Madison Square Christian Reformed ChurchGrand Rapids, Michigan

Madison Square Christian Reformed
Church, in Grand Rapids,
Michigan, plays a significant role
in the life of the southeast side of that city.
Started in 1914 as a storefront gospel mission
in a sketchy neighborhood “down by
the tracks,” Madison Square took a long
time to move to regular congregational
status; it finally happened after fifty six
years, in 1970. But then, by reinvesting
itself even more fully in its neighborhood,
it reaped remarkable returns. In the last
forty years, Madison Square has become
a strong Kingdom presence in its immediate
neighborhood, and one of the fastest growing
churches in the denomination.

The church is located in a light-industrial
district a half block north of the
railroad tracks that serve the small factories
and businesses lining the easement
to the east and the west. In its commitment
to staying in a neighborhood that
was re-shaped by all the winds of change
that blew through urban America during
the 1960s and ’70s, Madison Square is
like many other Christian Reformed congregations
on the southeast side of Grand
Rapids. First CRC, Neland Avenue, Fuller
Avenue, Oakdale Park (which was instrumental
in setting up Madison as a mission),
Sherman Street, and Eastern Avenue
churches all share a commitment to
maintaining a presence in the city even
while most of their members have moved
out to more prosperous areas of the city
and its suburbs. It’s common in most of
these congregations for an older generation
of Dutch Calvinists, their extended
families, plus any number of new joiners
attracted to the mission of the congregation,
to drive several miles toward
the city core to attend services. These
churches have developed creative ways of
ministering to their neighborhoods, doing
their best to make the differences of
culture, class, education, ethnicity, theology,
and style matter less in the pew
than they might in the street.

I say “creative ways” plural, for none
of the congregations on the above list
does things in exactly the same way.
Some have decided to remain a virtually
all-white worshiping community while
working intensively with people of color
in their neighborhoods on youth ministry,
health and social services, housing
improvements, and so forth. Madison
Square has taken a very different approach.
It is committed to being a multiracial
congregation so that Sunday
morning here is not the most segregated
hour in the American week. To that end
it has committed to having a multiracial
team of senior pastors. It is implementing
a twenty-year anti-racism vision. And it is
committed to a charismatic worship style
not calculated to warm the heart of one
steeped in Christian Reformed tradition.
Yet many–very many–from that tradition
flock here. Madison Square is one of
the more popular churches for Calvin College
students to attend, but a lot of older
folks have transferred here as well. One
consequence is a marked skewing of worship-attenders toward the white side.

Obedience

Were my parents right or wrong


not to mow the ripe oats that Sunday morning


with the rainstorm threatening?


I reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man


and of the ox fallen into the pit.


Without an oats crop, I argued,


the cattle would need to survive on town-bought oats


and then it wouldn’t pay to keep them.


Isn’t selling cattle at a loss like an ox in a pit?


My parents did not argue.


We went to Church.


We sang the usual psalms louder than usual—


we, and the others whose harvests were at stake:


“Jerusalem, where blessing waits,


Our feet are standing in thy gates.”


“God, be merciful to me;


On thy grace I rest my plea.”


Dominie’s spur-of-the-moment concession:


“He rides on the clouds, the wings of the storm;


The lightning and wind his missions perform.”


Dominie made no concessions on sermon length:


“Five Good Reasons for Infant Baptism,”


though we heard little of it,


for more floods came and more winds blew and beat


upon that House than we had figured on, even,


more lightning and thunder


and hail the size of pullet eggs.


Falling branches snapped the electric wires.


We sang the closing psalm without the organ and in the dark:


“Ye seed from Abraham descended,


God’s covenant love is never ended.”


Afterward we rode by our oats field,


Flattened.


“We still will mow it,” Dad said.


“Ten bushels to the acre, maybe, what would have been fifty


if I had mowed right after milking


and if the whole family had shocked.


We could have had it weatherproof before the storm.”


Later at dinner Dad said,


“God was testing us. I’m glad we went.”


