Sleepy in Pella
Despite the denomination’s attempt to gin up some excitement and apart from the overtures calling to sack the Banner editor it mostly looks like a “feel good” agenda with a couple of “rah rah” appointments and a group hug with the RCA. Meg Jenista, who wrote Network postings anticipating last year’s Synod tweeted
“I’ve seen the agenda. I’m not sure I could handle the boredom this year. Sorry Team RevGals!”
While I don’t expect record numbers tuning in on Livestream this year my sense of the mood of the denomination is “anxious”. I think there is a broad consensus that the CRC has lost its way and there is little confidence that knows how find it again. Hopeful eyes turn to the appointment of a new Executive Director and Canadian Ministries Director but the CRC is far from united in either identifying the causes of decline nor recipes for reversing it.
Different members and factions are concerned about
- Lackluster growth numbers for evangelism, baptisms and professions of faith
- Aging congregations with fewer children, young people and young families
- Declining Ministry Share revenues
- Challenges to traditional assumptions about the Bible, sex and family issues
- Inability to effectively engage social changes and cultural diversity
Different factions advocate different approaches towards renewal
- Pietism: more prayer and pursuit of the Holy Spirit for renewal
- Confessionalism: return to more historical and traditional beliefs and practices
- Progressivism: embrace cultural changes and concerns in the broader culture
- Church planting: new congregations will lead the way in engaging a changing context
- Church renewal: revitalize existing congregations to help them grow
- Evangelicalism: find out “what’s working” in denominations like the ECC from which we adapted our “5 Streams” and copy them
- Centrism: Renewal requires change in central institutions of the CRC mostly found in Western Michigan
- Peripheralism: Renewal will come from the fringes
- Multi-culturalism: pursue racial reconciliation to embrace America’s growing non-white populations
- Ageism: It’s all about connecting with the young
- Fill in your own strategy.
While most would agree that there needs to be positive change on multiple fronts, Synod focuses attention on the binational office in Grand Rapids and changes the need to come in there and from there. No one seriously doubts confirmations of the Executive Director and the Canadian Ministries director will happen. My guess is that both votes will be unanimous. We will pay attention to what they say and all hope will also be come with a “wait and see” attitude.
I was on the Executive Director search team, and know members of the search team for the Canadian Director so I have full confidence that we have the right people for the jobs. My assessment of the challenges of the jobs is also sober. I wrote a bunch about the challenges last year.
Not Built To Address Our Challenge
As I ponder CRC anxiety it dawns on me that two of the larger realities in our denominational experience, the church order and the denominational structure, we not designed with our challenge in mind.
The Church Order is primarily designed to keep order, dictate some process and insure confessional integrity. The two dominant values of the church order are caution and preservation.
The family of denominational agencies grew out of a desire to project collaborative ministry beyond the natural reach of local congregations and classes.
Both assets reflect the assumptions of mature Christendom where the church is secure, should be maintained, and collaborates to express the breadth of the Reformed world and life view as well as increase its size.
Confessionalists vs. Progressives
While I appreciate the alarm raised by the confessionalist wing of the church, our reactions and assets tend towards an American culture war reactivity. When this is combined with a history of ethnic insularity and isolationism it fails to address the challenges we face.
My complaint about the Progressives is that they too often simply mimic the broader cultural agenda adopting secular salvation narratives voiding the purpose of the gospel and the church.
I also see the modes of engagement often used from both sides as unhelpful on a relational front. Pete Vander Beek in a blog post addressing issues in his congregation notes how anxiety can be marshalled and manipulated for naked political and practical gains. While the left side in the CRC culture war have done the same their long string of victories (which they won’t admit because that relieves the anxiety they wish to help push their further causes) losses on the right invite them to keep pushing the anxiety button faster and harder.
They do what they can to get more people to take up their anxiety (in a trend called ‘herding’ which I also call “group-think” where they glum together as like-minded folk and affirm each other in the issue of the day). They are unlikely to have open discussion with those who are not like-minded, since that spoils the aim.
They believe that if they can spread their concern to enough people to get or imply their opinion is a majority opinion, it is therefore valid (democracy). I say just because a group is all stampeding in the same direction does not mean it is a good direction or that there is danger. They may just have been spooked by a dust devil. There may well be a cliff ahead.
They firmly believe others are creating their anxiety and are unable or unwilling to look at their part in it. In fact, this is where maturity would have them behaving differently if they had been taught it or had it modeled. A mature person is able to identify and take responsibility for their part in the situation. Immaturity — like that of the 10 year old who calls her parents mean because they won’t let her ride the 4wheeler off the ramp into a snowbank — only sees others creating their problem, not themselves contributing to it. In the same way, some who are currently physically adults have never been taught to discern how much they actually seem to need fear and anxiety in their lives, and to see how they cannot rest until others are fearful with them. (There is a strong possibility that, among other things, preachers who taught them a fear of ‘getting it wrong and suffering God’s wrath’ are partly responsible for creating this and crippling them in this way.) When I have conversations with people, I listen carefully for how much they are able to identify their feelings and emotions, and especially for who the attribute those emotions to. If they tell me I am creating the feelings in them, I know there are things they have not yet learned, such as that we chose to let ourselves have the feelings we have. But that is a subject for another day.
They want leaders to do things to ease their anxiety, and believe that is the leader’s role and responsibility.
As long as we continue to imagine that Synod and the Denominational Offices are most usefully employed as a rope in a tug of war for culture war victories, usually involving anxiety and concerns about science and sex (on both sides) the deeper concern about general decline doesn’t progress. If we spend most of our time and energy bickering about our same old fights at our annual family meeting little time remains to productively engage other challenges.
There are a number of basic questions we are going to have to address along the way. Many of these questions are not best located in a “home office” but more in a home church.
- How well are Christian Reformed churches catechizing the young, creating new disciples and equipping existing disciples to serve the kingdom in their context?
- Can the CRC continue to do the basic theology that engages practice and thought in our context?
- What is the role of a denomination (classis and synod) in this larger picture?
- Can we manage institutional assets and lead existing cultural communities in contexts of rapid change?
Given that the agenda is set and there aren’t a lot of “tug of war” issues at this Synod maybe we can in this space ponder some of these other challenges we face hopefully in ways that are less driven by anxiety and more informed by the hope of the gospel, the presence of Christ’s church and the power and promise of the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the world.