The Future of the CRC

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The Christian Reformed Church is much different than it used to be. Forty to fifty years ago you could identify a Christian Reformed congregation by its style of worship. That is no longer possible. And the denominational loyalty we once counted on seems to be on the way out too, especially with younger folks. Historically we’ve also been held together by what we call “our three Forms of Unity”: the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and Heidelberg Catechism. But today it’s not uncommon to discover that many members of Christian Reformed churches have no idea what those documents are all about. (Recently a minister told me he was not in favor of adopting the Belhar Confession as a creed to be added to the three we already have. He said it would simply be another irrelevant document along with ones already on the shelf.)

A feature article in the November 2009 issue of Perspectives stated unequivocally that our sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America, has run its course: “It has sprung debilitating leaks which can no longer be plugged. It is time to look for a new vehicle, or coalition of vehicles, to move the church faithfully and compellingly into the twenty-first century.” Is the CRC on the same road?

Community Churches

It could be. A growing number of our congregations are ignoring or downplaying their historic Reformed, Calvinistic roots. One way they do so is by identifying themselves as “community churches.” It seems the intent is to distance themselves from unappealing events of the past and emphasize what it means to be Christian rather than Reformed. This is understandable, and much can be said in its defense.

In order to appreciate this trend, it’s important to remember what lies behind it: the CRC has a long history of being an exclusive ethnic community in the Reformed tradition with its own set of mores. Old-time members can tell a great many stories about the rules they used to live by. Many years ago a Banner editor wrote about the need to “burn our wooden shoes.” We have been trying to do that. Some want to lay aside the name “Christian Reformed” altogether to free themselves from an ethnic isolation that no longer appeals to them or to their neighbors.

The current emphasis on ecumenism has great appeal. We need only think of the days when most Protestants thought Roman Catholics held to a different religion. It was not uncommon for youngsters in our catechism classes to ask whether Roman Catholics would one day go to heaven. I remember how surprised I was to learn that young folks in Roman Catholic parishes asked their priests the same question about Protestants. Thank God we have moved beyond that day.

There is much that’s refreshing about what is happening today. Generic Christianity is not the curse we may have thought it would be. The 12 articles of the Apostles’ Creed briefly summarize what it means to follow Christ. Our three Forms of Unity do not have that function. We are properly embarrassed about the hostile language historically used by those documents to denounce fellow believers with different theological emphases. So you can understand why some may think it helpful to take the name “Christian Reformed” off the marquee and identify themselves primarily as community churches.

Denominational Structures

However, there is more at stake than a simple name change if we wish to do a serious evaluation of our heritage. We must also evaluate the function of our denominational structures.

I am referring to the two or three meetings our 47 classes (regional groups of churches) hold each year, and to our annual synod, which classis representatives attend. The waning interest in these structures does not bode well for our future. We must either recognize the value of these structures and take action to strengthen them, or allow them to continue down a course that reflects what some may think is the irrelevance of our denomination.

There’s something appealing about being cut loose from such structures. Some church members think of them simply as expensive and time consuming. Congregations could significantly reduce their budgets if they no longer felt obligated to pay the ministry shares that support these structures and the work we do together as a whole.

But a number of significant issues must be taken into consideration before making such a move. For example, ministry shares allow even small congregations to take part in national and global missions. Our mission boards, made up of classis members, help church planters and missionaries do ministries that are often praised and envied by other Christians.

Should we no longer function on a classical and synodical level, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary would be on their own. The college could function as an independent entity for some time, and perhaps the seminary could do the same. But the CRC, which now owns these institutions, gains considerable benefit from them. The institutions as well as our congregations would lose more than we can imagine if we allow our relationship with them to dwindle.

And what about mutual accountability? Classes and synod have historically held our officebearers accountable in both theology and daily life. Of course, dropping accountability has appeal—even children know that. But it can also be disastrous. Would allowing the structures of our denomination to die a slow death enhance or weaken our ministry? 

There is really no middle ground on this question. Either we take steps to strengthen our structures, or we allow them to limp along in ways that fail to capture the imagination of and elicit support from our members.

