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So here is the proposal from an outsider alluded to in Five Steps for Denominational Renewal - Part 1. (Those familiar with the work of Will Mancini will recognize his “Vision Frame” in the background).

Since identity shapes behavior, the first step towards denominational renewal is for the denomination to embrace and affirm its true identity. This may come as a surprise to some, but a denomination is not a church. It is not the bride of Christ or the temple of the Holy Spirit or the recipient of the special grace promised to the church. It is, rather, an association of congregations. It is a collective of like-minded congregations who voluntarily support a shared mission, set of shared values, and strategic initiatives. Ironically, the theological confessions of most denominations list the marks of the true church or congregation and, by their own definitions these same denominations are not the church. Yet, many identify themselves as such and act accordingly.  

The second step towards denominational renewal is for Christians to embrace the biblical truth that the local church, not the denomination, is the hope of the world. The mission of God has been and is to seek and save the lost through the agency of local congregations, each of which is committed to making disciples. One need but look at the example of the Church of Antioch for confirmation. The local church, not the apostles in Jerusalem, fulfilled the Great Commission by sending Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries. Even in the modern era, the greatest movements in Christianity have been launched and sustained by local congregations and their congregants. In my own community, congregations, with their congregants, have planted new congregations. They have also established a college and a seminary, international mission agencies, Christian day-schools, adoption agencies, and food pantries. They have even commissioned and sent out ambassadors for Christ throughout the world.  

Since the local church is the hope of the world, the third step towards denominational renewal is for denominational officials to affirm but one mission or purpose: to support the ministry and mission of local congregations. That’s it, pure and simple. The ministry plan of a denomination is not to do more together; it is solely to support the ministry and mission of its local congregations. Denominational officials may counter by stating that they do support the ministry and mission of their local congregations. But my experience as a pastor in a denominational church, as well as those of many others, say otherwise. In fact, while serving as a pastor, I once conducted a simple sociological experiment. For one year I read and kept all my mail from the denomination and its agencies. I read each piece, then placed it a mail bin. By the end of the year the bin was overflowing! But in that collection I found but one letter from a local denominational official asking how he might help my congregation. Just one. The rest of the mail, including each piece from the denominational office, did nothing more than solicit support for the ministry and agencies of the denomination. Not once did the denominational office reach out and ask, “How can we support the ministry and mission of your congregation?” And on more than one occasion, denominational initiatives actually hindered our ministry on the local level.

If the local church is the hope of the world and the purpose of the denomination is to support the ministry and mission of its congregation, the fourth step is strategic. First, the ministry plan for a denomination must focus on listening to the churches and, in response, developing resources and providing assistance to meet real needs on the local level. Second, in order to listen well, denominational officials must prioritize building personal relationships with congregations – one by one. In so doing, they must resist the temptation to connect with congregations in any other fashion than by campus visits which include participation in corporate worship service and personal conversations with congregational leaders.

In order to complete this initiative, denominational officials will need to recruit and train a specialized group of regional representatives who are gifted with discernment and equipped to build relationships with local congregation in their ministry contexts.  Consequently, denominational officials will feel the need to decentralize and, most-likely, eliminate denominational agencies and offices that may be doing good work but don't directly serve the ministry and mission of local congregations. While painful, such hard decisions will be necessary to align the work of the denomination with its purpose.

The fifth step towards denominational renewal is even more challenging than the fourth: adopt benchmarks to determine effectiveness, the most obvious of which is annual professions of faith and baptisms within local congregations. That benchmark may seem daunting, but if the ministry and mission of the local church is to make disciples and the mission of the denomination is to support local congregations in that mission, one of the results of a healthy relationship between the denomination and its congregations will be more disciples, as evidenced in an increasing number of professions of faith and baptisms. Such a benchmark will surely encourage denominational officials to work hard at equipping their congregations to go into their communities, baptize believers into their congregations, and teach them the apostolic faith.

Five steps for denominational renewal. Together they call for unprecedented reform of ecclesiastical structures that have been around for decades. But the vision that prompts this call for reform is that of a collective of vibrant and healthy congregations embracing the mission of God to make disciples, supported and assisted by denominational structures which have but one purpose: to help their congregations fulfill that mission.

