Let’s step back from the dumpster fire that ended Synod 2023 of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and take another look at the synod and what it might tell us about the shape of the denomination—its strengths and perils. And, perhaps, what it may tell us more generally about the shape of the church—the conservative, Bible-affirming church of which the CRC is a part. The synod is not the church, of course. (If you are from another tradition, you can easily fill in the language of your own communion: the general assembly, say, or the convention, or whatever it is you call your denominational annual meeting.) Synods—national assemblies—offer clues about the shape of the denomination, and these clues lie not just in what synods decide but in what they consider—the agenda before them—and for Synod 2023, there lies an interesting story.
The Shape of the Agenda: Synod 2023
The first thing one notices about the the agenda for Synod 2023 is that it’s long, 896 printed pages. And that understates it. Other materials always appear at synods: financial reports, unprinted appeals, and more.
The agenda falls into two large chunks and then a few smaller ones. The biggest of these—this may surprise you—are the pages under the auspices of the denominational board of trustees, the Council of Delegates (COD). The materials under COD auspices cover about 360 pages.
The second major chunk are the communications to synod from the classes (the regional judicatories), local congregations, and individual members. Most of these, some 78 for Synod 2023, are overtures—requests for action. This in itself evidences the degree of unrest in the denomination. To my knowledge, no synod has ever received anything approaching 78 overtures. Together with 9 communications and 2 printed appeals, these materials come to just under 300 pages. Add in, as we probably should because it directly addresses the same issues, the report of the “committee in loco” assigned by the previous synod to compel Neland Avenue Church and its judicatory, Classis Grand Rapids East, to comply with the synod’s decisions on human sexuality, and the total comes to more than 330 pages.
So there you have it: on the one side, the ministry apparatus of the church, its agencies, ministries, institutions, and staff; and on the other, the burning concerns of the congregations represented in the overtures. It’s not quite so clean as all that. The concerns of the congregations bubble up in the materials under the auspices of the COD, and organizational and ministry concerns appear among the overtures, but it’s a place to start. When you consider the shape of the CRC, consider these two things: the denominational ministries with their needs and concerns and approaches to ministry and the congregations with a different set of needs and concerns and, perhaps even, approaches to ministry.
There is more to the agenda—a couple of study committee reports, the reports of the standing committees, and a scattering of reports from educational institutions loosely affiliated with the denomination—but these, important as they are, will have to wait another time. Our focus for the moment will be on those two large chunks and their relationship to each other. And since I have already commented on some of the issues raised by the overtures and other communications to synod, it’s the other chunk of material, the various reports that come to synod under the auspices of the COD, that require attention here.
Small Bore Kuyperianism
My not very elegant characterization of this material as “under the auspices of the COD” takes account of the fact that not only does the COD play an increasingly important role in the life of the denomination, but it jealously guards its right to group together and structure the reports from the denominational ministries, everything from the denominational loan fund to Calvin University. Annually, the first sentence of the introduction to these reports states that: “It is the responsibility of the Council of Delegates of the CRCNA to submit a unified report to synod composed of ministry updates provided by the agencies, educational institutions, and congregational ministries of the Christian Reformed Church” (emphasis theirs).
And so, the COD tries to put its stamp on the reports. They group them in five categories (taken from one of the periodic visioning exercises undertaken by denominational officials), the five being: Faith Formation, Servant Leadership, Global Mission, Mercy and Justice, and Gospel Proclamation and Worship. They shoehorn each of the agencies—and there are a lot of them—into one of these categories, so, for example, the Loan Fund is grouped with Diversity under Servant Leadership, together with Chaplaincy, Pastor Church Resources, and Pensions and Insurance.
They, the COD, also require that each report be structured in certain ways, beginning with an executive summary or introduction followed by a section “Reflecting on [the agency’s] calling,” and then “Connecting with churches,” and on to other matters, ending with recommendations, if any. It’s the “Reflecting on our calling” sections of these reports that I have in mind in what follows.