In speaking with a number of people who have recently become members of CRC congregations, I have discovered that they appreciate our structures. I have heard this especially from pastors who’ve joined us from traditions that did not have similar structures to support them in their ministries. There is good reason to thank God for freeing us from the historical and cultural baggage that has sometimes encumbered us, but it may also be a huge mistake to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Relevancy

There is more to our future than considering the benefits of today’s ecumenism and the structures that have been part of our history. There are also the biblical insights contributed by Calvinists throughout history.

Granted, there are things that we should move beyond, but we must not lose sight of the fact that Calvinists had significant influence on the development of society in North America. By the time of the Civil War, nearly two-thirds of the colleges in the U.S. had been founded and were controlled by the theological heirs of John Calvin.

I cannot recount in this article the large number of theological insights contributed by the Calvinistic/Reformed tradition, but I can mention two that could make a significant contribution today if they were proclaimed by Reformed congregations.

The first concerns the matter of justice. It is beyond dispute that justice is required in our society, and many of our pastors preach about the need for it. But in its debate whether to adopt the Belhar Confession, the CRC is deciding whether the promotion of justice should be tied directly with our denominational identity. May the biblical concept of justice be left to the whim of individual members?

If we officially adopt the Belhar as a fourth Form of Unity by synodical action in 2012, we will be a church that takes a prominent stand about the relationship between justice and love. There is nothing irrelevant about that.

A second relevant contribution relates to our society’s economic meltdown. What brought this about? The secular government concludes that human greed stands close to the center of the problem. Perhaps had we as a denomination been on top of our game, we would have proclaimed this before it was announced by economic strategists.

While some Christian economists present theories about how believers can get back on top of the current financial crisis, Reformed believers would encourage them to acknowledge the role human greed plays. Reformed theology states unequivocally that human sinfulness lies at the heart of the economic problems we face today. Perhaps Reformed leaders have had little to say about that because we as a denomination have moved away from what it means to be Reformed. John Calvin would have nipped this in the bud long ago.

Where are we going as a denomination? If we do not come to a fresh and relevant understanding of what we have to contribute as Reformed Christians, our future may not be long-lived. But should we gain a new and vigorous appreciation of who we are, we may have a lengthy and productive ministry ahead of us.

About the Author

Rev. Alvin Hoksbergen is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church.

See comments (21)

Comments

I am referring to the article in the Feb/11 BANNER PAGE 13 by HENRY HUISJEN

Bishops Approve -- I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW MORE RE BAPTISM AND THE LORD'S SUPPER AS TO

THE PROPOSED THINKING VS THE

PRESENT GUIDELINE.

There are huge issues going on in this article, much deeper than a few pages of editorial can address. Rev. Hoksbergen is right to bring up the issue of the Belhar as a current touchstone, but I believe that our denomination as a whole doesn’t really know what a confession is supposed to accomplish – much less why we should or should not adopt a fourth. Simply taking this issue into account, we cannot merely ask the question, “Is the Belhar good or not?” We have to ask “why” it is good or not, and deal effectively with the Reformed and not-so-Reformed answers we’ll get to that question. “We” are not of one mind and soul on MANY issues – it’s not surprising that are denominational structures are following suit.

It might be helpful to identify some of the layers involved in this conversation. In my experience when we experience anxiety in the denominational conversation talk immediate turns to structural revision. I think structural revision will continue, but that's only one layer.

If we're looking at things from the 30k foot level "identity" might be a better way into the conversation. Identity tends to yield deeper motivational energy than structure. Our thrashing about with respect to "Reformed", "Christian" and the confessions is indicative that major things have changed in our individual and communal identities and in the ways practices we seek for comfort and joy.

We will need to see community created through conversations at multiple levels simultaneously. We're still stumbling about in this.

Thanks for your piece.

