I have read with great interest the article entitled “A Church/School Dilemma” in the June issue, and also the rebuttal letter “Church/School Dilemma”—Misnamed” written by Mr. Jim Regnerus in the August/September issue. I feel that I have a unique perspective on this matter, as I am one of those who have grown up in one of our smaller congregations (Kalamazoo church) and am now married with children of school age.
For those of you who do not know, our Kalamazoo congregation is located approximately 45 minutes south of the Grand Rapids area where the majority of our churches are located. To have a congregation within “striking distance” of our larger body of churches has been an interesting experience to say the least.
Kalamazoo Church, in recent memory, has remained one of the smaller churches. There were very few children in catechism classes (I was the only one in my class growing up).
By the time I reached young people’s society, there was no one else to have society with. It was a huge struggle to determine what to do. We did not hear about mass meetings until after the fact, did not hear about events in the Grand Rapids area until long after they were over, and certainly did not know of ministers receiving calls and where they were to until long after they were past. I struggled over driving alone to Grand Rapids as a young woman…wondering if it would send the wrong message to try to find a godly husband there. (Thankfully I did find a godly husband, but he did not come originally from our churches). It was said within our circles in Kalamazoo that Jamaica got more attention than our local church did.
Frankly, there were and still are, not enough people in Kalamazoo to start a PRC school. Kalamazoo Church has had many bitter trials over the years, which at times have sapped our numbers. As the years have come and gone, I have seen many changes in our local congregation for the better. However, some things still continue. It is still difficult, at times, to get information about events in the larger church communities close to us. Our pastor does a great job with helping us stay informed of the denominational news. Our young people still have a monumental effort to “break in” to the circle of young people from the larger church communities when going to conventions, mass meetings, and retreats. Amazingly enough, some of our denomination’s young people still don’t even know where Kalamazoo is! They ask, “Is it in Michigan?” We joke that it is closer for us to drive to Grand Rapids than the other way around! We hear of people (quite a few of them actually) who work in the Kalamazoo area, yet choose to commute almost an hour distance just because, as they freely say: “You don’t have a school.” It has even been said publicly by more than one minister of our denomination that he would not take a call to Kalamazoo if it was given because “you don’t have a PRC school.” People have stated to various of our members who have moved to Kalamazoo, that “sooner or later you will want to move back to the Grand Rapids area.” We have also heard criticisms spoken by others within our denomination that our more seasoned pastors (ours being one of them) have no business in the smaller churches. These people state that our more seasoned ministers belong in the larger churches where more people can be spiritually fed in one place. This has left many within our midst fearful for the future if our pastor takes a call in another place (which we know in time he will do). It has been expressed by one and agreed with by many that… “Many are capable as serving as an undershepherd, but who would be willing to come to Kalamazoo?” My first sentiment is to remind people that God is not a respector of persons and that every saint, no matter how large or small the church, is precious in God’s sight. This attitude is one of pride. I wonder what these people would think if these comments were directed at them? As I am sure you can imagine, the feeling of being “second-class” members of our denomination runs deeper with each passing year. These things are expressed and with each passing generation. I am 41 and have grown up with it my whole life and it continues to follow me through denominational functions into adulthood.
While I agree with many things that Mr. Regnerus said, I am concerned over one of his closing sentences in which he stated: “I respectfully submit that perhaps we need to look at the lack of Protestant Reformed education in a location more as a symptom than as a cause, of what might be stagnating growth.” I would ask to what “symptom” is he referring? I contend that it is what the writer of the first article was warning against placing importance of the school over the church. The church most certainly should have higher importance. However, this is not the message that has been sent by many outside of our area to families within our area.
I contend that there cannot be a PR school anywhere without willing, committed, faithful parents. If the foremost consideration in relocating church membership rests on whether or not a school is located with one of our PR churches, then maybe we need to relook at our priorities. “You cannot have a school without the church…not the other way around.” The church needs to be strongly established and supported, regardless whether or not a school exists. As the church grows, God blesses that church by providing a school. But, if God does not choose to establish a school in a given place, that does not necessarily mean God’s blessing is less in that place. That would be a dangerous sentiment.
Nor is having a PR school the end-all, be-all. I sometimes feel that there is a general feeling that “we have arrived” if there is a PR school in our midst. I sometimes fear that the opposite can be true: maybe by having the PR church, PR school, PR friends, PR employer, etc. we become so relaxed that we don’t look outside of our little circle. We don’t fight as hard for our faith. We don’t have to witness to anyone. We go along in life without true examination as to why we do the things we do, and why we believe what we believe. It is not enough to do it just because it has always been this way. It is just plain easy to coast along and to not have to make the effort to reach beyond the little corner of our personal world to others of like faith. Sin still abounds in a PR school… sometimes maybe even greater because as Protestant Reformed youth, we know where the moral lines are and how much we can get away with. Maybe, we as parents feel that since the school is one with the church, the school can do our job for us! We grow complacent. That is a real danger as well.
I understand that a PR school is a priceless blessing God gives to our covenant youth. However, it is a great danger to place the school on such a high pedestal that the local church suffers either in an exodus of families for areas where a school exists, or (in our church’s case) withholding transfer in membership due to the “school or no school issue.” The local church is then forced to survive strictly on new membership from outside the PRC circles, births within our own local church, and marriages within our own 20 families. That is a hard existence, but a reality for many years in Kalamazoo. This has only recently been changing in the last couple of years with a few marriages from beyond Kalamazoo borders. At times, I wondered if there was any love or care from our larger congregations to this plight only 45 minutes away or if it was expected as some said… “Just fold up…you belong in Grand Rapids.” I personally remember my dad pondering Kalamazoo’s future some years ago.
As far as our local church is concerned, we have started a school with a few other conservative reformed churches in the area. Our own pastor teaches Bible to the high school students there and has done so for a number of years. Several of our men from our PR church have served on the school board with a real presence. At this writing, my husband is the current president of the board. Would we love a PR school? Absolutely…but it takes willing families to join us to add to our numbers for it to happen. Because these families are committed to the love of the truth, (not love of a school first) they will join a community such as ours because of the church, and over time, create enough numbers to start a school. They will not join because we have a school first. They will join because there is a like-minded body of believers with a church formed, and God blesses that church with a school.
Thankfully, God has provided means for our covenant children with a Reformed education…even without having a sanctioned PR school in our local community. He has provided means to honor those vows we made at baptism. God has been faithful to us in Kalamazoo.
Mrs. Gwen Pryor