This paper was written by Dan Knight in August 1997 for a class at Calvin Theological Seminary.
Origins of the CRC in WhitinsvilleEdit
Whitinsville, MA, was named for Paul Whitin and his company, the Whitin Machine Works. Upon his death, Mrs. Whitin took over management of the Castle Hill Farm. The farm's herd of Jersey cows had been decimated by tuberculosis, so Mrs. Whitin decided to restock her farm with a more resilient breed. Her choice of Holstein-Friesian cattle led to Jan Bosma coming to Whitinsville in 1886 - along with a herd of cattle from Leeuwarden, Friesland.
Over time, Jan persuaded other family members and friends to come to Whitinsville. The Dutch colony in Whitinsville slowly grew larger. On Feb. 3, 1895, the group had its first worship service. Ten months later, on Dec. 27, Feike J. Drost arrived as their teaching elder.
The original group had no specific alignment with any religious denomination. With the advice and guidance of their first religious leader, Mr. Feike J. Drost, a teaching elder from Friesland, the Netherlands, they decided to join the relatively new, and strongly conservative, Christian Reformed Church (Centennial book published by Pleasant Street Christian Reformed Church, p. 4).
The Whitinsville church sent delegates to the meeting of Classis Hudson on Sep. 7, 1896, where the congregation was received into the Christian Reformed denomination. Classis granted brother Drost license to preach on Nov. 12, and he was officially installed as an ordained Christian Reformed pastor on Dec. 6.
The young congregations first held services in homes, then the basement of the United Presbyterian Church, and still later in the Northbridge Town Hall. Feeling the need for its own sanctuary, the congregation built in 1899. This was the first Christian Reformed church building in New England.
Rev. Drost served the Whitinsville church well for seven years, leaving to assume the pastorate of the Eastmanville (MI) Christian Reformed Church in 1902.
The Whitinsville congregation was without a pastor for two years, until it secured the services of Rev. J. Jansen from the Netherlands. His pastorate was brief; after a year-and-a-half he returned to the Netherlands to continue studies toward a theological degree. (The limited information available on Rev. Jansen argues strongly for a good historical directory for the CRC, much as the RCA has. The Whitinsville church seemingly has no record of where he came from in the Netherlands - or even his full name.) [This has since been remedied with the CRC Ministers Database.]
The next pastor was Rev. Foppe Fortuin. After several pastorates in the Netherlands (1878-97), Fortuin served Second, Kalamazoo, MI (1898-1901); Middleburg, IA (1901-03); and Hull, IA (1903-06) before accepting the call to Whitinsville. The 54-year-old pastor arrived in October 1907 and "was plagued with ill health and was frequently absent from the pulpit by reason of illness" (Centennial book, p. 17). Despite bouts of poor health, a Sunday school was established, and membership grew.
The Language IssueEdit
It was during Fortuin's pastorate that classical visitors urged the congregation to begin a Christian school. This was partly to preserve the Dutch language, which was used for worship, Sunday school, and catechism. Without a "Dutch" school, the children of the congregation were receiving instruction in English. Some argued that poor catechism attendance was due to youth no longer proficient in the Dutch tongue.
Beginning in August 1920, Rev. Clarence Bouma, a postgraduate student at Harvard Divinity, conducted English-language services every other Sunday. He continued until completing his studies in 1921.
Rev. Fortuin retired from the pastorate in 1921, settling into the community which he had served for 15 years.
Rev. Leonard Trap was Fortuin's successor. Whitinsville was his fourth charge, following service in Third, Zeeland, MI (1914-17); U.S. Army as chaplain (1917-19); and West Sayville, NY (1919-21). The 36-year-old pastor was in touch with American culture, realizing the critical importance of using English for the church's survival. English-language worship became the norm. Sunday school and catechism were also taught in English. Through this, among other things, Rev. Trap reestablished contact with the youth of the congregation.
The Whitinsville church continued to grow, and Trap realized that they would eventually outgrow their facilities. During his tenure, the church purchased the property on Pleasant Street, where the current building stands.
Accepting a call to serve Second CRC in Roseland, IL, Rev. Trap concluded his service at Whitinsville in 1926.
