A Modest Proposal

This year the Christian Reformed Church in North America celebrates 150 years of ministry. Without question, during the past century and a half the denomination has accomplished much with the help of and for the glory of the Lord.

But times have changed, and the grand ship we call the CRCNA slowly sinks into a sea of postmodernity. While it has enough resources to support itself for some time, the end is in sight. Denominational loyalty wanes as one generation dies and a younger one rebels. Congregational financial support for the denomination, while stable, falls behind expectation. Congregations now shop for services that may or may not be provided by the CRCNA. Church members have been exiting Christian Reformed congregations for non-Reformed versions at alarming rates. CRCNA agencies struggle to generate support for their programs and initiatives. In short, the CRCNA, as we know it, is dying.

That diagnosis may fail to grab your attention because of its popularity. But it is, in short, old news. If you’ve attended a synod meeting in recent years, you’ve heard delegates and officials alike forecast the imminent death of the CRCNA with words like “If we don’t change, we will die.” It seems a consensus has developed among many that affirms the demise of our denomination. As a result, our celebration of 150 years of ministry will inevitably include the admission that the CRCNA will most likely not last another 50 years.

And that’s OK. As followers of the risen Lord, we believe that death opens the door to life.

Here’s my thesis: The CRCNA as we know it must die and give way to a new, emerging post-denominational form of congregational collaboration that differs significantly from its predecessor.

What will this new form look like? While I’m not a prophet, I’ll attempt to describe and contrast two different forms of congregational collaboration: our current denominational structure and an emerging, post-denominational form that I will refer to as the “Association of Christian Reformed Congregations” (ACRC).

We are the Church,We are NOT the Church

Currently the CRCNA not only functions like a church, but believes itself to be the church. The sign in front of its U.S. headquarters says “Christian Reformed Church.” Its CEO holds the title “Executive Director of the Christian Reformed Church.” The CRCNA mission statement can be fulfilled only by a church. The CRCNA sends out missionaries, which is a biblical function of the church. In its publications, it describes itself as a spiritual family in which believers hold membership akin to that of the church.

I don’t know why the CRCNA assumes such a position. Our theological confessions clearly articulate the marks of the church, which include the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and church discipline, all done in a manner consistent with the Bible. The CRCNA, as far as I know, doesn’t discipline.

The CRCNA, properly understood, then, is not a church. Rather, it is a political organization, a mechanical construct, one without inherent life. As such, it is one of the best. It is a well-oiled machine. I believe that our annual meeting, synod, for example, represents some of the best politics on earth.

In the future, however, the ACRC, motivated by a deep commitment to the Scriptures and historic confessions, will explicitly describe itself as something other than the church. At the same time, it will recognize that God created life-bearing congregations, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to advance the gospel throughout the world. It will affirm that local living congregations, not a political organization, constitute the hope of the world.

These life-bearing congregations will find it advantageous, however, to participate in a mutually beneficial association that enhances the God-given ministry of each. This association will differ significantly in at least four ways from the denomination that came before it.

1.    Supporting the Church,NOT Supported by the Church

Currently the CRCNA expects significant support from its congregations. It expects, for example, up-to-date mailing lists, which enable it to mail promotional materials and solicitations to members of its congregations. It expects congregants and clergy to implement its recommendations at the classical and congregational levels. Plus, it expects a lot of money! Synod 2006, for example, asked us for $289.88 per active communicant member, which equates, in most cases, to more than 20 percent of a congregation’s total receipts. To put that amount in perspective, the national average for denominational support among Protestant congregations is about 10 percent.

The emerging ACRC will expect minimal support from its congregations. Instead, its fundamental purpose will be to support its member congregations. It will exist to help local congregations meet their God-given goals and objectives. The programs, policies, and procedures of the ACRC, then, will flow from the needs of its congregations. Nothing will be developed in isolation from those to whom it owes its existence.

Some may counter that the CRCNA currently serves its congregations. That is simply not true. The mission and vision statements of the CRCNA, for example, make no reference to serving local congregations. In fact, during my tenure of nine years with my current congregation, I don’t recall any denominational official ever approaching us with this question: “How can we help your congregation reach its God-given goals?”  

2.    Sharing Ministries,NOT Ministry Shares

Currently the CRCNA embraces a unique model of denominational support that some refer to as “taxation” and others call “Ministry Shares.” The company line is that Christian Reformed congregations can do more together than we can accomplish alone. So we should pool our resources and expand our witness throughout the world, and, most important for this discussion, we should do so in a manner determined by denominational officials.