Will it work? In Part 3, I will highlight a couple examples. Until then, let's talk about it.


The denomination could possibly balance its budget by polling the local congregations on which agencies wish to support, then dropping the agencies that don't get super majority support. Should do before the denomination spends a zillion bucks remodeling the headquarters building - might need a smaller building.  

Bill you are right on.  That is the kind of info that would be delivered by regional reps to the headquarters.  And the kind of info that would most-likely results in a significant reduction in denominational offices and agencies.

The most obvious benchmark of effectiveness may be annual professions of faith and baptisms within local congregations, but I would challenge whether those are the right benchmarks to use. The leadership team of my church has been studying the book Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture by Tim Suttle. The author's thesis is that the church's job is to be faithful, not be successful (i.e., numeric growth). Faithfulness is demonstrated by growing in the leadership virtues of vulnerability, cooperation, brokenness, patience, and fidelity. I agree with the need to adopt benchmarks to determine effectiveness, but we need to be careful not to adopt simple numeric metrics to measure effectiveness.

Here are a couple quotes from the book to consider:

The gospel isn't about reaching numbers; the gospel is about participating in God's redemption of the cosmos.

We only have the duty to be faithful in all the small things and leave the results in the hands of the loving God who holds our future.

Thanks for pointing me to Suttle's book.  I concur with the mark of faithfulness when understood as faithfulness to join with God in his mission to seek and save the lost by making disciples. But I wonder about the biblical/theological  foundation for Suttle's marks of faithfulness: demonstrated growth in the leadership virtues of vulnerability, cooperation, brokenness, patience, and fidelity.  How did he come to that list?

Also wondering if you would discount any connection between faithfulness and the number of baptisms/professions of faith?  

The final third of Suttle's book elaborates on those five virtues. He references scripture (especially from the life of Jesus) as well as other Christian writers.

By no means do I want to minimize the importance of baptisms/professions of faith, and I believe that those can be a reflection of faithfulness within a church. But depending on those as primary benchmarks of effectiveness may be misleading. There can be many reasons for a church not to have baptisms/professions of faith which in no way reflects a lack of effectiveness and faithfulness of that congregation, e.g., local demographics.

Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with this post, Sam, I think you describe what the CRC Church Order precisely provides for.

I am personally persuaded that the creation of a CRCNA "Board of Trustees," with its own governance documents/rules no less, was a pivotal step in the direction of our regarding the CRC denomination as a separate church rather than as a function of the churches.  There is a great tug, I believe, to "be big," to be "influential" (especially politically) as some other so-called mainline protestant denominations and the RC Church are "influencial," to have permanent offices in Washington DC and get regular audiences with representatives and senators, even the White House on occasion.  And all of that is good and fine except that is not the function of an institutional church, at least as defined in the reformed tradition, as well as provided for in CO 28.

I look forward to your Part 3. :-)

OK, I'll bite: is the local church the hope of the world?

That idea packs a host of theology, and certainly runs counter to Christian history. Of course the Gospel must take on scandalous clothes in the particularity of a given place, time and community, but that doesn't mean that it is the hope. Rather that hope, properly is in Christ Jesus and then it is to that hope we are to give account, with our lives, in our gatherings, in our broader life together.

The larger question in the reductio ad congregation is that of social class. How exactly do communities get to hear? One of the important roles for collective or institutional action is to work with those who otherwise do not have the resources: the poor, the weak, the forgotten. The proposal works well enough for the established (hey! internet!) but if educational institutions are any judge -- and they are at the least, a useful model -- then we know who will be going without. Really, is that the model for "the hope of the world?"

Lastly, what does this model of the local church do to confession? If the church is fundamentally local, then the notion of confession must itself be circumscribed, good ideas at best, perhaps. How then do we have any weight, any possibility of mutual accountability? Denominational structure strikes me as the necessary wineskin for our common confession.








Bill: I'm not seeing anything in Sam's article that suggests denominations have no value or purpose, nor that denominations shouldn't exist.  In particular, there is no inconsistency with local churches mutually agreeing to commonly confess as to some confessional matters (which is exactly what the CRC Church Order calls for and exactly what we do).  But not all confessions (most CRCers and local churches are "a-mill" but not as a common confession) or all actions (many/most/all CRC churches have their own local, some even national or international, ministries) have to be in concert.  

