Can the Christian Reformed Church present a vision of the Christian faith so compelling, so honest both to its roots and to Scripture, so faithful to its Lord, so distinctive in grasping the heart of the gospel, that in the welter of denominations and churches in the 21st century it is worth paying attention to? Can it be at its core not so much an institution as a movement that catches anew what reformers like John Calvin had in mind in the 16th century?
These are the sorts of questions that we as a denomination should be asking. The question is not whether the CRC will survive as an institution; the question is whether it should.
I briefly raised questions like these at the end a previous Banner article, “Grand Rapids Dreaming.” Let me pick up the conversation where I left it. The earlier article reviewed a report to Synod 2015 from the imposingly-named Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture (TFRSC)—a report that begins by suggesting that its proposals mark a defining moment that will carry “this movement to new levels of faithfulness and fruitfulness.” In my earlier article, I noted that reorganizing denominational ministries is unlikely to be anyone’s defining moment and that, in any case, the denominational ministries are not the church.
The TFRSC report was about agency centralization. It raised the question “Should the denominational ministries (excluding World Renew, Calvin College, and Calvin Theological Seminary) be brought under a single board and a unified administration headed by the executive director?” Synod 2015 answered yes and adopted the TFRSC proposals entire. The debate is over—for now. We will see in the next few years what this reorganization looks like and how well it works. But even if the new structure works as advertised, it’s the wrong fix to the wrong problem.
The Wrong Fix
What makes us Christian Reformed? We could point to our history and certain fundamental commitments summarized in our Reformed confessions. Or to our ecclesiastical institutions. This is all well, but there is another kind of identity. Call it a missional, forward-looking, working identity. It’s what we do together now and in the future as we bring the good news of Jesus to our broad and varied cultures and places. It’s this sort of dynamic identity that is at stake in the CRC.
The policy of the CRC for many years has been to find its missional identity in denominational efforts—our agencies and denominational ministries. Call this “Denomination” with a capital “D.” The model is for Christian Reformed congregations to send large amounts of money to the denomination, and for the denomination to turn this money into mission. The TFRSC proposals adopted by Synod 2015 are simply a redo of this old model. Its report brims with assumptions about how the mission and the dynamic unity of the denomination depend on direction from the central office. But this model has not worked, and I suggest that it will not work in the future.
Check out a few denominational statistics. First, membership. The overall trend is down: from 2005-2015, down by nearly 20,000 members. From 1992 to the present, down by 67,000 members. Judged by this standard, the current model is not working.
But this is not the only number to pay attention to. More worrisome is the size of congregations. There has been a near linear increase in the number of congregations in the CRC. In 1963, when the denomination was about the same size as it is today, the average congregation had 437 members; today, the average number of members is about 229. Classis Pacific Northwest, where I now serve, has 45 congregations averaging 140 members. There are a few bigger churches and lots of small ones, many of which were founded in the past decade.
Why is the size of congregations important? Because of the way the CRC funds its ministries. Perhaps the most important number at Synod 2015 was $339. This number represents the per-member dues—ministry shares—assessed on congregations. In the world of denominational finance, it’s a high number; does any other denomination have dues this high? Collecting ministry shares has been defended for years as an efficient way to raise money for denominational ministries, which it is. But it’s no longer the only way the ministries collect money. Denominational ministries also have active and expensive fundraising offices.
This money flows from the congregations—some congregations, that is; many pay less than the assessed amount—and into denominational mission. Some of this money comes back to the congregation in the form of services congregations need, such as a Safe Church office and training for clergy. But much of these funds go into missional efforts that are increasingly disconnected from the congregations that fund them—like more and more small churches. Anxiety about this issue frequently appears in denominational reports, which often speak of serving the congregations, coming alongside them, and listening to them. But the problem is not a lack of effort on the part of the agencies; it’s structural.
We can and should do things together—denominationally—but before we can do things together, there has to be a “we.” There used to be a “we,” of course, based in family and ethnic identity. These bonds both included and excluded. We can be grateful that in many ways the CRC has grown and continues to grow beyond them. The CRC has never been so diverse, for which we should thank God. But where now is the “we”?
I do not believe that we can find our unity in the denominational office or in denominational ministries. We can take pride in what these ministries have done in the past and continue to do, but they are not and cannot be the church. The church lives and breathes locally, in congregations. Mission is always local (which is the central insight behind the new union of Home Missions and World Missions). Our current model disconnects congregations from mission with results that are written in the numbers. It’s time to change the model.
