The Lost World of the CRCNA


Dismantling the CRC

I was born in 1963. I was in college and seminary in the 80s, returned back to US ministry in the late 90s and have been pastor in a local church ever since.

In the 80s CRC attention was on the women-in-office fight and church growth. Many seminarians saw pastoral care, church growth and church administration as the truly vital areas of interest, not the “pastor as preacher and local theologian” paradigm they accused the seminary to be mired in.

The CRC was trying to be not so CRC anymore. Willow Creek was just getting hot. It would be fully on the CRC radar by the 90s. While some seminarians wanted and expected to go into a traditional CRC parish someplace in some Midwestern prairie many seminarians considered the suburbs to be the place for mission, doing evangelical style evangelism or better yet, getting one of the very few Home Missions assignments as church planter. Craig Van Gelder was a hot prof at CTS and he had his disciples.

Seminarians were in their early twenties or older. Those of us who grew up CRC, which was most of us, knew and in most cases cheered CRC practices.

  • CRCs had a standard liturgy designed to have every church marching through the order of worship week after week in unison. The only deviation was which Psalter Hymnal numbers would be slotted into the song spots. We grew up knowing the 10 Commandments (in the RSV or KJV), the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Gloria Patri and the “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”.
  • CRC forms were followed and known for the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, Installation of Office Bearers, Profession of Faith
  • Sabbath observance was assumed. No shopping, sports, eating out, working etc. Reading and boarded games were OK. Church was morning and evening.
  • Catechism instruction was often done by the clergy. The Catechism was memorized by the youth and preached on Sunday evenings.
  • The “worldly amusements” report was history but Christian schools didn’t have dance and Rook was played.
  • Christian education was assumed, supported by “booster clubs” and enforced in many places and ways. We were a community moving together through Christian day schools through Christian colleges.
  • There are more, fill in your favorites…

Despising Old Ways

There was a sense among many of us that the old ways were a vestige of an unenlightened, narrow, legalistic provincialism.

  • The Sabbatarian practices were unbiblical. What were we, Adventists who couldn’t read the calendar right?
  • We were transformationalists, not pietists. We could reform movies, cards and dance.
  • Missional outreach required less liturgy, more inspiration and seeker sensitivity. Form reading was boring and archaic. Surely the pastor could do a better job summarizing off the cuff.
  • The Catechism was for sectarians and confessionalists. Small groups could engage better than that drowsy second service. Small groups were needed to dispense pastoral care so pastors could be ranchers and CEOs instead of spending their time holding hands and listening to complaints.
  • More high-brow types didn’t go move to lower church but higher church, increasing the liturgical content, using the lectionary, observing Lent, Advent and maybe even more.
  • Christian schools and colleges were fine, but the real centers of power and influence were found in Roman Catholic, mainline, broader evangelical or secular institutions. Our places may be a good place to start but wider recognition required a larger stage with more visibility.

There were plenty of places that still held to the old ways. These places were out in farm country. Urban ministry pursued urban models, urban liturgies, urban practices. Suburban ministries went seeker or blended so that unchurched Harry and Mary could be reached with skits, excellence in music and professional level child care. We looked at Crystal Cathedral, Willow Creek, Saddleback and others. More recently we looked at the Evangelical Covenant to turn five smooth stones into five streams. We hoped that with enough management, enough payer, enough transformation, enough adaptation the growth or the chic or the moxie would come our way. We would be a real church with a bright, growing future, not just another declining schismatic formerly immigrant mostly undifferentiated white Protestant denomination.

Fear of Decline

Things became really unsettled when the models that the cooler factions were looking to stopped shining so bright. The left watched the PCUSA in freefall. The consolation was that if kingdom advance looked like social progress at least their side was winning the culture war. If you lose the institutional church you’ve always got your political party.

The pietists and evangelicals were frustrated because we could never really seem to bottle the growth juice in the CRC. A handful of CRCs broke that 200 barrier within two years but most of those did so in areas of already established CRC population. While we were able to increase the number of churches infant baptism rates, professions of faith, average congregational size and average membership age were all going in the wrong direction. The factional URC split didn’t help any of this.


Even though Steve Timmermans did try to cheer us up with upward charts showing increased ministry share giving and overall membership the identity question still looms. What does it mean to be CRC?

We announced that it was time to burn the wooden shoes. Most of the practices that made the CRC distinctive declined as membership found affirmation of their faith and commitment in other ways aligning themselves with church movements beyond the CRC. These could be social justice issues, church growth and multiplication issues, pietistic causes and practices, revival of spiritual disciplines, and on and on. We stood in CRC builders (rented or owned) looking outwards with longing gazes. We didn’t intend to disrespect our roots but they sure didn’t seem to hold much promise for the future.

The New Ancient Church Hotness

2015 brings what 1985 could never have imagined.  Couldn’t we have imagined that? Rod Dreher sits down with the Red-Letter Christian folks. Just two factions of Charles Taylor’s super nova. Rod Dreher sees same sex marriage as mandating his rather undefined Benedict Option while the other gay affirming urban monastics look to ancient practice to keep alive their own perspective of Jesus faithfulness. While their assumptions about the direction the church should take on social issues go in opposite directions, their assumptions about how to shape the Christian life is the same. Community practice shaped by liturgy, tradition and discipline.