Having been in Baptist and non-denominational churches for most of my adult life, and having studied those churches in an academic setting, I can wholeheartedly say that I am grateful for the denominational structure we in the CRC have. The strong-pastor model of the Baptist and unaffiliated churches leads too often to bitter arguments and splits among congregations and associations with no-one to mediate them in many cases. I cannot imagine any of those associations doing a twenty-something-year study before implementing a new doctrine or practice. We need our church agencies; in fact, other associations are trying to copy our model of organisation, or, at least they respect it. Beside, if we dropped the structures, we would not be able to go directly to the strong pastor form; we would flounder trying.The problem is that churches are not teaching their members about the confessions and church structures. It should be done in new member instruction and child and adult education classes.

I just finished reading this article after reading the Feb Banner. On page 11 I saw that Calvin profs are more concerned with keeping their jobs than holding to sound doctrine. On page 13 a Calvin prof seems to be ready to remove a distinction between us and the Catholic church on baptism and going forward a willingness to examine the Lord's Supper. On page 15 we see that Calvin's enrollment continues to decline and has forced job cuts. Could a connection be made here?
Reformed tradition is built on sound doctrine and the teaching of it is critical in the formation of healthy Christians. When a denomination or Church loses focus on it's core reason for being it's no wonder that they experience doubt and confusion.

I for one still believe a true catholic is a different religion!!!! They do not believe in salvation thru faith ALONE based on the ONE time sacrifice by Jesus on the cross. Confessions, the mass which crucifies Jesus over and over again our not scriptural. Maybe we should study what the catholic church really teaches. I believe their ecumenicalism is for our consumption,lulling us into a gulible stupor. Christians wake up! God help us to uphold the truth of the scripture.

Paul Vanderklay is, I think, on to something in this question of identity. Sometime in the 1980s, as the second generation of the last wave of Dutch immigrants came of age, the CRC realized it could no longer be the more-or-less agrarian Dutch enclave that it had been. That's when wooden shoes were burnt on the cover of the BANNER, DE WACHTER ceased publication, and the first wave of major structural revision hit.

That's also about the time the "400,000 by 2000" initiative was launched, accompanied by all sorts of marketing lingo and challenges to be fresh and relevant.

It's as if we hit a kind of denominational puberty. Like adolescents who think their parents are horribly dated and uncool, we seemed desperately afraid of being like them. Yet we are still not sure who else we are supposed to be, so we have tried both simultaneously and serially to be everyone else. This effort is doomed to failure, since we cannot be anyone else. As I used to tell my own adolescent children when they would complain about a sibling’s advantages, “You will never be as good at being your brother as he is. And it’s not your job, anyway. Your job is to be as good at being you as you possibly can.” We will never be as good at being whatever other denomination, culture, or congregation it is that momentarily intrigues us. We must be good at being us. For that to work, though, we have to settle the question of who "us" is.

Rev.Alvin Hoksbergen may be quite good at promoting the Belhar Confession and the CRC leadership's myopic view of the faith errors of Roman Catholic Church.
I am a former Catholic. I know first-hand the superstitious religious teachings and rituals based on "tradition" that Rome treats as important as Holy Scripture. I am a former Catholic. I was never taught to believe that on Calvary's cross Jesus paid my sin debt in full. I looked upon the priesthood as vital to my salvation.
I pray for my Catholic relatives knowing they're zealous for God however, they follow a different gospel shaped by inventions of men.

If we are unsure of what our future looks like, we have to look at the next generation and what they are being taught. If we down-play or even slightly mock our reformed doctrine and confessions our future as a denomination will be weak.

Questioning the future of a denomination signals its demise may not be far off. Our future should be simple: "Go make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

Again, I am amazed by the arrogance exhibited by the proponents of the Belhar. Somehow, throughout its history, the CRC has limped along morally to get to this point whereby the Belhar will save it. Rev. Hoksbergen could have stated his argument in one sentence: Only the Belhar Confession can make us relevant. This is solely based on the assumption that the ecumenical character of the church is the measure of its relevancy. Conversely, its relevance could be the ability of the church to be a mother to its believers. This would stand in contrast to the author's elaborate argument. One could go so far to say that the demise of the RCA and CRC is not that they are ecumenical enough, but that they have abandoned their maternal instincts. But that is not explored. There are many who believe, as I do, that this is the greater problem facing the CRC-its lack of discipline. The Belhar will not fix that. Thank goodness we've made it this far.

