CRC Restructure, Factions and the Hope of a Unified Vision

Clay Libolt wrote this piece for the Banner

This is hard to discuss until we see the report, or easy. So now we get the disclosure of the COD option. OK. A few more weeks and we’ll get the whole thing but I don’t know if it will add more than what Clay lays out here.

There is an irony here, and I think Clay points to it, that on one hand the centralized increasingly self-imagined “church” visible in the denominational exoskeleton attempts to increase its sense of control while in reality its ability to control actually diminishes.

The Deeper Issue

Clay and I agree that there are deeper issues. I think the implicit hope from the restructure is not simply better management or efficiency, but new energy, enthusiasm and most of all identity for the CRCNA. The idea is that this corporate model can establish a vision and identity (brand) that local churches will embrace, model, and fly the flag for. If Willow could do it why not a larger organization with more resources? Hasn’t Pope Francis revived enthusiasm in the Roman Catholic church? Can’t we look for the same lift from Grand Rapids?

We are hoping for someone or some vision that will transcend the deep divisions that are in the broader North American church which are present in factions in the CRCNA. The hope is that a unified vision will arise so that the factions and the conflicts between them will no longer take up the limited relational bandwidth that the denomination has.

At this point it is hard to imagine a centralized management structure developing this. CRC people may take pride that its “on behalf of” ministries are well run, but there is also the truth that the factions are present in the agencies themselves. Agencies too will have factional conflicts within them.

CRC Factions

Current factions in the CRC reflect current factions in the broader American church. Part of the strength of many in the CRC is to in themselves transcend some of these factions thus creating more subfactions. Many of us feel ourselves as individuals able to transcend some of these factions but when we look at what we do in groups, the factions tend to  emerge even if individuals are sometimes siding with one or another.

  • CRC Mainliners: Emphasizes and prioritizes the themes of Jesus being about justice for the dispossessed and the hurting so the church should be too. They like OSJ ministries and will see World Renew as their best work. Some will vocalize strongly on culture war issues on the left.
  • CRC Evangelicals: “Only one life will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last”. This faction prioritizes church planting and world missions. They believe in “word and deed” but they will stand with a guy like Bill Hybels and have dreams of success in church growth. There is a sub-faction of dunamis CRC folks who will align with more charismatic groups and movements.
  • CRC Confessionalists: This group has derived new energy from the broader resurgence of conservative Reformed evangelism in America via John Piper, and Al Mohler. They tend to chafe at women in office and want to see the CRC continue to work its traditional formula for success. Some will vocalize strongly on culture war issues on the right.
  • CRC Reformed Catholics The youngest faction in our midst, many pastors in their first decade of ministry who like to read church fathers, do communion every week and mine liturgical history.
  • CRC Urban Ministries Mini-faction. This mini-faction can look sometimes mainline, sometimes evangelical and sometimes charismatic maybe occasionally with a twist of confessional when it works for them.

The Factioning of Agencies 

This is my initial read on the factions and the agencies. I may be wrong about the details but I think the rise of the agencies historically was partly due to factions expressing themselves (not necessarily the same factions we have today) and building enough of a coalition to have the denomination follow the faction, usually because of forces outside the CRC. World Missions followed on the heals of the great 19th century world missions movement. Home Missions got started in immigration but differentiated with the church growth movement. World Renew followed the post-colonial development movement. BTGM followed the 20th century radio ministry movement. Factions change and agencies morph.

  • World Relief enjoys the broadest factional support. All factions embrace help for the poor and the logic of development. In many ways World Renew is the pride of the denomination.
  • World Missions tends to be strongest among Confessionalists and Evangelicals including the charismatics. World Missions is an area in which the CRC touches World Christianity. Angst over evangelism and cultural imperialism will tend to blunt the passion of CRC mainliners for World Missions.
  • Home Missions: Home missions was long the bastion for CRC Evangelical, and charismatics and Urban missionsists. CRC Mainline was pretty dismissive and suspicious of CRHM when it was big in its seeker phase. If CRHM continues to make noises about “community development” it might catch more attention from the mainliners. If they do so at the expense of conversion they will alienate themselves from Confessionalists, Evangelicals, and Charismatics. Reformed Catholics have been big in church planting partly because it allows them to explore liturgy.
  • Back to God: has tended to be strong among Confessionalists.
  • Most offices and specialized services don’t get a lot of factional dynamics with the exception of the Office for Social Justice getting big heat from Confessionalists and others and SCORR coming out of the Urban Missions group with some support from Mainliners.

