The CRC can’t answer the identity question until it addresses the discipleship question

5 Steps to Denominational Renewal

My friend Pete posted this piece by Sam Hamstra on CRC Voices for discussion. Since putting over 1000 words in a comment section isn’t polite I thought I’d engage the piece here on my blog.

“The local church is the hope of the world”

This statement is the foundation of the piece. It’s taken, and promoted as axiomatic in the piece so it’s important to know where it comes from. It’s one of Bill Hybel’s mantras. If you don’t know who Bill Hybels is or have never been to Willow Creek I’ll post his wikipedia link in here for you.

To Sam, and his cadre of boomer CRC evangelicals the thought that a CRC pastor or leader might not know who Hybels is might seem unthinkable. I’m just old enough to have made a couple of those pilgrimages to Willow Creek to witness their safe place for a dangerous message to create fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Increasingly the CRC is pastored by others who haven’t made that trip and never will.

While I’ve got a lot of respect for Hybels and his work, and the work of his generation it’s important to get up to speed on that work and why and how the conversation has moved on.

What Bill Hybels and his generation of leaders essentially did was repackage mid-20th century American evangelical Christian discipleship in a re-pristinated form. Music was updated. Language was deflowered of church-y, Bible-y or evangelical code words and the worship space was stripped of “scary” church-y artifacts to make the local church all the more real and approachable for their cultural cohort.

The effort “worked”, which was its point, for a while. “Prevailing” churches sprung up around the world and big box evangelical congregations throughout the suburbs brought church into the Costco age.

CRC pastors, like myself, who took the trip to Willow came first with suspicion. “Would he water down the gospel?”

To our delight the answer was “no”. He and his other preachers when it came time for sermon preached a very straight forward, tried and true American evangelical gospel message. They called for serious Christian discipleship as it was understood by the American evangelical church. Fully devoted followers of Christ would do evangelism, would give sacrificially, would serve the poor, would have daily devotions, and would even be willing to have the worship service made for them on Wednesday nights so that Sunday could be available for the “seeker service” so that others could hear and be changed.

CRC people came to Willow only to learn they were not necessarily the discipleship athletes they imagined themselves to be. Here non-Christian school educated, non- Heidelberg Catechism affirming, non-Sabbath keeping evangelicals were excelling them in zeal and performance. CRC pastors tried to implement some of what they’d learned at Willow and some if it came to good effect.

Even though Bill Hybels had grown up Kalamazoo CRC, his prevailing church was non-denominational. Hybels soon figured out that if he was not only to create and embody a movement through his local church, the hope of the world, he needed to figure out how to promote and resource this movement throughout the world and so the Willow Creek Association was formed. You could be CRC AND be a member of the Willow Creek Association and many CRC churches were members, including my own for a time.

Some pastors I’m sure found their Willow Creek Association membership to be MORE valuable than their CRC affiliation. Every month Willow would send a cassette tape (later a CD) for pastors to play in their cars while they do their rounds and to use for training their leadership. I’ve still got dozens of these tapes and CDs in our church, right next to Veggie Tales VHS tapes in the church library. They were good tapes where Hybels and others would engage important local church issues.

Being resourced by Willow was inspirational, unlike classis meetings and paying Willow Creek Association dues were a lot cheaper than ministry shares. You felt when you were paying them like you were taking part in a movement bringing Christ all around the world. Wasn’t this what ministry shares were for?

While I’m sure some pastors would have liked to have dropped Classis, ministry shares, and denominational allegiance after they dropped “Christian Reformed Church” from their names after a suburban, ruralish naming make-over it would have never gone over well with the builders who at that time were still providing the backbone of local church giving. These builders would sooner sacrifice local church programming than cut down on their denominational ministry share giving. Boomers would roll their eyes at such allegiance and talk behind their backs but out of love, respect and good manners would try to have things both ways. They could both be loyal, ministry share paying CRCers and members of the Willow Creek Association. They’d have both the guitar AND the organ on Sunday morning.

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