Is CRC Culture Keeping Us from Being Impactful in North American Christianity?


The CRC’s Congregational Size Challenge

Early in May a few of us via Twitter and my blog had a conversation about congregational size and the CRCNA. I’ll copy and paste the first lines of that blog post.

Larry Doornbos commented via Twitter on a point on the Thom Rainer post on changes in worship services. He had a bit of a conversation with church planter Dirk Van Eyk and YALT on the CRC and church size.

  • Rainer’s comment was that 90% of church attendees worship in churches of 400+ which is only 10% of the churches.

Larry had a couple of interesting comments via Twitter:

  • CRC is also structured for small churches; we focus on control rather than freedom that churches need to grow
  • It is all of that and often a mistrust of larger churches, small is faithful; large is suspect
  • CRC is small church denomination. Only 20% are over 200. We penalize larger churches in many ways

Larry posted an excellent response in the comment section which included this paragraph.

My experience in CRC’s is that our structure is one that slows down decisions, slows down movement, and is based on a lack of trust (how many committees plus council have to make the decision before it can go forward). Steven Covey in his book “The Speed of Trust” points out that when there is trust, organizations can move quickly and head to their goals. When we have no trust we build structures to control. Somewhere either we did not trust or we copied a model where people didn’t trust and so we have multiple layers that assure that the “right” decision is made. This multiple layer can be frustrating in a churches of 150-300, but because the system is small it can be dealt with. In a larger organization [th]is can cause things to grind to a halt.

My question, is the paragraph more true if we replace “culture” for “structure” and “community” for “organization”? 

(Again, to be clear, with my re-edit this paragraph comes from me, not him, so don’t shoot him for it.)

My experience in CRC’s is that our culture is one that slows down decisions, slows down movement, and is based on a lack of trust (how many committees plus council have to make the decision before it can go forward). Steven Covey in his book “The Speed of Trust” points out that when there is trust, communities can move quickly and head to their goals. When we have no trust we build cultures to control. Somewhere either we did not trust or we copied a model where people didn’t trust and so we have multiple layers that assure that the “right” decision is made. This multiple layer can be frustrating in a churches of 150-300, but because the system is small it can be dealt with. In a larger community [th]is can cause things to grind to a halt.

Over the last two days I wrote two posts about developing strong leaders and whether we have a culture of fear and conformity.

In reading all of this together I think our size challenge is more a function of our culture rather than our structure.

A good culture can make almost any structure work. A bad culture can disable even the best structure. Culture trumps structure every time. 

  • The history of the CRC Sy-board reveals that as a community and an institution we instinctively attempt to address poor performance by addressing structure.
  • While addressing the structure did prove to address the issues of agency conflict, inefficiency and overlap that bothered the CRC of the 1970s and 1980s, there is little indication that it is sufficient to address the far larger existential anxieties of the 21st century.
  • The Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture (TFRSC) majored  in addressing structure. The reports have very little to say and less to do about addressing culture. that stands to reason. Culture is FAR HARDER to address.
  • Cultural creation is cumulative. This means that while you can change structure with a Synod, a community like the CRCNA has hundreds of years of culture accumulated. It isn’t undone, overcome or tinkered with in a day.
  • Culture progresses usually through actions, decisions, and events, often momentous ones. Words usually help to distill, define, refine, reinforce and mark culture, but when deeds and acts create culture.

Is the CRC Under Performing? 

Some of the more defensive responses I’ve gotten from previous postings have suggested that I haven’t given CRC institutions and leaders their due. It’s not my goal to criticize or point fingers, but I think we have to ask evaluative questions about how well the CRC is performing in our mission especially to North America.

I am proud of the CRC in many ways and for many things and I consider myself loyal to her, but the anxiety that I keep seeing and hearing suggest to me that although we as a community are proud of a lot of what we’ve been able to do we also have a sense that we are not doing as well as we want to nor as we should.

Evaluating something as large as a denomination (organism and exoskeleton) is a difficult thing. Some of what I heard behind Larry’s comments in the size conversation were suggesting that we are failing in a number of important, even strategic ways.

These might be some questions that can help us evaluate our performance?

  • How are CRC leaders who are shaping and impacting the spiritual life and conversation of North America? Are they doing so significantly?
  • How are CRC institutions (schools, agencies, etc.) impacting and shaping the spiritual life and conversation of North America?
  • How are CRC churches  impacting and shaping the spiritual life and conversation of North America?

CRC Celebrities

We have our list of CRC celebrities who have made an impact in the late 20th century to today specifically in the area of faith and life. All are living but Smedes.

  • Neal Plantinga: Calvin Seminary
  • Alvin Plantinga: Notre Dame University
  • Nick Wolterstorff: Yale
  • Rich Mouw: Fuller
  • Lewis Smedes: Fuller

Of course my list is selective. There are also other business leaders and leaders in other spheres but I’m focusing on the church’s performance now as church.

