A couple of years ago, members of a church contacted Amy Schenkel, the Great Lakes regional mission leader for Resonate Global Mission, and asked if she could meet with them to help them sort through their options as they moved into an uncertain future.
At that time, the CRC didn’t have a specific tool for churches to follow in this process. But that has now changed, thanks to Schenkel’s decision to meet with that church — and the resulting development of the Crossroads Discernment Toolkit.
Here is how the toolkit came about after Schenkel began meeting with that church.
Located in a vibrant urban community, the church had had a long history in its neighborhood, but the congregation was aging. Instead of coming to church from nearby, many members were driving in from the suburbs and outlying areas to attend services on Sundays.
“People had moved away. They loved their church and one another, but they didn’t have many youth or the same level of energy that they used to,” said Schenkel.
Along with a member of the Christian Reformed Church’s Pastor Church Resources (PCR) office, Schenkel and the PCR ministry consultant met first with the church council and then with members of the church. Throughout that day, they listened to church members talk about a past that held many fond memories and about their present circumstances.
“They were feeling grief over the many changes,” said Schenkel. “They didn’t have a lot of answers. We sat with them and had a conversation and tried to open space for new possibilities. . . . They were at a crossroads.”
When she and the PCR representative left that day, they wondered how many other churches were in a similar situation. How many other churches questioned their future? And out of those questions has come the Crossroads Discernment Toolkit, a step-by-step guide to help churches “name hard realities, acknowledge unmet hopes, savor memories, wonder about the future, and put your trust anew in the God who was, and is, and is to come (Rev. 1:4).”
A joint Resonate/PCR project, the goal of the toolkit is to help churches get a broad sense of their congregational story — where it has been, where it is now, and what the future might look like.
“We want to set the stage. What does a good conversation look like?” said Sean Baker, a PCR ministry consultant. “We offer practices and activities to help churches go through what can be a very challenging but valuable process.”
The toolkit is designed for leaders and members who sense that
- the ongoing ministry of their congregation may soon face significant challenges.
- their congregation in its present form might not be sustainable.
- the congregation may soon have to make important decisions about its future.
- good stewardship of the resources God has given for ministry and mission may mean crucial changes are needed.
“We want to meet a church at a place where their future is looking to be critical,” said Dave Den Haan, a PCR ministry consultant. “We want to offer a real sense of hope grounded in God. We want to help open churches to the reality that there are different options available to them.”
In this toolkit, said Schenkel, one of the “guiding convictions is that in light of Christ’s resurrection there is always hope. Of course, that hope may well be realized in ways that you don’t expect today. But it will be realized, by the grace of God, for your blessing and for his glory in the world.”
The toolkit is not a series of checklists to race through on the way toward making a decision about the future.
“There are different phases. You start at the beginning and move through the phases,” said Den Haan. “The toolkit invites everyone to weigh in, to use their voices, and to take the time to listen to what God is saying to them.
“The toolkit helps churches get at emotions and challenges. You might relive some amazing times or a time of struggle. . . . We want churches to see that God’s vision is bigger than any church might think.”
Rather than finishing the process quickly, churches using the toolkit will have the chance to go through several stages.
These include preparing for the journey, gathering your congregation, engaging the past, naming the present, and discerning the future.
“All of this leads,” said Schenkel, “to the decision either to reimagine your life together as a congregation or to close for the purpose of providing a legacy to some type of ministry that serves the coming of God’s kingdom.”
Important to consider as a church goes through the process, said Baker, is the church’s own story — being able to name and cherish the past, acknowledging the joys and challenges of the present, and seeking the willingness to make tough decisions about the future.
“There’s the relationship of your congregational story to the kingdom story in Scripture,” said Baker. “How do you understand God’s hand in your story, and your hand in God’s big story? Even closing your doors can be part of God’s bigger story.”
For each of the stages there is a tab in the toolkit, highlighting steps to follow, resources to explore, and activities to engage in.
The website for the toolkit says: “You can choose which of the resources you’d like to use and which activities might best fit your congregation so as to achieve the goal of a particular stage. In addition to choosing activities, you can get creative in how to tackle them. Some will work well in a retreat setting.”
In the end, said Schenkel, the toolkit leads a church through the process of discernment. “To do this well, it’s important that each step of the process be engaged in the sequence that has been laid out. There’ll always be a temptation to move quickly to the decision point, and perhaps even to skip one or more steps. We respectfully advise against any kind of shortcut.”
Above all, the process requires a great deal of listening, of making room for everyone to share their story. “The whole process,” said Schenkel, “is to help a church discern where God's Spirit is leading.”