Will a structural rework diminish these factional dynamics? 

I doubt it. The struggles will just get played out in some new arenas.

The comments that Clay made on the multiplication of teams seems right on. When you have different levels with different configurations how individuals line up with these factions tends to take on more visibility.

Can we make the CRC Brand Big Enough to Tamp Down the Factions?

This to me seems to be the quest of the big new effort. The new central structure will outshine the tensions between us, or at least that’s the implicit theory.

To a degree this has worked with World Renew, but part of that is because it is a specialized project. All groups can agree that the poor should be helped. That’s a good thing. But when we start talking about more things the tensions emerge.

Who is Jesus and what does he want?

In many ways these tensions boil down to who we imagine Jesus to be, what the world looks like and what the church should be about. Which items will different factions select from the menu?

  • The church should make the world better by
    • Helping the poor
    • Bringing liberation to women oppressed by patriarchy
    • Liberating sexual minorities from discrimination
    • stopping abortion
    • bringing religious liberty for Christians and their institutions
  • The church should rescue souls from hell
  • The church should bear witness to the truth of God’s Holy Word
  • the CRC should bear witness to Reformed theological distinctiveness
  • The church should stand against the demonic forces that are harrassing and destroying it and the world
  • The church should get on board with the social progress that is freeing socially oppressed.
  • The church should oppose the social corruption that is destroying traditional morality
  • The church should support government efforts to relieve poverty and suffering
  • The church should replace government efforts to relieve suffering and poverty
  • The church should oppose wars of any kind
  • The church should support our government in protecting Christians in Africa and the Middle East
  • The church should support government efforts at stopping climate change
  • The church should expose the climate change myth for the lie that it is. Jesus will end history, not CO2 levels.

and the list can go one.

Can a better organized CRC reduce our tussling over these issues?

Can a unique CRC vision resolve these tensions?

If your answer is “no”, then what do we do with the agencies and factions?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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3 Responses to CRC Restructure, Factions and the Hope of a Unified Vision

  1. Eric Verhulst says:

    I think, from what Libolt has described about the restructuring proposal is that it springs from an illusion of importance. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see from the Southern Baptists or maybe the PCUSA or ELCA – denominations with 1-3 million members in the US alone.

    We have less than 240,000, roughly 2/3 in the US and 1/3 in Canada. We’re not that big a denomination and, frankly, when it comes to the broader church in the United States and Canada, we’re not that important.

    Church used to be something a lot of people volunteered to make happen with very few paid positions. It was an expression of our commitment to God. Now it is something a lot of people expect to provide goods and services for their use – and those providers expect to be paid. It has become an expression of God’s commitment to us. I see this here at my own congregation. Fifty years ago, almost everything we do now would still be done in a church this size – but it would be done with volunteers, a single full-time pastor, and a part-time bulletin secretary. Now we have 3 full time and another 2.5 FTE and members wonder if perhaps we shouldn’t pay somebody to do some other thing.

    The things Libolt describes in the restructuring document indicate a similar trend happening at the denominational level. Instead of us coming together in commitment to God to serve him, we expect God to get it together in commitment to us, primarily through church staff and denominational officials.

    Instead of increasing complexity and layers, we should be simplifying and downsizing the head-shed, streamlining congregational staffing, and allowing things to not be done if we can’t get volunteers to do them. It would be interesting to see a comparison of the number of FTE positions at the denominational offices today with the number of FTE positions in similarly sized denominations around the US, as well as with the number of FTE positions we had 50 years ago when we were about the same size we are now.

  2. Paul Spyksma says:

    You make an excellent point, Eric. In my childhood the 4th CRC of Roseland (Can you even imagine a church these days choosing a numerical name?) was powered by an army of people, mostly women, who did everything. Nowadays they all have careers. Which is good for the women, probably, but throw in soccer practice and everything else and who has time to make funeral buns?

  3. Pingback: My Initial Read of the 2015 TFRSC Report: From Voltron to Kickstarter |

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