Starting a SchoolEdit
In 1927, Rev. Ralph Bolt became Whitinsville's fifth pastor. Bolt had served several congregations since his ordination in 1903: Luctor, KS (1903-06); Lucas, MI (1906-12); Fourth, Paterson, NJ (1912-15); Graafschap, MI (1915-22); and Sully, IA (1922-27). The 54-year-old pastor oversaw another period of change. The Christian school began in September 1928, operating from the church basement. Construction of a new church building began in 1929 and was completed in 1930. This is the same building used today.
The biggest controversy of Bolt's tenure appears to have been the switch from the common cup in communion to individual glasses.
Seeing his energies flagging as the church continued to grow, Rev. Bolt asked and received emeritus status in 1939. Settling in Grand Rapids, MI, he became assistant pastor at the Neland Avenue church.
Rev. Lambertus Van Laar saw Whitinsville through the years of World War II, serving as pastor from 1939 to 1945. Following pastorates in Leota, MN (1923-26) and Holland, MI (1926-39), the 45 year old Van Laar came to shepherd this flock. It was during this time that Dutch services were finally discontinued. Rev. Van Laar accepted a call to Second, Kalamazoo, MI, in 1945.
The Whitinsville church was pastorless for about a year-and-a-half. Rev. Nelson L. Veltman accepted this church as his third pastorate, following Prairie City, IA (1938-43) and Drenthe, MI (1943-47). Like his predecessor, Veltman was 45 years old when he began as pastor of the Whitinsville flock.
Birthing Daughter ChurchesEdit
The still growing congregation decided in 1947 that it was time to organize a second church in Whitinsville. Property for the new church, 3.25 acres, was donated by the chairman of the board of the Whitin Machine Works in 1949. A survey of the congregation showed 61 families and 9 individual members ready to become charter members of the Fairlawn congregation. Due to slow progress on facilities, the Fairlawn CRC did not become a reality until 1958.
During the same time, the Pleasant Street auditorium was redecorated and an automatic oil heating system installed. The church also purchases a new parsonage nearer the Pleasant Street site and sold the old parsonage.
Rev. Veltman left in 1953 to pastor the Boston Square congregation in Grand Rapids, MI.
The church's next pastor was Rev. Richard R. De Ridder. His previous pastorates were Dispatch, KS (1946-49) and Coldbrook (now Beckwith Hills), Grand Rapids, MI (1949-53). (At this point, we begin dealing with pastors not listed in the necrology section of the 1990 CRC Yearbook, so I have no data on their age. One more argument for a historical directory.) During the De Ridder years, the Whitinsville church hired Rev. Nelson Vander Zee to begin mission work in the Framingham, MA, area. This eventually grew into the Hope CRC of Framingham, organized as a separate congregation in 1957.
Rev. De Ridder left Whitinsville in response to a call to serve the Wyoming Park (now Faith Community) congregation in Wyoming, MI.
Rev. William Vander Hoven became Whitinsville's ninth pastor in 1957, the same year the Framingham congregation organized and the year before the Fairlawn church was officially organized with 64 families and 2 individuals. The Pleasant Street church borrowed $40,000 as a gift to the newly organized congregation.
In 1962, Rev. Vander Hoven left Whitinsville to serve the Fuller Avenue church in Grand Rapids, MI.
Rev. John T. Holwerda left Bellflower, CA, to pastor the Pleasant Street congregation in 1963. The 59-year-old pastor had previously served five other Christian Reformed churches: Sioux City, IA (1931-35); Ellsworth, MI (1935-41), Midland Park, NJ (1941-48); Alpine Avenue, Grand Rapids, MI (1948-54); and First, Bellflower, CA (1954-63).
Whitin Machine Works Leaves WhitinsvilleEdit
In addition to the turmoil experience nation-wide during the 1960s, two events shook the Whitinsville community in particular. First, the Whitin Machine Works was acquired by White Consolidated Industries. Then, a year later, the Whitin Machine Works was moved from Whitinsville to Spartansburg, South Carolina.
Rev. Holwerda left Whitinsville in 1968 to accept the pastorate of First CRC, Allendale, MI.
