In a community as widespread and diverse as the Christian Reformed Church in North America, reading a survey about its members can be a lot like attending a family reunion, says CRCNA Executive Director Jerry Dykstra.
“Every so often, the family gets together, you take a picture, and you compare this year’s picture to the one from last year, or from five years ago,” said Dykstra. “The kids are growing up; maybe Grandpa and Grandma aren’t in the picture anymore. You look at the trends over the past few years of taking pictures and you ask yourself, ‘What have we learned that will help us to move forward?’”
In the fall of 2009, the denomination received its most recent family snapshot in the form of results from the CRCNA’s 150th anniversary survey: Spiritual and Social Trends and Patterns in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Written and compiled by the Center for Social Research of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., the survey takes a close look at the demographics and patterns shaping the denomination—everything from church loyalty to the surprising connection between personal piety and stewardship.
The CRCNA has conducted similar surveys through the Center for Social Research every five years since 1987. However, this survey, distributed in late 2007 and early 2008, was done via the Internet for the first time—both to save money and to widen the sampling selection. A random selection of 125 churches throughout North America received an invitation to participate, and the final results are based on answers from the 67 congregations who responded.
“I was impressed that [using the Internet] worked as well as it did,” said survey co-author Rodger Rice, who now works as stewardship education consultant for the Barnabas Foundation. “It’s always difficult to get the lower age brackets to participate. . . . I think this gave us a more accurate representation of all age groups.”
The 2007 survey kept many of the same questions as previous surveys in order to compare data, but added questions pertaining to healthy congregations—a new priority for denominational leadership. The survey also added a section on stewardship, as that is often tied to spiritual development.
While denominational leaders say they weren’t too surprised by most of the survey findings, the results give congregations plenty to consider as the CRC looks ahead to its next 150 years.
One benefit of asking the same questions since 1987 is that it gives the CRC a 20-year portrait of both our social and spiritual trends. But the numbers haven’t always gone in a direction church leaders would expect.
For example, although “denominational loyalty” was on the rise in the mid-’90s, the 2007 survey found that 53 percent of respondents consider themselves “very loyal” to the CRC—down from 63 percent in 1997. For Dykstra, that means the denomination needs to change how the idea of loyalty is perceived—to think about what would make people want to be engaged in the CRC rather than simply “loyal” to it.
“I think we need to stop thinking of our denomination as an institution and think of it more as a place in which we do unified ministry and share a common passion for world transformation,” said Dykstra. “So we’re not thinking in terms of institutional loyalty, but a loyalty to the mission of God as it plays out in the CRC. If we do it well, I would expect that trend will change.”
Another notable trend is declining enrollment in Christian schools. Among households with children, the proportion of CRC youths receiving Christian education fell from 41 percent in 1978 (according to an old Christian Reformed World Relief survey) to just 19 percent in 2007.
Some of that, Dykstra said, can be attributed to the fact that more families are coming into the CRC without the historical commitment to faith-based education that was present a generation ago.
But the data perhaps signal a need to change approaches when it comes to faith formation in children and young adults. Mark Rice, director of Faith Alive Christian Resources, said the CRC can no longer assume that a part of children’s religious education comes from the school setting.
“I think we’ve compartmentalized faith formation, in that it happens in school and it happens in 45 minutes on Sunday,” said Rice. “But it’s not that easy anymore. I think we as a church and Faith Alive as a denominational publisher have a greater role to make sure faith formation is no longer done the traditional way. In the broad sense, I think we need to focus on everybody in the church, cradle to grave—a multigenerational approach.”
But even a multigenerational ministry strategy might be in danger if current congregational trends continue to favor an aging population. It comes as no surprise to church leaders that the average age of the denomination continues to rise. The 2007 survey found that the median age of CRC members stands at 52 years old—up from 50 years old in 2002 and 44 years old in 1987.
Dykstra said we need to find ways to engage a younger, more diverse segment of the church. “That may mean we need to step outside our present thinking about who we are and begin to expand our ministries, particularly in terms of ethnic diversity.”
While most demographic trends in the survey confirmed what church leaders already knew, many were surprised by one trend: the declining frequency of church members’ participation in devotional activities.
According to the survey, the practice of spiritual disciplines (private prayer, Bible reading, and devotions, for example) has been falling steadily, especially since 2002.
That stood out as a concern for many denominational leaders, including Rev. Daniel Mouw, pastor of South Grandville Christian Reformed Church in Grandville, Mich., and a member of the CRCNA’s Board of Trustees.
“To have the matter of piety quantified like this is revealing,” said Mouw. “It’s hard to build a spiritual life without some critical pieces of the puzzle like prayer or Scripture reading, so I do think it’s something the church has to address or encourage. If that centerpiece of your life isn’t being nourished, you’ll run out of steam rather quickly.”
