Whose Structure For What End?
Before Synod I was processing a lot of the structure material. You can find links to my ramblings on my Synod links pages.
I’ve been busy since Synod doing my day job but I’ve also been mulling over the issues.
In terms of the structure/culture issue one important presentation I haven’t had time to blog about in my advisory committee meeting. In case you’re unfamiliar with how CRC Synods work Advisory committees are usually where most of the important work gets done and when Synod works well its because the Advisory committees have done good work.
We received a report on the Collaborative Working Groups (CWG).You’ll find reference to these groups on pg. 188 of the 2014 Agenda.
When Faith Alive was dismantled the denominational offices had to figure how what to do with the staff that was still needed to maintain certain operations. Also the staff of the specialized ministry offices (Safe Church, SCORR, Pastor-Church Relations…) have always been kind of out there on their own without the kind of structure that agencies offer their staff. What came out of this in conjunction also with Home Missions staff were some collaborative working groups where they are experimenting with more flexible cross agency structures and partnerships that have in some cases coalesced around some of the 5 streams ideas. The experiment is in early stages but there is a lot of enthusiasm and optimism about what might come out if it. The report was positive and well received.
What do we want from this experiment?
- We want the North American “in support of” staff to better support the North American church
- We want denominational staff to be more responsive to cultural changes in the North American church
- We want to see a new culture develop, more permission giving, less controlling.
All of these are good things.
There was some optimistic talk about ideas “bubbling up” from the “grass roots”. Moses Chung who was part of the presentation gave an important corrective to this language. The “grass roots” mentioned here are the denominational staff who are mostly concentrated in Grand Rapids with some in Burlington and a few in Palos Heights Chicago.
This isn’t a bad thing. Most of the CRCs are within these cultural contexts and they are contexts that the CRC needs to address and grow within. These particular plots of grass don’t of course reflect the diversity of contexts across the US and Canada.
Again, I want to be clear that I too am excited about these new developments. It all sounds very positive, but I want us to pay attention to which structure towards what end.
The Challenges facing the CRC
Part of the implicit hope behind SPACT, TFRSC, and the CWG is the hope that the denominational aspect (exoskeleton, the Sy-board) can improve the health of the organic church upon which the Sy-board depends.
As I’ve noted before what really ails the churches isn’t really connected to issues of structure and culture in the exoskeleton, at 1700 28th Street. The issues are in the churches and there are multiple challenges.
The Cosa Nostra Challenge
It is no secret that CRC congregations have a thick culture. There isn’t anything wrong with a thick culture, but if there is a cultural distance between a congregations and its ministry context attractional outreach won’t be terribly fruitful. The CRC is of course not the only denomination with such a challenge, but our culture is probably thicker than most given our history.
A number of CRHM initiatives over the years to try to assist congregations be more effective in outreach have majored on adjusting congregational culture to help them assimilate potential members more easily. CRHM ran conferences with the Crystal Cathedral a while ago, Willow Creek, Saddleback, etc. Some CRCs were able to learn enough to implement changes and experienced some success with these methods. Others did not.
Church planting is obviously a strategy to address the Cosa Nostra challenge. Church plants tend to not have the kind of cultural distance that established congregations do. The planters are usually younger, if the church enfolds members of the community the cultural distance issues is diminished.
We should also note that church planting has in some cases elicited a backlash from some established churches. Some complained that these leaders and churches weren’t “reformed” or weren’t CRC. Some complained that we were spending our time and money planting generic Bible churches just like the non-denoms. I think there was some validity to these complaints in some cases but it was also a matter of asking what we wanted. The CRC wanted “fruit” and if we understood “fruit” in these terms we could get it with some of these methods. In most cases, as was true of other denominations doing similar things most CRCs planted were hybrids. They had plenty of CRC DNA but usually less cultural distance from their contexts. I could go on longer about these issues but that isn’t the heart of this posting.
If CRC churches want to grow in their contexts they need to productively engage the cultural distance issue.
The “It’s MY Church” Challenge
Churches survive by satisfying their membership, they don’t grow by satisfying their existing membership.
