What’s happening in the CRC, and where will it lead us?
OK, so we can’t afford official datafrom a scientificallyaccurate survey. But you can find out a lot if you talk to enough people. And that’s just what we did.
The Banner polled a number of pastors and denominational leaders to learn what trends they’re seeing in the Christian Reformed Church and in the surrounding culture. We asked them their views on the upsides and downsides of those trends and what they mean for how we do church.
Nearly everyone we talked to cited one overwhelmingly prominent trend, one that contributes to the other trends they mentioned: an increasing focus on individuals. Yet at the same time, even as people and congregations focus on themselves, there’s an underlying craving for relationships, for community.
Having a healthy sense of the individual isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Rev. Jerry Dykstra, the CRC’s new director of denominational ministries. “Individual responsibility is a good thing,” he said. “It is individuals whom God calls and shapes to be leaders.”
Rev. John Rozeboom, executive director of Christian Reformed Home Missions, agrees. “In relationship to God, we define an authentic and real relationship as ‘personal,’” he said. “Jesus invites us into personal relationship with him.”
But when individuals become more important than community, problems arise.
Church as Commodity
Within the church community, one result of a focus on self is that people shop for church life as they do for a commodity. They look for the church that will most satisfy them.
“Long-term unconditional commitment to a church seems to be dwindling. People go church shopping in search of the perfect programs for themselves or their children,” observes Bonny Mulder-Behnia, a ministry associate in southern California. Mulder-Behnia is family ministries pastor for Rosewood Christian Reformed Church, a midsized congregation in Bellflower. “Rather than investing themselves in improving the ministries, they’ll leave and find something that better meets their needs and asks little in response.”
Rev. Stanley Workman has been pastor of Oasis Community CRC in Oakland, Fla., for more than 20 years. He agrees that church membership doesn’t mean much any more. “People are looking for something different, something that will edify them personally,” he said. Even if people are loyal to the church universal, they aren’t necessarily loyal to the organizational church.
And even if a family maintains its membership in a local congregation, that doesn’t mean you can count on seeing them every week.
“Sunday attendance is increasingly irregular, even among longtime CRC families. Time is at a premium with sports and other extracurricular activities,” notes Mulder-Behnia. “So it’s either outside pressure that keeps them away from church or a felt need for ‘family time’ that doesn’t equate with church attendance.”
That sporadic attendance has ramifications, especially in youth ministry materials such as Sunday school curriculum and catechism courses.
Syd Hielema is professor of theology and youth ministry at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. “Historically, the best curricula were sequential, with lessons that built up week by week,” he said. “But churches are going more and more with episodic curricula because the average student is only there two out of three weeks. Sequential learning week to week is getting harder and harder, especially with high school kids.”
Indeed, the recently launched and immensely well-received church school curriculum published by CRC Publications, Walk With Me, is taught in four- session units, each lesson standing on its own if needed.
Mulder-Behnia said her church tries to work with these trends to enhance ministry. “People will stick with a five-week family night event, or a sermon-based small-group campaign,” she said, but noted the numbers dwindle if a program lasts longer than that. The church also focuses on occasions that are already built into a family’s schedule. For example, she said, “A family celebration scheduled on Easter weekend, when families are already looking for special ways to celebrate, will generate good attendance.”
When it comes to young people, most of them aren’t as choosy about what a church offers in programs. They’re more interested in what they find in relationships.
“Kids just want to belong,” said Rev. Sid Couperus, pastor of Trinity CRC in Abbotsford, British Columbia. “It’s all about relationships.”
“It’s about relationships,” echoes Joel Hogan. Hogan is deputy director of Christian Reformed World Missions, but he also leads a care group made up mostly of young people from his congregation, Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. “The context must be a relational one.”
And developing good relationships can be challenging. Mulder-Behnia said her church is finding that children and youths today bring with them high amounts of dysfunction, disappointment, and disillusionment.
In terms of working with kids, the biggest trend is probably that there isn’t one. “[Youth ministry] is all over the map,” said Hielema, “in terms of job titles, job descriptions, the way [youth leaders] are part of the church structure—or not part of it.” Hielema said he heard recently that there are more than 100 different job titles applied to people hired by Christian Reformed churches to do youth ministry.
He senses a gnawing anxiety among churches that doing youth ministry the way we’ve always done it isn’t accomplishing what we want. “So every congregation tries to reinvent the wheel,” he said, “hiring youth ministry staff from Reformed or non-Reformed backgrounds, experimenting with a huge variety of materials from various publishing houses, trying to find materials that are user friendly and demand very little preparation or knowledge from the teachers.”
“On the one hand,” Hielema said, “there’s a hunger for a contemporary Reformed approach to youth ministry. But on the other hand, churches say, ‘Let’s just do something and not worry about where it comes from or the theology behind it.’”
Hielema said the key is developing a common vision. “The goal is not cookie-cutter uniformity but a common vision.”
In his work for World Missions, Hogan sees an increase in not only young people but also adults wanting to go on short-term missions trips. “There is an incredible increase of people wanting short-term mission experience,” Hogan said, “and the more people we send, the better, but we need to be careful about how we do it, how we prepare people, how we debrief them when they come back.”
Dykstra also appreciates that people want to be actively involved in ministry, rather than just send a check. “The downside,” he said, “is if they do it for their own motives, to feel good about themselves, rather than out of a sense of service.”
