One Body, Many Gifts: Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Back in the 1970s, a big old church on the corner of Neland and Watkins in urban Grand Rapids faced an important decision—was it going to continue to provide a house of worship and a center of ministry in this neighborhood, or would it close its doors? The congregation’s conversations about the changing neighborhood, declining membership, and the growing needs of the community resulted in the creation of a document ever since referred to as the JOE Report—”Justifying Our Existence.” Over the years this document, expressing a commitment to building the body of Christ in the community as well as among church members, continues to speak to the vision of this congregation, shaping its worship, its ministry, its outreach programs, and its hiring of new staff.
Neland continues to thrive on its corner in the city. Nearly 150 families attend worship and education programs and are involved in various ministries. Many more children and a few adults from the neighborhood attend some of the education and ministry programs and occasionally worship. While most of the members are white (usually of Dutch ancestry), some are African-American or biracial, and a few have Asian or Hispanic roots.
Worship services at Neland are intentionally eclectic, drawing from a variety of musical and liturgical traditions and rooted in the tradition of the Christian Reformed Church. In a typical service the congregation sings hymns accompanied by the organ and perhaps a trumpet or two, a folk song accompanied by the piano and maybe a violin or saxophone, and perhaps a gospel song or a praise-and-worship song accompanied by piano, guitar, and drums. You won’t see all of these in each service, but in a month of Sundays, you’d likely see these, as well as an ensemble of strings or flutes or a small choir.
Over the years, the role of the choir has evolved too. For many years a traditional choir, rehearsing every week, sang mostly classical anthems fitting the theme of the service. As church membership and worship styles changed, the choir’s membership also dwindled. In recent years it has worked better to have occasional choirs, often for an entire season like Advent or Lent, sometimes pulled together for just a Sunday or two. Some years the choir leads the congregation in gospel songs from the African-American tradition during the month of February. Usually anyone may join a seasonal choir, but occasionally a choir is made up of children or of adults from the 60-plus group, and sometimes a “People’s Choir” is made up of parents and children.
Members of Neland have a wide variety of gifts—singing and playing instruments, dancing, acting, writing, creating visual arts (banners, stained glass, painting), and more. Those who plan worship are eager to make the most of these gifts. The music director keeps an index card file on each member, noting when and how they participate in worship and doing her best to involve people of all ages and both genders.
Artistic Expressions During Lent
During Lent, this diversity in worship and the use of many gifts is especially evident. In 2004 senior pastor Leonard Kuyvenhoven planned a series of sermons around the theme “God’s Replies to the Cries of the Heart.” Well ahead of time, a young art major was asked to design a set of covers for each week’s bulletin. Pastor Len and Leah Ivory, a pianist/composer who is on the worship planning committee, wrote a song for the series, introducing a new verse each week (see pp. 22-23 for the song and an explanation of the series).
We also use various instruments during the procession of the cross, which is carried in by a teen at the beginning of the service and placed in a base of twelve stones (crafted by a member); as well as readers for Scripture; elders to lead the pastoral prayer; and both children’s and adult choirs.
For the final Sunday of Lent, on the evening of Palm Sunday, we usually move to the Activity Center for worship. As we enter Holy Week, our service may include poetry, visual art (on PowerPoint), and music, or we may have a dramatic presentation centered on the events of Christ’s life and passion.
A Space for Multiple Purposes
The Activity Center was the result of another difficult decision, just a few years ago—to demolish the old parsonage next to the church; it was too small for all of the week-night classes and activities that were crammed into the former bedrooms. In its place came an addition that was architecturally consistent with the church building and suited to ministry needs. The air-conditioned space is home to summer evening worship services, and its features have allowed for some innovations in worship: songs are projected on a screen, the platforms can be rearranged for dramas, the room can be darkened for slides or video presentations, and there’s generally a more informal atmosphere for worship.
A Wide Variety of Ministries
Neland is involved in a wide variety of ministries in its community. On Wednesday nights, programs for boys (Cadets, ages 7-14), girls (GEMS, ages 7-14), and high school-age young people (RAC—Recreation and Communication), as well as adult Bible studies, follow a supper provided for the community and program participants. Youth groups sometimes use the Activity Center for volleyball and other activities. And on Sunday mornings the room is partitioned into classrooms for church school following the service.
Three times a year the Activity Center also serves as temporary housing for homeless families, part of Neland’s participation in the Grand Rapids’ area Interfaith Hospitality Network. For this program, as well as for the weekly ministries and summer vacation Bible school, members of the congregation commit their time and their gifts of hospitality and teaching.
The congregation at Neland, which has tried to respond with integrity and creativity to the changing needs of its members and its community, continues to flourish in its big old building in the city of Grand Rapids.
n Established in 1915 as one of the first English-language churches in Grand Rapids with 41 families as charter members.
n Currently about 144 families (617 members).
n Multiethnic congregation includes more than 50 people of African American, Asian, or Hispanic heritage, including children adopted from China, Korea, Columbia, and the U.S.
n Ministry night programs (during the school year) involve about 35 leaders and nearly 150 children and adults; their activities are preceded by a supper for all.
n Ministry staff: Leonard Kuyvenhoven, pastor; Ruth Boven, minister of pastoral care; Pearl Banks, ministry coordinator; Annetta VanderLugt, music coordinator.
A particularly powerful pair of fabric installations is the coordinating set for baptism and for profession of faith.
For a baptism, the fabric is suspended from a crossbeam near the front of the sanctuary, with one side reading “You are my child” and the other, “I am your God.” The name of the person being baptized is on a banner in matching fabric, hanging on the nearest wall.
For profession of faith, a three-piece installation hangs across the front of the church; the central banner says simply “Yes.” On the two walls, the banners read “You are my God” and “I am your child.”
Service Order for the First Sunday of Lent
Call to Worship
Procession of the Cross (carried by teen, while solo instrument plays “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross)
Hymn of Praise: “O Love, How Deep” PsH 364, PH 83, RL 342, TH 155, TWC 193
God’s Greeting and Mutual Greetings
Call to Confession
Prayer of Confession: “Kyrie Eleison/Lord, Have Mercy” SNC 52
Assurance of Pardon
Response of Gratitude: “There Is a Balm in Gilead” PsH 494, PH 394, RL 465, TWC 611
The Will of God for Our Lives
Children’s Prayer and Blessing
Pastoral Prayer and Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:1-14
Sermon: “God’s Reply to the Cries of the Heart: The Cry of Emptiness”
Song of Response: “Hear the Cry of My Heart” (p. 23)
We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper
Presentation of Offerings
Hymn of Praise: “To God Be the Glory” PsH 473, PH 485, RL 355, TH 55, TWC 72