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Window to a Lost World
An elder member of our church community discovered a booklet produced by our congregation over 40 years ago. The booklet is a window into a time and place that is no more. It depicts a young, energetic congregation putting its best foot forward to present itself to potential members in a nominal Christian culture.

I am the age of many of those who were children in those pictures, and their parents in the pictures are either well into their 70s or 80s or have passed away. I know many of their stories, although I can’t recognize all of the faces. None of them knew what the next 40 years would bring.

Some of the appeals of the brochure continue to be safe and assumed attractions for the church and culture today. The brochure intentionally depicts three families, one of European descent, one of African Americans, and the third Asian. It emphasizes positive community and service.

Some of the other assumed attractional appeals like allegiance to the Bible and the place of worship would in church marketing today be seen as specifically appealing to Christians rather than the general population. The presentation looks positively sleepy compared to the high energy mega church websites or new age competitors attempting to attract contemporary religious consumers.

The Bible and Christian worship no longer hold the same position of privilege in our shared cultural value system. Growing a congregation in many of our communities takes more than simply energizing dormant or nominal believers. Our context has changed.

I believe the mood of the CRCNA today is anxious. The world has changed dramatically over the last 40 years and the pace of change is accelerating rather than declining. Ross Douthat notes that changes in our sexual ethic gets all of the attention, but far more things have changed while we were focusing on sex. (Read Douthat’s book Bad Religion.)

I recently listened to an online discussion as to whether the CRCNA in the last 20 years has lost more people because it’s not conservative enough or because it’s not liberal enough. I’d argue that the presence of the entire framework through which we’ve interpreted the value of the gospel has changed and in many ways we need to work to understand the gospel anew within our present cultural-values framework.

While I may understand the project in rather esoteric language, most of us are focusing on a myriad of very practical things. Will old ways of understanding the world continue to motivate people’s behaviors sufficiently to support cherished institutional forms and structures? Will the fabric of CRCNA traditions and institutions that we’ve constructed continue to be sustainable?

The CRCNA is conducting listening meetings in different geographical locations. For the most part only the most loyal, the most committed, the most anxious of our community will come out to be heard. Will this sample offer helpful information to help chart the future? Tough to say. Listening, however, is one of the most helpful ways to approach almost anything.

Do Not Worry
One of Jesus’ clearest commands was to not worry. The command concerns “what you will eat and what you will wear.” It is followed by “seek first the kingdom of God” which I think sanctions a certain amount of holy concern. Perhaps if we resist the temptation to be anxious about our denominational eating and wearing and focus more instead on kingdom seeking we can move in the direction Jesus was pointing.

Although particular cultural understandings of the gospel change over time, the multi-layered application of its power usually opens up new glimpses of how it saves us sometimes before we fully understood our peril. Christianity more than any other world religion has demonstrated its capacity to transcend and overcome cultural obstacles. This kind of “same but different” experience can be seen in my church’s old brochure. A lot has surely changed, and more will change, but it is also recognizable.

“I’m holding out for a hero ‘til the end of the night”
An unfortunate target for our anxiety is the search for a new Executive Director. The blank page of a vacancy invites the imagination to indulge in rescue fantasies that will almost certainly disappoint.

Part of the matrix for the way forward will certainly involve leadership. It always does. The leadership we need will come from a variety of places, some of them surprising. It is almost always true that the most valuable leadership is recognized over time, not in the moment.

We should pray for the process of selecting a new Executive Director while we pray for each other. We should keep our expectations for that leader and the position in check. By virtue of the fact that the new Executive Director will certainly be none of us (minus one), all of us (minus one) will disagree with a variety of his or her decisions. The new Executive Director will undoubtedly have to make some decisions that he has to hold his nose for and others that she will regret or will keep her up at night after its made. The position is like that.

Because none of us (minus one) will be the new Executive Director, we should all ponder how to lead from the places we currently occupy. How do my words and how does my influence help us to re-appropriate the gospel for our context? How does the way we relate to one another help build and not tear down this fragile community? How can we encourage and not discourage faithful endurance in a time and place where everything feels like it’s up for grabs?

