Can Denomination Be Helpful When Churches Are Dying Because We Don’t Understand What Church Is For?


The Wrong End of the Tree

My friend Pete wrote a response to my last structure piece. He noted, and I agree, that these structure conversations are starting at the wrong end of the church. The crisis at the denominational level (problems with agency accountability and connectedness to the church) isn’t really what is ailing the CRC and threatening the continuity of ministry done by the agencies. What is withering are the roots of the tree (to switch metaphors). What threatens the CRC is that 85% of the church is stable or in decline.

Trees can stand and look impressive and bear fruit for a long time while they are dying slowly from within. As it ages the mistletoe and other parasites have at it. Then a large wind storm comes up and they come down.

The anxiety in the CRC (and other Christian churches in North America) is that we are in this decay.

The False Enticement of the Culture War

I regularly read John Suk’s blog.

Sometimes people wonder why I read John’s blog. They might see John as a heretic who has nothing to offer the CRC any longer.

I don’t see it that way. The toughest thing in the world to see is yourself. Unless you make progress in seeing yourself you can’t really see how your own biases impact how you see everything else. If you don’t have some inkling of your biases, it’s tough to see anything at all.

John has taken a journey out of the CRC and into a new space and he writes about it self-consciously. That is a very helpful thing for the CRC to try to know itself. What is changes, what is different.

I also think this is one of the most important reasons why we should aggressively work with the RCA. By learning more about them precisely because of our closeness, our differences will inform us about our own ways we don’t see our own self.

Anyway, John wrote a nice post a bit ago “The problem in the pulpit” that is very much worth reading. He notes what is plaguing churches in Western, secular, affluent world. The modern consumer asks “what will church do for me that a myriad of helps and institutions don’t already offer?”

The space where John helps us in this is to remove one of the enticements of the culture war. Many suggest that a conservative church must “update” their ideas to match contemporary demands. If the church opens up to be fully inclusive THEN people will come, as if the exclusivity of some positions is a barrier to many. This isn’t true. If it were we’d see the flourishing of the liberal churches. Instead, they are in decline at least as steep as the conservative churches.

It is true that the reputation of exclusivity will be a public relations barrier to many, and I don’t want to disregard this piece. The church’s bad reputation among victimized groups does betray its master who loved sinners. Reputations, however, are usually built on impressions and assumptions.

The enticement is, however, that if you open up on some of these fronts then people WILL come and open themselves up to your influence, become faithful members, etc. That second piece isn’t true. Why not? Because removing a barrier doesn’t address the motivational piece of the purpose of the church in our society today.

The same cuts true the other way too. Just because you’re exclusive doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly attract the population that is politically or socially in agreement with your exclusivity. They might agree, there might not be a barrier on these issues, but that is a far cry from the kind of asking and desiring that will launch a relationship which will lead to the levels of change and transformation that warrant the word “conversion”.

Picking “the right side” in the culture war won’t fill your church. It’s an issue of third hand reputation, but it isn’t the determinative question.

How Can the Church Answer the “what for” Question in a Secular Context?

I dealt with this question in this sermon a couple of weeks ago. Not exhaustively of course, but sketching out some of the issues.

I don’t count it as a bad thing that the church has been pushed out of its posture of assumed pragmatism on a number of fronts. The fact that society through other means has assumed roles and tasks owned by the church and has excelled at them beyond the church I think is a testimony to the continuing work of Christ in the world through the church.

  • There’s not just prayer in church for the sick but hospitals and doctors
  • There’s not just financial help in church for the poor but help from the government and other societal groups
  • There’s not just prophesy in church against injustice but advocacy and government for justice
  • There’s not just pastoral care in church for the hurting but therapists and doctors to help bring healing and health.

Add to this the problem of affluence that John Wesley noted.

“I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore, I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”

— John Wesley (1703-1791).

To some it may appear that the church has become obsolete because its worked itself out of a job, but the truth is that all of these things have been samples of the life of the age to come that were in the church as part of its announcement of the coming of the age to come in the resurrection of Jesus.

