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May has been a wearisome month if you’re a Toronto Blue Jay’s fan. Monday’s win against the Chicago White Sox heralded the first consecutive win in three weeks. We’re at the bottom of the AL East Division, second last in runs scored amongst the entire league, and tied for third last in home runs. Some of the problems are beyond anyone’s control: we’ve had pitchers out with injuries and the team got decimated by a virus that had some players out for days. But the simple fact of the matter is that the Blue Jays aren’t playing as well as they should be. In particular, they aren’t hitting as well as they should be. Their offense has been poor, with the most reliable hitters sitting in a slump.

As happens when things aren’t going well, there’s been much speculation about what needs to change in order to turn this team around. Just about everyone I know has an opinion, and the opinion changes from day to day. Do we need to call up players from Triple A? Turn the batting order around? Dare we say it…do we need to replace the general manager, John Schneider?

Baseball is a game of small moves, of tweaks and finessing. I imagine Schneider is losing a lot of sleep these days, wondering what strategies to employ to massage this team into a better one. He knows, as we all know, that something needs to happen. We’re a quarter of the way through the season. If we get to the half way point and things aren’t different, it will be too late. The Oilers-Canucks face off may have been a good distraction for a while, but now the whole of Canada will be looking at Schneider and asking, “What are you going to do?”

On Sunday (Pentecost) I preached on Ezekiel 37, the valley of dry bones. I wondered how many of us feel as though we are in such a valley, witnessing the death and decay of the things that once helped us make sense of the world, including church. We looked at some grim statistics. From 1946 to 2020 the number of Canadians who attended church weekly dropped from 67% to 11%. In the Christian Reformed Church, membership has declined from its peak in 1992 (316,415) to the current low of 189,753. In the two years I’ve pastored in this congregation, I’ve heard a steady lament of “The sanctuary used to be so full on Sundays.”

And as one does when things aren’t going well, we start speculating about what needs to change in order to turn things around. Whose fault is it? What strategies can we employ? What’s the plan? People turn to pastors, ministry leaders, and denominational employees and ask, “What are you going to do?”

This is exactly what happened at the last CRC Synod. In response to Overture 12, which asked for a “strategy to reverse the trend of membership decline,” this motion from the floor was adopted: “That synod instruct the Office of General Secretary to work with the Council of Delegates, each agency, and churches and classes to develop a comprehensive unified strategy and plan to arrest and reverse the trend of decline and bring about a positive trend of membership growth to our denomination.”

Forgive me if I think that’s a ludicrous notion.

I’m a Type 3 on the Enneagram. I like plans and processes and strategies more than many people. But I think it’s a bit outrageous to ask one person to put together a comprehensive strategy that’s going to arrest a decline that’s been occurring for thirty years.

In their response to Overture 12 in the Council of Delegates Supplement, Resonate Global Mission quoted a report they had put together with Calvin Seminary in 2018 on church planting and renewal.

“Renewal for evangelism and church planting,” the report states, “is an act of the Holy Spirit and not the application of “the correct tools” by ministry professionals. If “mission” is God’s and the church exists to participate in God’s mission, then renewal begins and ends with God. The Lord must breathe life into the dry bones of his church (Ezek. 37) and give it a passion for evangelism and church planting. Such breath reinvigorates Christ’s church for mission through prayerful encounters with the Holy Spirit.”

Resonate noted further that as mission is God’s, we must continually orient ourselves to the question of discerning what God is doing in our midst and what God is inviting us into.

This is a posture, not of strategizing, but of witnessing. Not of planning, but of paying attention. I feel as uncomfortable as the next Reformed person when talking about the Holy Spirit, and yet I also firmly believe that the winds of the Holy Spirit are blowing and something new is being birthed. And that is what I want to be paying attention to and thinking about. I am uninterested in talking about church growth or decline. I frankly don’t care how many people are in the pews on a Sunday morning. I care about whether the people that are there are curious, living with eyes wide open, sitting on the edge of those pews in expectation, cultivating imaginations big enough to wonder about what new opportunity God might be laying at our feet, and are then prepared to dive headfirst into that opportunity.

The pressure is on John Schneider. People are looking to him to make the right changes, develop the right strategies, and call up the right players to turn things around for Canada’s team.

But thanks be to God, that same pressure is not, and should not, be owned by pastors, church leaders, and denominational staff. Because we are not the subject of the verbs of church. God is.

On Sunday after church I listened to the latest episode of the Mockingcast, the podcast of Mockingbird Ministries. The episode revolved around the idea of control – in raising kids, in dating and marriage, and in church leadership. One of the hosts referred to a conversation he’d had with the pastor of a church that had dwindled to nearly nothing but was now experiencing new vitality. The host indicated that he’d like to visit that church, to which the pastor responded, “We’d love to have you. Come and see what God has done.”

In Ezekiel 37, God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I hear that as a challenge… “Do you believe, Ezekiel, that life can come where there is only death?”

Ezekiel throws that challenge right back at God. “Sovereign Lord, only you know.”

As if to say, “It doesn’t matter what I believe. It matters what you will do.”

And God does.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


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