Nor should there be -- unless we want to depart from a Reformed church polity -- a denomination that is a separated ("beyond the churches") entity that is quite other than the churches acting in concert as to some tasks, some common confession, and mutual accountability.  I would suggest OSJ in practice has become the latter.


Bill, I think you caught me! Right or wrong, I have a very high view of the local church (which I think reflects my pneumatology, my love for Paul's letters to the Corinthians, and my friendship with the late, great John Williamson Nevin).

I have observed, perhaps you have as well, that many view the church politically or organizationally as a voluntary society or collective of like-minded individuals. I suggest that this type of thinking flows from the politics of American republications with its inherent call for the separation of church and state. But maybe there is more to it than that.

In contrast, I take the apostle Paul's teaching to the messed-up Corinthians church at face value. I believe the local church is the people of God the Father, the bride and body of Christ (the presence of Christ in a community), and the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16) consisting of individuals who are also temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19). By the promised presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work within the local church, she can do far more  abundantly than she can ask or imagine. 

No other group, not even a denomination, can claim to be the temple of the Holy Spirit consisting of many individuals who are also temples of the Holy Spirit. (Granted, a group can claim that some of its individuals are temples of the Holy Spirit.) No group other than the local church can claim the promises made to churches like that of Corinth or those in Ephesus or to contemporary local congregations. That's why, for me, the local church is the hope of the world.  

To your second point, I have had the privilege of witnessing many congregations throughout North and Central America minister effectively to the poor, the weak, and the forgotten. That is not to say, however, that a cluster of congregations wouldn't come together to do so together, or that a congregation wouldn't initiate a conversation with its denomination for help in this area. This may be an area where a denomination could help its local congregations better fulfill its mission.

And I affirm your emphasis on the importance of confession and accountability. I would  hope that local congregations would find value in both accountability and shared confessions.  In my estimation, those are two essential functions of  a denomination.

Thanks again, Bill. 


Bill, I don't see these 2 hopes as mutually exclusive, both are true... of course, Jesus is the hope of the world, no believer would refute that... however...  in His sovereignty, He calls His Church to be His representation, to do the work of sharing the good news, to be His hands and feet to those around us... He gave us the keys of the Kingdom to do so and He planned good works in advance for us to do...  and it's very encouraging to be aware of the greater Kingdom than just our local believers***, but the primary way Kingdom work is done is on a local, organic level... 

our confessions and creeds are powerful examples of solidarity between believers around the world, all tongues, tribes, nations and peoples as one holy, universal church...  thankfully, the confessions/creeds are not limited to specific denominations, although some emphasize them more than others... 

because we are flawed and still sin, of course the expression of the Kingdom church will be imperfect, believe you me, negligence and/or the abuse of power, etc. in any institution, but especially the Church, at the expense of the poor, weak and forgotten is unacceptable... but because we the Church (both organic and institutional) have abdicated much of our calling to minister to the poor, the weak, the forgotten, the gov't has taken over a significant portion of the calling God gave us, His holy people, so we cannot blame the gov't, only ourselves.  I am not looking to the gov't or the denom to do what the organic Church is called to do, I'm looking at myself and those around me and praise God when the institution steps up and equips, trains, encourages and supports the organic Church in doing the good works He planned for us in advance instead of other less than healthy responses...  this is the Ephesians 4 mandate for the institutional portion of the Church.   it's not selfish, it's not consumerism, it's how God designed it.  There is no place in God's Kingdom for leadership and/or institutions to lord it over.

*** watched the Insanity of God last night... there were believers in a very remote area of Asia (I think this was back in the 90's), and one of their questions when Nik Ripken arrived was, "have other countries heard about Jesus?"  they had no idea of the world wide scope of the Kingdom Church.

now, are ministries institutions?  to some extent, but often in a much more organic way, I think of the kids' school, it's small, it's more like a family than an institution...  there's different levels of "institutionalsim" but that's another discussion ...  the organic church still needs structure, but the structure is not the drain of lots of energy and resources, the works of service to build up the body of Christ (organic Church) is where most of the resources are directed... 

