Reformed Church experiments with approach

( [email protected] ) Oct 02, 2004 02:06 PM EDT

Kalamazoo, Mich.- John Veld enjoys the mix of traditional and contemporary elements offered in Sunday services at Third Reformed Church in Oshtemo, Mich.

Barbara Barrett is equally satisfied with the lively, spirit-filled activity that takes place at The River, a newly opened "post- modern" church in Kalamazoo.

And Lon Bouma appreciates the chance to be part of Within Reach Ministries, a collection of cell-group churches that gathers once a week for prayer and praise in the former First Reformed Church sanctuary in Kalamazoo.

Although Veld, Barrett and Bouma are drawn to different styles of worship, they share an important connection - all are members of the Reformed Church in America. Taken together, they reflect the changing face and expanding fabric of their denomination.

The denomination long has been a stronghold of Dutch ethnicity and conservative values. But especially in recent years, it has been branching out and reconfiguring itself to meet the challenges of a modern, technology-based world without abandoning the biblical imperatives that date to the founding of the denomination in New York nearly 400 years ago.

"Basically, this is the story of the Reformed Church through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries," said Donald Bruggink, co- author of a new book touching on highlights in the history of the denomination.

"You have immense churches with steeples. You have sod churches out West and a glass church [the Crystal Cathedral] in California. We have been involved and continue to be involved in all sorts of experiments in how to express the gospel."

In one of those experiments, the sanctuary of The River buzzed with energy on a recent Sunday as people sang and swayed and praised with a nearly Pentecostal fervor.

The church has placed itself in Kalamazoo's Edison neighborhood specifically to draw in blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others from the neighborhood for services. "We want people to come and not worry what they look like," said Barrett, a native of Mexico who worshipped with a Mennonite congregation before coming to The River.

Led by the Rev. Rob Link, the church offers hard-driving, amplified music along with a casual dress code. The pews are filled with people in jeans, shorts and dresses as well as suits and ties.

A postmodern church such as The River uses a combination of ancient prayer and liturgies with modern technologies to touch the hearts and minds of a generation raised on fast-paced imagery and yet longing for balance and peace, organizers of the new congregation say.

Like many mainline Protestant churches, the Reformed Church in America has struggled with declining membership. From a high of about 225,000 adult members in the 1960s, the church today has about 170,000 adult members.

To stem the loss and to promote its Calvinist theology, the denomination has supported new approaches such as Within Reach and The River, said Dick Welscott, the denomination's director of congregational services, evangelism and church development. "The strategy is very broad," he said.

The denomination supports Within Reach in Michigan and another cell-group congregation in California. A handful of other postmodern or emerging churches such as The River are also forming in communities across the denomination.

"These churches arise from the grass roots, from people who have the vision," Welscott said.

Within Reach Ministries was started by parishioners from Third Reformed Church and Haven Reformed Church in Kalamazoo. The Rev. Jeff Porte, senior pastor of the 2,000-member Third Reformed Church, said he sees a move toward smaller, more agile congregations that can reach out to local communities.

"Our denomination has been real intentional to work away from being a one-ethnic-group denomination," he said.

John and Mary Veld have belonged to Third Reformed for many years. They support the formation of the smaller congregations. But they are satisfied with the traditional approach, leavened with contemporary themes, that is offered at Third Reformed.

"There are old-timers like us who like the older songs and hymns," John Veld said. "But Third Reformed is also progressive. It has the traditional at the same time it is flexible."