The Christian church already has its hero. All others who want to lead must learn how to serve with him. 


Paul, you mentioned Paul Douthat's comment on the sexual ethic.  Unfortunately, he doesn't relate it to a christian perspective.  I guess I would say that from a christian perspective, the bible says much more about sexual morality, than it does about pot or gambling, and therefore it would seem right that sexual morality is a huge issue for christians.   Always has been, always will be.   When the christian ethic is also cultural, there seems to be less angst, but when the christian ethic is counter-cultural, some angst is natural, yes? 

Paul wrote: "I’d argue that the presence of the entire framework through which we’ve interpreted the value of the Gospel has changed and in many ways we need to work to understand the gospel anew within our present cultural-values framework."

I second that. Resoundingly. We are percieved as museums, even if these are living re-enactment museums that let us feel like we are active. Let's find new ways of bringing a Reformational Gospel into our culture... if we can keep up with it.

Is the bible ahead of culture, or behind it?   Is it man's perception or God's perception we should be focussing on?   Can we distinguish between harmless cultural change, and cultural rebellion? 

Paul VanderKlay on November 14, 2013

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Trying to tease out sin from culture is like trying to tease out sin from me. The weeds are sown among the wheat. 

Culture is like folding a map. You can't fold the paper map without folding the paper in specific places. Once it is folded it will always be pre-conditioned to fold it there again. Having been folded there will impact whose spot on the map is under the fold. 

God made us to be culture making. In our rebellion all or culture making will be tainted. 

God cannot communicate much to us (general revelation) apart from culture. Once he decides to employ language we're into it. We can understand almost nothing apart from culture. We cannot understand God's perceptions or intent apart from culture. Fighting culture would be like fighting movement. Once you intend to start you're already there. 

John Zylstra on November 15, 2013

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In modern day knowledge, we know that sin seeds itself, and that the wheat must be sown by a sower.   In modern day knowledge, we also know we have ways of spraying out weeds when they are small and have not yet done much harm to the wheat.   Maybe there is a parable in that also. 

Culture is a mishmash of customs, recreation, laws, all underlain by faith and philosophy of life.  So it seems to me that faith and culture are inseparable, just like faith and works.   Culture is the true indicator of faith.   Yes I agree that God calls us to be culture making, which you counterposed with your statement, "fighting culture would be like fighting movement".   Culture fights culture, or presents an alternative.   

Apart from analyzing what culture actually is, we know in simple terms that how you live is who you are.  That applies to individuals, churches, and society in general.  

The type of culture God asks us to make is a culture of faith and obedience.   A culture of priorities that put Him first.  A culture that does not worship both God and world, but only God alone.   A counter culture that recognizes that the world would be content without acknowledging God as Lord and ruler of the universe, and without acknowledging God as ruler of our daily morality and our daily priorities. 

A culture of prayer before meals and meetings, vs not.  A culture of church on sunday mornings vs the sunday morning hockey rink or basketball hoop.  A culture of donating tithes, vs fancy new shoes.  A culture of modest dress, vs piercings, porn,  and skin mutilations.  A culture of care and mercy, vs equality of outcomes.  A culture of work vs sloth.  A culture of sharing food, vs sharing drunken revelry.   The seedlings of cultural sins are easier to destroy than fullgrown vines that have already entangled and diminished the fruits of faith.   But are we being servants of the sower, or are we already entangled by a culture which has rebelled against the sower?   

As usual, a very thoughtful and provocative post, Paul.  Doesn't the CRCNA have reason to be anxious?  It has been slowly cratering for twenty years.  Now it has lost the generation between 18-39.  This means, as I see it, that Imembers over 65 like me belong to the last generation of a viable CRC.  When God calls us home, the church will pancake, it's population collapse by 50%, and it's revenue stream dry up.  Do you believe that the current leadership which has overseen the decline will suddenly surprise us with the answer to our anxiety?  If so, why?

