The CRC can’t answer the identity question until it addresses the discipleship question

5 Steps to Denominational Renewal

My friend Pete posted this piece by Sam Hamstra on CRC Voices for discussion. Since putting over 1000 words in a comment section isn’t polite I thought I’d engage the piece here on my blog.

“The local church is the hope of the world”

This statement is the foundation of the piece. It’s taken, and promoted as axiomatic in the piece so it’s important to know where it comes from. It’s one of Bill Hybel’s mantras. If you don’t know who Bill Hybels is or have never been to Willow Creek I’ll post his wikipedia link in here for you.

To Sam, and his cadre of boomer CRC evangelicals the thought that a CRC pastor or leader might not know who Hybels is might seem unthinkable. I’m just old enough to have made a couple of those pilgrimages to Willow Creek to witness their safe place for a dangerous message to create fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Increasingly the CRC is pastored by others who haven’t made that trip and never will.

While I’ve got a lot of respect for Hybels and his work, and the work of his generation it’s important to get up to speed on that work and why and how the conversation has moved on.

What Bill Hybels and his generation of leaders essentially did was repackage mid-20th century American evangelical Christian discipleship in a re-pristinated form. Music was updated. Language was deflowered of church-y, Bible-y or evangelical code words and the worship space was stripped of “scary” church-y artifacts to make the local church all the more real and approachable for their cultural cohort.

The effort “worked”, which was its point, for a while. “Prevailing” churches sprung up around the world and big box evangelical congregations throughout the suburbs brought church into the Costco age.

CRC pastors, like myself, who took the trip to Willow came first with suspicion. “Would he water down the gospel?”

To our delight the answer was “no”. He and his other preachers when it came time for sermon preached a very straight forward, tried and true American evangelical gospel message. They called for serious Christian discipleship as it was understood by the American evangelical church. Fully devoted followers of Christ would do evangelism, would give sacrificially, would serve the poor, would have daily devotions, and would even be willing to have the worship service made for them on Wednesday nights so that Sunday could be available for the “seeker service” so that others could hear and be changed.

CRC people came to Willow only to learn they were not necessarily the discipleship athletes they imagined themselves to be. Here non-Christian school educated, non- Heidelberg Catechism affirming, non-Sabbath keeping evangelicals were excelling them in zeal and performance. CRC pastors tried to implement some of what they’d learned at Willow and some if it came to good effect.

Even though Bill Hybels had grown up Kalamazoo CRC, his prevailing church was non-denominational. Hybels soon figured out that if he was not only to create and embody a movement through his local church, the hope of the world, he needed to figure out how to promote and resource this movement throughout the world and so the Willow Creek Association was formed. You could be CRC AND be a member of the Willow Creek Association and many CRC churches were members, including my own for a time.

Some pastors I’m sure found their Willow Creek Association membership to be MORE valuable than their CRC affiliation. Every month Willow would send a cassette tape (later a CD) for pastors to play in their cars while they do their rounds and to use for training their leadership. I’ve still got dozens of these tapes and CDs in our church, right next to Veggie Tales VHS tapes in the church library. They were good tapes where Hybels and others would engage important local church issues.

Being resourced by Willow was inspirational, unlike classis meetings and paying Willow Creek Association dues were a lot cheaper than ministry shares. You felt when you were paying them like you were taking part in a movement bringing Christ all around the world. Wasn’t this what ministry shares were for?

While I’m sure some pastors would have liked to have dropped Classis, ministry shares, and denominational allegiance after they dropped “Christian Reformed Church” from their names after a suburban, ruralish naming make-over it would have never gone over well with the builders who at that time were still providing the backbone of local church giving. These builders would sooner sacrifice local church programming than cut down on their denominational ministry share giving. Boomers would roll their eyes at such allegiance and talk behind their backs but out of love, respect and good manners would try to have things both ways. They could both be loyal, ministry share paying CRCers and members of the Willow Creek Association. They’d have both the guitar AND the organ on Sunday morning.

The Heart of the Seeker Movement

The seeker movement was quintessentially American evangelical. It imagined you could remodel the house while keeping, or improving, the essential character of the home. Gnarly doctrinal disputes like infant baptism that divided denominations could be massaged with a pragmatic consumer understanding. Let the parents choose if they wanted to have their babies baptized or not. With the focus on the family parental authority should be respected and giving people a choice about non-essentials was a good way to enfold former Baptists and newly-former CRCers into the same local congregation. The essential things were obvious to all:

  • A clear confession to Jesus as Lord and Savior
  • Allegiance, service and giving to the local church
  • A promise to conduct one’s life according to the Christian moral code of conduct that had been widely and implicitly accepted by “Bible believing” churches across North America.

