James Calvin Schaap is the bard of CRC (Christian Reformed Church) church history. He teaches at Dordt College. He wrote a piece for the CRC’s 150th anniversary that I thought was prophetic. Here are some quote from it.
Today the new paradigms that shape us, even as a denomination, are created, for the most part, by forces much larger than we are—forces like technology, globalization, and our own ever-increasing affluence. In many ways, the world is flat—economically and socially but also religiously. Today, CRC members meditate with Sufi, a medieval Islamic poet; they spend prayerful weekends in silence at South Dakota monasteries; they practice yoga. Today, the widest read, Dutch-surnamed writer in the CRC may be Henry Nouwen.
The world is bursting with choice today, and what empowers us more and more is the increasing value we lay upon our own decision-making. Few of us are as willing as our grandparents to submit to a minute hand on a Sabbath’s eve. The church, the school, the medical professional, and the academic— all have less authority when individual choice reigns over our decision-making. Today what characterizes our lives in almost every arena is the decline of deference to virtually all forms of traditional authority, including the church—and, certainly, the denomination.
The old man who thanked me mightily might assume that the dramatic changes in the ways in which we see denominational life have been caused by a decline in orthodoxy. He’s wrong. The fact is, we live in a different world. I’ll leave it to theologians to declare whether or not we’re more “of the world” than we’ve ever been; what’s unmistakable, however, is that we are far more “in the world” than we were when we were a minute ethno-religious sub-culture in a teeming nation of nations. p. 21
Mr. and Mrs. CRC grew up in a western Michigan dominated by an auto industry that is
all but gone, a landscape overshadowed by smokestack factories that have left the region and even the nation. We’re in a new world, a post-materialist culture, where building things, creating objects—like furniture in Grand Rapids—is no longer the rule of life. Some say we’re no longer “materialists,” even if, in a biblical sense, we certainly may be, as we always have been.
Our affluence has created a generational shift toward what some call “post-materialist” values—“self-esteem, quality of life, and the search for personal fulfillment,” as Richardson puts it. “When those postmaterialist values are combined with the empowering tools of universal education, a rightsoriented political culture, and the Google search engine, we should not be surprised that more and more people today regard ex cathedra expert authority with skepticism, if not outright hostility.”
Will there be a bicentennial? The answer to the question will likely be determined by social and cultural forces outside the denomination, forces which are both more powerful and more destructive on all denominations—not just the CRC—than any problems within our own fellowship.
Today, no bit of denominational history is as acutely derided as Synod’s 1928 decision on
“worldly amusements”—“thou shalt not dance, play cards, attend movies.” For two, almost three, generations, from Paterson to Pella, those rigorous imperatives came to define us, even when they were violated.
Ironically, the CRC was probably never quite as “modern” as when it tried to stamp its individual members with a behavioral bar code for quick and easy check out. Directives such as the decision on worldly amusements demystify faith, make it a children’s game of chutes and ladders. The idea of the CRC laying down such precise decrees for holy living is unimaginable today. We’ve grown, matured, progressed; we’re in far better shape. The church wouldn’t even try to prescribe behavior.
According to Peter Jones of Westminster Theological Seminary, as a culture we’ve moved away from “reason and its aridity, but also from its hubris. We’re moving into a new world where the new hubris really is that ‘I am divine, and now I’m in touch with the divine.’” It’s not as if authority doesn’t exist in our culture; it has simply shifted from institutions like the organized church to ourselves as individuals. We write our rules. We determine our own fate. We choose. As the sociologist Peter Berger says, as a culture “we have moved from destiny to choice.” p. 22