The failure of the world to recognize this mission is a result both of the too-low expectations of the wealthy, powerful and affluent of the world for the life of the age to come (CS Lewis of course has a great quote on desiring too little). It’s also a failure of the church to focus on this mission and to excite the world’s imagination and hunger for the kinds of glory of which our amusements and therapies are only a shallow approximation of. John Suk is right. This is a problem in the pulpit. The problem is first, however, in our hearts.

How Can A Denominational Structure Be Helpful In This?

This is really where the structure questions meets the problem of decline.

Good Leadership Training and Maintenance

We are far more aware that a seminary education stands within a networked community than we have in the past. The assumption seemed to have been previously that an “education” mostly involved sitting at desks receiving information. We’re more aware of formation today in the context of the church than we have been before.

The great challenge of leadership is focus and perspective. Can I say focused on what is my calling while seeing how that focus is connected to the myriad of things in the universe around which are also important. If I lose sight of my place, the other important piece, and a view of the whole I tend to be less and less helpful to anyone.

A denomination needs to be a helpful network that connects the pieces to one another to help the extended community do the work it needs to do. In that network there are institutions, assemblies (synod, classis, council), office bearers, members, relationships, media assets and things of this nature. A denomination is the steward of the stitching of the fabric seeking to help the pieces work together and pull together.

Stewards of the Narrative Thread

Lesslie Newbigin’s insight into the place of the church in the public world is critical.

“I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?

I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel– evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one.

But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.”

–Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 227.

Language is vital for people in this project. We live in a constant tension between being and saying.

In our relationships being is communicated. In our extended relationships so often saying has to attempt to transmit the being.

The denomination attempts to be the wires through which relationships and words are shared across spaces and through time.

Recognizing Helpful Language

I’ve spent a lot of time paying attention to the ministry of Tim Keller and his use of language. Why? Because he’s found some ways to be effective and I can learn from him.

I’ve also learned in this that aping his language doesn’t really work. His language is his own. I need to learn from him and find my own that works for me. I borrow from him. He borrows from others. Each of us takes, learns, adapts, promotes.

Influence is never simply about the language, it is the person, their story plus the language that has power and meaning. This is why all formulaic approaches may be helpful but always fall short of producing the glory in the church we seek. Glory is always a gift that comes from God through persons and their stories.

One of the things I’ve learned in playing with language and the Internet is that all conveyors of language are also filters of language and ideas. Denominations do that too. It’s difficult to learn to do it well.

Adjusting our Culture about Permission and Control

As the media through which language and relationships are transmitted by denomination changes we are going to have to learn how this works with the cultural elements of permission and control.

Honest words that are not said because of fear deprive the community of important data that informs our relationships. We can’t know each other or be known unless we feel free to let ourselves be known as we are.

At the same time we need to get to a place where words can be shared and we can hear them without fear. Fearful hearing is so quick to prejudge the presence from a future viewed through fear. We need to hear someone speak today and let them decide on their future when they choose to act. We do too much fighting over what our fears tell us someone will do in the future.

I’m not sure we’ve figured out how to do this in the context of confessionality. This will be something we need to do if we want this idea of a confessional church to mean something. Confessions grip us most strongly when they are embraced freely and we can be free to express how they grip us and where they pinch.

 Confessions in a Secular Culture

What the church is finally about is a life lived out of a confession. It is straight assertion in this world that we declare the risen lord gives us license to spend our lives for the well-being of the poor, the victim and the weak and that a life lived this way follows Jesus through cross and empty tomb. It is straight assertion that costly love expressed the heart of God and those who spend their lives loving will receive far more than they can possibly expend in one short life in the age of decay.

In my experience with those who see live outside of a confession of Christ this vision is desirable but unbelievable. I see within them an appetite to learn more, to hope and want to believe that it may be true. It is at this point that the hermeneutic that is the church brings its weight into the conversation. That within the sacrificial church there are samples of glory that easily justify listening more to the risen Jesus.

It is difficult for a denomination to embody this, but to create the network by which the little hermeneutics around the world are encouraged in community is no small help.



About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in CRC, Institutional Church, Missional and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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