Within the past few years, CRC leaders and the Board of Trustees have made it a priority to ensure that the denomination is building healthy local congregations.
To help with that goal, the 2007 survey asked a number of questions on perceived congregational health, without defining the concept. Based on the responses, Dykstra said, the denomination can form a much more accurate definition of what it means for a church to be healthy.
The 2007 survey identified 11 different indicators of congregational health (including authentic spirituality, servant leadership, and loving relationships) and asked respondents to evaluate their congregation’s health in each.
Those who took the survey were most likely—at 83 percent—to say their church was “very healthy” when it came to
making the Bible central to every area of their lives.
On the other hand, only 21 percent of respondents said their church was “very healthy” in the matter of disciple making.
Historically, the CRC has not been tremendously strong in the area of evangelism, so such responses aren’t out of the ordinary. Still, results like those will help the church in terms of learning why people answered the way they did, said Rev. Mark Vermaire, pastor of Crossroads CRC in San Marcos, Calif.
“I found the extreme contrast between the top and bottom category [in this question] most helpful in evaluating our current situation,” said Vermaire, who is also president of the Board of Trustees. “It makes me want to ask the question ‘What do we mean when we say we hold the Bible as central?’ And since disciple making should be our goal in so many different aspects of life . . . this type of question may help us explore many of the concerns suggested in the survey.”
One troubling statistic to emerge in this section was that more than a quarter of respondents said it was “definitely untrue” that someone in church leadership had approached them regarding faith issues in the past six months.
However, both Dykstra and Vermaire cautioned against a quick rush to judgment in this case, since the survey did not specifically define “leadership.”
“Does ‘leader’ refer only to pastors?” said Dykstra. “Does that include church staff and staff ministries? I would think so, but I don’t know how people answered. [But] quite honestly, the fact that they even perceive that they haven’t had contact is significant—it means we need to help our leaders focus on that area. And it means we probably need to do a more effective job of engaging with people.”
As noted earlier, the 2007 survey included a section on income, gifts to the church, and stewardship for the first time, inspired by co-author Rodger Rice’s work with the Barnabas Foundation, a Christian estate-planning organization that also provides stewardship education.
Among other things, the survey found that the median percentage of household income given to the CRC (not including Christian education tuition) is 6.1 percent. Just 21.9 percent of respondents gave 10 percent or more of their income to the church.
The survey also established that those Christians who pray, read the Bible, and have personal devotions on a daily basis give more of their income (7 percent) than those who do not have a regular devotional habit (4.2 percent).
Mouw admits that the topic of giving isn’t often discussed in congregations. “It’s a very difficult issue in terms of how you address it. But if those [survey] numbers don’t go up, the denomination will be in trouble.”
So what does that mean for the CRC? According to Dykstra, it points back to the idea of healthy congregations and the notion of first strengthening a person’s spiritual health.
“I really think stewardship’s an important piece of our Christian walk—having generous hearts and using what God’s given us in appropriate ways,” said Dykstra. “And healthy congregations really also are generous congregations.”
Looking to the future
One concern echoed throughout the survey was the gradual evaporation of the ethnic and cultural heritage that traditionally held the denomination together.
To address that issue, survey co-authors Rodger Rice and Neil Carlson concluded by offering what they suggest to be five keys to the future of the CRC: spiritual development, stewardship education, disciple making, leadership training, and keeping in touch.
Rodger Rice said his hope is that the denomination can use these practices as a new “glue” to bind itself together under a Reformed perspective.
“I really believe we’re onto something here, if we ask ourselves how we can make our ministry work in these five areas,” said Rice, who has authored or co-authored every CRCNA survey since its inception in 1987. “I’m convinced that if we make sincere efforts in those areas, we will become a healthier congregation of believers.”
Dykstra is also optimistic about the future. Although the survey highlighted a number of things that need work or sparked concern, the CRC’s executive director said he has much to be thankful for as well: the Bible is still at the center of the church; many people see their congregations as at least relatively healthy; church leaders are actively engaged with their youths.
Most important, the denomination has been actively addressing many of the questions raised by the survey even before the results came out.
And that brings Dykstra back to the idea of that family reunion snapshot taken every five years or so. “This survey is a valuable tool that reminds us that [when the survey was done] we were 150 years old, and the next time we do this we’ll be 155,” he said. “So what is happening to us as we age? Maybe we’ll revitalize, and I hope that we do.
“But you have to look at the photo and say: ‘This is who we are. We wish we had lost a little weight before we took the picture, we wish we didn’t have so many wrinkles, but we took it anyway and this is who we are. Now, what are we going to do?’”
About the Author
Beth Heinen Bell, a former Banner intern, is a freelance writer and photographer working throughout West Michigan, and an activities coordinator for senior citizens in Grand Rapids.