What is a classis?
Dictionary says: (in certain Reformed churches)
1. the organization of pastors and elders that governs a group of local churches; a presbytery
2. the group of churches governed by such an organization
That dictionary definition hides the fact that this isn’t an invented church governance word—it’s borrowed from the navy. Classis is the Latin name give for a fleet of ships usually accompanied by a geographical name e.g. Classis Britannica or Classis Germanica. The same principles and purposes that would make it helpful for Dutch merchants to organize ships into a fleet are the same that lie behind organizing a group of congregations.
Today the term “middle judicatory” is one of the buzz words of those who study denominational trends. A classis is a form, more or really less, of a middle judicatory. When we try to explain a classis to those who have no concept of church polity, we describe a classis as the word our tradition uses to describe a regional level of church governance like a diocese, presbytery, or district. Those are all middle judicatories.
So a classis is a way of organizing the church so that the church can be governed effectively. This way of defining classis does not get at the heart of what it means to be classis. Can we effectively describe what it means to be a group of churches together? A dictionary definition will never be able to adequately define being together as a classis. This may be in part because our being together as a classis changes as the culture changes and as the church responds to these changes.
The classis of today faces challenges that the classis of previous generations didn’t:
1. A changed and changing cultural setting
- The church, Christendom, is increasingly marginalized in our pluralistic societies
- Congregations face tremendous pressure from a pervasive marketing culture that wants to tell it how to be a good church.
2. Denominational Integrity and loyalty is being challenged
- What does it mean to be a denomination?
- How do regional judicatories mediate between denominational headquarters and congregations?
- Congregationalism is rising
- We worry about losing our denominational heritage
3. Role of classis is changing
- Proactive partnering with agencies is requested
- Church order issues are being regionally interpreted
- Classes are stepping in to fill perceived gaps but have no resources to meet them
- Congregations ask “What good is classis to us?”
4. Stresses on congregations
- Congregations compete with other congregations—both CRC and non CRC
- Congregations are facing new ministry expectations and don’t know how to respond
- Congregations are caught between holding on and reaching out
The classis of our past was a good classis if it was a faithful classis. The classis of the present has to be, at the very least, a responsive classis—it has to respond in some way to the changes impacting our corporate church life.
What does a responsive classis in the CRC look like today? Here are ten benchmarks:
Numerical growth: based on yearbook reporting of growth through evangelism in established churches or new church development
Diaconal involvement: deacons participate in active diaconal conferences and/or serve as an additional delegate to classis meetings
Paid staff: the classis funds a part-time to full-time position at the classical level for youth, deacons, or ministry development
Vision statement: the classis has created and approved a vision statement for its ministry and has a process for its review and on-going revision
Prayer coordinator: the classis has a designated classical prayer coordinator who participates in CRCNA’s prayer leadership network
CMC: the classis has a classical ministries committee or its equivalent which coordinates the ministries of the classis
Enhanced agenda: the classis has adopted an agenda for its meetings that includes mutual sharing, fellowship, and worship and engages in effective governance
NCDs in the last 5 years: Commitment to and engagement in new church development is indicated by the number or lack of church plants in the last 5 years
Leadership development: the classis identifies, trains, and supports its ministry leaders in a variety of venues
Strategic Plan: the classis has and regularly reviews a strategic plan.
Gil Rendle in his article, Finding the Path in the Wilderness: Middle Judicatory Case Studies and Learnings, points out that it the past, a middle judicatory often functioned as an airplane—it’s job was to get every congregation to see the importance of taking the trip, to get everyone to sign up for it, to organize everyone so they were ready to embark at the right place and time, and then pilot the plane to its destination. Each congregation was on the same basic journey. Today a classis is more like an airport. Each congregation is its own airplane and the role of classis leadership is to be the airport personnel that provide a safe place for them to leave from and come back to.
With all this in mind, how can we describe what being a group of churches together can and should be like? We have some ideas in mind but being classis will never happen from the top down, it will only be what the churches and the classis leaders make it to be. However, here are some of our ideas for the future of classis.
- A community of communities that embody and proclaim the love of God
- Focused on a ministry of support to congregations
- A facilitator of corporate critical thinking and discernment
- An incubator for collaboration and shared witness
- A web of interconnectedness, of mutual sharing and support
- A safe place to try out new patterns of thinking and behaving—congregations, classes, and denominational agencies, institutions, and offices—together.
What would you like to add to this list?