All of these leaders are known as thought leaders and scholars.

With the exception of Neal Plantinga all of these leaders reached the peak of their careers while serving in non-CRC institutions. This doesn’t mean that they in any way necessarily “left” the CRC or “betrayed” the CRC, I suspect (I don’t know, I’m happy with comments that correct me) most of them went to other institutions so that they could have a broader impact in national and international conversations. At some point they outgrew their CRC institutional platform and their service to Christ and the world required that they go beyond it. I’d also say that they benefited from these other platforms to become the leaders they have become or are and that they enhanced their other platforms.

What does this tell us? It gives us some indications of the shape of our culture. What our culture is enabling and disabling. 

Celebrity Pastors and the Rise of the Mega-church

Let’s contrast these leaders with other leaders close to the CRC: Robert Schuller, Tim Keller and Bill Hybels.

Bill Hybels is a son of the CRC who led the creation of a Willow Creek church which changed the church conversation in North America for a generation. Hybel’s contribution was not so much in what he said but rather in what he built.

You can’t say “CRC culture won’t allow the development of a transformative leader who leads by leading a local mega church” because Hybels has done it. What he didn’t do, however, was do so from the CRC or within the CRC.

  • Could Bill Hybels have founded Willow within the CRC? I’d say no.
  • Would the denominational structure have been the primary obstacle? I don’t think so.
  • Would the culture have been the obstacle? I think so.

Robert Schuller of the RCA also created a church that changed the church conversation in North America. Before Home Missions invited pastors to tour Willow they invited them to learn from Schuller. Schuller kept his church in the RCA. I know enough to know that this was a complicated relationship and many don’t view it as wholly positive, yet the point I am making is that there was nothing in the RCA culture or structure that prevented Schuller from founding a transformative congregation.

  • Could Schuller have founded The Crystal Cathedral within the CRC? I’d say no.
  • Would the denominational structure have been the primary obstacle? I don’t think so.
  • Would the culture have been the obstacle? Most definitely

 I’ve got my critiques of Schuller and Hybel’s contributions, but I’m trying to discern in what ways the culture of the CRCNA inhibits the creation of transformative churches. 

Someone might say that it’s the CRC’s peculiar doctrine that keeps it from being impactful in North America. I’d point to Tim Keller who makes frequent use of CRC doctrine, emphases and contributions. I’ve listened to every sermon he’s preached since 2006 and many before and I can vouch that he regularly quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, Neal and Alvin Plantinga, Rich Mouw, Nick Wolterstorff and Lew Smedes.

Tim Keller has been able to do all of this within the PCA, a denomination more conservative than the CRC if you’re using women in office to keep score.

What is key with these “celebrity pastors” is that each has been able to scale their institution to grow with them and to help their institution become a platform that doesn’t inhibit their reach in the broader conversation.

James KA Smith is a rising star in the tradition of Calvin College profs who go on to make a contribution in the American church conversation beyond the CRC. He’s publishing books regularly. He’s known and active on Twitter and in the blogging world. The question I have is “when will he outgrow Calvin College and need to find a platform that will not encumber is ability to expand his impact in the broader conversation?”

Talkers vs. Doers

I suspect the CRC culture when it comes to the Christian conversation in North America allows more for talkers than doers.

Examine the Wikipedia list of largest Protestant churches in North America.  There are no CRCs on that list. You can find PCA churches. RCA churches. ECC churches, but no CRC churches. Why not? Now this is Wikipedia, hardly the gold standard, but you get my point.

Must the CRC Have Celebrity Pastors or Mega churches to be impactful?

Not necessarily. If we were breaking new ground planting dozens of fast growing small and mid sized congregations doing great work in evangelism, community development, etc.

While CRC agencies and institutions do fine work all over the world. CRC churches do wonderful work in quiet and small ways all over North America. I am not diminishing the importance of this work. I myself love and cherish the work of my small church. Small is beautiful.

I am asking, however, about denominational performance as a function of our culture.

In the current context I suspect the CRC will need larger churches and some megas if we want to have a voice in the conversation. On that point I think Larry is correct.

Could the CRC be a trailblazer in dynamic small and medium congregations? I suppose, but again that isn’t what we’re seeing now nor is it on the horizon.

Could the CRC use a “put all our eggs in one basket” approach to address our size challenge?

I hear this suggestion regularly. “Why don’t all those little CRCs in an area just combine to create one big one?”

I won’t work.

  • Merged congregations generally decline the the size of their largest contributor.
  • If you don’t know how to grow a large or impactful institution you won’t know how to sustain one

What is important to note that this suggestion isn’t far from the implicit re-assignment of “on behalf of” agency assets towards “in support of” ministries to bootstrap the development of large and impactful CRC congregations. That’s why I’m doubtful that the path forward will really come from the Sy-board. They can certainly be more helpful, they might even help change the culture, but the crucial help will come from transformative local leaders and transformative local churches.