Rev. J. Peter Vosteen was Pleasant Street's next pastor. Vosteen began his pastorate in 1956 at the United Presbyterian Church in Lisbon, NY. He came to the CRC in 1959, accepting the call to serve the remote congregation in Emo, ON. Following pastorates at First, Minneapolis, MN (1962-66) and Smithers, BC (1966-70), he accepted the call to Whitinsville. He was granted a leave of absence in 1971 for heart surgery and recuperation.
In May 1975, Rev. Vosteen announced he had accepted the call to serve the First CRC of Paterson, NJ.
Pleasant Street's next pastor, Rev. James Admiraal, began his second pastorate in 1976, following five years at Trinity, Rock Valley, IA. Admiraal left in 1980 to begin serving Second CRC, Kalamazoo, MI. (This was the third tie between Pleasant Street and Second, Kalamazoo. Rev. Fortuin had served Second several years before receiving the call to Whitinsville. Both Van Laar and Admiraal left the Pleasant Street church to serve Second.)
Rev. John H. Piersma followed Admiraal as pastor to the Pleasant Street church, starting service in 1981. Piersma had a long track record in the pastorate: Oostburg, WI (1947-49); Franklin Street, Grand Rapids, MI (1949-53); Oakdale Park, Grand Rapids, MI (1953-56); Second, Edmonton, AB (1956-60); Grandville Avenue, Grand Rapids, MI (1960-64); First, Pella, IA (1964 68); Bethany, South Holland, IL (1968-77); and First, Sioux Center, IA (1977-81). Piersma asked for release in March 1984 so he could care for his aging mother in Lansing, IL. He preached his farewell sermon on April 1, 1984.
Rev. John J. Wiegers came next to fill the Pleasant Street pulpit. His previous pastorates included: Hawarden, IA (1963-67); Third, Bellflower, CA (1967-71); Cottonwood Heights, Jenison, MI (1971-79), and Cragmor, Colorado Springs, CO (1979-84). Wiegers began a prayer network which brought together churches from the Blackstone Valley. During his pastorate Coffee Break and Men's Life were initiated.
A New VisionEdit
Perhaps most significant to the future of the Pleasant Street Church, Wiegers helped guide the church through Congregational Master Planning. Toward the end of CMP, he accepted a call from Fox Valley CRC in Crystal Lake, IL.
Also in 1984, Rev. Robert W. Eckardt joined the staff as a part-time minister of calling. Eckardt continued his ministry until 1993, when at the age of 70 it was time to retire.
Congregational Master Planning helped Pleasant Street understand itself. It also provided objectives that could be used to determine who would best fit their vision of ministry. The congregation chose Rev. William G. Vis, a Grand Rapids native, as its new pastor. Vis had pastored three congregations before receiving this call: Bethel, Marion, SD (1979-83); Archer Avenue, Chicago, IL (1983-87); and Fort Lauderdale, FL (1987-93). Vis has accepted the vision from the master plan as his own, helping shape a more ministry-centered church. In the last few years, the church has built a large addition.
Pleasant Street determined that the need to minister to youth would be best met by adding a Youth Pastor/Director of Congregational Life. Pastor Bruce M. Dykstra has filled this role since 1995. Dykstra was granted license to exhort by Classis Atlantic Northeast in 1996.
- Pleasant Street Christian Reformed Church seeks to be a praying congregation united in our love of Christ, faithful to the Word of God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We emphasize the discovery and use of each member's gifts, enabling us to be a caring body of vital Christians ready and willing to serve both the church the community for Jesus Christ (Vision statement, adopted in 1993).
The list of charter members shows 9 couples and 5 individual members. No children are listed, although they were doubtless present. In the year following organization, the Whitinsville church grew from 23 to 50 professing members and a total membership of 110. (From this point, all membership data comes from Yearbooks. Years referred to are the year prior to the date on the Yearbook cover, since that is when data was gathered.) Membership was 155 when the church built its first sanctuary in 1899. By 1905, this had more than tripled to 500 members.
Growth was consistent, and the congregation had over 800 members in 1922. When the church dedicated its new building in 1930, it had 825 members. The membership increase due to increased capacity is seen by a steeper slope in the membership lines (above) after 1930. A peak membership of 1,137 was achieved in 1953, the year Rev. Veltman left and Rev. De Ridder arrived.
