Most Christian Reformed Church members know the denomination is binational—that is, it has congregations in both the United States and Canada. Numerically speaking, about 28 percent of the church’s members live north of the 49th parallel, making up the Canadian portion of the CRC.
Ask a few random Canadian pew-sitters about what makes up Canadian ministry, and they usually name the ministries with aboriginal peoples in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Edmonton, Alberta; and Regina, Saskatchewan. Some can also tell you that north of the border the CRC has a special committee to talk to the government. That would be the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, formerly known as the Committee for Contact with the Government (CCG).
But for some, Canadian ministry is so much more than that. It’s much richer, much more complex, and they believe that the current denominational setup is not allowing ministry in Canada to flourish, that it is, in fact, detrimental.
The CRC’s executive director, Rev. Joel Boot, acknowledges the complexity of the issue. “Binationality is a singularly significant issue for many Canadians, and a singularly confusing one to many Americans,” he said. He noted that much of Canadian law is different from U.S. law and that Canadian politics are significantly different. “And the relationship of the Canadian CRC to the government is different than it is in the U.S.,” he added.
He said that CRC leadership is addressing both the advantages and difficulties of those realities at the level of the Board of Trustees and through the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture.
The Effect on Canadian Ministry
Kathy Vandergrift is president of the Canadian half of the denomination’s Board of Trustees, known as Christian Reformed Church in North America—Canada Corporation.
She, for one, is concerned about how the binationality of the CRC is lived out, and what the implications are for ministry in Canada.
“The catchphrase for this is ‘one church in two countries,’ with the emphasis on the ‘one church,’” she said. “This has the most negative implications for Canadian ministry because it is smaller and staff are required to assimilate into the dominant U.S. culture.”
"Canadian ministry is about ministry that takes the Canadian context seriously."
She noted that the only exceptions are ministries that have no U.S. counterpart, such as the Centre for Public Dialogue.. “[Canadian ministry] is more than a few small programs that are not run in the U.S. That cheapens the perception of what the CRC is in Canada,” she continued. “Why pretend we are all the same except for a few small bits?”
In Vandergrift’s view, Canadian ministry is about ministry that takes the Canadian context seriously.
“Our culture is different; our foreign policy is different; our charitable laws are different; our faith and culture in Canada and witnessing to that culture are different. Our health care systems work differently; our social systems work differently. Our military is different,” she said.
Unique CRC History, Unique CRC Culture
Rev. Bruce Adema, the CRC’s director of Canadian ministries, said that even as the history and geography of the two countries is different, so are the experiences that shape the CRC members on either side of the border. Even though the first CRCs in Canada were established only 50 years after the U.S. churches, huge growth came after World War II.
“We have different stories coming out of our histories,” he said. “The experience of enduring Nazi occupation and immigrating to Canada is a legacy that continues to shape us. Knowing poverty and injustice has made the CRC in Canada place a high priority on diaconal ministries and social justice.”
Indeed, diaconal ministry is one area where the differences in the two countries show up quite starkly. Diaconal Ministries Canada is an organization with roots going back more than 50 years. Attempts to construct parallels in the U.S. have failed.
Rev. Martin Contant has been the regional leader for Christian Reformed Home Missions in Western Canada for the past 17 years. He noted that support for diaconal ministries, and particularly for Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), is disproportionately stronger in Canada, perhaps due to an immigrant history as displaced people.
“The office of deacon seems more holistically developed in Canadian churches,” he said. “The Canadian Food Grains Bank is another diaconal initiative that is uniquely partnered with a federal government agency that has captured the hearts and wallets of our constituency.”
Even ministries with U.S. parallels have a unique “fittingness” to Canadian culture that makes them different, according to Vandergift. “One big example is the network of campus ministries on the Canadian side,” she said. “They ‘get’ Canadian university life and are highly respected by Canadian universities. They add great value to Canadian university life and to the entire CRC.” She also notes Home Missions’ efforts in British Columbia and a burgeoning youth movement as further examples.
It Wasn’t Always This Way
The uniqueness of Canadian ministry has been recognized by some for decades. The wave of post-World War II immigrants brought with them the influence of theologian and former Dutch prime minister Abraham Kuyper and his emphasis in Reformed thought on transforming all of life, including governments and social institutions.
In Canada, that soon led to the establishment of a Christian labor union, a Christian graduate school, and a Christian political advocacy organization, none of which had successful counterparts among American CRC folks.
By the mid-1960s, Canadian CRC churches sought a forum in which to discuss uniquely Canadian issues, and the Council for Christian Reformed Churches in Canada (CCRCC) was born. Under its auspices the CCG and the aboriginal ministries were created, along with a plethora of ecumenical involvements.
The CRC in Canada continues today to have a strong voice on the Canadian ecumenical scene among both mainline and evangelical circles. Adema is president of the Canadian Council of Churches. The CRC needs a distinct voice in Canada because most churches it relates to are not binational.