Mother said, “I wouldn’t have missed it.”


And even I thought but did not say,


How guilty we would feel now if we had saved the harvest.


The one time Dad asked me why I live in a Black neighborhood,


I reminded him of that Sunday morning.


Immediately he understood.


Sometime around the turn of the century


My sons may well bring me an article in The Banner


Written by a sociologist who argues,


“The integrated neighborhoods of thirty years ago,


in spite of good intentions,


impaired Black self-image and delayed Black independence.”


Then I shall tell my sons about that Sunday morning.


And I shall ask my sons to forgive me


(who knows exactly what for?)


as they must ask their sons to forgive them


(who knows exactly what for?)


as I have long ago forgiven my father


(who knows exactly what for?)


Fathers often fail to pass on to sons


their harvest customs


for harvesting grain or real estate or anything.


No matter, so long as fathers pass on to sons


another more important pattern


defined as absolutely as muddlers like us can manage:
obedience.


–from Purpaleanie and Other Permutations (Orange City, IA:
Middleburg Press, 1978). Reprinted by permission.


Sietze Buning was the pen-name of Stanley Wiersma, late
professor of English at Calvin College.

This raises ironic
and touchy questions–questions
that Madison Square
squarely faces on an
ongoing basis and in
overt ways. Granting,
let’s say, that many
interracial congregations
in the USA have
charismatic worship
styles, some in the assembly
might be there
for the charisma and
not for the anti-racism.
More abstractly, it’s a
continuing struggle
in places like Madison
Square to find ways to
take cultural differences
seriously without
assuming superiority
for any side in the
complex array of colors
and backgrounds that
make up the body.
A fair but somewhat
brutal question to
consider in these situations
is what each
party needs and what
each party wants in
the transactions of
Sunday morning and
weekday activities.
What role might that
’60s favorite, white-liberal
guilt, be playing?
To what extent
is a victim-oppressor
melodrama being rehearsed?
Is there an
echo here of the white
folks doing disaster
tourism to a praise-band soundtrack?
And why would a person of color attend a
church like Madison Square, when Grand
Rapids has any number of solid all-black
or all-Hispanic congregations to offer? If
there’s plenty in the worship style to attract
whites eager for exuberance, what
is there in Dutch Reformed theology or
polity that attracts African Americans?
These are not rhetorical or invidious
questions but the issues on which hang much of the future of a denomination
like the CRC. As stated above, such matters
are being discussed in earnest and
at length in Madison Square’s anti-racism
leadership team. And the answers are
being tried out at Sunday worship and in
the host of activities that the congregation
engages in week in and week out.

Madison Square now has three morning
services every Sunday, with one evening
service. In the last year it has begun a satellite congregation a mile north at
the Gerald R. Ford Middle School (yes, the
president grew up and went to school in
this neighborhood), and those services too
are showing many signs of success, if enthusiasm,
excitement, and steady increases
in attendance are any indication.

I gathered with the saints at Madison
Square’s home campus on a cold Sunday
morning in January. It had been nearly
twenty years since I had been in this church, and almost
everything I saw was
new and revised but
neither expensively
furnished nor ostentatious.
I walked into a
large, warm, friendly
lobby that flanked the
worship space. Members
and visitors in
the lobby greeted one
another, read quietly,
browsed the small
church library/bookstore,
or drank coffee
while waiting for the
first service to conclude.
I was greeted by
several church members,
and it was clear
from the beginning
that it was the practice
of this congregation to
gather everyone in and
make all feel welcome.
A few minutes later,
when the first service
ended, a large tide of
worshipers flowed out
into the lobby, and for
ten or fifteen minutes
there was a fine and
congenial Pentecostal
noise in the church,
as we lobbyists moved
toward the worship
space and the others
moved toward the exits.
The greetings and
short conversations
demonstrated a cohesive
and happy membership;
it seemed to
me that nearly everyone
in sight knew a significant number of
fellow worshipers, even if they ordinarily
attended different services.

