Five Steps to Denominational Renewal - Part 1
August 23, 2016
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Most pastors will acknowledge that the relationship between their congregations and their denominations is tethered by but a thread. One simple explanation for this is that denominations serve but a small percentage of the essential needs of their congregations. For many congregations, denominational services may be limited to insurance plans, pensions, seminaries, and ordinations. Outside of such, congregations have found few denominational resources essential to their lives and ministries. And that’s OK. From my perspective, I don’t think a denomination need provide much more than those essential services.
But one may ask why the relationship between the two is connected by but a thread and not a rope? I am sure there are many reasons but three have been prominent in my ministry. First, the world-wide-web has provided access for congregations to more than enough resources for ministry. Through this technology, congregational leaders discover curriculum, songs, liturgies, Bible studies and much, much more. Hence, local congregations don’t need a denomination to provide such resources.
Second, the growing diversity of congregational cultures makes it difficult for a denomination to service their congregations with resources for ministry. Fifty years ago this wasn’t the case. Then the ecclesiastical landscape looked much like the McDonalds Corporation. The franchises (congregations) within the corporation (denomination) looked pretty much the same. They shared the same menu of ministries, ministry context, culture, and more. It was easy, then, for corporate headquarters (the denomination) to serve these churches with curriculum, hymn books, liturgies, marketing, theologically trained pastors, church order, and more. More recently, congregations and their ministry contexts within a denomination have increased in diversity. Each congregation exhibits a unique culture in a unique ministry context. Sure there are similarities between the congregations but each church differs in significant ways from others in its denomination. Such diversity makes it difficult for denominations to provide boiler-plate resources.
Third, the mission of most denominations has been related to but is separable from that of their congregations. This denominational mission typically has been something akin to “doing more together.” While there is nothing wrong with “doing more together,” that mission is not necessarily connected to the congregations within a denomination. As a result, denominations must launch marketing plans to convince congregations to join in their mission. Plus, the mission of “doing more together” is not unique to denominations; it is shared by countless parachurch organizations. So, by embracing a motto of “doing more together,” denominations place themselves on a competitive playing field with countless organizations who just as effectively, if not more so, help congregations and congregants extend their ministry and mission in their communities and throughout the world, i.e., “do more together.” The end result is that denominations compete for support from the congregations they serve—and they are losing, as evidenced by decreasing financial support for denominations.
One wonders if there is a future for denominations. I hope so. We need them if but to serve as judicatories to protect pastors from churches and churches from pastors, and to oversee the ordination process of candidates for pastoral ministry. But what is the way forward?
Throughout human history, people have adopted one of three approaches to a crossroad or, if you will crisis. These three options may be summarized as reject, repair, or reform. Clearly, as evidenced by the large number of unaffiliated congregations, many congregations have taken the reject option. Time will tell how well this non-denominational or unaffiliated option works.
Most denominations seems to be taking the repair option. They are busy trying to become relevant to their congregations by refurbishing current structures, improving their brand, expanding their menu of services, increasing their social media presence, and promoting a variety of initiatives. Up to this point, there is little evidence that this approach has been effective in strengthening the tie between congregations and denominations. But, again, time will tell.
In this post-modern and post-Christian context which differs so significantly from the context within which denominations apparently flourished, I prefer the reform option. This one questions fundamental assumptions, encourages new ways of thinking, and challenges the status quo. For obvious reasons, congregational leaders (outsiders) may appreciate this approach far more than denominational insiders whose positions may be threatened by such conversations. So, this option is best promoted by outsiders who may be naive to the inner working of denominations but desirous of a vital connection with them.
But what does denominational reform look like? In part 2, this outsider will propose five steps for denominational reform or renewal.
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One key to strengthening the thread between the denomination and it's local churches is the denomination giving up its claim to act as political lobbyist and expert for its members. Church Order Article 28 requires it but has been ignored.
Indeed, the "doing more together" cliche has been used by a minority of CRCers (who have the lion's share of denomination level power) to establish a political platform (planks on federal policy on climate change, federal policy on public welfare benefits, federal policy on immigration, etc) for all CRCers (that is, for all members of local CRC congregations).
My own local church does not presume to speak for me as to national or state or even local government policy. Why should my denomination? Again of course, CO Article 28 says it should not, even may not, but it does anyway. And of course that is a breach of trust and covenant committment. No wonder the thread is thin.
I think denominations are very valuable, but as ecclesiastical institutions, not as political, scientific, or political think tank (etc) institutions. Of course, this thinking (Kuyperian social sphere sovereignty) is not at all new, even if increasingly ignored at the denominational level of the CRC.
I just posted a reply to an article in the same communication that I am reading this. A church, under the auspices of OSJ, is sending some young people to Nicaragua. I wonder how long it will take for the government (in Canada anyway) to eliminate the church's tax status if we continue down this road.
The last sentence in Doug Vande Griend's comments say it all.
According to the NT, there are no such organizations as denominations, splitting Christians in various camps to compete with each other. Part 1 shows very clearly that resources can be shared easily between denominations. Let us promote such sharing. Denominations should find more ways to cooperate on a national scale, Classis can start to cooperate on the regional scale and congregations on a local scale.
The CRC was started as an ethnic denomination. If we are not to continue as an ethnic denomination then what justifies our continued existence? No "spiritual" response, please. Yes, the CRC will exist as long as God wants the CRC to exist. But I'm feeling that God doesn't want me to make the 70 mile commute to attend church. It isn't "fair" to the other drivers on the freeway. <G>
There are over 100 Christian denominations. What does the CRC do uniquely, better, or more efficiently than the other 99+?
Personally, I think Dutch Reformed theology is worth saving. Specifically, the doctrine of common grace. Far as I know, it is unique to the CRC. But I don't see any interest in theology in Classis, in Synod, or in The Banner. All I see is the pushing of a secular politically correct agenda using "Christian" words. That and budget problems.
OK, this isn't the whole truth. I like Pastor Jim Wiersum and the congregation at First Everett CRC very much but intend to quit when Pastor Jim leaves (after 25 or so years). To old to change horses, to set in my ways, and am seriously thinking about quitting driving. The roads between Olympia WA and Marysville, WA, are to unnerving for me. But seriously, it took me 30 years to find the CRC but only a couple more years to decide that the CRC doesn't want to be a Dutch Reformed Church.
When the Dutch immigrants came to Canada, they organized churches to bring the gospel and set up separate organizations to be active in education and politics. In that spirit, a Christian Heritage Party was set up as well as Citizens for Public Justice.
As time went on, CPJ complained that the reformed churches were not active in politics. The North American model was for anything Christian, the organization must be directly supported by churches. Kairos works with that in mind. Any separate organization is assumed spiritually neutral.
I think we should applaud the efforts of the church to be politically active, and encourage both CPJ and OSJ to think European rather than North American in organization.
Complaining that the group only speaks for a minority does not help at all. Both conservative and Liberal minded Christians love the Lord and want to follow His commands for life.
Regarding announcement (Oct 16, 2016) of combining OSJ with Race Relations. With retirements and leaders leaving these Departments the church simply posts another job for a combined department leader, but leaving the functions in place. This is a missed opportunity to privatize these two functions. For those willing to support lobbying governments they should be willing to put organizations in place to do that and fund them. The church can no longer afford this cost that should never have been in the church in the first place.
I wonder if that option was considered?
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