Keep Praying and Working at this

It is not my intention to paint a pessimistic picture. It is my intention to say that there are no easy answers.

Here are just a few items for our todo list:

  • We need to address culture, and we don’t really know quite where to start.
  • We will continue to address structure, but this isn’t really where the heart of the matter lies.
  • Performance at the local level is the most important. Few will argue against this.
  • We need to learn what a denomination is for in the 21st century. Again, we really quite know this either, even in theory.
  • We need to learn how to have productive conversations at the Synodical and classical levels that are confined to Synod or meetings of classis.
  • We won’t know how to address the “large” challenge until one of us does it from within the CRCNA, if it ever happens. Doing is usually more impactful than talking.

Please Discuss

Leave a comment here on the blog. Share on Facebook. Tweet on twitter. Start your own blog with your own ideas even if you want to say PVK is all wet!

I still believe the CRC has something to contribute. I love the CRC and its people. I want to see it happen. While doing shapes more than talking normally we still need to talk. pvk


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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10 Responses to Is CRC Culture Keeping Us from Being Impactful in North American Christianity?

  1. Pingback: CRC Synod 2014 Links |

  2. PaulVK says:

    Someone asked for my definition of structure and culture. I’ll offer this as a brief thumbnail:

    Structure is the explicit arrangement of offices, roles and authoritative groups (boards).
    Culture is the implicit rules, values and preferences that push the people towards acting or deciding in one way or another.

  3. Sam says:

    Not to disagree with your assessment, but there is one CRC on the list:
    Onnuri Church of Los Angeles Lake View Terrace CA Jinso Yoo 4,500 CRC
    Interestingly it looks like a Korean church which probably has its own culture to some extent.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks, I missed that. And you’re right, it probably isn’t indicative of majority culture in the CRCNA. Another data point! 🙂

  4. PaulVK says:

    1. I am most definitely NOT saying that small churches are a bad thing. I pastor a small church. I love small churches. I really only want to go to a small church. I’d have not a problem in the world if the CRC were thriving merely by propagating many small churches that were stable, established and multiplying.

    The question is “where are the big churches?” If our small churches were thriving odds are that some would grow large. We don’t see a lot of small churches hiving in order to stay small either. We see a lot of stagnant churches. That’s the problem.

    One commenter noted that the largest CRC is a Korean church in LA. I see that as confirming my thesis more than challenging it. That church does not have majority CRC culture.

    2. The fact that Piper, Keller and others ARE using our stuff also indicates that our problem is NOT with our doctrine or our conservatism. Again, I do believe we are making a positive impact in North America and around the world, but this impact is happening mostly through our thoughts, not through our churches as institutions. Calvin College has incubated some impactful leaders but they outgrow Calvin as a platform for their impact.

    We have a cultural problem that is limiting our capacity. We will have to figure this out and learn to address it AS a community. I can’t figure it out. We should work on it together.

    At the same time if a CRC from its majority culture manages to do it this too will help us.

  5. Daniel Devadatta says:

    what is the role of location and demographic movements/shifts? As to culture, we could do better translating our immigrant experience amongst more recent immigrants, perhaps…

  6. Pingback: Attack of the Zeitgeist | Spiritual Musclehead

  7. Pingback: What aspects of CRC culture might be keeping us from thriving? | Pastor Pete's Blog

  8. Jeff Brower says:


    I think an aspect of all of this is not just denominational culture, or church culture, but also pastoral culture. We all know that there are risks associated with the pastoral life, that it is, as one book puts it, “a most dangerous profession”. In the pastors mind, the desire to impact the world with the gospel can get so easily snarled up with the desire to be the biggest church in town. The checks and balances in our historic way of doing things may be frustrating at times, but at the same time they can guard against pastoral ego and charisma (the bad kind) and promote pastoral humility and accountability. “Pastorpreneurs” are often the casualties of their own success.

  9. Scott Edmiston says:

    Paul, in your post there is no definition of what success looks like. In other words, is a denomination successful based on the number of churches, the size of the churches, the number of parishioners, how much giving it does??? Perhaps this is presupposed, but no measure of success can be judged against a blank page. What you say is correct that culture will either expand or contract the overall objective; just as structure does the same thing… Too many controls stifle innovation, growth; ultimately leading to decay as the surroundings change. (this brings to mind the movie Sister Act…) I am not a theologian– In fact I’m just this side of rebirth– but didn’t Christ commission us to make disciples of all nations (people).. perhaps we should measure the quantity of the converted… whatever barriers are erected to that end need to be torn down… perhaps a focus on what kind of culture needs to be put in place to create disciples should be examined and measures put on that..

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