This is an excellent article about the upcoming demise of the CRC. As the denomination continues to ask us to reconsider the Bible in light of the latest scientific study, I see it leaving me every day. Scientific studies on rocks, gender, homosexuals, race relations and other topics lead the denomination to reinterperete the Bible according to these findings rather than the other way around. CRC churches removing all Christian symbols and language from the decoration and identifications of their buildings is running at a ferverent pace. The Gospel is still preached in the CRC, but from time to time takes a brief vacation for a "relevant" sermon. As a gen X person, I watch our numbers dwindle as we sacrifice truth for unity. I don't want to leave this denomination, (I also don't expect worship to stay stuck in the 70's) but I can't let my children hear the Gospel double checked by the latest scientific whim, political correctness, or cultural relavancy. I love the CRC. Why are you leaving me? Maranatha!

I'm impressed with Rev. Al"s conclusions. I think he is correct in seeing these issue's for what they are. I don't think exactly the same but his arguments hold truths that are spot on.

This is a great article and I think Rev. Holksbergen summarizes some of the key dilemma's well.

However, I don't think the church is dying - it is just changing and undergoing some transformation (as it has for the last 2000 years).

The old heirarchical model of church with one set of rules, one interpretation of those rules, one dominant culture and a subservient model of parishioner to priest was modeled on the Catholic church where many people couldn't read and write very well. Think IBM as an organizational model (much like our Synodical structure).

The new model of church (the community model) is one where the heirarchy is flattened, the focus is on Scriptural discourse and conversation, there is allowance for multiple opinions, its multi-cultural, the congregation is well educated, and diversity is appreciated and respected. What's important in these churches is not that they adhere to a doctrinal line, but that they are authentic, loving, Jesus-honoring and relevant to the community in which God has placed them.

The bottom line is that God is in charge and will not let the church fail. We have to trust that. Christianity is also greater than our CRC denomination; we are but one expression of His Truth (and a pretty culturally constrained one at that).

Our organizational church models will change but the Truth that Jesus is the Risen Lord will not!

Appreciate this article.

And I think Michael in the previous comment gets it just about right, RE: what he terms 'the new model of church'.

Regarding the comment in the article about our current economic crisis, what the author fails to realize is that preaching about greed is what has gotten us into this mess in the first place. We practice an economic model that is built on greed - free market capitalism. The more everyone buys and seeks to have, the greater the market will do and the more jobs there will be and ultimately everyone will reap the benefits! Whenever I try to have a conversation with someone about alternate economic approaches, it always comes back to: "But man is fallen, so we need a system built on greed."

When it all comes crashing down we should not be surprised, nor should we then blame the greed we sought to build it on in the first place. We ought to just blame ourselves.

Does our denomination have a future? Perhaps. But the bigger question is - what is the future of our nation and our world, economically and otherwise... These are more important questions - you might even call them kingdom of God questions - than whether or not the CRC lasts another 50 years. The church ought to be a conduit to the kingdom, not an end in itself.

I am one in the generation that has grown up in the CRC and now, in my early 20s, have left the Christian Reformed Church with my sights set on a more contemporary gathering. The downfall of these informal and/or non denominational churches is that they mostly rise in popularity when people all agree with eachother and the leadership, and fall (usually completely apart)when the popularity ceases or the next best thing comes around. I believe that this has a lot to do with a lack of denominational identity and certainly a lack of structured and proven doctrine. Though we all know that there are CRCs closing their doors as well, the faithfulness of Christian Reformed believers is just that-faithful. I believe that like me, the future generations of leaders will be finding their ways "home", back to the structure and doctrine that has been sound in our history and will remain so in our future. Our denomination would do well to keep with its strong foundation, while continuing to work at "burning our wooden shoes".

