I’d like to offer three data points and then some synthesis on individualism, a confessional church, and the future of our confessional witness.
Data point 1. Tim Stafford, author and long time editor of Christianity Today wrote what is for me a haunting blog post on faith and family through generations. The CRC has not been alone holding the vision and the dream of generational covenantal identity. We’ve long assumed that children will follow the religious identity that they inherit. Although religious beliefs of parents still weigh heavily in their children what Tim Stafford points to here is an experience that many in the CRC are sharing.
Data point 2. I recently did some work with our Leadership Development network where I was helping a youth pastor in our program process Reformed theology. When the church planter was encouraging this young woman to not only formally join his small, developing congregation he introduced her to various aspects of Reformed theology including our positions on original sin and total depravity. She recalled today how she immediately reacted against these positions but now as she is reading, reflecting and discussing these stances she’s developing a deeper understanding of our confessional positions and beginning to see how they connect with both Biblical revelation as well as her life experience. She is doing this while being a youth leader in her congregation and considering a possible future as an Article 23 ministry associate.
Data point 3. Synod 2011 hosted a long discussion about a proposed denominational covenant to replace the current Form of Subscription. The draft offered to Synod 2011 was sent back to committee looking for language to tighten it with respect to a signor's subscription to our creeds and confessions.
We also saw that we have a difference of opinion in how church membership in contrast to office holding relates to creeds and confessions.
Although I appreciate the desired outcome of greater confessional fidelity in our denomination, I’m concerned about the message that this decision sends with respect to how we pursue that confessional fidelity. We are also trying to process affirming a new confession, the Belhar, while we’re struggling to figure out practices and understandings of being confessional itself. We have a lot on our communal plate.
Part of what Tim Stafford in his post is wrestling with is the powerful cultural element called “expressive individualism.” Religious beliefs are culturally valued as “authentic” when they are arrived at after a conscious process of experiential discovery usually in reaction to a set of received beliefs.
Expressive individualism tends to devalue any belief that is received apart from such a process or received as part of a larger package inherited from a familial group. “Authentic” religious faith valued by this cultural movement must be arrived at through a sort of spiritual crisis for our context. To stand up and associate oneself with a group and its confessions is seen as violating this cherished value of expressive individualism. Expressive individualists require a process by which they can make received confessions their own “authentically.”
I believe we need to make sure any system of communal confessional identity affords a very practical, understandable, long term process that offers those considering membership, those who have inherited membership from childhood, and those who consider leadership a safe space to process confessional matters. Safe spaces afford appropriate places to disclose doubts, concerns, and questions and allow people to make confessions legitimately their own, reservations included.
If such a process is not in place we will encourage a kind of community with multiple levels of identity and disclosure. We all act like party line people when we line up to sign the covenant at council or classis but in other “safer” spaces we let our hair down to challenge, question or even mock the settled standard. There will always be a level of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but we want to diminish that dynamic so that the whole community can have productive, honest discussion that arrives at what a communal confession ought to be, a unified body speaking with one voice.
The goal of a system of public confessional identity is not to create poster models of a small group’s cherished past but to afford a living witness that communicates the process of long term Christian sanctification and profession to a decaying world.
It is legitimate to lament with Tim Stafford the loss of communal confessionalism and the power for good it offers to successive generations. Good stewards of a successful confessional tradition find ways for new generations, and older generations within a context of change, to appropriate a tradition for themselves, call it their own, and learn to steward it in turn for the next generation. This ought to be our goal.