A lot of CRCs are stable and marginally self-perpetuating. The places were CRCs are most stable are in communities experiencing relatively slow change. This has been true of the CRC for a long time. CRCs in high change communities, like CRCs in major metropolitan areas are shrinking far faster than CRCs in more stable, agricultural communities that were also colony areas.
Church members that are for the most part happy with their established church have little incentive to do a lot of sacrificial outreach. Basic evangelism and discipleship is time consuming and demanding. Creating space in an established church for the kind of messiness that enfolding new members, often unlike the established membership is uncomfortable and sometimes troublesome. We theoretically want to see our churches grow, but we most want the churches to stay as we like them.
Again, this is one reason why church plants are so much more effective at evangelism and discipleship, but after a couple of years and once a church plant gets enough size to be self-sufficient financially the group tends to plateau as people are happy with each other and don’t want their satisfying community disrupted.
No denominational program can change this in a local church. It has to come from inside. I has to come from the Holy Spirit giving us a holy discomfort with our self-sufficiency and our natural complacency.
The Pre-Post Christendom Challenge
We’re not quite at the end of Christendom but we can see it from here.
Most church evangelism programs and strategies address cultural distance and assume a large pool of Christ-haunted, dormant Christendom people who can be “activated” with fairly little effort. They already believe in God, their ideas of morality align fairly well with those in the church, they have a general regard for the goodness and rightness of the Bible, something is falling apart in their life and what they need is a supportive community around them to re-ignite Christian practice.
Again, CRCs in stable, non-metropolitan communities will have a larger percentage of these folks around and will still find these methods successful, but CRCs in high change urban areas won’t find much success using these older methods.
Pastors and members need to retool for doing the long, hard work of evangelism and discipleship in their communities with people who are skeptical about God, or skeptical of Christian exclusivistic ideas. They need to engage people with very different moral systems than what we’ve had in the church. They need to engage with people with some knotty behavioral or personality issues. They need to have answers that skeptics and “spiritual but not religious” people find engaging. There are ministries around that are doing well with this, but the learning curve for disciple makers of this population is far higher than was required when Christ-haunted people only needed activation and the church’s behavioral and confessional expectations for these new believers will have to be adjusted.
Most of the need for this new theology will likely not come from the Midwest but from the coasts as the culture tends to move from the coasts in. Electronic media is shortening this distance but motivation is often stirred by felt needs which usually happen at home.
Again, church plants in major metropolitan areas will be vital in this and we’ll need to figure out how to have new learnings feel existing ideas and conversations.
The Culture War Challenge
The culture war is a lose-lose proposition for the church. Polarization forces responders to quickly take poorly worked through positions while tempting reactors to adopt shrill, fear-based stances that are caricatures of older orthodoxies they wish to preserve.
For as long as we’ve been embattled in our own culture war few people seem to notice how Jesus engaged the culture war he was in the middle of. Imperial forces were content to leave Jesus alone as long as he didn’t do anything obvious to challenge the occupation agenda leaving most of the pressure on Jesus from the right, who wanted him to take a strong stand with them in their resistance to the occupation and its subsequent social, cultural, political and moral corruption.
When I first started reading the Bible as an adult I was often struck by how irrelevant many of the fights were that Jesus seemed to engage in. Who cares what day of the week a miracle is performed on? What does it matter whether you fast, wash your hands or who you eat with?
I failed to appreciate the culture war Jesus’ revelation was located within and how tactically Jesus refused to be consumed by both forces that were in the process of consuming everything else.
Jesus claimed that neither side in his culture war would win. Empire is always a second rate caricature of the reign of God. It’s power is always insufficient to produce what it promises. Jesus also showed that the conservative religions and political forces that appeared to more easily align with his Yahwist agenda was just an older, spent form of empire as well. The religious leaders were simply using the same but weaker means to try to line up the people with Yhwh as the empire was to line them up with Caesar.