There’s more, of course. The COD has its own work. It acts in lieu of synod when synod is not in session and decisions need to be made. It acts on the instructions of synod—the instructions seem to be accumulating. And they worry about organization, their own and the organization of the denominational ministries. These concerns occupy many pages. Being a binational denomination is, well, complicated.
But for the moment, back to those ministry reports. They are often puff pieces for the agencies and ministries, but if you read them, as hardly anyone seems to do, they have about them a tone, a spirit, an approach to ministry.
The approach might be called, rather loosely, “Kuyperian,” after Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), Dutch preacher, politician, writer, and public intellectual. This Kuyperianism is mostly second-hand. There is no engagement with the actual thought of Kuyper, but there is a recognizable approach to ministry and to the world implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the agency reports.
At least four things stand out in this approach to ministry and mission. The first is engagement with the culture. This is no fundamentalist, put-up-the-walls-of-Zion approach. It’s not a rescue mentality: beam us up, Scottie. The culture is not to be feared; it is to be addressed. And sometimes to be embraced.
And not just addressed but listened to. One of the convictions of this approach to ministry is that there are voices outside the church, even outside the faith, from which we can learn. It’s not all night out there. There are things to be loved and appreciated in the broader culture: the desire among at least some of our neighbors to address systemic racism, for example, and pervasive sexism. The desire to include those who have been excluded from positions of power and influence, the desire to overcome the divisions of our society.
This appreciation of neighbors and the neighborhood requires a generosity of spirit. It teaches us to assume the best in others. It requires us to listen well enough to know that we have understood what others have to say, to appreciate the strength of their positions, before opposing them, if opposing them we must.
And last, in this Kuyperian approach there is a confidence that we, Reformed Christians, have something to bring to the table—that we belong in the conversation. If the human sexuality report that has so roiled the waters of the denomination had taken this approach, had engaged the culture for what the culture has to teach us as well as for what we have to teach the culture, had done so respectfully, humbly, in a listening posture, the discussion in the denomination would now have a very different tone.
Suppose, for example, that the authors of the HSR report had approached human sexuality by engaging the current conversation in the culture about consent? If they had pondered seriously the difficulties around the question of what consent is and who can give consent and who cannot? And considered how we know when we have consent? We might have asked: does it matter that in antiquity same-sex encounters were often, perhaps usually, not consensual and not equal? Does it matter that the New Testament language for same sex encounters seems borrowed from the world of privileged heterosexual men “owning” boys sexually? Pedophiles, by our definition?
But I do not mean to belabor this. I merely mean to point out that increasingly the tone I hear in the overtures and in synodical discussions is quite different from the tone of the ministry reports. The ministry reports seem on balance open to the world and generous in spirit, concerned about racism and sexism and, I suspect, if they dared, about discrimination against sexual minorities. The overtures—not all of course, but some—in contrast evince a desire to circle the theological wagons, to tighten down on who belongs in the denomination and who doesn’t. To kick out people who believe and do the wrong sort of things, in the opinion of the synod majority. The ministries speak an older language, the language of a gentle progressivism; the majorities in the last two synods speak in the harsher tones of those who know they are right. In the long run, these two ways of being church cannot co-exist.
Doing with Less
Complicating this are two facts on the ground. One, briefly considered by Synod 2023, is that the CRC is losing members, has been losing members for years. It, like many other denominations, is on a long slow slide into oblivion. The synod threw the responsibility for coming up with answers to the slide to the Office of General Secretary and the COD. Good luck with that.
The second and related fact is that the money is beginning to dry up. A few years ago, the CRC went from assessments to pledges for denominational dues. This change recognized what was already the reality: that many congregations were treating the assessments as suggestions, not requirements. Even before it was changed it had become de facto a pledge system. Synod 2023 made a few adjustments in how the pledges are managed, but the trend is clear: the denominational ministries will have less denominational money.
