“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
Of course there’s nothing wrong with a hammer. It’s very handy for nailing pieces of wood together. But it might not be the best tool for tightening a screw.
The Christian Reformed Church is gifted with a very strong intellectual tradition based on a robust theology, coherent philosophy, and biblical worldview drawn from its Dutch Reformed heritage. We should not lose sight of these strengths. This intellectual strength is often expressed or applied in a number of positive and negative ways, including study committees, theological disagreements, excellent organization and policies, restructuring as a path to renewal, and obsession with church order. Most of these are on display again in the Agenda for Synod 2017.
Looking through the agenda, Overture 11 from Classis Southeast U.S. caught my eye. It asks the denomination to address declining membership by discovering the cause and developing a unified plan to reverse the trend with annual progress reports. I commend Classis Southeast U.S. for naming what is on the minds of many Christian Reformed folks.
To be clear, this trend is not unique to the CRC. Many other denominations across North America, both mainline and evangelical, are facing this decline. The decline is worse in Europe. All of these churches are trying various ways to reverse the trend. But the story is much more positive in Asia, Africa, and South America: Christianity is growing in those continents. Similarly, I believe the declining membership trend in North America is also predominantly among traditional Western churches. The decline is not as acute or is even reversed among many immigrant and so-called “ethnic” churches.
But back to the CRC. I believe that for decades the denomination’s leadership has observed the problem of declining membership and has, in various ways, tried to reverse the trend. They just haven’t blatantly named their efforts as doing such. There have been various long-term plans, goals, strategies, and programs aimed at revitalizing or renewal, with the hope of attracting more folks into Christian Reformed churches. Some of these programs focus on outreach and evangelism, some on faith formation and discipleship, others on cross-cultural relationships or on community development, and so forth.
We have drawn on our intellectual strengths in dealing with this problem. We have struck various study committees, strategized, planned, and restructured numerous times—but, it seems, to no numerical success. Perhaps, as Overture 11 implies, we have never really dealt with this problem head-on.
But here is another possibility. What if the problem of declining membership is not something we can solve with our intellectual strength? If it were so, shouldn’t we have solved this problem long ago, after all our efforts? To put it another way, what if we have overly relied on our intellectual hammer and this problem is not a nail?
I don’t have the answers. I suspect there are multiple causes for the declining membership. And there might be multiple solutions. But I wish to caution us about relying only on our intellectual hammer and turning every problem into a nail. Perhaps it is time we humbly look to other strengths, especially from the less dominant cultures in the CRC, including our African American, Korean, and Latino members. These people might have tools besides a hammer. And we can all only be stronger for it.