That was a good model in its day and still has some validity. Congregations will continue to pool their resources to provide seminary education so that they have adequately trained pastors. They will also continue to work together for theologically specific publications, for a denominational periodical, for an annual meeting, and for necessary support services.

But the Ministry Share model will give way to a new model of sharing in ministries. The reason for this change? Postmodern congregations no longer need the CRCNA to extend its ministry throughout the world. Hundreds of ministries actively seek partnerships with Christian Reformed congregations, by which they may extend their reach across the globe.

As a result, 21st-century Christian Reformed congregations will support those ministries that help them reach their God-given goals and objectives. They may partner with the Bible League, the Willow Creek Association, Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Alban Institute, the Lombard Mennonite Center, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Bethany Christian Services, Calvin Theological Seminary, or Natural Church Development. In the end, they will partner with those agencies that help them reach the goals given to them by the Spirit of the Lord as they submit to the headship of Jesus Christ.

3.    Customize, NOT Standardize

Currently the Ministry Share plan encourages the CRCNA to approach each of its congregations as if it were a franchise in a binational chain of restaurants. For the most part, the CRCNA expects each congregation to adopt the same menu of ministries and to contribute the same amount of money to each of its agencies. The Church Order follows a similar pattern, adopting policies and mandating actions that don’t work with every congregation.

That standardized approach will give way to customized relationships between the congregation and its national association. The ACRC will customize its relationship with each of its congregations, recognizing that each congregation has a different mix of blessings and challenges. Some congregations, for example, will be more inclined to send missionaries abroad, while others will be led to send evangelists throughout their own communities. Some congregations might need assistance with conflict resolution, while others need help with racial reconciliation, and still others need guidance on abuse intervention. Some congregations will require more support than others, while some can network to help congregations in their region. In the end, each congregation will develop a customized relationship with the ACRC.

4.    Minimize, NOT Maximize

Currently the CRCNA, like most para-church agencies, embraces the “bigger is better” mindset. It hopes to maximize its influence in the world through an ever-increasing list of ministries, each of which holds value. The emerging ACRC will take a different approach. It will minimize itself in order to maximize ministry among its congregations.

Anglican Ray Smith articulates the “maximum vs. minimum” approach in his book The Future of Denominations in a Post-Denominational Era. He encourages denominational officials to “resist the temptation to drain local churches of funds for (their) positions, projects and programs.” He reminds them that “mission and ministry happen at the local level.”

Consequently, he says “the exercise of control by central bodies and officials over local churches needs to be kept a minimum.”

A minimalist mentality will characterize the emerging ACRC. It will minimize its financial needs so congregations may invest their valuable resources in those ministries that help them be all that God intends them to be. It will minimize its services so as not to infringe on the ministry of its congregations. It will minimize its requests for information, collaboration, committees, compliance, and more.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

After reading this you may react in different ways. You may be apathetic. You may agree with me. You may think these suggestions nearsightedly enslaved to current trends. You may think them overreaching in scope. You may view them as pie-in-the-sky pipedreams. You may be angered by my characterization of the denomination. You may be defensive because change could eliminate your job. You may think change is too hard, too impossible, too improbable, or too late. You may think we should wait around to see what happens.

But remember, the death of the CRCNA could be imminent. So we may choose to change a little or a lot, to act drastically or do nothing at all. But whatever course we take will be costly.

My recommendation? Let’s celebrate our 150th birthday as if we were a 95-year-old, not a teenager. You know the difference. One looks back and the other looks ahead. One thinks this may be the last and the other plans on many more. Still, both celebrate.

So let’s celebrate what God has done through the CRCNA for a century and a half, while recognizing that the denomination’s death may open the door to a new form of congregational collaboration, one that exists for the purpose of serving its local congregations, which God has called to be the hope of the world.

for Discussion
  1. Take note of Hamstra’s thesis that, “The CRCNA, as we know it, must die and give way to a new, emerging post-denominational form of congregational collaboration that differs significantly from its predecessor.” Do you agree? Explain.
  2. What do you think of Hamstra’s proposed ACRC?
  3. Is our current denominational structure a political organization, a well-oiled machine, as Hamstra argues? How does this benefit or weaken us?
  4. Give examples of the most pressing needs of congregations that our current structure does not address.
  5. Was this article discouraging or hopeful for you. Expain why.
  6. What do passages like John 17:20-21, Acts 15:1-6, and 1 Corinthians 8:10-13 say about the way we are to relate to each other as congregations?

About the Author

Rev. Sam Hamstra Jr. is pastor of Palos Heights (Ill.) Christian Reformed Church.
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