Celebrating the Roots of CFA

Jay Van Groningen, Executive Director of CFA

by Kristen deRoo VanderBerg – World Renew (10/28)

Allen Avenue Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Muskegon, Michigan wanted to do something to help the young people in their disadvantaged neighborhood. According to the 2000 Census, of the 40,000 people living in Muskegon, more than 20% live below the poverty line including 27.8% of those under the age of 18. Rather than going at it alone, the church partnered with others in the neighborhood. As a result, they received a $750 grant from the city of Muskegon, and ran a two-week program that benefited 20 children between the ages of 7 and 12.

The purpose of the program was to enhance the overall health of the church’s youth with regards to their physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological well-being. “We applied for the grant through Allen Avenue CRC, but the motivation behind it extended far beyond the church walls,” said Kimi Zimmerman of Allen Avenue CRC and a local non-profit called Community enCompass. “At the same time, we were seeking to foster a stronger sense of community amongst the children and adults of our neighborhood. The grant was obviously about the kids, but it was also just as much about coming together as residents, churches and other neighborhood groups for the sake of our community and creating a broader support network for everyone involved.”

And that’s just what happened. Twenty local children enjoyed fun, summer activities including a cook-out, a four-mile bike ride, visits to neighborhood locations, and a swim in Lake Michigan. For many of these kids, this was their first swim in the Great Lakes and their first opportunity to enjoy many of these leisure activities.

“Over the two weeks, we focused on respect, so we incorporated that value in as many contexts as possible: respect for ourselves-bodies and minds, other kids in the program, volunteers and neighbors, the venues we went to and our community in general. Whether it was in times of laughter or moments of discipline, we used each opportunity to instill in the kids the importance of respect in the way that we treated them and they way we expected to them to treat others,” said Zimmerman.

The program also had an impact on the churches involved.

“For Allen Avenue CRC, in particular, it provided our members an opportunity to come alongside of our neighbors here rather than being the leaders and ones in control,” said Zimmerman. “Everyone involved was able to bring their individual gifts, resources and knowledge to the table. Individually, none of us would have been able to pull it off; but together, it ended up being a beautiful expression of love for our community, and it’s just the beginning.”

This type of neighborhood and community transformation is exactly what the ministry of World Renew is all about. While World Renew staff members see these changes happening around the world every day, they also believe that these changes are vital to strive for within North America. That’s why World Renew partners with an organization called, Communities First Association, to help North American churches learn about and put into practice the best theories behind community outreach.

While World Renew staff members see these changes happening around the world every day, they also believe that these changes are vital to strive for within North America.

This process began in the early 1980’s within World Renew itself. At that time there were five people who focused on domestic ministry for World Renew including North American disaster response, world hunger education, and refugee resettlement.  Each of these staff members spent 80% of their time on various specific assignments and 20% of their time training deacons.  For their deacon training tasks, they were each assigned to a specific Christian Reformed ‘classis’ or regional geographic area. Their focus was on establishing deacons’ organizations at these church classis levels.

“Rather than World Renew having a direct relationship with all the CRC churches to help them reach out in their communities, we thought it was a smarter strategy to develop the strength of classis-level organizations.  These could then serve as an intermediary between World Renew and the churches and could equip deacons for community and justice work,” said Jay Van Groningen, the Executive Director of Communities First Association and a former World Renew staff member.

When he started with World Renew in 1982, Van Groningen spent 80% of his time helping churches sponsor and resettle refugee families in North America.  In 1985, Van Groningen stopped his refugee resettlement responsibilities and began focusing on deacon training full-time.  By 1992, nearly every CRC classis in the United States had some sort of designated deacon’s organization.  Unfortunately, the presence of a deacon’s organization did not necessarily translate into good community development results.

“That’s where World Renew’s commitment to evaluation was very helpful.  By the late 1980’s we noticed that the work that we wanted to do within North America was not taking root,” said Van Groningen. “Most of our CRC churches do not have natural connections to the poor and are not located in poor neighborhoods.  They created side door ministries that connected a flow of poor people to the middle class churches, but the emphasis was not on long-term change for those in need.  For the most part, there was also a lack of behavioral change by deacons and churches.  Their work with the poor was something they did ‘for’ others but it didn’t’ impact them in return.”

World Renew was at a loss as to how to change this situation, until Van Groningen went to a Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference in 1989.  There, “a light bulb went off” for him.