With the organization of the Framingham and Fairlawn congregations, the Pleasant Street church declined by 260 members between 1956 and 1958. (In those days, membership of not-yet-organized daughter churches was held by the mother church until official organization.) The 1966 organization of the Vergennes, VT, church coincides with a membership decline of 87 members
Whitinsville is relatively isolated, about 30-45 minutes from the nearest Christian Reformed congregations (Framingham, MA, and South Windsor, CT). With only two churches, it is quite enlightening to look at the larger Whitinsville system, not just the Pleasant Street congregation.
This chart clearly shows that launching the Fairlawn church increased the capacity of the system. Where a single church had a peak membership of 1,137, the combined membership reached 1,275 members in 1965. This is an increased capacity of 138 members, 12% more than the earlier system could handle.
Note that the Fairlawn congregation has been declining in membership since 1991, while the Pleasant Street church has been blessed with slowly increasing membership since 1992.
The chart to the right shows the five year growth rates for the two congregations, with Pleasant Street in green and Fairlawn in blue. In 1988-89, the growth rate of the mother church matched that of the newer congregation; since 1994 the Pleasant Street church has had a higher growth rate. This is also reflected in the membership charts.
The graph to the lef compares the youth ratio (non-professing members as a percentage of total membership) of the two congregations. This shows the Fairlawn pioneers were slightly younger than the mother church - at some points the younger church has a youth ratio more than 10% higher than at Pleasant Street. Over time, however, the two have come closer. Today the difference in youth ratio is an insignificant 1%.
A revealing point of comparison is evangelism. The Fairlawn church received 18 members through evangelism (4.0% of current membership) in the last 10 years, all but one of those in 1987-88. The Pleasant Street congregation has grown by 38 members (5.2%) in the same period, with 32 of those members received in the last 5 years and 20 in just the past two.
Another contrast is in members received from other denominations. The Pleasant Street church has received 49 members (6.7% of current membership) from other denominations in the last 10 years, while the Fairlawn congregation has received only 27 (5.9%).
Transfers from other Christian Reformed congregations are almost identical for the two churches. It seems "outsiders" find the Pleasant Street church more attractive.
Overview of MinistryEdit
I conducted interviews with three members of the congregation via email. Those interviewed were Bill Vis, pastor; Tom Cooper, elder and vice president of council; and Noel Lopez, a deacon. After reading each of their emails, I could tell these people where excited to belong to the Pleasant Street church (PSCRC). The congregation seems largely united around the vision defined by Congregational Master Planning (CMP).
- Bill Vis is in his early 40s. Pleasant Street is his fourth pastoral charge. He was brought in following CMP and has embraced the vision.
- Tom Cooper has been an elder for almost three years.
- Noel Lopez, a Jewish believer, has been a member of PSCRC since 1993. He has been involved in music ministry and has been a deacon for half a year.
Each of the individuals interviewed seems excited about PSCRC and their role in it. They appreciate the ministry focus of the church, especially the vision which includes gift-based ministry and outreach.
Whitinsville is a growing community with a diverse population. Cooper says Whitinsville still has a small town feel, and Lopez says it doesn't feel crowded yet. Although the church began as an ethnic Dutch congregation, it has adapted to a changing community and enfolds those of other backgrounds. Vis estimates the church is perhaps half Dutch. A good number of new members come from nominal Catholic backgrounds.
PSCRC doesn't serve only Whitinsville, but also surrounding communities. It is not uncommon to have members drive 15-20 minutes.
The future outlook includes continued growth, especially with a major highway interchange planned for the near future. PSCRC will become even more a regional church than it is today. The location of the interchange just blocks from the Pleasant Street site will help that. The small town feeling is very attractive - more will view Whitinsville as a bedroom community and commute to Providence, Rhode Island, or the outskirts of Boston.
Family farms are being converted into subdivisions, and the neighboring community of Uxbridge is actively soliciting big businesses to relocate there.
PSCRC is somewhat more affluent than its immediate community, something Cooper does not expect to change quickly. But community-based outreach such as Coffee Break helps keep PSCRC rooted in its community.
The church wears its Christian Reformed heritage proudly, if not too loudly. (Vis tells me the church is usually called Pleasant Street Church, not Pleasant Street CRC.) Vis does highlight denominational distinctives, which has led a few to postpone joining the church. The CRC logo is used regularly in church publications. The church is less likely to be called "the Dutch church" than it was in earlier times.