But while the Canadian council flourished, it was generally ignored by the rest of the CRC, including synods, where the council’s executive secretary was generally granted about 15 minutes to give a report.
When Canadian churches started agitating for their own regional synod in the 1990s, there was a growing recognition that the CRC needed a national voice in the Canadian context.
Synod 1997 approved a structure change that saw the CCRCC replaced by a Canadian Ministries Board. But that didn’t create space for it to be integrated into the denominational structure. That was supposed to happen when a proposed parallel structure for U.S. ministry would be adopted in 1999.
But Synod 1999 rejected the U.S. proposals, leaving the Canadian ministries in a kind of structural limbo and angering many Canadians.
So in 2000, the fledgling Canadian board was folded into the denomination’s Board of Trustees. The new board was half American and half Canadian.
A Decade of Waning Influence
At board meetings, the Canadian directors met for two to three hours separately to discuss Canadian ministries. Then the entire board would meet to discuss matters related to the whole denomination.
However, in 2006 the U.S. directors were invited to sit in on the Canadian directors’ meeting. In 2008, the directors agreed that the Canadian ministry items would be rolled into the full board agenda.
Within a year, the Canadian matters of business were reduced to a yearly election of officers, approval of the binational minutes for legal purposes, and receiving a brief report from the director of Canadian ministries—an agenda that was usually accomplished in about ten minutes or less.
In February 2010, the director of Canadian ministries, in an attempt to find some space to discuss Canadian ministry, requested to be allowed to give a regular report to the whole board. That request was denied. The board said that all questions regarding ministry, including Canadian matters, would be deferred to the executive director.
The changes and their results have not gone unnoticed. “We have lost something in the last ten years,” said Vandergrift. “There is less of a sense that we have a mission for Canada as a whole that adds value to being Christian Reformed in Canada.”
She points to the loss of a Canadian office for chaplaincy, and the loss of a fledgling electronic ministry. She also points to the Canadian Ministry Forum, held in 2002. “Canadian churches participated in local, regional, and national ministry forums to identify priorities for ministry within the Canadian context,” she said. The resulting recommendations were absorbed into the denominational ministry plan, she said, with no Canadian specificity left. “Members in Canadian churches ask now what happened, and there is no way to provide accountable feedback on what they identified as important.”
More important, she said, is the loss of any forum for dialogue among Canadians about priorities and strategies for a CRC collective witness within Canadian culture.
Bill Van Geest is vice president of the Board of Trustees of CRWRC-Canada.
He agreed that the structures are problematic. “If we were truly a binational church, we would have a Canadian director of ministries with a similar role to an American director of ministries. Having two directors works for CRWRC—why not for the whole CRC?” he asked.
Andrew Ryskamp is one of those CRWRC codirectors, as director of CRWRC-U.S. “For us, the codirectorate model allows us to bring the strengths of the two countries together,” he said. He said that at a denominational level, a strong executive for the Canadian context and a strong executive for the U.S. context, represented at the Board of Trustees and at synod, would represent well the two nations functioning as one denomination. “We are missing the strength of the Canadian context and what it has to offer the whole.”
No one is advocating for a separate CRC in Canada. “At some points in Canadian CRC history there may have been a feeling of adolescent rebellion against a mother church,” said Vandergrift, “but it is time to be grown up about the relationship and figure out how we can be the best partners and do the most effective ministry in both national contexts.”
"The BOT Canada must and can become the direction-setting agency of synod for Canada."
She said it should start with, at a minimum, greater clarity about the meaning and use of the term binational in CRC policy documents, and with a space for dialogue “where Canadians together can deliberate about our witness to Canada as a whole, in addition to our local churches. What opportunities do we have to contribute to the development of Canadian culture, society and public life, and how can we best do it?”
She would like to see a denominational ministry plan that has a U.S. and a Canadian section.
Rev. Arie Van Eek knows the journey of the Canadian CRC intimately. He was a delegate to the first meeting of the original CCRCC and went on to become its executive secretary until it was disbanded.
Van Eek would like to see a reintroduction of a triennial conference for study and reflection, and he would like to see the CRCNA—Canada Corporation strengthened and revitalized.
“The BOT Canada must and can become the direction-setting agency of synod for Canada, with the [director of Canadian ministries] as CEO, involving the 12 classes and congregations,” he said.
Contant agreed that the voice of the CRC in Canada needs to be expanded. “I have found that our voice is welcomed and sought after by other denominations,” he said. “They see us as having a rich theological heritage, with something biblical to say to the cultural, social, economic, and political issues that face our country.”
Vandergrift noted that this is about more than just the Canadian churches. “The real threat is that the CRC in Canada disappears, at least in identity if not in form, in a wave of congregationalism. If we just focus on healthy congregations, then congregations look to and replicate large, more generic evangelical churches close by. Then there is little reason to be part of the denomination. So the whole denomination needs to be concerned about this, not just Canada.”