Jesus wanted to reverse the model. The radical generosity of the Father, “your well-being at my expense” would supplant the “my well-being at your expense” way of the world. It would do so in the costly sacrifice of Jesus vindicated by the resurrection. Christians strangely win the war by being killed by their enemies. This is how Christ would triumph over Rome and everyone struggled to understand just how this would work.
Culture wars major in forcing shibbolethic showdowns. Are you for women in office or against it. Are you in favor of gay marriage of oppose it. What would a video camera in the Garden of Eden reveal? Political alignment is usually besides the point. They make us forget who and what the real enemy is.
Somehow the CRC is going to have to figure out how to not be consumed or defined by the great struggles of our age. I have no idea how we’ll do this but I know we have to try.
The Identity Challenge
The CRC was born by differentiating itself from the RCA. Whatever we were we knew we weren’t THAT. History produces culture and now that we’re cozying up to them again we’ve got new baggage to keep us apart. Maybe at some deep level we imagine we’ll re-discover some our identity if we get close enough to someone just a little different from ourselves.
The CRC likes to say it gets its identity from its three forms of unity. When we get next to the RCA and note that with the exception of the Belhar on paper we hold the same confessional standards, then we start pointing at a lot of other reasons why we have unity and can’t be united with the RCA. I’m not saying these reasons aren’t important, but it reveals that the confessions don’t really function in our midst as simply as we like to pretend. Our culture is thick but don’t have an especially good handle on it. If something doesn’t feel right someone is quick to squawk, but we don’t all squawk about the same things.
Facing Challenges Rather than Resolving Them
No amount of work on structure will resolve these challenges. Most of these challenges will likely never be fully resolved until the kingdom fully comes. They are things we live and struggle with.
The goal of structure is to address an enduring challenge with institutional force.
After listening to the talk at Synod on this subject a few things seem clearer to me:
- No one is currently seriously looking at dismantling the agency structures or brands. The difficulties caused by “silos” (the concerns of the 70s, inefficient duplication and lack of collaboration) hope to be mitigated by Collaborative Work Groups and a new interface/image of the 5 streams.
- Adaptive Change means leading into a space where we don’t know exactly what changes we will need to make. That is certainly true of us today. For all of the “change” talk I heard the style of change we see is decidedly incremental. Even if we imagine an incredible uptick in ministry effectiveness by the Collaborative Work Groups its impact would probably look small compared to the inertia and challenge of the community of CRC churches.
- For all the complaining and hand-wringing about centralization and hierarchy most ministry initiatives that get taken up by the exoskeleton usually bubble up from initiatives of local congregations, individuals and idiosyncratic opportunities. We still kind of play the game like 6 years olds play soccer, everyone follows the ball. We follow Joanna Veenstra to Nigeria and we go to the Dominican Republic because a Haitian pastor listens to a radio program, hangs a CRC shingle and writes a letter. When we find something that seems to get a bit of traction we put more in. It’s not a bad way to go about things. Ever since Blackaby’s Experiencing God we call this following God’s lead. Sometimes its chaotic and lacking focus. This creates a no-win situation for the exoskeleton. If they are chasing a hundred causes they get criticized for chaos. If they try to formulate a unified plan they get dinged for centralization and hierarchy. There is always a reason it sucks to be responsible.
- The 5 streams are supposed to address our current under-performance in discipleship and evangelism and shore up the generational challenge. We’ll have to see how it addresses the challenges I listed above. It would be worth while comparing how the ECC works with their 5 stones compared to what kind of structural expression our 5 streams get.
- The input requested by TFRSC in the plenary session mostly focused on resolving the “two bosses” problem the agencies currently face. It also seeks to correct the distance from classical felt-ownership created by the BOT and the agency board downsizing. While this is a problem that needs correcting it does little to address the challenges I listed above. We had a little discussion group from our classis during the “breakout” section of the process. The first question asked by an elder was “why are we talking about this, is there a problem?” We spent most of our time taking about the two diagrams (found in the agenda) and the upsides and downsides. The challenges I listed above occupy the denomination more than the agency-structure conversation. That’s probably a good thing but it doesn’t help us with this problem.
This post is already too long. There will be more. pvk