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Synod 2023 Has Lengthy Conversations About How to Address Membership Decline

Be a church willing to become a parent church to church plants.
—Cara DeHaan, Classis Hamilton.
Steven Herppich

Synod 2023 was presented with recommendations for how to address the trend of membership decline in the Christian Reformed Church. After quickly accepting four points, delegates debated whether that was enough to satisfy the concerns raised in the formal request (overture) from Classis Southeast U.S. In the end, synod assigned a specific, multi-focused approach that also requires annual progress reports to synod.

Synod, “in humility,” acknowledged the decline “as of grave importance” and recognized the work that Resonate Global Mission and Thrive (congregation-supporting ministries) are already doing toward church multiplication and discipleship. Synod urged churches to use resources from those agencies in their own efforts to spread the gospel and grow the church, and synod thanked Classis Southeast for its passion over these concerns. 

But that didn’t go far enough for Scott Vander Ploeg, a pastor from Classis Southeast U.S. 

Vander Ploeg said, “I wholeheartedly celebrate and support” the first four recommendations, but “it’s my opinion that this is the most important matter before synod this year.” He urged the delegates to go further because “we have to have a concrete plan.”

Vander Ploeg asked synod to instruct “the Office of General Secretary to work with the Council of Delegates, each agency, as well as churches and classes” to develop a strategy and plan to stop and reverse the membership decline trends and work toward growth. The request included a plan to report on progress.

Daniel Roeda, Classis Chicago South, was against more “strategies,” noting that while “techniques” of evangelism have changed over the years, what is needed is not throwing another thing at the general secretary to “please figure out from the top what it’s like.” This needs to be a “congregational effort,” Roeda said. “This (evangelism) is the call of Jesus. It’s the fundamental one. We don’t need a huge study committee or to add something else to (the general secretary).”

David Bosscher, Classis Thornapple Valley did want to see synod do as much as it could to put church growth at the forefront. It’s “entirely possible that no matter what we do we will still see a decline in the church in the West” and that “maybe there’s nothing we can do about it.” But that, “if we are going to go down, we want to go down with our full focus on seeing if there is anything that we could have done to serve our Lord better, to make ourselves more useful, and perhaps see God do something through us.” 

Cara DeHaan, Classis Hamilton, who has served for five years on the oversight committee for Resonate, stressed the good work that the agency contributes to extending the gospel. “Resonate is on the ground growing church plants and equipping leaders to be in witness with the communities around them,” DeHaan said. Reading from a list of the commitments Resonate has said it needs from the congregations of the Christian Reformed Church, DeHaan urged people to do those things. “Join in prayer. Be a church willing to become a parent church to church plants. Participate in committing to identify, develop, and release missional leaders. Commit to extend hospitality and welcome to the people of diversity, to our neighbors, to church plants and leaders. Be part of a congregation who’s willing to share the use of your building—who’s even willing to start over as a church plant, as your congregation comes to an end. Finally, join with Resonate in the hard work of searching our hearts and inviting the Holy Spirit to search our lives.”

Andrew Littleton, Classis Arizona, expressed concern for how “our metric is membership growth only.” Brandon Haan, Classis Grandville, shared similar reservations.

Catherine Chan, an ethnic adviser to Synod 2023, said she sensed a lot of ambivalence and pessimism in the room and she encouraged delegates to look at this from "a strength-based approach." Chan said if you look at the chart (included in the overture) "there is a lot of decline in membership, but then if you look at Florida, they have a 2% increase. If you look at Ko-Am, that just joined the CRC in 2014, they have a 75% increase. And for a couple of other classes, there is only 1% or 2% decrease. Let's don't be so hard on ourselves," Chan said, suggesting that churches and classes who are struggling could learn from those who are doing better.

Zachary King, the CRC’s general secretary, said, “I hope that as you think about this, you’ll all want to dig into the core of this issue and that is God changing us and coming to repentance to continue growth in the love and knowledge of God, and the love for people who are hurting.”

Synod accepted Vander Ploeg’s addition, which was very similar to the original request from Classis Southeast U.S. The Office of General Secretary will work with the Council of Delegates to create a strategy intended to increase membership.

Synod 2023 is meeting June 9-15 at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Find daily coverage from The Banner news team at Visit for the synod schedule, webcast, recordings, photos, committee reports, and liveblog. Synod is the annual general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church.

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