you are speaking my heart here Sam...  the local expression of the Bride is my heart... not just local congregations, but the local community of believers working together, instead of so often in isolation as independent churches of one denom or another, but as one church expressed through various Kingdom congregations of the community (I love Love INC type ministries that collaborate resources and needs between congregations in a community, at the local level)... I believe based on the word of God, this is the intended expression of the Kingdom Church, not denominations (some follow Apostle Peter/pope (Catholics/Gr orthodox), some follow Luther (Lutherans) some follow Wesley(Methodists), some follow Calvin (reformed) some follow Menno (Mennonites/anabaptist), some follow Chuck Smith (Calvary chapel even though they don't consider themselves a denom), some follow John wimber (Vineyard), etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.)  who are we kidding?  denoms are exactly what scripture directly expressed not to do...  instead the local community of believers is how scripture addresses the Church, as the church of a location... the Church of Corinth, the Church of Ephesus, the Church of Galatia, the Church of Phillipi, the Church of Sardis, the Church of Philadelphia. etc... 

I've also been wrestling with the misalignment going on between the institutional Church (particularly denominations) and the organic/ekklesia Church (the people)... it seems what happens with institutions (think gov't/politicians as well) is at some point it becomes more about the perpetuation of the institution/denomination then about the people and the purpose of the institution in the first place and the people end up serving/equipping the institution instead of the institution serving/equipping the people... haven't read it, but there's a book on the vine (organic church) and trellis (institutional church)  with the analogy of how the trellis is there to support the vine... it seems we have flipped the priority and now it's more about the vine supporting the trellis... not saying the structure/trellis isn't biblical, just that it's not the priority...  maybe it's time to order it...

I believe there is a significant shift going on from denominations to the local expression of the Kingdom Church that I believe is Biblical and of the Spirit, denoms can resist it or embrace it and help and encourage their congregations to "be better together" in the community that they are in, not just with other CRC or reformed type, but with the charismatics, with the Baptists, with the non-denoms, etc... it's kind of ironic how the intentional effort for increased diversity is one of the reasons that causes the denom as an institution to be less significant and i think that's a good thing... 

thankful to see this discussion going on... I do want to honor the ekklesia/organic Church, those who have gone before us, and the solid foundation that we have been given through them for our faith...  God has allowed denoms to have its time and purpose and He has worked in and through them (kind of like God allowing Israel to have kings), there are very practical reasons for denoms like discipline and appeal processes of situations where objectivity is needed (although I don't think a denom/institution can be impartial at any level because it defaults to protect it's existence/job security when there is a threat to it's leaders and/or it's reputation instead of protecting the weak and those who have been harmed, basically the exact opposite of what Jesus calls us to do)... so it seems it is time to recognize that which is hindering the Kingdom Ekklesia/Church from being all that God called us to be and how our denom as it is today might be doing so... I think of Colossians 2:8  (this is my paraphrase)... beware Church, that no one cheats you (of your calling/purpose/mission, etc) through empty and deceptive philosophies, which come from the tradition of man and the conventional wisdom of the world, instead of principles based on Jesus Christ and His Word. 

so what traditions of man and conventional principles of the world do we practice that are not in alignment with God's ways and are hindering the Bride of Christ in answering her call?

ps.. I think denom renewal might be a misnomer, it gives people hope in the institution instead of the local church...  maybe denom re-alignment might be more fitting, that there is an inversion going on between the institutional and the organic church?  or as you mentioned "reform"... maybe denominational reformation =)  now that would be fitting =)


hope that all makes some sense in accord with His word...  maybe not what people want to read and hear, but test it and if it's off from the Word of God, I would welcome correction...


Bev: I think you touch on an important point -- and illuminate the critically important reality of the organic (as opposed to institutional) church -- when you say, "not just local congregations, but the local community of believers working together, instead of so often in isolation as independent churches of one denom or another, but as one church expressed through various Kingdom congregations of the community ".

I think the sense of "we are different from you" -- in a bad way -- grows in proportion to the extent we emphasize our church as being our denomination as opposed to our local church.

My local church, and its people, work quite a bit with other (non-CRC) churches and other people from other churches.  I'm assuming we aren't unique in that regard?

Thanks Bev.  You raise some good points about the relationship between the organism (the local church) and the organization (the denomination). 

