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Leadership Flow in North America

One of the sea changes in North American church leadership over the last 50 years has been the change of seat from which leadership is recognized and influence is exerted. 

Before the later part of the 20th century it was assumed that positions within national institutions were the best places to exert church leadership. CRC membership looked to Banner editors and college/seminary professors to lead the church. Names like Smedes, Plantinga, Stob, Kuyvenhoven and Nederhood were recognized and cited. 

Following some of Ross Douthat's name dropping in his book Bad Religion Christian leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham lead para-church organizations while academics like Reinhold Niebuhr shaped public thought. Local ministry was seen as a temporary stepping stone for broader things, usually from directorships or academic chairs. 

In the late 20th century the list of leadership that reshaped the North American church almost all remain local church pastors: Schuller, Smith, Hybels, Warren, Anderson, Piper, Peterson, Keller. In many cases these were the founding pastors of their churches and will pastor until retirement and beyond. 

Classical Renewal and the Realignment of Influence

Many CRC Classis have undergone one or more processes of classical renewal. Within the process structures are usually created or remade often in the hopes of pursuing greater ministry outcomes. What has been implicit in much of this reform has been the flipping of classical mandates. 

Again, during the first part of the 20th century most classical leaders would have assumed that classis lived to serve the denomination. Authority and power was centralized and flowed out to the periphery. Classes were regional administrators and local churches branch offices of the bi-national brand. The essential business of classis was to enable the denomination to do its important work. 

Over the last 30 years many classes have inverted their mission. The job of the classis is seen as supporting the ministry of their local churches. 

I know that this transition is still underway in some parts, but trust me, it will keep moving in this direction. How do I know? It's been the flow of leadership and influence in the church within our culture. Young leaders no longer leave seminary dreaming of their careers peaking in a denominational office, but rather at the helm of a larger, influential local church showing the rest of the church "how it's done". 

Always the Bridesmaid...

You might have already figured out that leaders don't dream of imagining their careers peaking as the chair of a classical committee, and I'm not going to predict this any time soon. Classis will always be in the middle, always be the servant, always be serving someone else's agenda, and that's OK, as long as it is the Lord's.

What classical leadership should probably think about is how this shirt in the leadership-influence-flow impacts our role? 

Classes have routinely prioritized denominational agendas, but how well do classes prioritize the agendas of influential local congregations and leverage those assets for the greater good? 

The relationship between a classis and larger, wealthier, powerful, influential local churches within it is a complex one. Often these churches are the patrons of the classis, providing the bulk of its ministry share funding.

Sometimes classis is used as a forum for competition between these churches or a place where smaller churches can limit the expansion of a powerful local group or pastor.

Classis by design is a collegial assembly where local congregational wealth and power is mitigated by the broader church. 

A Call for Creative Thinking About This Relationship

For whatever reason we are in a cultural spot where the greater witness seems to need to be embodied in a local church and the Christian voice needs speak from a local church. What does this mean for your classis? If we recognize this sea change how do we respond to it in a way that serves the kingdom well? 

Do flagship churches in your classis (if you have any) see classis as a vehicle they can get behind to see they're local blessing multiply regionally? 

Can non-flagship churches of classis see the presence of an unusually blessed (in whatever way) congregation in their classis as a vital asset through which they can channel positive influence beyond themselves? 

If there is a church in your classis with potential should the classis focus upon it in order to help develop a flagship church that can in time bless the whole classis and beyond? 


Every church has its purpose, and distinguishing "flagship" churches does a disservice to the general mission of the church within classis. Larger churches obviously are meetings of larger numbers of people, and perhaps the preaching, organization or location is influencing that...praise the Lord for it. But some large churches are as likely to misrepresent the gospel as some small churches are likely to struggle...I think of Joel Osteen for example. And some large churches are a bit too much people(preacher) followers rather than God followers. However, the Lord will work with all of them.  

You are onto something worthwhile.   I encourage you to pursue exploring the issue(s) raised in this article 

by Paul VanderKlay!!

Interesting questions on the role of classis in the local church. As someone who knew very little about classis until I began to work part-time in the CRC, I'd love to hear more on the topic. What kind of relationship would local churches really like to have with their classes? What kind of support do they need?

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