Celebrating Congregationalism Together

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Today's post comes from Dr. Syd Hielema, team leader of Faith Formation Ministries. 

The email arrived from a CRC on the U.S. west coast just before dinner time here in Ontario. “I have some questions about faith formation. Please give me a call here at the church.” Ah, the sweet joys of serving a denomination that lives in five time zones. I gave her a call.

“We’d like to make use of one of Faith Formation Ministries’ resources,” she said. “Does that mean you will require us to use a particular curriculum in our children’s ministry?”

“No,” I replied, “that would undermine one of our core values. At FFM, we believe that we are called to honor the unique character of every congregation, and provide tools that will bless them as they discern and carry out their own specific calling.”

“Oh good,” she sighed with relief. “That’s the answer I was hoping for. Let’s talk about the ways your tool might be fruitful for us.”

And we did.

After the call ended and I continued preparing dinner, I quietly gave thanks that she and I were able to celebrate congregationalism together.

Isn’t that a delicious oxymoron? I love it.

About two decades ago, synodical decisions concerning women in office accelerated the growing congregationalism within the CRCNA. This trend tended to evoke two kinds of reactions. Some lamented what appeared to be the weakening bonds of our denominational covenant. Others were more matter of fact: “It is what it is, that’s the age we live in; we can’t fight it, just accept it as our new normal.”

We at Faith Formation Ministries would like to propose a third alternative: that we intentionally commit to learn to celebrate congregationalism together. 

Here’s why:

  1. Jesus lives in the local church in a unique way. I love the Revelations 1 vision of Jesus walking among the seven golden lampstands, which represent the seven churches of Asia Minor. And the vision is followed by seven distinct messages, one for each of the seven (Rev. 2-3). This uniqueness is so profound that each of the seven letters begins with a different description of Jesus, and all seven descriptions can be traced back to the glorious vision of the risen Lord that John sees in chapter 1. A fundamental tenet of New Testament ecclesiology is that each local congregation has a unique identity, unique context, unique history, unique character and a unique calling, all flowing from one Lord, one Spirit, and one overarching mission. 
  2. We need each other’s help as we grow into our own unique callings. The Lord’s observation in Genesis 2, “it is not good for man to be alone,” also applies to congregations. The pioneering, “pushing-the-envelope” Antioch church consulted with the more stable, traditional Jerusalem church. Paul challenged wealthier congregations to give support to the poorer ones. Congregations that were spread throughout the Roman empire quickly realized that epistles sent to other churches would also bless them.  We are interdependent; we need each other. We face many common challenges in our different contexts: how do we connect well with our local communities? how do we share the Lord’s grace and truth in rich ways across the generations? how do we equip pastors to lead wisely through situations that were not imagined when they were in seminary?

I have the privilege of experiencing the CRCNA in all five time zones (in case you’re wondering, the fifth is Atlantic time on the Canadian east coast). In my travels I’m struck by two things: each congregation and region is unique, but there is also an intangible quality that binds us together. I’m amazed that everywhere in the CRC I quickly sense, “this is home, I am with family.” Almost all first-time delegates to synod experience the same reality.

That’s why at Faith Formation Ministries we ‘re eager to experiment our way into celebrating congregationalism together, even when it interrupts dinner plans.  

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