As you note, the denomination is a human construct that, we trusts, helps the local church join with God in his mission to seek and save the lost by making disciples, even among the least of these.  But as a human construct, I find helpful and even necessary to, at least, protect churches from pastors and pastors from churches. Congregations, like individual Christ-followers, benefit from accountability, don't you think?

Hey Sam...  several thoughts, I apologize ahead of time for anytime I'm over 1000 words, but what we are discussing is complex and worthy of time and attention...

I think of Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem along with Nicea, Dort, etc over the ages...  denominations are not the only way accountability between churches/pastors can happen...  denoms have been the primary way for a while, but there are other ways for accountability to happen between neighboring communities, we just haven't needed to figure those out, because we have defaulted to the systemic denom structure that's already there.  we only step back and say, wait a minute, let's re-think this, only when we start to see something unhealthy going on, and then we go deeper and start re-evaluating and wondering if this is the best and/or only way or if God actually had something else in mind and is possibly using this "crisis" to mature us to the next step of getting His bride ready for His return...  so with the decrease of denomination loyalty, the denominational aspect is something that needs to be looked at and as Darren R reminded us there is some effort going on here (our Journey 2020)... but we need objectivity and impartiality, where the ekklesia can be open and honest about our weaknesses and not just appreciative inquiry... sorry, when those whose jobs are dependent on the denom are the ones evaluating and making the suggestions, there is some significant conflict of interest going on, whether we admit it or not.  They are justifying their jobs.   the CRC Ministry plan Our Journey 2020 looks pretty good on paper, so we will see what happens in practice... I did struggle with Desired Future 4 (Agenda for Synod 2016 p 36) as it raised some red flags for me when I read it a while back, but that's another discussion (I will probably respond to Darren's comment as the Canadians just had a gathering on the Journey 2020 plan and I read the report a few weeks ago, but want to re-read it before I respond to him).  I agree that identity is a huge issue, that's not the problem I had with #4, but I cannot agree with the primary emphasis of our identity as Christian Reformed which I did not see this emphasis specifically stated in the Canadian's report of #4, so wasn't sure if synod changed it or the Cndns did?  again, will talk about that later in a reply to Darren...

I also think of Matt 18 and "tell it to the church"... we have traditionally interpreted that as the structure of the church, the institution part... ie it goes to council, then maybe to the specific congregation but not always and if it does, usually very limited controlled information so not much transparency, it goes to the CIC, then classis and synod and who knows how many other ad hoc committees based on denominational structure and if it's a threat to the reputation of the institution, it will almost always be in strict executive session and often with non-disclosure type agreements - sorry, I do not believe that was Jesus intention with what He said... who is Jesus referring to here when it says church?  the ekklesia, the organic Church, the people... we have defaulted to the institution and man's ways for a number of reasons, mostly fear... and there is often a lot of conflict of interest that occurs in the institutional structure, one reason being certain jobs and reputations depend on it.  Having walked with a friend through the CO process of appeals regarding an ungodly incident, grateful as we are that there is an appeal process in the CRC, unfortunately however, the process resulted in more harm and damage then the original incident and sadly, i have found that to be a pattern in the Church, where the response of the Church instead of helping bring healing, brings further harm instead.  Something's wrong here!

Many of Paul's letters are to the entire body of believers in the area, not to some special group of leaders like council or classis.  We are blocking opportunities for the body of Christ to work together in our communities, not just with social justice, but with other issues as well, including discipline.  So, maybe if we have a discipline issue in a local congregation, we connect with the neighboring community of believers to help us out (multiple denoms represented so it's not about loyalty to or protecting the denom and it's reputation, but about doing the right thing for the Kingdom of God), as they can be more objective than the local community or those loyal to a denom.  We don't do this because we follow the denom chain of order instead...  think about the Roman catholic church (RC) and it's lack of objectivity dealing with abuse (have you seen Spotlight?)... why would we protestants think we would respond differently?  and sadly I am aware of a number of situations where we did not respond any better than the RC leaders and the CRC is not exempt here.

