Reformed Church in America Looks to Experimental Mode

Article excerpt

In and around Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Reformed Church in America offers churchgoers a surprisingly variegated vision for such a venerable denomination.

John Veld enjoys the mix of traditional and contemporary elements in Sunday services at Third Reformed Church in suburban Oshtemo. Barbara Barrett is equally satisfied with the spirit-filled activity at The River, a newly opened "postmodern" 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 Kalamazoo's former First Reformed Church sanctuary.

Although Veld, Barrett and Bouma are drawn to different styles of worship, they share the RCA connection and represent in microcosm the expanding forms of a denomination that has been a stronghold of Dutch ethnicity and conservative values since its founding in New York nearly 400 years ago.

In recent years, the RCA has been reconfiguring itself to meet the challenges of a fast-shifting, technology-based world without abandoning its biblical heritage. The relatively small denomination (about 900 congregations) has adapted to circumstances coast-to-coast in efforts to provide itself a niche among bigger mainline Protestant churches.

"You have immense churches with steeples. You have sod churches out west and a glass church [the Crystal Cathedral] in California," said Donald Bruggink, coauthor of a new book with Kim N. Baker that assembles stories from RCA's history, By Grace Alone. Bruggink is professor emeritus at Western Theological Seminary. RCA churches "continue to be involved in all sorts of experiments in how to express the gospel."

In one experiment, the sanctuary of The River buzzed with energy one summer Sunday as people sang, swayed and praised God with a near-Pentecostal fervor. The church placed itself in Kalamazoo; Edison neighborhood specifically to draw in African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians mad others from the area.

"We want people to come and not worry what they look like," said Barrett, a native of Mexico who worshiped at a Mennonite church before coming to The River. Led by Pastor Rob Link, the church offers hard-driving, amplified music along with a mostly casual dress code. …