A thought provoking article. For me, one key concern is that the denomination has been run by professional ministers for far to long. Lay people are thrown a few crums but we all know that the key decisions at synod and on boards are made by pastors. I was on a board once and when I asked a few basic questions, some thought I was from Mars. In fact one pastor present pulled me aside and suggested I just listen to learn the "ropes". This clergy dominance has led to a disconnect between denominational identity and local churches. It's up to members in the pew to provide direction to denominational ministries and input into the denomination's future, guided by our pastors. I also really appreciate what Michael said: that we should move way from a top-down model to a horizontal one where different views and biblical interpetations are appreciated,respected, and discussed together.

What's in a name? Decades ago, the most important part of our church names was the "CRC" part; preceded by something as simple as First, Second, Third, etc. (never came across a Fourth). Now it appears that, for some, the "CRC" part is to be avoided. Shame!! All denominations will have something in their name that triggers ill-will amongst some. That is a problem that requires correction, not avoidance. We must promote proper awareness of what CRC is and not simply eliminate the name. (Eventually the new "Community" members will figure out which denomination they're in.)
I've dealt with many other denominations who fully appreciate the wonderful Kingdom work accomplished by God through the CRC and who respect the name "CRC" and admire our agencies. When I see national press coverage for the work of one of our CRC churches (funded/commenced by CRC classis/denomination funds) but it's a "Community Church", I see a pathetic loss of an opportunity to promote awareness of how the CRC is alive and well, is ministering to its communities and is NOT simply a bunch of "klompen-stompers". Perhaps the challenge within the CRC is to make sure that our members truly understand what "Reformed" means and thereby create such an awareness that one would think it foolish to not include "CRC" on the letterhead.

the problem with this kind of article is that it plows up the entire field and plants nothing in its place. It raises lots of questions and issues but provides no clear answer to anyone of them. perhaps it is a soft sell of the Belhar and the social justice themes of 2850 along the lines of the democratic party. The article underscores the deep trouble the CRC is in with only questions and no clear answers,leadership and direction. In my humble opinion start with being reformed again in the Kuyperian mode,dismantle the lofty edifice of 2850, strenghten instead the churches,make the educational institutions independent etc. Maintain a structure but not the topdown centralized semi political organization of 2850 with its own agenda and its high paid bureaucracy which probably absorbs almost half of the ministry shares.

the problem with this kind of article is that it plows up the entire field and plants nothing in its place. It raises lots of questions and issues but provides no clear answer to anyone of them. perhaps it is a soft sell of the Belhar and the social justice themes of 2850 along the lines of the democratic party. The article underscores the deep trouble the CRC is in with only questions and no clear answers,leadership and direction. In my humble opinion start with being reformed again in the Kuyperian mode,dismantle the lofty edifice of 2850, strenghten instead the churches,make the educational institutions independent etc. Maintain a structure but not the topdown centralized semi political organization of 2850 with its own agenda and its high paid bureaucracy which probably absorbs almost half of the ministry shares.

Do you really think times are so different that Reformed Christians don't generally feel Catholics hold to a wholly different faith? I believe that many Reformed Christians do. I am sure many Catholics would feel the same way toward Reformed Christians. Yet, in Catholicism, as there is no identity associated with breaking from Catholicism as in Protestant churches, Catholics are rarely taught about Reformed beliefs. Further, I believe this idea of non-Catholics believing Catholics hold to a largely different faith is supported by the realities of the modern ecumenical movement. If you wrote down the many outcomes of ecumenical activities in the 20th Century, can one honestly say the Protestant denominations have reobtained certain Catholic traditions/beliefs toward ecumenical unity? The list of what Catholicism has absorbed or changed positions on is quite a bit more extensive. It speaks perhaps to a weakness of Catholic leaders particularly in the 60's to meet Protestants on more points, but it also reflects the willingness of Protestants to continue admonishing Catholicism for its uniquenesses, and traditions.

I pray many CRC congregations will get back to more traditional worship styles. I have never experienced such worship in my time attending CRC with my in-laws over the years. It could be that tradition that more people yearn for more than one might realize.

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