I also think about the 10-20 youth pastors from our community that gather once a month to fellowship and pray, and about 50-80 senior pastors gather for fellowship and prayer once a quarter...  these gatherings obviously represent a broad spectrum of denominations with variations of beliefs on the non-essentials...  here's a link of a bit of what God is doing in Whatcom County as the local expression of His Church unites in our community.  The Lord has used this documentary (it's about 4 yrs old) to start 24/7 prayer in Indonesia, Nepal, India and other mid east arabic countries =) as well as a number of cities in the US, including OR, CA, TX and CO...  and at 8:25 on the video, listen to Shannon Williamson's testimony... this Spring she became the exec. director of our local Love INC... exactly what she said 4 years ago in this video about partnering prayer with action at 8:45

I have great hope for the Bride of Christ... Scripture tells us she will be ready per Rev 19:7-8 and her wedding dress will be amazing! But we have some strategic shifts/maturing that need to happen first and I believe He is working on that and I see evidence of it...

Praise God!

Bill Harris is right. Here is 3000 words that say I agree with him. 

Paul, thank you for your thoughtful response to Bill Hybels.  I believe he has also said that the local church is the hope of the world.  And I believe that statement is pretty important to his approach to ministry.  But Willow Creek or Bill Hybels or the Seeker Sensitive movement are not the source of my statement. Your response, as well as Bill's, encourages me to flesh that our a bit.  I hope to do that soon.

Having said that, we agree that the local church is called to join God in his mission to seek and save the lost by making disciples. Pastors would benefit form conversations about benchmarks for discipleship in their ministry contexts.

I'll bite too - as a servant within the denomination who used to pastor in both the US and Canada and now works within denominational leadership.

The template and steps you describe are exactly our current motivation (minus some theological nuancing which is being done in the comments section). So instead of reading this like "I hope the denomination will someday..." readers can be affirmed and feel joy in the fact that at every turn this kind of model is currently in process as a way to move forward. If you want to see proof of that, you can read the current Ministry Plan of the CRCNA and track the behaviours of the leadership and board which are all public anyway. Sam, perhaps as you move forward on the next of the 2 postings you intend, you could spend some time doing some double checking and write in such a way as to how you see your hopes and dreams being realized in the context of the CRCNA since the audience you address is mostly CRC anyway. Just a suggestion....

That way your helpful ideas and musings would feel a little more like current progress instead of a pipe dream. Given our current conversations in leadership and across the denomination, I personally, am encouraged.


Darren: I've carefully read and re-read the link you provided (Ministry Plan) and am having difficulty coming away with the message you suggest it holds.  At least that message isn't unambiguous.

Beyond that, I take note that, for example, OSJ's "speaking for all CRCers" as to an array of highly specific political questions is increasing, not decreasing.  In other words, in terms of practice, I see movement opposite of the direction you say things are moving.

I'd appreciate your perspective as to how, specifically, and in practice, the denomination is "currently in [the] process" of moving in the direction you say it is.  Perhaps it is and I'm just not seeing it.

if you read my response to Lambert, perhaps you'll pick up the idea that I was not presuming the Ministry Plan to be God's plan except for the fact that it was wrapped in prayer and discernment across two nations, a multitude of CRCNA laity and in many ways.

Darren, thank you for your contribution to this conversation.  You encouraged me to do "some double checking and write in such a way as to how you see your hopes and dreams being realized in the context of the CRCNA."  I found that suggestion interesting and. perhaps, telling. Here's what I mean: I am a pastor in the field, serving local congregations (from several denominations, including the CRCNA) where I am not seeing the denomination serve the mission of the local church. But I am to do research to be convinced that the denomination is, in fact, advancing the mission of the local church? 

I am reminded of a basic principle that love is determined by the beloved, not the lover. The wife who tells her husband, "I don't think you love me." And he offers a litany of things he does that he perceives as loving. The problem being that she doesn't perceive those same acts as loving. To remedy the problem, the husband must ask his wife, "How can I love you?"  In other  words, he must do far less communicating and far more listening -- and then respond accordingly. 

I wonder is that dynamic exists between congregations and their denominations. Could that explain the thread-like connection between the two? The denomination may think it is supporting the mission of the local church but the local congregation is not feeling that support. The denomination ramps up its communication to convince the congregation that it is supporting her, when the remedy is for the denomination to listen to its congregations. Perhaps it is time for denominational officials to sit down with each congregation and ask, "How can we help you better fulfill your mission?" (An opportunity that has never been afforded the congregations I have served.) And, then, respond accordingly.   