Lopez, a Jew who came to know the Messiah ten years ago, especially likes the emphasis on education.
Vis feels that giving birth to Fairlawn had a long term negative impact on the mother church. As the youth ratio chart (above) shows, the Fairlawn church started out with a younger demographic mix - and the youth ratio was a consistently high 50% until the late 1960s. PSCRC was the "old" church in more ways than one, but it seems it has now better adapted itself to its environment than the aging daughter church. (The pioneers of 1958 are now retirees.)
But the biggest change for PSCRC was going through CMP in 1993. Not only did the church develop a united sense of mission, it also intentionally restructured itself on many levels. At the top, the Ministry Coordination Team is empowered to make the day-to-day decisions needed to run the church and keep the vision moving. For the most part, committees have been disbanded and replaced with ministry coordinators.
The brick structure is inviting, but the membership even more so. Although the community once viewed "the Dutch church" as rather standoffish, even with its own school, PSCRC's reputation in the community is improving. New residents come in large number and find the congregation warm and welcoming.
Worship is a mix of traditional and contemporary, offering something to the over-50 crowd and the 30-somethings who make up the bulk of new members. Some now view PSCRC as "the Dutch church with the rock band," a reference to Resound!, a praise band begun in 1993.
The new ministry-centered structure is working well. Ministry coordinators feel enabled for ministry. The vision statement helps maintain focus. Rev. Vis works to reinforce the vision at every opportunity, especially in inquirers class.
The primary means of communication is the bulletin, with announcements from the pulpit in second place. The communication chain seems to work well. Vis comments, "I'm not aware of an occasion where key people didn't get key information." Cooper sees the weakest link as communication with the congregation, since the bulletin is rather large. One goal is to reduce the size of the bulletin.
Although the vision statement has wide ownership, it is somewhat unwieldy. Without a catchy slogan or logo, its hard to maintain clear focus. Vis makes it an important part of the membership process in his inquirer's class. Another way he helps keep the vision alive is by having every new member (evangelism, transfer, or profession of faith) write out a personal statement of faith and make a formal commitment to active participation in the life of the church. The vision statement has made it easier for PSCRC to become a high expectation church.
The CMP process and vision statement have guided the church in restructuring leadership, hiring a second pastor, building a large addition, and moving to small groups as a "key organizing principle." The vision is also helping PSCRC deal with the possibility of two morning worship services. With both a vision statement and a history of actively increasing capacity (new buildings in 1899 and 1930, remodeling, and recent addition), it looks like the congregation may move toward two services in September.
Celebration is a key to reinforcing the vision. Instead of criticizing those who fail, the church would rather celebrate victories. This helps build a community where believers are willing to take risks in building up the kingdom of God.
The congregations covers the spectrum from newborn to aged. Lopez and Vis see no group predominating in the church. As for under-served groups, Vis lists the elderly and shut-in, while Cooper thinks the young adults probably have the weakest support. Both areas are being examined.
Theoretically, PSCRC roots ministry in gifts. However, implementation is a problem. Many church members don't know their gifts, nor do they seem to have a great desire to learn them. The Network class (from Willow Creek) is offered regularly, but attendance is sparse.
Lopez sees people sometimes thrown into ministry to sink or swim, with no consideration of giftedness. Enthusiasm, however, counts for a lot. Vis claims they try to leave "no" as a strong option, but Cooper seems to say a high expectation church makes it likely people will volunteer outside their area of giftedness just to be involved in ministry.
Gifts-based ministry requires more intentionality than PSCRC has given it in the years since CMP. Learning one's spiritual gifts should be part of the membership process. Instead, it is optional for all members. Not only does this allow members to shirk their responsibilities, but it prevents believers from finding the ministries God has equipped them for. My strongest recommendation to PSCRC would be to become much more intentional about gift discovery.
All those interviewed agree that ministry involvement has increased greatly since CMP, although none could provide statistics. One problem the church does have is the large number of people already engaged in ministry sometimes makes it difficult to find volunteers for other ministries.
PSCRC has multiple ministries at most age levels. The most visible in the community is Coffee Break. The small group ministry helps create a greater sense of community and is especially helpful in enfolding new members. As stated earlier, the youth program is a bit weak, but that is being addressed. The church hopes to begin Stephen Ministries in the near future.