Paul VanderKlay on November 14, 2013

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've got enough contact with "the current leadership" (or a piece of it anyway) to know that there is plenty of angst about. The listening tour going on is of course part of that.

I find it vital in this conversation to differentiate between the Denomination (community of congregations) and the denomination (institution housed at 1700 28th St.) The Denomination is more important, of greater concern, and at the same time more durable than the denomination. 

As I said in my blog piece we are in a long term cultural transition that deeply impacts the church because it deeply impacts how the church, the gospel and the Bible are understood. There are million blog posts and thousands of books written about it. We are not lacking "answers", we are awash in them. Some are of course better than others, we just don't know which ones. Historians will argue about it hundreds of years from now. 

This is not the first time the church has faced this, in fact it faces it every time it goes into a new place, or the culture around its places changes. The Bible is a record of many such changes and how they were navigated. 

We know from many such changes that there will be loss. We will lose a lot and it will hurt. 

As Americans our minds turn to "what should we do?" 

We should do what Christians have always done. We should do what Paul had to do. We should do what leaders in the Reformation did. We should do what missionaries do. We work on all levels at once. We engage the context, the questions, the answers, each other with boldness and love. That work is being done in many places and by many people. 

Will it be enough? 

Enough for what? To save our institutions, our traditions, our jobs, our reputation, our fame? We live in the age of decay. The age of decay eats everything which is why Jesus says to place our treasure in the age to come where it isn't eaten. Most of what we can lay our hands and eyes upon will be eaten, the only question is "how soon". 

In the short term some good general answers aren't that hard to come by. 

1. Every church needs to keep doing mission in its place according to their place. Our polity is really quite good at this. Between councils and classes we are distributed and can engage diversity. Synod needs to work hard on figuring out what to try to hold onto and what to be loose with. That is always the challenge of the broadest nexus. This isn't new. 

2. We need to keep planting new churches (they are our R&D labs for complex engagements that no one is smart enough to figure out) and establised churches need to keep working their diversity as well. Change always involves embracing the new while figuring out what of the old needs protecting. Again, our structure and tradition aren't illequipped to deal with that. If we all went seeker in the 90s we might be in trouble now in some places. We never know all that is going on. 

3. We need to keep writing, talking, praying, trying, forgiving, challenging, encouraging, discerning. Again, nothing new. 

Unfortunately all eyes turn to the small d denomination and look to it for help.

Because it is connected to Synod, which is the broadest assembly, and is given power, it is very difficult for it to know how to be helpful. An anxious person can be dangerous, an anxious person with a gun is MORE dangerous. We don't want the denomination to be anxious, to ready-fire-aim with the bullets we give her. We want her to be patient, careful, wise while also being assertive and willing to take risks. This is very challenging. Let's have a bit of grace towards our leaders even when we're frustrated because we don't think they're being very helpful or working too fast or working to slow or doing the wrong thing. It's hard. 

It's also important to realize that despite the power they seem to have, they really aren't in a position to be terribly helpful often. The real work is happening in the thousand churches around North America and the world. 

The small d denomination will pass information, pass resources, afford gatherings, afford discussion, help people connect so that we can all learn about this movement that is too large for any of us to understand. 

Most local churches have long turned to other leaders in the broader church community for wisdom. The unique thing our Denomination affords is a communal, historical context to work together within. We can read books by Tim Keller or John Piper or Jim Wallis or NT Wright but we live face to face with each other. We make decisions together. We share resources together. We hold each other accountable. This is what Amazon and blogs can't offer us, community. 

One of the primary jobs of the small d denomination (and the small c classis, the meeting) is to facilitate the community of the big D Denomination and the big C Classis (the community). It manages the sharing of money, arranging space and hospitality for gatherings, facilitating communication (like this Network), helping us realize that the church is the BODY of Christ as we its members are together talking, sharing, arguing, forgiving, trusting, challenging, loving, praying. 

Jeff Brower on November 15, 2013

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

God has done some beautiful things with remnants in the past.  Let's wait and see.

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