I would love to hear from more churches on what I could do to help the congregation better fulfill its mission in the area of Biblical justice. National and local cooperation is critical if we are going to actually be effective in protecting the most vulnerable. The outspokenness or silence of the church in Florida has an real impact on the issues of poverty faced by members of my congregation in Holland, MI where I am a deacon. 


The fact that there is yet another CRCNA ministry plan is a case in point. Did that ministry plan flow from a broad-spectrum conversation with the local congregations? was, like all the other plans, generated by the BOT and the machinery located at 1700 28th St and its counterpart in Burlington Ontario....Our 'Doctrine of Discovery" study is another case in point. Which congregation or classis asked for this study? Was there an overture from a local congregation, submitted to classis adopted and then sent to Synod? No. And yet, the report gets a hearing because somehow or other it makes it's way into the agenda. Things are up-side-down in our system and we keep asking about how can we affect renewal. The very structures, as they now exist, seem to be the problem. Streamlining them isn't going to jix anything. What is needed is a radical redesign across the board. Is it reasonable to ask the folks who have a vested interest in keeping the status quo to create the new paradigm? Of course not. What will be the tipping point towards radical change is anyone's guess at this point. My hunch is that we must suffer much further decline, lead by the current mind-set, before we truly commit to a paradigm shift on the order of magnitude required to get the CRCNA re-deployed into an effective agency of the kingdom. I was ordained in 1987 and the goal then was 400,000 by 2000. Look where we are today. Nothing has changed. In fact we appear to be willing to double down on current priorities and practices. 

I'll answer this question as a way to get at both Doug's comments and Lambert's otherwise I will be spending my time in ways that most CRC people would not appreciate for the denominational staff. They actually want me to DO things and not just follow blog posts. But, since this one caught my eye and it is my job to communicate well, I will do so briefly (although I could write the equivalent to a doctoral thesis length on answering these questions. Note that some of my stuff comes out of the Canadian context and so does not necessarily dictate all of the pieces that are in play binationally.

"Did that ministry plan flow from a broad-spectrum conversation with the local congregations? was, like all the other plans, generated by the BOT and the machinery located at 1700 28th St and its counterpart in Burlington Ontario." I am sorry, but this is simply not true and leads to creating a false view of the denomination by anyone who reads this or shares this viewpoint. The process of Strategic planning and journeying into the Ministry Plan included at least these parts in Canada and binationally:

  • Cross Canada Classis conversation in 2013 with Ben Vandezande 2013
  • Imagining Ministry in the CRC in Canada’ report, 2013
  • Cultivating Binationality” - May 2014
  • Strategic Planning listening tour across Canada (and the USA) with local leaders and laypeople, 2014
  • Our Journey 2020 – the binational Ministry Plan comes before Synod 
  • Survey process and results done with Classis representatives 2015
  • National Gathering 2016 conversations with lay and ordained leaders and subsequent survey
  • Board of Trustees (Canada Corp) input from 2014-16
  • accompanying web content and print comment available to the entire constituency for comment and reflection throughout the process

And in SO MANY of these conversations the leadership prayed, fell on our knees, wept, repented and spiritually discerned and waited for God's answer together with the participants. Case in point, the Canadian National Gathering.

Our 'Doctrine of Discovery" study is another case in point. Which congregation or classis asked for this study? Was there an overture from a local congregation, submitted to classis adopted and then sent to Synod? No. Now in the grand scheme of things, what is not understood in a context like this is the desire of a board to propel the work of God that was already going on within the CRCNA with great success and so representatives of the denominational laity seek to push further into healthy ministry. It is one of the ways a denomination listens and responds to its members. In this case, the outstanding work of the CRCNA amongst/with aboriginal people groups in both the US and Canada that began as grass roots movements came to a point where, culturally speaking, this challenge needed to be addressed in order for the church to have a strong voice at the Urban Aboriginal Ministry Centres or local churches that are part of the CRCNA in local settings. It was informed by many cultural pieces (good Reformed thinking to pay attention there) and then the board says something akin to "indeed - in order to get at the root of things in terms of relationships between aboriginal communities and the church, we need to do this work. With minimal cost and desire for maximum impact the work was done. Very challenging and difficult work ... that will, I hope, ultimately, propel things forward. To imply that it is not attached to the local scene is to discount a board structure made up of local people appointed by classis and to deny the good work going on by CRC people throughout the body of the CRC in Canada and the USA. 