The worship space itself is made up
of two more or less complementary spaces–a commodious stage for the praise
band, preachers, and speakers, and a
large area filled with comfortable folding
chairs for the attendees. At the back of the
stage, on the right, is a big display board
used for highlighting a work of art created by a member of the church as well as PowerPoint
messages and announcements.
Conspicuous among the latter was the
claim that “You might be uncomfortable
for part of your time here. That’s intentional.”–perhaps an application of the old
saw that it’s the task of the minister of the
Word to comfort the afflicted and to afflict
the comfortable. The writing on the wall
kept me keenly alert for signs of discomfort
in myself or in others, but either there
was no such offense given or received that
morning, or, more likely, I was not sensible
enough to notice.

The service bulletin provided no order
of worship, but the service was thoroughly
planned, from the opening announcements
and the praise-team contributions
right through to the sermon, the
concluding prayer, and the benediction.
The bulletin did include the text of that
morning’s scripture–Romans 12:1-8–as
well as brief notes and questions aimed
at helping the worshipers engage the text
and the sermon more meaningfully. The
preaching minister focused her attention
on verses 3-5, especially on verse 5: “so in
Christ we, though many, form one body,
and each member belongs to all the others.”
Her message that morning (available
as a podcast here, as the 2010-01-17
link: www.madisonsquarechurch.org/
resources/sermon_recordings.php
) was
aimed at correcting common misconceptions
and also at equipping the saints to
have a more biblical view of the matter
of belonging to one another. The misconceptions
she focused on are familiar to
all of us: first, the common experience
that allows disappointments with the life
of one particular church to grow into a
temptation to divorce oneself from the
church entirely; second, the background
music that most of us hear all too often,
namely, that “It’s all about me,” and that
my happiness and enjoyment are at the
center of everything, including my commitment
to the church.

The antidote is also clear: in all its
diversity, the church must be held together
in the unity of Christ. We belong
to one another–each member belongs to
all the others. The pastor made the point
repeatedly that it’s all about God, not us;
it’s God’s will and plan that we belong to
one another; this reality is part of what we
mean when we refer to the covenant. She
ended her sermon by pointing to some opportunities
right at hand–joining a care
group, joining a new members class, or
committing oneself to the various ministries
of the church to live out, to experience
the belongingness of her text.

And Madison Square does a great
deal to engage, teach, assist, and enfold
its members. The schedule for the coming
week provided just a small sample of
what the church is doing every day, every
month, to build up the body: more than
sixty programs, including high school
youth groups, children’s praise dance,
adult praise dance, Madison Girls, Cadets,
men’s addiction recovery, men’s Bible
study, a Wednesday prayer meeting,
a Madison Moms’ Brunch, a Bible club, a
midweek Bible teaching class, a women’s
recovery group, tutoring at a local elementary
school–and this list does not include
special activities and events. This sort of
consistent engagement takes a great deal
of effort, and the church’s staff, budget,
and structure are aimed at making all
of these things happen all of the time.
There are four preaching ministers and
another nine staff members to provide
direction for the church, and this staff
is made up of young and old, male and
female, black, white, and Hispanic.

I’ve attended one service at Madison
Square this year, and that does not provide
enough evidence to prove anything,
except perhaps the impercipience of the
observer. But I remembered that morning
a poem one of my colleagues had
written over thirty years ago about his
parents, Iowa farmers, who had allowed
a crop of oats to be destroyed by a thunderstorm
rather than do the harvesting
during a Sunday worship service. He titled
the poem “Obedience,” and meant by
that word not a single act but a habitual
disposition expressed and confirmed in
steady practice. It struck me that this
is the strong answer to the hard questions
posed above. Obedience is what
people need and want, and it’s what God
demands. If I’m right, the belongingness
preached about that Sunday morning has
found a place to grow, and a place where
everyone can prosper.

James Vanden Bosch is professor of English at Calvin
College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.