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Building Church 2.0

Denominations come together to create Common Ground Church
Attendees explore their faith in the Believe discussion group.

It seems antithetical to the latest surveys about religion and church membership.

At a time when membership in churches across the country is decreasing, and more and more Americans are choosing “none” as their religious affiliation, five local churches have come together to start a new church. Their goal is to stem the exodus.

The new Common Ground Church is also groundbreaking: It is a collaboration of church members from two Protestant denominations based in West Michigan — the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), which split from the RCA in the 1850s over disagreements about the way church services were held.

But the impetus to create Common Ground wasn’t to heal old wounds or boost these denominations’ memberships, says Common Ground’s pastor, Chet Carlson.

“More than 50 percent of people in Kalamazoo are not related to a church,” he says. “It’s the most effective way to get people connected to God.”

‘It’s about connecting’

Starting up a church isn’t that simple, especially when your goal is, as Carlson describes it, to bring in “those who have not yet come to know God.”

The church leaders began planning Common Ground’s creation in 2013 and thought long and hard about everything from how comfortable newcomers might feel to how many songs to sing during a service to what to do with preschoolers. And then they began rehearsing — the church’s first official service is set for Sept. 13, but during the spring and summer they’ve been holding services once a month at Western Michigan University’s Fetzer Center.

Common Ground could be called “Church 2.0.” Carlson doesn’t wear a robe, and there’s no heavy cross in sight. Churchgoers are encouraged to read along in the Bible, and PowerPoint presentations illustrate the ideas in Carlson’s sermons. It looks like a business meeting, complete with people checking their phones, except they’re looking up Bible verses, not texting.

Many of the songs sung during the service come from the catalog of popular Christian rock bands such as All Sons And Daughters and Newsboys. The songs — two or three in a row — come after the sermon to support the Bible reading Carlson has given.

“The pastor is first so people’s minds are fresh,” says guitarist Tim DeCamp, who’s in charge of selecting the music and is a member of the band that performs during each service. “In a traditional service you have the songs first, and people kind of tune out (during the sermon).”

Common Ground's service is only about 20 minutes long, including the sermon, music and passing of offering envelopes. When it ends, church members break off to three meeting rooms, where they sit in small circles for group discussions.

There’s the Belong group, for people new to the church to introduce themselves; the Believe group, which talks about the day’s sermon and “growing in faith,” according to Carlson, and the Become group, where churchgoers are invited to talk about their purpose in life and how they can help Common Ground Church grow through volunteering.

“It’s a new model of Sunday morning service,” Carlson says. “In traditional worship services, people go in, sit down, and leave when it’s done. (Here) it’s about connecting with people who maybe haven’t ever thought about church.”

RCA, CRC collaboration

On the Sundays when Carlson isn’t preaching at Common Ground, he’s visiting other churches to invite people to Common Ground.

“He invited us to check it out,” says Kara Barr of Kalamazoo at a rehearsal service. Barr regularly attends Voyage Church in Kalamazoo, which is part of the RCA. “I like the way (Carlson) spoke, and the music.”

Both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America are Protestant denominations with their roots in the Netherlands, and both have a strong base in West Michigan today. The CRC founded and governs Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, while the RCA has a similar relationship with Hope College and Western Theological Seminary in Holland. Both denominations have fewer than 1,000 congregations nationwide. Research by the RCA found a steady decrease in membership in its West Michigan churches, from 80,000 in 2000 to about 66,000 in 2013. Research by the CRC in the early 2000s found fewer than 1,000 new people were joining the CRC a year.

“The thought was, ‘Let’s get back together,’” Carlson says. “Collaborating (brings) more resources,” which include everything from copies of the Bible to microphones for the Sunday service.

Voyage Church is one of the five churches that sponsored Common Ground, along with Southern Heights Church (part of the CRC), Westwood Christian Reformed Church, The Bridge (part of the RCA), all in Kalamazoo, and First Reformed Church of Portage. The sponsoring churches contributed funding to start Common Ground, and volunteers joined the team planning the new church and attend services. No one is expected to leave their churches permanently, but, like Barr, they are encouraged to try out the new church’s songs, sermons and discussion groups.

Carlson says Common Ground (which will be officially affiliated with the RCA) is not only a way for the CRC and RCA to collaborate, but an opportunity to make church accessible to newcomers. Common Ground’s organizers want to “make worship comfortable” so visitors who have never stepped through the door of a church won’t be intimidated by decades of religious tradition or by a tight-knit community of families who have known one another for years.

“In a new church, everyone is a new person,” Carlson says. “Our crowd is people who have not yet come to know God.”

Belong, Believe, Become

Not only is Common Ground’s approach different from those of traditional churches, but its physical space is too — at least for now.

After several months of searching, Common Ground organizers rented rooms in the Fetzer Center for rehearsal services, but they’re still looking for a permanent home for the church. Funds from the sponsoring churches paid for Bibles, offering envelopes and marketing flyers advertising the topic of the week’s sermon. WMU provides the projector for the PowerPoint presentation during the service, and The Bridge loans the church the soundboard for the band.

Carlson says the rehearsal services have gone smoothly, except for a few adjustments to the timing of parts of the service. About 60 people have been attending the rehearsal services, and Carlson hopes word will spread once Common Ground formally begins.

“We have had success just by starting the church,” he says. “We’ll leave the growth in God’s hands.”

Carlson is helping spread the word about the new church by spending a lot of his time between Sundays encouraging CRC and RCA church leaders to promote Common Ground Church and visiting networking meetings and Kalamazoo area organizations to introduce the new church.

The discussion groups Belong, Believe and Become are the real heart of the church, Carlson says.

During a recent rehearsal service, the sermon was on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in which a young man who has squandered his inheritance “in wild living” is welcomed home by his father while his brother, who never left, feels ignored and angry. During the Belong group discussion, participants introduced themselves and talked about their own feelings of anger and happiness. The Believe group decided which brother they related to, while the Become group discussion started with the proposal “Describe your view of God.”

“It’s a safe place to get answers, if that’s what you’re looking for,” says Marcia Visker of Kalamazoo, who is a member of the launch team for Common Ground, along with her husband, Don. “We can offer opportunities to have (visitors’) needs met.”

Those who have created Common Ground say it wasn’t just the chance to open the church doors to a new audience or the opportunity to try something different that inspired them to join the new church. Visker says the decision to help start Common Ground simply felt like the right thing to do.

“God was speaking to my husband’s and my hearts,” Visker says. “It’s building relationships; you’ll find no greater joy than sharing your faith.”

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