one church had a special meeting with us to discuss one of their overseas partnerships so that they could get our advice.

3. The Christian Reformed Church is passionate about mission.

I get the sense that most CRC church members believe it is of utmost importance for missionaries to preach the Gospel to those who don’t know Christ. They hold missionaries in high esteem and honor because of the high value they place on God’s mission and reaching those who are lost around the world.

While supporters appreciated our efforts at caring for the poor and community development, sometimes they were more interested in hearing how we have opportunity to share our faith with unbelievers, for example how we have been talking about Christ with Hindu shopkeepers in Uganda.

And this passion for mission is expressed in an unselfish way. Not even one church member expressed desire for the CRC to be planting CRC churches in a place like Uganda. They were happy to hear that we are working to equip Pentecostal and Anglican churches in Uganda, and that Resonate is supporting the church planting efforts of other denominations through our teaching and financial help. They are more concerned about new Christian churches being planted than about the CRC growing in size. Perhaps we actually need to pay more attention to growing in size as a denomination, but it comforts me that CRC members are so Kingdom minded rather than denominationally minded.

What made it most clear that CRC members have this mission passion was the number of people who shared their personal stories and heartbreak about siblings, children, grandchildren, or friends who don’t know Christ or who used to be in the Church and have left the Church. It is their greatest burden and fervent prayer that these friends and relatives know Jesus personally. Sometimes they are shy in verbally sharing their faith or feel unequipped to do so, but they still have the passion for people to come to know Christ.

 

The Concerning

1. Materialism                  

Somehow while I am struck by the generosity of God’s people and their love for the poor, I am at the same time struck by the materialism in the US. Somehow both are true together in a way I’m still trying to make sense of. Americans are generous, but I realize how much more Americans could be giving. Coming from Uganda in which there is a lot of material poverty, it makes a big impression to see how big American houses are, how much unnecessary technology and gadgets people have, or how many vehicles people own. It’s shocking to see one child having more toys and books in a bedroom than an entire community of children in Uganda. Americans literally might spend more dollars for one pet in a year than a Ugandan spends for one of their children in a year.

With the vast amount of need around the world it is hard to see Americans not sacrificing a bit more of their creaturely comforts to give towards causes that would really change people’s lives in other countries. Of course, it may never feel like enough. And I don’t want to focus too much on the specifics or make legalistic rules. It’s not fruitful to try and say that having x means you are living too richly, or y is something that people should always give up. I’d rather just encourage Christians to think about when the last time was that they chose to not purchase something they really wanted in order to give that money to help the poor or to support the advance of the Gospel?

I was afraid of sounding like the stereotypical missionary who comes home and rails against American materialism, but there is a reason this has become a stereotype. Other people around the world don’t all live like we do, even if many of them would like to. Some missionaries, like us, live in places where people can struggle to treat their child for basic sicknesses or struggle to get enough food. It is a stark contrast whenever we visit the US.

What can you do? I’ll give a few ideas just to help you brainstorm. But I encourage you to pray about it, think about it, and be creative. If you are already tithing, you could consider giving away another one percent of your yearly income to support organizations which help the poor. You could make conscious decisions to reduce how often you buy new clothing, how often you go on expensive vacations, or limit yourself to only one or two streaming services at a time.

Generally it’s better to spend less so that you can give more, rather than continually purchasing things and giving away your old stuff. Giving people old used things is not as nice of a gift, but it is also increasingly difficult even to get such things transported to other countries. Besides, many African countries are seeing how receiving old technology, clothes, and vehicles is not helping them to develop economically and they are making laws to ban such imports. If only I could collect all the old smartphones that people burn through in the US and give them out to pastors in Uganda. But I can’t. Many of them wouldn’t even work here on the different networks, and the laws about what we can take through our luggage in the airport are getting stricter. Far better would be to make your smartphone last twice as long, and give the money away that you would have spent on a new one.

I know church members back in the US already have a passion for loving the poor because of the love they have experienced in Christ. I encourage you to fan that flame. Make a stronger resistance against American materialism and give more and more. Continually reflect on the good news of the Gospel, what Jesus has done for us on the cross, and let that motivate you to sacrifice more for others around the world.

2. Denominational unity

The CRC struggles with a lack of unity for a number of reasons. One source of disunity that came up in our conversations was the disconnect between the CRC of West Michigan and the churches in the rest of the continent. More specifically it seems to be a sense of mistrust and misunderstanding between denominational employees who work in Michigan, and people in local churches, outside of West Michigan. Many others have been writing about this for decades, but as I have friends in both groups, I wanted to reflect on what I have been hearing.

On the one hand, I see that many churches are prioritizing their local ministry and don’t spend much time or focus thinking about being part of a larger denomination. While I think it is important to prioritize local ministry first, I find it sad that such churches are not making use of resources that denominational leaders and agencies are trying to make available to them. And sad that these churches do not realize the big things we could be doing together. Additionally, there is so much mistrust against denominational employees that sometimes I think churches are prejudging them simply for being denominational employees.

