As the Canadian Ministries Director of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), I find Haskell, Flatt and Burgoyne’s “Theology Matters” study extremely interesting (see page 6 for a summary). You see, sometimes I am part of conversations in which the CRC is understood to be the most liberal expression of Christianity from which a believer would want to run. And indeed, people do, thinking that the CRC is “going to hell in a handbasket.” At other times, I am part of conversational circles or leadership groups in which this faith tradition stands out as a lonely bastion of conservative Christianity, and people look at me sideways because my faith is so markedly conservative, so “reformed.” Both cases can spark an identity crisis.
Here is what I perceive to be the heart of study’s conclusion, which speaks to this identity crisis and the question of how denominations grow. The key finding, as it has now been expressed from the report itself, “Clergy and congregants of growing churches are more theologically conservative.”
Maybe that’s the silver bullet, the magic elixir? If all of the churches would somehow become “conservative” our denomination’s challenges would all disappear?!
Do visions of blue psalter hymnals and solo organs come running through your mind? Should all of the churches who only have one service on a Sunday resurrect the evening service? Should we restore all offices to be open to only men? And get those crazy drums off the platform? You might think so upon hearing of the study’s “conservative” conclusion. But it is the farthest thing from the truth conveyed in the report. And it is the farthest thing from the reality of growing churches in the CRCNA in Canada.
The word “conservative” might better be understood to mean “orthodox.” In the Macleans article which profiled this report, pastor Joel Sherbina of a growing Presbyterian church in Paris, Ontario put very helpful words in place of “conservative” when he said “We would say we are Christians who hold orthodox views.” Orthodox – meaning long standing, firm, Bible-centered tenets of faith. And strikingly, the study “Theology Matters” indicates that those orthodox views/tenets when partnered with a generous dose of creativity, expression and purpose create the environment in which churches grow. And that is nothing like what comes to mind when one thinks of “conservative.” Yet this generous orthodoxy is precisely the attitude and expressions I often see propelling the healthiest of Canadian congregations in the CRCNA.
Local churches firmly rooted in the gospel (Christ alone, faith alone, scripture alone, grace alone, for God’s glory alone) and looking to express it in authentically diverse ways for their specific communities are the ones creating a buzz and growing. Macleans took notice of this and wrote: “Growing conservative churches also have an ironic openness to modernity in spreading the Word, though not modern readings of the Word itself. ‘Everything is on the table, except the Gospel.’” So, it begs the question: what are the diverse, modern means by which orthodoxy finds its healthy expression?
Simply stated, according to the study, the findings indicate that a confident prayer ministry, intentional focus on youth ministry, a willingness to contemporize worship (drums, electric guitar etc.), the use of technology and exercising Christian church behaviour beyond Sundays all play a strong role. For a growing church, if you add to that the deeply embedded knowledge within a congregant that all of the above is done through the strong behavioural purposes of evangelism (Matt 28:20), you’ve got the right thrust toward growth.
A contextual gospel
But to me that sounds like orthodoxy! That just sounds like healthy Christian ministry. It sounds like Talbot Street CRC in London, Ontario that meets in an historic building and is driven by the core of the gospel, vibrant worship and a strong desire to reach others. It sounds like Crosstowne, the church plant in Milton meeting in an industrial strip mall and serving the community well. It sounds like River City in Cambridge that meets in a movie theatre and seeks to reach the city in fresh ways with a liberally orthodox and authentic approach. And it sounds like First CRC in Vancouver, B.C. in which “ministry partners” were made with the provincial government as they designed a significant effort to serve incoming refugees. And it sounds like John Calvin CRC in Truro, Nova Scotia as it has developed a half-acre community garden (complete with deer fence) specifically targeting single parent families. These churches and many more are breathing life into their neighbourhoods, towns and cities by framing the gospel for their context. How reformed! How conservative! How orthodox!
This orthodoxy is not stuck or traditional. Orthodoxy is vibrant, life-giving and attractive. Orthodoxy is growing. And the Christian Reformed Church in North America is increasingly working so that all of its parts foster these behaviours.
When I stop and allow these kinds of churches and characteristics to flood the pictures in my mind, I don’t have an identity crisis at all. I realize that I am a member of a denomination with struggles, sure. And I am also a member of a growing movement of orthodoxy that is seeking to be Christ in so many fresh ways. In this year in which we recognize the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it feels appropriate to say about that these kinds of churches are “reformed and always reforming.”