This last point is important. While there might always be quibbling about things like drinking alcohol, for the most part being a Christian was seen as a sort of moral upgrade from standard American morality. Christians might be a big priggish and prudish at times, and perhaps a bit uptight about what might considered vices by some, for the most part Church helped people get clean and stay clean and become upstanding, moral members of society. The Christian moral system and the American moral system were fundamentally one in the same.

The seeker movement attempted to transcend what IT defined as non-essentials. Local churches could adjust these as need be for community tastes or a local congregations historical ties to certain denominations but “the main thing was the main thing”.

“I don’t have an culture but everyone else does…”

Having set up the description as I have it’s not hard to see where I’m going. The seeker movement defined as it refined. It built upon the broad evangelical consensus and was able to improve and even perfect its work. If you want to read how earnestly and seriously they have done so read Move, a book that with refined Willow culture gets down to what they see are the true nuts and bolts of building disciples.

Move answers a question it doesn’t feel it needs to ask. “What does a Christian look like? What behaviors identify a true Christian?”

Unfortunately this is exactly the question of the day. It is the question that is about to rip up the CRC and nearly every other denomination that still assumes large commonality between a moral Westerner and a practicing Christian.

Sam rightly notes that “identity shapes behavior”, but he gives too little attention to the mirror fact that “behavior creates identity”.

“The denomination should serve the local church…”

For the seeker movement and its followers it was axiomatic that the denomination should serve and resource the local church. The local church is where disciples are made, disciplined and encouraged. This is why the local church is the “hope of the world” as Hybels asserted repeatedly because the world’s hope is built on individuals being converted to Christianity and Christians serving their world sacrificially. This is beyond culture right? Nor does it have implicit assumptions and expectations, right? But what is the shape of that discipleship? Doesn’t the Bible tell us what that looks like?

While the seekers were trying to migrate the focus from the boomer “denomination as identity center” ideal to the local church, subsequent generations have taken it one level further. “If the job of the denomination is to support the local church, the job of the local church is to support ME and the shape of MY discipleship and MY ministry.”

Now that sounds more selfish than it might be for some, but only for some. The emphasis was also there within the boomer generation. For the boomers, churches were not something that gave you identity. Imagine being CRC because you were “born into it” rather than choosing it. Doesn’t that feel “inauthentic”? Churches became things that you choose because they fit your identity as you found yourself or defined yourself.

This cultural shift is well documented in David Brooks’ The Road to Character. Identity wasn’t received by your faith community it was achieved by a strange mixture of self-discovery, experience and personal exploration. Churches were no longer seedbeds expressed by their flowers but consumer goods evaluated by consumer seeds looking for just the right soil chemistry to give them the bloom they desired. The CRC as denomination in this transition tried to become “your ecclesiastical vendor of choice” rather than your mother.

Behaviors that Gave the CRC Identity

nfl quarterback sabbath observance

This meme showed up in a Reformed Facebook group setting off a Sabbatarian firestorm. When I saw it I knew the world it spoke of. There was a day when you might easily find a Banner article decrying the NFL’s use of the Sabbath to play their games and how they might tempt our youth to participate in Sabbath breaking by watching. There was a day when our church allegiance trumped our nationalistic allegiances, at least perhaps until the First World War when Americans couldn’t differentiate Dutch from German so we covered our churches in American flags.

Now we expect such a meme to only generate discussion among “those kind” of Reformed Christians, the kind that split off from the CRC into churches that strongly emphasize “the antithesis” and work hard to keep themselves from “worldliness”. This brings back memories of “devil cards” and prohibition of movies. But even so, how would such a person appreciate the “Dark Knight” reference of the meme itself? One must question the antithetical bona fides of Truly Reformed person with a Facebook account, shouldn’t one?

I’m currently converting a group of cassette tapes made by my grandparents into MP3s for the cousins. My father’s father was a CRC pastor. Both he and his wife expressed their generation’s identity of what it meant to be CRC. It was the boomer generation that began to loosen the CRC’s traditional sabbatarian practices. We became increasingly condescending towards such an archaic and narrow practice. “Wasn’t that merely silly legalism? Haven’t we grown beyond all that? For pity sake it’s 1981 after all!”

In the Missouri “Home Missions” church where I did my first summer assignment in the late 80s there was one family from Iowa where the wife would cook on Saturday so she could observe the Sabbath. There was another who didn’t grow up CRC who would always go to the buffet restaurant on Sunday so the mother wouldn’t have to cook. Today of course there can be no presumption that a female parent would be cooking because of her gender.