Bishops Wanted, Maybe

The Bishop conversation has been rolling around the CRC for a while now. I’ve got another piece coming out soon on it. It comes up on CRC Voices from time to time. It came up on Twitter with some friends. (Read the convo on Storify)

2015-10-16 15.39.03

Behind much of this is the conversation on cultural liturgies stoked by James KA Smith’s work. We are formed by these cultural liturgies. If we wish to not simply be formed by the powers and desires around us formation must come through practice. Practice needs community and community requires shared practice. What then for the CRC as Amy, Eric and Derek noted in the storify conversation.

John Walton’s Genesis 1 as Functional Creation

I’m just finishing up John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One. Walton asserts that Genesis one is the story of functional origins not material origins. Holding the creation/science view apart from this one for now, it is important to understand how this functional mythology functioned in the Israelite motivational system. The story between the power of that my verses the power of other competing myths is of course the material of the book of Judges and much of the Old Testament. Is the temple (of which the temple in Jerusalem) of Yhwh in heaven the mission control of the world ready to deliver on the Deuteronomic blessings and curses?

The interesting engagement for me of Walton’s book is not so much the hot button issues of creation/evolution which he tries to address, but rather how the functional story gets translated through our providential deism and into our secular age. We are removed from the Genesis story, which is part of the reason we implicitly read it as material origins rather than functional origins. We read it as material because function follows material in our assumed worldview rather than theistic relational in theirs. That is why it made sense for ANE cultures to sink enormously precious resources into building and maintaining temples. These were the functions upon which eating or starving, mastery or slavery depended. We might read the Old Text and understand their drama but it doesn’t grip us like CO2 emissions or the national debt.

The Lost World of the CRC saw its practice as functionally integral to their survival. The process of letting these things go was the process of unbelieving what was beneath the practice. The offense against God of swimming on Sunday was no longer imagined. The shame of not faithfully attending a CRC church every week, vacation or not was no longer felt. The fear for the eternal soul of your child if they were not property schooled by good Reformed teachers who faithfully attended CRC churches was dispelled. CRC practice was part of a believed world view, a world view that through many different factors has evaporated into one that we judge today to be better, more informed, more generous, under a God that doesn’t take the things so seriously we once imagined he did.

Where Communal Belief Comes From

CRC belief and culture didn’t simply arise because a few people sat down to design its contours and got a bunch of others who thought it sounded good. The kind of culture that moves often poor people to sacrifice what little they’ve got for their God and church-partner usually comes through terrible suffering, desperation and loss. CRC culture arose out of generations of surviving in difficulty, fighting, and holding on to one another as they asked the Lord to deliver them. Its shape arose not so much out of someone’s good idea but out of a community being inspired by blood soaked generous sacrifice and terrifying moral failure. Isn’t this how all cultures are shaped, at least the ones that endure?

So you Want to Fashion New Practice?

We know we don’t chose what to believe. If you wish to believe something fashion the community, practice and discipline to foster those beliefs. You can’t really fashion that community, practice or culture without actually holding beliefs that inform those things, and not just among the leaders, but mostly among the followers and their children.

When I read Dreher’s looking about for his Benedict Option part of me doesn’t get it. He already has it in his Orthodox community. I almost wonder if he’s not trying to create a new evangelicalism through it, something that transcends the denominations but that seems preposterous to me.

The CRC can’t go back. Even if it decides that to regain its identity it must embrace former practice you can’t simply just start doing it again. It will always be 2.0.

So I’ve got no answers. I don’t feel too badly about that because it’s never really just someone’s answers that make a culture. It is the wrestling, the wandering, the loss, the pain, the need, the prayer, the longing, all together sometimes alone that creates what we have together or decides whether it emerges at all.

I love our young, Reformed, catholic dreamers. I can’t wait to see what they contribute.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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2 Responses to The Lost World of the CRCNA

  1. Most of my active CRC experience was in a small mission church in Los Angeles. It was ethnically and religiously diverse, since it started as a Chinese community church where people came from many different denominations. I would not know what a “real” CRC church was had I not been raised in Bellflower. I was in college before I first attended Bellflower First Church. I loved it. It was like coming home after being raised in the PCUSA. You weren’t even born then.

    We joined the Crenshaw CRC in 1967 and it was evident it would never be anything like the Bellflower churches. One of our pastors came from a Bellflower church, but he couldn’t make it conform. That church did not survive as an official CRC congregation, but I just attended the 50th Anniversary Reunion of those who had been part of it, including the founding and last real pastors. It is still a congregation in spirit today for the people still love each other after working together for so long.

    I’m now PCA, for there is no CRC where I am. After experience in our different CRC churches, three of them traditional, I miss the unity of liturgy and practice those traditional churches had. Without unity of spirit, though, it would be dead just to go through the forms.

    Now the CRC has become more like most of the other churches of the Reformed tradition in letting the world lure it away from some Biblical teachings about church leadership. It no longer seems to be the rock it was to me in my college years. Now it sometimes gives when it meets pressure. The church should be transforming the culture, not the other way around. Music styles and Sabbath traditions are one thing. The definition of work has changed with modern technology. People live so far from their churches in most places that they could not get there by walking. Turning on a stove is not quite the same as making a fire. Etc. Jesus showed that it was the spirit of the law that was important. He also said the law itself does not change.

  2. Ron Vander Molen says:

    Paul, you describe a CRC world that has been more tossed than lost.
    Reformed Christian schools have lost much of their support; worship mimics whatever is in vogue; theology gets short shrift….
    These are exaggerations, I know; but they reflect more than a mere cultural shift. They have resulted from clear, often aggressive, intentions by leaders who drink from wells springing from other than historically Reformed sources.
    The CRC is being led into generic evangelicalism (aka Fundamentalism).

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