On the other hand, I can understand and hear the frustrations of church members who talk about denominational leaders visiting them and saying one thing in person but speaking differently when back in West Michigan. They are frustrated when denominational leaders or agency representatives do not carefully listen to their concerns. Sometimes church members would like to be more engaged with the denomination but they feel that the denomination is not supporting their mission or even actively working against their interests. For example, someone shared his frustration that denominational agencies actively promote governmental actions that impact the economic lives of church members without ever consulting them.

There was specific concern shared with us about The Banner, as many are grieved over articles that they think promote unorthodox theology. There was also a lot of concern shared about denominational leadership and agencies promoting specific causes or bills that seem to be more in line with political ideologies than a primary focus on clear biblical directives which, by their inherently inspired content, are not partisan in nature. Thankfully, Biblical directives more readily find agreement across the denomination than political ideologies.

I don’t have solutions to these disconnects, but am sharing about these concerns so that those reading can work on promoting better communication, cooperation, and representation.

3. Church Hurt

We heard some of the most beautiful stories of churches and pastors flowing well with each other and having relationships full of love and flourishing. But we also heard many stories of pastors being severely hurt by churches or churches full of members hurt by a pastor. I can’t share specific stories here, but my overall reflection is that pastor-church relationships can be some of the most rewarding relationships but also the most difficult. There is so much potential for pain. They seem to be fragile relationships. It is good to recognize that there are a lot of pastors in our denomination who have left ministry over such pain or who are currently pastoring but still carry a weight of pain, rejection, or regret. Some have been traumatized. Likewise, there are congregations that have been really hurt and are nervous about trusting another pastor again.

I can’t vouch for this with any statistics, but my sense was that there is a shortage of pastors right now, and quite a lot of vacant churches. Some of this may be due to fussy churches, or a lot of pastoral candidates who aren’t interested in serving outside of Michigan. But I wonder if some of it is due to all the hurt in pastor-church relationships, and pastors leaving ministry after painful experiences.

Let’s look for more ways to care for hurting pastors and hurting churches, and also look for people in our churches who we can affirm that they are exercising pastoral giftings, and suggest to them the idea of seminary.

 

The Most Encouraging

The most encouraging thing that really stood out to us was how much God is using his people in the USA to reach out to the local community, care for others, and share about Christ. We get awfully tired reading online about how unloving Christians are and how they don’t really help people but only judge people. The reality is very different. We left the US with a real sense of all being on the same team. We are all reaching out to preach the Gospel or care for the hurting, whether in Uganda or in the US. We are all doing what we can in our areas that God has called us to.

We were particularly struck by a mischaracterization of some small and shrinking churches in the CRC. There is a way that people can subconsciously or even directly judge these small churches for being inward looking and not reaching out to others. I was convicted on this trip that I’ve thought that at times as well. Of course, some few churches may be like that. But what we found is that a lot of the small churches that keep on shrinking are not shrinking for lack of love or lack of trying to reach out with the Gospel or lack of service to others. And by the way some small churches grew, even during Covid!

Churches and church members are hosting church cookouts for the community, feeding farmers hospitality meals, running GEMS and Cadets programs that are full of community kids, helping refugee families settle, engaging in prisoner rehabilitation ministry, adopting children, fostering children, leading community Bible studies, hosting church movie nights for the community, enfolding people struggling with same-sex attraction, caring for the homeless, and working with restorative justice programs for youth to name just a few of the many ministries we heard about. People definitely have a heart to reach out to the lost. I cannot overstate how encouraging this was to us. 

That said, I’d like to make one suggestion to these churches trying hard to reach out. For some of them there is a strong focus on doing ministries that will give an opportunity to invite people to church so that they hear the Gospel at church. But in our culture today people don’t know why they should want to go to a church. Generally I suggest that we focus more energy on building relationships with people outside of the church building and sharing our faith with them in day to day life. After they learn about Christ and have interest to learn more about him, that is when it makes more sense to invite them to church.

But we did hear stories of people sharing their faith verbally as well. For example, a couple we were staying with went out and invited over for lunch the construction worker cleaning up his road. The construction worker accepted the invitation and they had lunch together and were able to talk about Christ. In another case, an elderly widow shared about how her neighbor was having problems with anxiety. She would check on this neighbor every day and usually go over to help her get courage to leave the house and often go shopping with her. But most importantly, she continuously pointed this neighbor to Christ directly and openly.

Hearing all the hard work and passion CRC Christians are putting in to care for people in their communities and in many cases also sharing the Gospel, was incredibly inspiring and encouraging to us. It gave us strength to go back to Uganda and do our ministry here knowing we are all working to serve the Lord together.

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