Changing the model is not rearranging offices in Grand Rapids and Burlington. Changing the model requires rethinking how we fund mission. My proposal—and not just mine; an overture is circulating to radically rethink the ministry share system—is to cut denominational ministry shares in half over a period of time, say, a decade. This would encourage growth in and through the congregations rather than denominational agencies. But that’s only half of the problem.
A New Conversation
The other half is finding new ways to a new “we.” Conversations about denominational structure are distracting. They assume that if we get the lines of authority in the denominational buildings right, we’ll become more united. But there is no reason to believe that this is true. If we are to find a new “we,” it will require a long and deep conversation among the congregations and members of the CRC. How can we begin this conversation?
For such a conversation to take place, we need to find two things: core unity, and grace that permits us to differ on many things, even when we think those things are important. What is required is a denominational union strong at the core and flexible at the edges. If we are to be truly healthy, we need more of both: core strength and flexibility in other things.
We need this, in part, because we disagree about many things. Whether women may serve in all of the offices of the church is one issue that has seriously divided the denomination. There are and will be others. If we make the things that divide us into absolutes, permitting no negotiation, then there will be no basis for unity. There will be only winners and losers, and in the end, we will all be of one opinion or the other. Everyone who disagreed will have left.
But this you-must-agree-with-me-on-all-points unity has never been the way of the church. Paul and James differed on what was required of converts. What held them together was the core confession that Jesus is Lord and more—a “more” that can be expanded into the size and shape of, say, the Nicene Creed. A core.
But this core, if it is to provide dynamic unity, must be about what’s central to our life and mission. It must be good news, an alternative to all the bad news of our time and every other time. It must be alive, Spirit-filled, missional. How can we find again a “we” that comes from our shared joy in the Lord?
My suggestion is that we can find it in a conversation about worship. Why worship? Because worship is affirmative, local, missional, and an area in which we already have great resources. Let me unpack that a bit.
There are other areas of Christian life and thought about which we could engage in conversation. Church doctrine, for example. We have always been a doctrinal church. But in the case of doctrine, we not only disagree about some important things, but we may lack the language to understand each other and to be understood. We need to get to this important discussion eventually, but it’s not the place to begin.
Or we could have—and probably will have—long contentious discussions about the social issues that divide us and our nations. Synod 2015 had a bit of discussion about same sex marriage. It didn’t go very well. There will be more discussion at the next synod. These discussions tend to push us apart. We can only have such discussions if what holds us together is stronger than what divides us. It’s the core we are looking for, the “we.”
Compared to these, worship is positive. Worship is what we affirm together before our God. It’s a good place to begin. Worship is a place to declare what we believe (our core beliefs) and what we stand for (justice)—not in opposition to others but together. We stand shoulder to shoulder before our God.
Worship is also local, which means it expresses our diversity. Worship must always take account of the context in which we find ourselves. We get that, I think. We are looking for unity in worship, not in a slavish sameness but in discovering the core principles worked out in a variety of local contexts. The question to ask is, “What in our diversity do we proclaim gladly and loudly together?”
Worship is missional. The church is never the church so much as in worship. Joyful worship is infectious and energizing. It speaks to a joyless and angry world of the grace and goodness of God. People who worship well are transformed and bring the transforming power of the Spirit to every part of life.
Finally, worship is an area of Christian life in which we as a denomination already have great resources: the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship; the journal Reformed Worship; a history of hymnals, including the recent Lift Up Your Hearts; and thinkers and theologians centered on worship, including Nicholas Wolterstorff and James K.A. Smith.
At Synod 2015, two moments stood out for me and, I think, for many others. One was a meditation by Heidi De Jonge of Kingston, Ont., a meditation much quoted in the synod. Rev. De Jonge gave synod language through which to understand the world. The other was a prayer by Stedford Sims on the occasion of the killing of nine people in a church in Charleston. Rev. Sims began his prayer by repeating over and over again in a voice strangled with emotion a single word: “Jesus.” Both were worship. Both brought synod together.
What if, instead of another round of strategic planning or another structure study, our synod set worship at the center of its agenda, and sought in the ensuing discussion a new and dynamic unity based not in the denominational offices but in the practices of our congregations? What if synod sought to find a common proclamation in our varied worship? What if to such a synod we invited our best thinkers, our finest musicians, and our poets and artists, as well as pastors and elders and deacons? What if we began to create a CRC way of worship that would be our signature as a denomination? “Do you know those CRC folk? They have such powerful worship.” To such a synod I would gladly go. And such a denomination I would gladly embrace.