How does a church move from division to reconciliation?
For 130 years, division was integral to Pillar Church’s identity.
Established in 1847 as the first church in the city of Holland, Mich., Pillar endured a painful split a few decades later over a number of issues, from Christian vs. public school to open communion vs. closed. The meeting where a majority of church members voted to leave the Reformed Church in America denomination and join the Christian Reformed Church denomination was so acrimonious that the local newspaper described it as “a riotous disturbance.” The group that voted against leaving the RCA returned a few nights later to find that people from the opposing side had chained the church doors shut against them and were guarding the doors with axe handles. In turn, those people sued the group that had taken over the church, and the case went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.
This may seem like ancient history, but that heritage of rancor weighed heavily on the minds of church leaders in the 2000s, as the church faced the possibility of having to close its doors. Membership had been declining for decades, to the point where the few members still attending were mostly retirement age.
“It became clear there were moments in our history that needed to be addressed,” said associate pastor Chris DeVos in a TEDx talk he and lead pastor Jon Brown gave in March 2015.
They described the usual thinking about reconciliation: an end to all wars, violence, abuse, oppression, discrimination. “But somehow in our world, the visions of overcoming global violence have gotten nowhere, and we can’t even fix our own marriages and our churches, or bring healing to alienated relationships or overcome our anger over those who have wounded us,” Chris said.
Church leaders decided that reconciliation needed to be a key value at Pillar going forward, and the first step was to heal their 130-year-old rift with the RCA. In 2012, the church became dual-affiliated with the RCA and the CRC denominations. They called Jon, an RCA minister, as their new lead pastor, to join Chris and other CRC ministers already on staff. As a tangible sign of their fresh start, they used axe handles and chains (the items once used to bar fellow believers from their own church) to build a baptismal font, a traditional symbol of new life.
The blessings from that decision have been richly fruitful. The church now has regular attendance of over 600 people of all ages, including the members who stayed with the church through its decline and now rejoice at its rebirth.
Leaders also understand, however, that a large group means diverse viewpoints. Hot-button issues like same-sex attraction could lead to division and threaten the church’s new focus on reconciliation and unity. As Jon said in the TEDx talk, “The big, sweeping reconciliation that we want to see in the world, that we all long to see … requires basic, everyday ordinary people taking reconciliation seriously where it’s right in front of them, where it’s closest to them.”
So when Jon heard about The Colossian Way pilot, he asked Jenna Brandsen, the Pastor of Formation for Mission, to lead a workshop on human sexuality as part of her efforts to build community among a congregation that has only been worshiping together for a relatively short amount of time.
Jenna isn’t aware of any openly LGBT people currently attending Pillar, but she suspects that among a group of 600, there are likely some. Her hope is that the TCW small group curriculum will be part of making the church a safe place for people on both sides of this issue to talk openly.
“We’re very aware that there are a number of different opinions on this topic, and there are a lot of discussions going on behind closed doors,” Jenna said. “The church can seem like a scary place to have this kind of discussion, rather than a welcoming place.
“I want to change that. I want church to be a place where we can disagree and yet remain united. We aren’t promoting our own agenda. Unity doesn’t mean you can’t disagree. We can have different ideas, yet still remain united in our faith and in our God and in our community.”
Jenna admits to some anxiety at the idea of the small group becoming heated and angry. But she takes heart from the stories shared during the training about people at opposite ends of the spectrum who had “miracle moments,” where they were able to love each other in a way that earlier would have seemed impossible. A big part of that, she thinks, is making people feel validated and listened to. She is hopeful members of the group will grasp that and give each other the gift of listening.
“My hope is that people will understand this is about being able to love each other amid differences,” she said.
She thinks the focus on worship during the sessions will help. “One thing we had talked about as leaders in the training was being a non-anxious presence – being a model for how to have these discussions in a non-anxious, non-explosive way,” she said. “I think the worship element helps facilitate that. It reminds us of something greater than ourselves, our opinions and our interpretation of the Bible – our worship of the Lord.”
The church’s unique history – born of divisiveness and reborn a century later of reconciliation – will surely help. Jenna believes the openness to change that longtime members demonstrated during the rebirth gives Pillar a strong foundation.
“When the longtime members realized the church was dying, many of them prayed for years for God to work, and I think that brought them to the point where they said, ‘OK, God, we’re open,’” she said. “For them to go through this kind of change has equipped them in new ways. They have experienced God working in ways they hadn’t experienced before.”