Locavores and the Institutional Church

As I Was Saying

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

There’s a big movement toward local and organic foods whose proponents are called “locavores.” They shop the green belt at the edges of the supermarket and eat at “farm to table” restaurants. But this movement is also part of a larger anti-institutional movement in our culture. People, often for good reasons, mistrust larger institutions, corporations, and government agencies. 

The fact is that even locavores need institutional structure. How does the local farmer get the produce to market? How does the market get broad enough to sustain the farmer and serve a larger number of people? How do we know what’s really organic? An institution grows up around a movement, and other institutions, like government take an interest. 

There is a kind localism happening in the Christian Reformed Church as well. People see the local congregation as the dynamic and driving force of the church (which it is). They also see less and less need for the denominational affiliation with its institutional structures. The institution, they believe, gets in the way. It demands too much and gives back too little, especially in financial terms. It tends to run top down with too little responsiveness to the local church. But what do we do about it?

Years ago, Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper made an important distinction regarding the church. He taught that the church is both an organism and an institution. It is an organism because it is the body of Christ, united to him in faith and baptism. But it is also an institution that is organized around certain core doctrinal, liturgical, and governance norms. Without the institutional elements, the church has little staying power and is subject to a heightened threat of abuse and deviation from the gospel truths on which it is founded.

Whatever criticisms I may have of the CRC as an institution, I would still argue that denominations are necessary institutions—alongside of the local church—for several reasons.

  • Denominations offer the local church a longer arm of mission. The denomination makes it possible for local congregations and their members to spread the gospel in faraway places, help the poor and suffering far more effectively, and bring them in touch with like-minded congregations.
  • While all institutions can become corrupt and mismanaged, the local church may be more susceptible because misguided or power-hungry local leaders can go more easily unchecked. Denominations provide the kinds of norms and standards that can prevent congregations from going off the rails.
  • Denominations provide rules and norms by which we can better interact with each other. To the extent that they are healthy, the assemblies of the denomination foster that interaction. They offer opportunities to see the bigger picture, learn best practices, and receive encouragement and support in times of need and stress.

Of course, there are good and bad institutions. They can be bottom-up or top-down, tightly bound or loosely organized, effective or plodding, inclusive or exclusive. They can lose their purpose and dynamism.

If we understand the importance of an institution like the CRC, then we all need to acknowledge the importance of our investment in it. There is a dangerous tendency to just write off whatever comes out of Grand Rapids or Burlington, to say, “What does that have to do with us?” On the other hand, denominational people sometimes assume that they know best what’s good for the congregations.

We are going through a generational change in the CRC as millennials take the place of aging boomers and their voices become increasingly influential. At the same time, we are experimenting with denominational structure, seeking to make it tighter, more responsive, and more cost-effective.
This is not the time for congregations to simply burrow down to their own concerns. The CRC needs to engage in some pretty radical structural and financial reform in order to flourish, and in order to get it right, it needs the input and involvement of local congregations and regional assemblies.

The organism of the body of Christ needs institutional form. Local congregations are stronger, more effective, and less inclined toward dangerous aberrations when they are participants in denominational life. At the same time, the denominational leadership can only remain strong through paying attention to the health and ministry of local congregations. 

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (2)


Thanks Len, for an insightful article, articulating the difference between “organic” and “institutional” when it comes to our denomination and its churches.  I found it very helpful, but I imagine there will be some who will tweak the distinction a little differently.  Then again, maybe not.  I liked it. 

I take it that this article is, to some degree, an answer to Clayton’s article in which he is looking for a solution to our denomination’s continual drop in effective management and loss of membership.  I think, as a denomination and as churches (institution and organic) we are in trouble and it’s not getting better.  Is it a matter of getting the right balance between “institution” and “organic”?  Could it also a matter of what responsibilities lie with each?  Is there a possibility of a power struggle, how much can the denomination dictate to the churches or vice versa?  Maybe as Clayton seems to indicate, we as a denomination and churches have been caught in a web that is very difficult to get untangled from.  I think, if I read between the lines of this article, I sense this web will be very difficult to get untangled from.  Times have changed, as well as opinions, as well as priorities, a lot of differentials that may be new and contribute to the problem.  A new generation is stepping up to the plate.

There are a lot of church denominations that have a different balance between autonomy and co-dependence.  Have we looked over the fence to see if there might be solutions in a different balance?  Is our denominational mindset so set in stone that we would rather continue down the same road rather than consider fundamental changes?  I do suspect, though, nearly all denominations are going through similar struggles.

I’m an insider as to our denomination, but also a bit of a skeptic.  From what I see, Christianity may be doing well in under-developed cultures, but in more developed cultures, like Canada and the U.S. and Europe, Christianity is losing its effectiveness and impact on our societies.  The church’s voice is viewed as less significant than what it has been viewed in the past.  Christians may think they have a really important message to share but our culture is thinking otherwise. In fact, I imagine that the world (in developing cultures) is increasingly seeing religion (including Christianity) as central to the world’s problems.  So with a downward spiral of Christian influence it is understandable that other denominations feel the same frustration as we.  I hate to admit this, but it feels like all our efforts are, in reality, an attempt to stop a slowly sinking ship.

Of course, we could look for a solution to our problem in the spiritual realm, such as a concentrated and strong prayer effort, or a calling on the Holy Spirit to work powerfully in our midst, or through a deep conviction of sin and repentance, or praying that the demons that are impacting our denomination will be vanquished.  But the skeptic in me, doubts that doing such will really make any difference in the problems that our denomination and churches are facing.  The slide is likely to continue.  God help us.

This article is too kind to the denominational facet of the CRC.  Even as this is written, OSJ representatives are quite broadly claiming to represent the "congregations of the CRC" in an international conference about climate chage in Paris, despite having never asked my or other congregations whether they in fact do represent us.  OSJ also takes political position after political position in the  name of CRC members and congregations, about all sorts of political matters, and then lobbies government bodies and the CRC membership itself (note, not inform but lobby), again presumptuously assuming they know more about general political theory, what kind of government is best, law in general, and about all sorts of specific bills introduced in Congress -- and that they hold all of our proxies to do so.

I support a denominational structure as a way for many local churches to act in concert.  But the kind of structure I support is one outlined in our Church Order (which is really nothing more or less  than our agreement as to how we will act when we act communally).  Article 28 of that Church Order says we agree to act in concert -- communally, denominationally -- ONLY as to ecclesiastical matters, but yet we increasingly ignore that constraint so that a few within our denomination can use the revenue (ministry shares) and good will of the denomination as a megaphone to amplify their own personal  political agenda.  We have become a kind of AARP instead a Reformed institutional church denomination, all without changing our Church Order, our covenant, which says we may not and shall not.

Of course there will be a call to pull back the denomination when those who control the reigns of the denomination increasingly ignore the covenant agreements made by congregations in the first place (that being our Church Order).  To not call for a pull back would be irresponsible, perhaps as irresponsible as having ignored the covenants we made in the first place.