I didn’t grow up watching football partly because the TV was off on Sundays at least until after the evening worship service. Then we could watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or the Wonderful World of Disney.

These kinds of things shaped our identities and gave denominational institutions value and meaning. The local church was a branch office of what it mean to be CRC which was why that builder generation demanded that ministry shares be paid even at the expense of local church ministry.

CRC was something that lived in an ecclesiastical cloud, it was a Platonic form of sorts which the denomination and the local church expressed. Most of us (but not all) are now so far from this way of imagining the church and ourselves that we are looking around for ways to make sense of CRC institutions, practices and meaning. Sabbatarianism was a integral part of our identity, as was recitation of God’s law on Sunday mornings, vetting visitors to see if they could participate in the Lord’s Supper, and church visitation.

Many of these practices were set aside as we “outgrew” them, feeling we wouldn’t lose what was at their center while, often increasingly aware of evangelical pluralism, and Christian pluralism. We rethought them thinking that they didn’t represent what was central to our faith; only what was incidental.

The great idea of evangelicalism was the implicit identification of what was central and what was peripheral. Being evangelical was always a bit more difficult to define than being CRC. The Bebbington quadrilateral is probably the best attempt.

  • biblicism: regard for the Bible and the “essential” truths within it
  • crucicentrism: the atoning work of Christ (Bill Hybels might use the Roman Road)
  • conversionism
  • activism: the gospel calls you to act!

Sabbath keeping didn’t make the cut. Some of the points of the Canons of Dordt could get complicated so those should be backgrounded if possible too.

The evangelical bargain is a subtle one. It’s an implicit confession best kept implicit. It affords broader fellowship and clearer action. It encourages a narrative of evolving where once our parents were narrow and unenlightened, clinging to their Sunday observance and Psalter Hymnals while now we’re all grown up with a bigger vision to call Baptists, non-denoms, Pentecostals, Nazarines, and even some Roman Catholics as brothers and sisters. Ah, the fresh clean outside are of freedom.

“Don’t stop evolving, holding on to that feeeelinnggg…” 

While boomers raised in denominations were molting their identity markers a disruptive wave was making its way through nearly ALL of the churches that found Willow helpful. That wave was the debate over women in office. Willow took what was then considered the “progressive” position of including women in the church’s ministerial staff. This ruffled feathers of course as denominations, like the CRC, were struggling to figure out what to do with the demands of a new generation. Many who would stick with Willow Creek would also go along with them on ordaining women into the ministry. There seemed to be room in this implicit form of discipleship for women in ministry.

What seemed like a storm may be looked back upon as a ripple as the same group of churches confronts the sea change of the LGBTQ movement. On May 6 2016 Bill Hybels tried to navigate that wave by declaring “hope for the LGBT”. From the piece he seemed to stake out the evangelical middle that many, including the CRC are trying to work.

Just a few days ago David Gushee, someone with formerly impeccable evangelical credentials wrote an important piece on the disappearing middle ground, that same middle ground that Hybels, and the CRC have been trying to work.  He warned that evangelicals had better evolve voluntarily now before they are forced to. Many responders including Alan Jacobs asked “what exactly do you mean by voluntarily?”.

Gushee delivers the bad news. Remember how you eeeeevangelicals looked down on un-evolved denominationalists for their tea-totalling or Sabbatarian ways? Well that’s increasingly what you are looking like to us (the newly coined progressive evangelicals who affirm LGBTQ inclusion) and, by the way, the rest of those who “matter”.

The only way the evangelical method works is if you don’t have to talk about theology. It works if everyone can be vague enough but also agree enough to be on the same page on what should be regarded as a “Biblical” life style. In the light of the LGBTQ movement looks increasingly unworkable.

What does it mean to be a disciple?

What birthed the CRC was a common vision, a common identity on what it meant to be a Christian. That identity had specific practices and beliefs. People invested in the denomination because of its attachment to those beliefs. The smooth move that evangelicalism made was to convince denominational people that “You can be evangelical AND CRC too! One is a subset of the other.Why not be a part of the bigger tent?”

That made sense for most in the CRC. Implicitly, however, it also drove most CRC first to ask “does it really matter to God if we watch football on Sundays?” and then to answer “No it doesn’t matter to God if we watch football on Sundays.”

Somewhere along the way something changed and it was our identity.

Now we are being asked “does it really matter to God whether what feels authentic sexually conforms to traditional Christian sexual ethic?”