Again, says Hogan, the relational aspect is important. “With some mission trips, people go to do something, whether to build or paint. I’ve heard from nationals, ‘Well, that was nice that they painted the building. I just wish they would have had dinner with us or asked us about what God is doing in our church.’”
Even individual congregations have become more self-focused within the context of denominations.
Rozeboom said the trend is that local congregational identity and ministry have come to the fore. “Local congregations have an important story,” he said. “It’s God’s way with them. We’re not talking congregationalism—we’re talking about the growing identity and personalization of the local congregation.”
Rozeboom said that’s a good thing in terms of paying attention to members, and a very good thing when it comes to ministry to the community. “Congregations don’t sit around and wait for the denomination to minister in their communities,” he said.
And as congregations focus more on local ministry, they’re looking for assistance. “We [the denomination] are asked to be partners with, to consult and advise, to help congregations discern what God is telling them,” Rozeboom said.
Dykstra emphasizes that the priority of the denomination needs to be the creating and sustaining of healthy local congregations. “We need to do what we can so they will be healthier and more effective in accomplishing the mission of God,” he said. “Congregations are looking for relationship and assistance, someone to come alongside, not to tell them what to do.”
As agencies and institutions of the denomination offer the help that is most beneficial to local congregations, walking alongside churches in local ministry, that shared vision will be the basis for denominational ties.
“That’s why mission vision is so essential. It not only gets God’s work done but also pulls us together. I think there’s a great future for a denomination that seizes opportunity for ministry,” Dykstra said.
Even those people most individually focused still crave community.
Rev. Duane Kelderman is vice president for administration at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We’re in a time of tremendous change in the church and are tempted to think everything is changing. And plenty of people have books to sell us to tell us that,” he said. “But I think we’re seeing more and more how much the fundamental human situation hasn’t changed at all. As Eugene Peterson says, we all long for intimacy and transcendence. Only Christ satisfies those longings. I think more and more churches want to draw close to those basics. That’s a source of real hope for the church.”
Mulder-Behnia concurs. “Small groups that focus on relationship building still seem to be the glue that helps people stick with a church. We notice in our children’s, youth, and adult ministries, the small-group experience is something they will miss less often than a Sunday-morning service. People have a strong desire to feel like they belong somewhere,” she said.
Couperus sees the same craving in British Columbia. “I think the trend is people are looking for community, but within a trend of church-less Christianity, less institutionalized church,” he said. “So we need to build relationships and bring community to them.”
Never before has the church been reforming its worship in so many directions at the same time, observes John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. “The trend is that there is all this energy around worship, in many different directions,” he said.
One concern Witvliet expresses is that worship is increasingly supported by the “worship industry”—a commercialization of worship, if you will. “None of us ever escapes the influence of the marketplace,” he said, “but it’s a concern when we find ourselves comparing and imitating worship celebrities, singer/songwriters who become quite famous. Ministry in a local context shouldn’t look like that at all.”
A related issue is that a significant amount of music, in many worship styles, is intended more for solos than congregational singing. “What increasingly happens,” said Witvliet, “is that as songs become difficult and frustrating to sing people just sit and listen.”
And that might be driving another trend Witvliet notes: hymns are making a comeback, not necessarily because they are traditional but because they are singable. “I’m often amazed in a contemporary worship context, when a praise band gets rolling, if you really want to pick the music kids sing with greatest energy, it will almost always include a traditional hymn,” he said. “I think part of it is a hunger for spiritual depth, the sense that we belong to a body of Christ with a 2,000-year history.”
Witvliet also notes an immense increase in the number of people contributing to worship. “We have more people contributing, more gifts being recognized and affirmed, more intergenerational participation,” he said. “There is a tremendous growth and interest in art.”
—Gayla R. Postma
North American Faith
In their book Surveying the Religious Landscape, pollsters George Gallup Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay uncover a patchwork quilt of religious belief and practice in the United States. Many people pick and choose beliefs from a variety of religions, they report. “Substantial portions of traditional Christians, for instance, subscribe to non-Christian beliefs and practices, such as reincarnation.”
Gallup and Lindsay also found that
- more than 80 percent of Americans desire to grow spiritually.
- there’s a glaring lack of knowledge about the Bible, basic doctrines, and the traditions of one’s own religion.
- too often the faith professed is superficial, with people not knowing what they believe or why.
In Canada a recent survey published by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada shows that the nation is among the world’s most secular countries, with only 29 percent of Canadians saying religion is a very important part of their lives, compared to 59 percent of Americans who give it a high priority.
However, sociologist Reginald Bibby, Canada’s best-known surveyor of religious trends, says something new is happening in the country’s churches: an increase in attendance. In Restless Churches, Bibby says organized religion is making a comeback. Weekly church attendance has crept to its highest level since 1985. By 2000, weekly attendance had hit a low of 21 percent of Canadians, but surveys in 2002 and 2003 pegged weekly attendance at levels ranging from 26 percent to 30 percent.
Across Canada, “there has been an increase in attendance by Protestant adults under 35, and the number of teens attending services has bounced back from the low of 18 percent in 1992, to 22 percent in 2000,” he notes. “Things are healthier than people let on.”
—Gayla R. Postma, with files from Religion News Service