It will not help that the right wing of the church has decided that it cannot live with any dissent at all from its positions on human sexuality. It has declared that if the denomination does not come down hard on dissenting congregations like Neland Avenue and dissenting classes like Grand Rapids East, they will leave the denomination. Or, more likely, given the way the past two synods have voted, dissenting members, congregations, and classes on the other side of the issues will be forced to leave. Synod 2023 came very close to taking actions that would have made it all but impossible for Neland Avenue Church and Classis Grand Rapids East to have remained in the denomination. However it splits, the CRC will be smaller.
Which brings me to a last point and a lament. And, perhaps a hope, a faint hope. It has to do with the future of denominationalism. Denominationalism, a peculiarly American innovation in the world of church, is changing. Perhaps dying.
Years ago, I published an article in The Banner distinguishing between denominationalism with a small d and denominationalism with a big D. Big D denominationalism is about identity. There was a time in the CRC when congregations were, before anything else, Christian Reformed. Local congregations were franchises; the denomination was the brand.
But the advent of megachurches reversed this way of understanding ecclesiastical identity. For churches like Willowcreek in the Chicago area, the congregation, Willowcreek, is the brand; the Willowcreek Association is not a denomination but merely a way for congregations to share resources.
Let me put this another way. In the old version of denominationalism, the denomination had a soul. It was not merely synods and agencies, it was a life together, a way of being church. I admit to some nostalgia for this older form of denominationalism, but it’s dying, and in its place we have new associations of churches, held together by common interests but not by history and heartbreak and all those things that continue to hold the CRC together for many of us.
Recently, several Reformed Church in America (RCA) congregations in my area left the denomination—part of a large exodus of congregations from the RCA over human sexuality and other issues. When they left, they did not join the CRC, which in the past two synods had said just the sort of things that these congregations presumably wanted to have said. Instead, they joined the Alliance of Reformed Churches, which has grown in short order to 150 and more congregations.
The Alliance styles itself “a community of Reformed congregations built for the 21st century.” It’s shiny and new and knows its place. The Alliance pledges itself not to get involved in funding ministries. No large-scale, CRC-like, assemblage of agencies. No World Renew or Calvin University or, for that matter, Calvin Theological Seminary. It’s denomination lite. The emphasis is on the congregation, not the Alliance.
The bonds that hold the congregations of the Alliance together are loose. A congregation affiliates with the Alliance. If the day comes when that affiliation does not serve the congregation well, they can leave. Of if a congregation seems out of sync with the other congregations of the Alliance, they can be disaffiliated. It’s all a matter of ecclesiastical management. Because, in the end, the Alliance doesn’t matter all that much. It’s not who you are as a tradition and soul; it’s what serves your purposes.
Perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps denominations were never meant to have a soul. They were never meant to have a life together as family in which they could argue and laugh and tell stories and know that these people were your people, forever.
Perhaps, but I long for the denominational soul still evident in the CRC ministries and agencies and in many congregations, still there in Calvin University and Calvin Seminary and World Renew (who can forget the wild beginnings of the then Christian Reformed World Relief Committee?). It’s still there in the churches, in old and historic congregations like Neland Avenue and new churches in new places with new faces, churches in which I have served and worshiped and learned in each case to love the people of the congregation. And in loving them to see Christ more clearly than I had seen Christ before.
So here’s my small and belated lament. If the Alliance of Reformed Churches is the future of denominationalism for Reformed churches, why couldn’t the CRC have moved long ago in the direction of allowing more congregational freedom. Why could we not have found ways to live side-by-side with our differences, perhaps even separating into different alliances of church held together by history and ministry? Were there not ways to remake the denomination into something new?
And are there not ways even now to enable the CRC to be overcome differences and to reclaim our legacy of a distinctively CRC way of approaching ministry, a way not yet lost? And if so, who will call us to this task? Who will show us the way? Who will care enough to say we are better together?