Being evangelical won’t answer that question for you. Synod 2016 took a swing at it and put a ball in the air to be caught in 2020.

The boomer generation evangelicals have been saying for a long time “discipleship is a known thing, get with the program.” Increasingly the younger generations are skeptical. “Why don’t we get to define what discipleship is for us?”

Suddenly all the really awkward, cumbersome, once considered archaic parts of a denomination like confessions and discipline seem to be rudely looming on a pragmatic church that is centrally interested in local church numerical growth along an assumed “Bible-believing” path.

The questions we will need to answer to do evangelism and discipleship are “what does it mean to be a Christian? What behaviors are expected of a Christian? What will God through this church demand of me?”

The challenge of answering this in a consumer environment is not that there are too few answers, but that there are too many.

“The denomination has to embrace it’s true identity”

What may I ask is that identity? How will we know when we’ve found it? What will we do with those who don’t agree or can’t identify with it?

Our malady is not unique. The answers won’t be simple.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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5 Responses to The CRC can’t answer the identity question until it addresses the discipleship question

  1. Good words Paul. I think its important to get at some of the shifts in understanding what it means to be a Christian. I also thought the idea about the movement from the denominations resourcing the local church to the local church resourcing/discipling it’s people is an important part of that. I like to talk about it in the context of Ephesians 4 “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” In the past that you describe discipleship was about living right, and inviting your friends to our comfortable nonthreatening worship service/ gospel presentation. Today the “work of ministry” is happening more and more outside the walls of the church. Preparing the saints looks a lot different. A business man sharing/living the gospel in his office, probably needs to learn some different things than the stay at home mom with 4 kids. Our increasingly diverse world has increasingly diverse mission fields.

  2. George Vink says:

    Thanks Paul. You are asking good questions.

  3. Sam Hamstra says:

    Thanks you for your thoughtful response to Bill Hybels. I believe he has also said that the local church is the hope of the world. And I believe that statement is pretty important to his approach to ministry. But Willow Creek or Bill Hybels or the Seeker Sensitive movement are not the source of my statement. Your response, as well as Bill’s, encourages me to flesh that our a bit.

    I have a very high view of the local church, one that flows from my pneumatology, my love for Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and my friendship with the late, great John Williamson Nevin).

    I have observed, perhaps you have as well, that many view the church politically or organizationally as a voluntary society or collective of like-minded individuals. I suggest that this type of thinking flows from the politics of American republications with its inherent call for the separation of church and state. But maybe there is more to it than that.

    In contrast, I take the apostle Paul’s teaching to the messed-up Corinthians church at face value. I believe the local church is the people of God the Father, the bride and body of Christ (the presence of Christ in a community), and the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16) consisting of individuals who are also temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19). By the promised presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work within the local church, she can do far more abundantly than she can ask or imagine.

    No other group, not even a denomination, can claim to be the temple of the Holy Spirit consisting of many individuals who are also temples of the Holy Spirit. (Granted, a group can claim that some of its individuals are temples of the Holy Spirit.) No group other than the local church can claim the promises made to churches like that of Corinth or those in Ephesus or to contemporary local congregations. That’s why, for me, the local church is the hope of the world. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can join God in his mission to seek and save the lost by making disciples.

    Of course, we would benefit from conversations about the benchmarks of discipleship. And local congregations may solicit help from its denomination in this area.

  4. Jeff Scripps says:

    As one of the last Sabbatarians standing and a Batman fan, I love the meme! I also appreciate the post, too and the larger questions involved. I can see now that the loosening of confessional bonds started before the WICO (in)decisions. As in the days of Judges, everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes under the umbrella of a skimpy and implicit creed. Of course, not every congregation ditched the reading of the law (no surprise I read the Ten Commandments most Lord’s Day mornings), evening services, Psalter Hymnal-only singing etc. all at the same time. I think this has contributed to the phenomenon of implicit confessions and something like denominations within a denomination. What a mess! I think honest and gracious conversation would be the first step to sorting this out.

  5. Wendy says:

    Great post! This particularly struck me: “While the seekers were trying to migrate the focus from the boomer “denomination as identity center” ideal to the local church, subsequent generations have taken it one level further. “If the job of the denomination is to support the local church, the job of the local church is to support ME and the shape of MY discipleship and MY ministry.””

    It seems that those who are complaining that the denomination is too self-focused are those same people who are wringing their hands about “the youth” leaving the church, when in fact many are leaving that particular expression of church because it has become too self-focused. They are not leaving THE church. They just don’t see the need for fancy buildings and huge budgets to do the work that God has commanded us to do.

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