Programs are planned and evaluated on a yearly cycle.
For the most part, members are proud of their church. Vis sees trust levels as quite high, rooted in open communication. There is a deliberate move to place controversial issues (e.g., women in office) off to the side and concentrate on doing ministry. For the most part, even those who disagree get along.
Pride is reflected in giving of time and tithes to the church. Vis calls giving "excellent," while Lopez says it is "very generous." However, Cooper comments that the church members don't seem to stretch themselves in giving financially to the church. Vis notes giving was $15,000 behind budget last year.
Filling key leadership slots is difficult, not because of a lack of nominees, but because many decline to stand for office. The council is looking into alternate methods for nomination and election to address this.
All three mention the importance of discovering one's gifts. The Network class is offered twice a year, although Cooper note attendance has been disappointing. Lopez is a bit more frank, writing, "most believers in this congregation don't even know what a spiritual gift is, or how to identify them." Interest in gifts is low and the records of those who go through Network don't seem to be maintained.
Proposals typically come from staff or council committees. These go before council for approval. Lopez would like to see more prayer involved in the decision process. Vis would like to see more unity and consistency with the vision.
New members come heavily from the community. Rev. Vis provided a list of new members since 1993 94. The list is dominated by 30-somethings from other traditions, with a smattering of younger and older, some unchurched, and a few from Fairlawn. Reasons for joining often include marrying a member or coming from a nominally Christian home into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Those with a Roman Catholic background are probably the largest cohort among new members, not counting CRC transfers.
Reversions are typically due to long absences, and on occasion these are reversed. Few leave the church because of conflict or dissatisfaction; most who leave do so because they are relocating. There is no formal process to interview those who leave.
PSCRC has the typical Christian Reformed youth programs: Sunday school, Cadets, Busy Bees, Calvinettes, and junior high and senior high youth groups. Saturday Night Alive targets singles and young couples. There are several Bible study and small groups for the rest of the church, and a few groups for the elderly.
Adult education is not well attended, as is relatively common in the CRC. Once members make profession of faith, they are perceived as grown up and done with Sunday school.
One area that needs to be addressed is discipling new believers, something the church is looking at. Inquirer's classes are offered 5 times per year.
Profession of faith typically takes place in the teen years, most commonly in the eight- to tenth-grade range.
The church engages in annual review and planning, although Cooper sees it has outgrown its master plan and needs a new one. Dirk Hart will lead an all-church retreat in September to update the master plan. Program objectives are sent out mid-year as a reminder and reviewed each spring.
I am familiar and comfortable with the CRC system in Grand Rapids, which is quite different from Whitinsville. Where metro Grand Rapids has 100 churches, each with its own specialty, Whitinsville has two. This is probably one reason the church has learned to live with itself in a denomination often filled with controversy.
PSCRC is a large church with a dynamic ministry. It seems to have moved into the present community through the intentionality of CMP. From what I've read, I would probably feel quite comfortable at PSCRC, although it is a bit larger than I am comfortable with. Implementing two morning worship services should address many of the problems that come from a huge worship community.
Having lunch with Bill Vis was a highlight of this research, but the interviews and number crunching were also strongly positive experiences. I am grateful to Bill Vis, Tom Cooper, and Noel Lopez for the time and effort they expended answering my questions.
If I were asked to make one recommendation, it would be to push Network and strengthen the focus on gift-based ministry. I went through the program last summer; it helped me understand myself and the calling God had for me. Just weeks ago this seed grew and blossomed into a vision for ministry. Network is the personal equivalent of CMP.
I would suggest PSCRC move carefully and intentionally toward two morning worship services. There are a number of questions to answer, many with more than one answer. When will the services run? Will they be the same, very similar, or quite different? When will education be offered? How will two services affect the unity of the church?
PSCRC has shown a knack for capacity building, so I feel confident they will find workable answers to these questions and leadership will be able to show the congregation that their history and vision point to this as a solution to the problem of limited worship space. Dual services could unleash a new growth spurt greater than the system growth seen when Fairlawn was growing.
All in all, I see PSCRC as a fundamentally healthy congregation.