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.
We need to talk about the Christian Reformed Church in North America. In 2008, I wrote a piece for The Banner titled, "Proud to be CRC." Indeed, much has been accomplished as we look in the rearview mirror. Looking forward, the road is precarious. Many signs indicate we are a denomination in poor health.
Symptom 1: Leader Departures
We have experienced a series of sudden and immediate departures of top leaders. Executive Director Steve Timmermans resigned effective immediately in February 2020. Timmermans' predecessor Jerry Dykstra also resigned immediately in 2011 officially for family reasons until the Grand Rapids Press reported otherwise. Eighteen months after Timmermans, CRC Canada Corporation parted ways with Canadian Ministries Director Darren Roorda, effective immediately. Roorda’s three predecessors all resigned.
Symptom 2: Exponential Decline
CRC membership is declining exponentially. Between 2000 and 2005, the CRC declined 3,156 members. The next five years declined by 10,632. The next five years were down 19,794. Then between 2015 and 2020, the loss was 26,458. Certainly, broader cultural patterns are behind church declines across all denominations, but our losses are exceptionally steep.
Symptom 3: Article 17s
Pastors and churches are separating more than ever. Known as “Article 17” from the Church Order, this is the separation of pastor and church. This can happen for many reasons, but most often an Article 17 is essentially a divorce. Justin Carruthers has shown a tremendous rise in Article 17 separations of pastors and churches. In the 20 years of 1980 to 1999, there were just 69 Article 17’s, or three per year on average. The next 20 years (2000-2019) saw 361 Article 17’s, or 18 per year on average. Substantial declines in CRC membership make this increase more pronounced.
Symptom 4: Spiritual Disengagement
The surveys on the CRC by the Center for Social Research are showing grim results. CRC members are getting older, doing family devotions less, privately praying less, and reading the Bible less. “Yes, the CRC is in crisis,” reads the 2012 report. The newest report shows a recent rebound of these spiritual practices, but these rebounds are due to the rising age of survey respondents who have more time in retirement. I couldn’t help but notice that while spiritual practices are reviving with older respondents, loyalty to congregation and CRC is merely stable.
Symptom 5: Constant Friction
Also worth mentioning is the constant friction between various groups within the CRC. For many years there has been continual stress between the CRC in the USA and the CRC in Canada, most recently seen in Classis Quinte’s overture to split along national lines. The Office of Social Justice and the returning church crowd endlessly agitate one another, as do those who celebrate women as ordained ministers and those who hold the complementarian view.
Most Critical: Disagreement on Essentials
Most concerning of all, we are not on the same page about essentials. We disagree on core values as well as Church Order. Some are saying the 1973 homosexuality report is "pastoral advice," while I myself and others in my circles consider marriage and sexuality to be a perspicuous topic of Scripture. Some consider the action of Neland Ave CRC a breach of covenant and a matter for discipline, while others say discipline cannot, and ought not, be done. Battle lines are being drawn with the Abide Project in one corner and All One Body alongside the Hesed Project in the other corner.
We are supposed to have agreement in the Three Forms of Unity. All pastors, elders, and deacons sign the Covenant for Officebearers, declaring that we agree on these interpretations of Scripture. Nevertheless, we will admit a pastor candidate who openly denies a doctrine explicitly taught in all three of the confessions. I couldn’t believe my ears when I listened to the audio of one CRC minister’s sermon. (Part of this sermon is transcribed in Overture 12 in Agenda for Synod 2020, pp.320-28). In this sermon, the pastor recounts his denial of substitutionary atonement while being examined by classis. The classis approved him anyway. When we approve someone for ministry who cannot sign with honesty the Covenant for Officebearers, we do not agree on the essentials.
Purpose of the Institution
In this era of institutional decline, it looks as if the CRC stands to fall hard in these winds of change. Different sectors of the CRC have grown apart and a common heritage will not sustain unity, as symptoms 1-5 demonstrate.
I am hearing some calling for unity, mentioning Jesus' prayer in John 17 that his followers may be one, but unless we can honestly settle our differences, it will be a unity in name only. Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined (Matt. 12:25). Any organization that wants to survive the radical individualism and corporate cynicism of the younger generations will need more than a smokescreen of unity. A denomination with constant internal struggles only reveals individuals and interest groups seeking power and leverage over one another. A denomination with a shared view of Scripture, repentance, and salvation will be able to devote all its energy to a mission. There is no need to waste energy on internal conflicts when everyone has the same heart and mind. Sharing all the same essentials, trust in one another naturally solidifies into a body of believers where both hands work in harmony with one another.
Challenge for the CRC
The CRC needs to stop trying to find middle ground and instead start identifying biblical principles and then standing there unapologetically. Trying to appease all parties is functionally placing heritage above principle. The CRC is not Dutch Club, but we snatch the wooden shoes from the fire whenever we seek to get along instead of talking honestly about the elephants in the room.
We need clarity on core doctrines such as atonement, a shared concept of sin and holiness regarding sexuality, and a clear structure of authority to hold one another accountable to a shared vision and values. We need a shared understanding of the roles of men and women. We need a common definition of justice and a shared vision of racial harmony. We will have to risk offending some and alienating others as decisions are made about where to stand and what to accomplish. If I am to be offended or alienated in the process, so be it. More important is to be building the same house on the same foundation.
Hope and Peace
Perhaps the first step is to lessen our anxiety by finding our hope and peace in the one foundation of Jesus Christ. Regardless of what happens in the CRC over the coming years, our peace is not in the CRC organization but in knowing that Jesus is Lord of his church. Denominational institutions might rise or fall, but the Lord’s purposes will prevail. He has done many wonderful things with us in the past. We can trust him with the future. He will shape and mold us into his image, sometimes in painful ways. The refiner's fire and launderer's soap is a dreadful process, but necessary for our good.
Christ’s church has been through the fire many times before. It has survived countless persecutions and schisms, corruptions and scandals, false teachings and heresies. Ever since Elijah on Mt. Horeb, the true church appeared to be doomed at many points of its history.
In 350, Jerome saw the whole church succumb to false teaching: “The whole world woke up and discovered it had become Arian.”
In 1822, Thomas Jefferson declared, “There is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”
In 1968, the esteemed scholar Peter Berger told the New York Times, “By the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”
From the mortal vantage point, the true church should have vanished many times, but the Lord has preserved his church to this day and to the end. Regardless of what happens with the CRC organization, we can be sure that the Lord will preserve his people and shatter our expectations.