“I realized that we wanted churches to be doing ministry with people in need, not ministry for them.  We found that when the ministry was housed in the church itself, the attention of pastors and deacons was always focused internally rather than externally,” said Van Groningen.  “As soon as you create a separate, community-based organization, the emphasis changes.  These community-based organizations would still invite the engagement of congregations in the neighborhood but would ask them to join with other people in the community rather than do it alone.  It increased results by 100%.”

Between 1989 and 1990, World Renew and Van Groningen helped facilitate the start of five community-based non-profits in West Michigan.  The success of these programs in creating long-term change in their communities was easy to see.  Soon the process was being replicated by World Renew staff in other parts of the country.

“Almost all the way through the 1990’s, World Renew had a growing grant-driven program to support churches that were starting community-based organizations and connecting others with their work.  It looked different in every part of the country,” said Van Groningen.

In Chicago, for example, World Renew staff member Lyman Howell had a passion for financial literacy.  Through a World Renew grant he helped Entrenuity, a non-profit that focused on providing micro-finance loans to people in need, get started.  Local churches could then partner with Entrenuity in their community outreach.

“At the same time we continued to support the classis-level deacon organizations where they had the energy and desire to sustain the work themselves.  A lot fell by the wayside without the direct support of World Renew.  But a few remained strong and are still active and vital today,” said Van Groningen

As World Renew supported these diaconal conferences and partner non-profits, it also continued to grow in its knowledge of how to best support community development within North America.

“One of our staff members, Jeff  Littlejohn, had heard about John McKnight and Asset-Based Community Development.  At his suggestion, I invited McKnight to come to a meeting of World Renew’s North American Ministry Team in Seattle in 2001,” said Van Groningen

Fifty to 60 people attended the meeting including staff and leaders from various diaconal conferences and the community organizations that received World Renew support.

“From John McKnight we learned how to listen to a community, and through listening discover what a community has to start with.  We realized that we didn’t need to pour programs and money into neighborhoods.  Instead, we could harness what was already there and work alongside people for change,” said Van Groningen.  “Since then, we have been developing this practice of turning communities around from the inside out.”

World Renew’s staff became regular workshop leaders and speakers at the annual CCDA conferences.  Their solid practice and growing expertise soon garnered attention from across the country.

“In some regions there were non-CRC leaders who wanted to join our team.  They saw in World Renew a group that was committed to continuous learning and were willing to coach and train others in the methods of asset-based community development.  They wanted to participate,” said Van Groningen.

Unfortunately, the policies of the Christian Reformed Church at that time would not allow World Renew to partner with these non-CRC agencies. Around the same time, Van Groningen noticed that many ecumenical members of the CCDA had outgrown the entry-level workshops offered by the conference and suggested that CCDA offer additional coaching and mentoring to these advanced groups.

“CCDA was unable at that time to move beyond their current mission. They didn’t have a vision for developing a national coaching practice. World Renew decided that if they couldn’t do that, then we would.  I saw it as a primary opportunity to grow the movement nationally,” said Van Groningen.

World Renew set up Communities First Association as a separate 501(c) (3), non-profit agency in 2004.  From 2004 through 2009 it ran as a two-track system with CRC partners affiliated through the World Renew connection and non-CRC partners through CFA directly.

“It got messy and problematic,” said Van Groningen. “With a million dollar budget we could only do so much, and we knew that the pot was not going to grow. The non-CRC side was outgrowing the CRC site.  We decided to initiate a phase out and phase down process to transition CFA away from World Renew into its own, separate organization.”

“This whole national movement is rooted in the CRC. We are so thankful to the CRC and World Renew for everything we’ve learned along the way.”

This process concluded in 2009 with CFA becoming a national, ecumenical organization outside of World Renew.  Today it has 26 member organizations with another 9 who are currently being vetted for membership. These 26 organizations are coaching 600 leaders who are transforming close to 300 neighborhoods across the United States. Many of the organizations and leaders continue to have a CRC connection – such as the work of Community enCompass and Allen Avenue CRC in Muskegon.

“CFA has an agreement with World Renew. We are World Renew’s preferred coaching and training group for the CRC when it comes to North American community development work. Our commitment to the CRC is that if any CRC anywhere in the country really wants to learn, we will find a way to coach and train them in the practices of asset-based community development,” said Van Gronginen. “This whole national movement is rooted in the CRC. We are so thankful to the CRC and World Renew for everything we’ve learned along the way.”