Where is the Christian Reformed Church going? It’s a question many are asking. Members of the denomination young and old have concerns about our future.
I recently retired after 40 years of full-time ministry service in the CRC, the last 13 of which were spent in a denominational staff position. One of my early retirement projects was sorting through a pile of 13 issues of The Banner. I had the habit of saving the yearly July issues because they include a review of the work of synod, our denominational gathering. My review gave me an insightful reminder of how we are changing as a denomination. As most of us have found, we can best look to the future by looking to the past.
Here are five trends I noticed that seem significant:
1. The CRCNA is increasingly using those in leadership beyond the “ordained minister of the Word.”
As reflected in Banner reports, synod deliberations often are heavily weighted with comments and speeches from ministers of the Word. Yet commissioned pastors, elders, deacons, and other church members are playing more and more roles and offering more and more significant leadership at synod and in denominational matters in general. Whereas the former Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (now World Renew) once was unique in being the only denominational ministry not led by a seminary-trained minister of the Word, now many of our ministries are led by people trained for church work in other ways. This includes our former executive director, our current (soon-to-be-retired) executive director, our director of Pastor Church Resources, and our Banner editor, to name a few. I see this as a positive trend. We are actively benefiting from the gifts, skills, and insights of people who used to be excluded from such leadership.
2. The CRCNA is experiencing continued challenges with ethnic diversity.
Among those contributing to leadership in the CRCNA a growing number are non-white (and non-Dutch) members. The Banner’s synod coverage recognizes this every year with photos and comments from ethnic advisers and ethnic minority delegates. In fact, more than 25% of our congregations are now majority non-white. Such congregations are growing and multiplying at a greater rate than historically white (specifically Dutch) CRC congregations. My decade review and my personal experience show that respect for ethnic diversity and inclusion continues to be a challenge for us. The Banner’s 2010 synod issue had an article with the headline “Synod Again Disappointed with Diversity Efforts.” Many of us from the majority culture are tempted to become defensive at such an expression of disappointment. We would rather point out the gains being made. What we miss in such a posture is a window into a crucial challenge that continues to be articulated by and for our minority brothers and sisters. The sad reality is that many of our ethnic minority members justifiably tire of being used as photo subjects to celebrate diversity while their voices and frustrations are not significantly engaged. Our gatherings and work at the regional and denominational levels often display a lack of healthy respect and true inclusion. This challenge will not go away without serious effort.
3. The CRCNA is showing signs of stress in its leadership.
One significant issue regularly recognized at synod, at our regional gatherings, and in many of our congregations is pastoral burnout. The number of pastors who leave ministry before retirement continues to grow each year (23 in the 1980s, 34 in the 1990s, 68 in the 2000s, and 97 in the 2010s). The past decade has seen the unhappy departure of two denominational executive directors and two Canadian ministry directors. The congregations of pastors who leave ministry find themselves shellshocked, disoriented, and in need of healing that is hard to come by. The same is true for the denomination as we share life and ministry together.
4. The CRCNA is transitioning in the way it does ministry.
Our local congregations are more diverse and distinct than ever. We do ministry differently more and more, and we contextualize our ministry more intentionally. Connected to this is congregations’ changing relationship to the denomination.
In fact, at the denominational level, much effort has been expended in the past decade to adjust to the changing realities and expectations of what it means to be a denomination. One result of this was the “rebranding” of our ministries through name changes. In the past decade our diaconal ministry, CRWRC, became World Renew, our domestic and world mission agencies merged to become Resonate Global Missions, and our media ministry changed from the Back to God Hour to ReFrame Ministries. Our educational ministry, CRC Publications, died and was reborn as Faith Alive Christian Resources. Abuse Prevention became Safe Church Ministries. Pastor Church Relations has become Pastor Church Resources.
Our denomination’s forms of governance have been reviewed and revised numerous times in recent decades. We moved from having a synodical interim committee to a Board of Trustees and now a Council of Delegates. A parade of committees and task forces have reviewed structure and culture and formed strategic plans.
The cynic might be critical of such developments, but we ought not underestimate the importance of discerning and discovering the way to be a relevant and effective denomination.
5. The CRCNA is addressing issues that plague our culture and world.
In the past decade our denomination has engaged in rigorous reflection on abuse of power, racism, the relationship of faith and science, and human sexuality. We’re growing in cross-denominational actions that respect and partner with other parts of God’s body. We’re living into Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers in more significant ways than ever before. Yet our world is broken. In North America the general culture has increasing cynicism about the integrity of church and its ability to help. In this context, how can we continue the hard work of living out the call to be a city on a hill, light and salt to a world that has more questions and fewer reliable answers?
In the face of these challenges, one constant is our commitment to a Reformed understanding of the Word of God and an allegiance to the historical confessions of the Reformed church. At the heart of this identity is a humble commitment to be ever reforming. During Synod 2010 delegate Rev. Mark Vermaire said, “One of the great gifts of the CRC is that we have covenanted to live together in heart and truth in very diverse ways.” This reflects our conviction that the Holy Spirit reveals the way forward through community and communal deliberation.
I believe our future will be determined by how faithfully and humbly we recognize the trends and factors we have just identified. May God bless us all as we live, grow, study, and serve together in the wisdom and Spirit of God. “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph. 3:21).