So, now I am afraid that people will just say - There goes the denominational guy blowing the cheerleading trumpet! Let me assure you that we as leaders are sensitive to the fact that there are problems. But what we don't want to do is overexagerate the problem to the point of despair which sometime blogs and commentary like this seem to exhibit.

The current state of affairs has put the local church as the subject of every key sentence in the Ministry Plan. We continue to engage Classis and churches at every turn. I personally commit to spending significant time at every Classis in Canada every year. I am taking before the entire Canadian CRCNA (Canada board, Classis members and local churches) the potential next steps in ministry for all of us to peruse and agree on a way of sharing in this work together. New and intriguing things are developing that allow local churches to opt in or out of parts that are useful (or not). Agencies and Ministries are being retooled in significant ways for both economic reasons and for ministry effectiveness. Ministries are learning and relearning what the demands of local church leaders are. We are embracing the addition of the greatly appreciated Timothy Leadership Training group under the CRCNA umbrella. We are reorganizing the leadership structure to a more representational model known as the Council of Delegates so as to ensure full Classis representation.

How is this NOT wholesale change?

And now for Doug's additional comment of OSJ's content. Indeed, not every issue they raise is going to resonate with every member or church of the CRCNA. I get it. The question though is...are they orchestrating it in such a way that local churches and/or members can "do justice" in a way that reflects their personal faith and local church expression. I think the answer to that is YES. Participate in ways that are fitting to the faith God has formed in you. In that way we can further the mission and not feel like we are choosing to swallow the whole pill that we perceive the CRCNA may be pushing. Does that make sense? It is a way in which it allows for the local church and/or believer to maintain some semblance of appropriate control of their faith action.

I do not intend to speak for all denominational leaders here....and I could wax lengthy about the many other things that are happening but that people seem to be unaware take this as my words, not the words of every leader. However, I do hope it gives you the sense that we are moving in the right direction.


I'll tell you one thing. It does teach me the old adage that the job of leaders is to communicate, communicate, communicate. I am not sure in our past we have done that well. Do know that in the binational leadership circles I am in...we are talking about that now too as a regular item on our plate. We need to grow in this area.

Thanks to all who participate in this healthy discussion. Let us TOGETHER work in ways that extend His Kingdom, strengthen His gifts in us and bring people to Christ!








Thanks for your response. It confirms that the crcna is taking the repair option discussed in part 1. I hope the efforts are successful. As I noted in part 1, I lean towards the reform option though it is nothing more than an idea, though the ECO suggest that it may work.

I think reading what I have read and not knowing all the other parts and then identifying it as "repair" is unfair. I do not know all the distinctions between repair and reform - but if Part 2 reflects the full definition of "reform" then we are doing that too. I would simply need to chart out for you all the parts of change and show you how they link to the various steps. Too much work for this blog.

As it stands, 'reform' is generally understood as a process. I thin it is a process we are in currently. So my assessment is that the CRCNA is doing both REPAIR and REFORM.

Darren, I hope I did not suggest that "repair" was a judgment, and hence fair or unfair.  The reject, repair, reform triad is simply a typology that helps us interpret history. As types they do not describe reality, they simply approximate it.  And institutional responses can be a mix but seem to land in one of the three categories. For me, the primary indicator that one has taken the repair option is that efforts are made to repair or, as you put it, reform current structures. The reform option tends to operated from ground zero and builds up from there (ECO or ARC as examples). Again, they are simply typologies that help us understand the ecclesiastical landscape we live in.  While I have a preference, I meant no moral judgment to those who choose the reject option or the repair option.

Thanks much for taking the time to weigh in on this important conversation. 

Darren: You say, about OSJ:

"The question though is...are they orchestrating it in such a way that local churches and/or members can "do justice" in a way that reflects their personal faith and local church expression."

Respectfully, you must not pay much attention to what OSJ does.  OSJ takes political positions on very specific political issues and then lobbies for those issues, both with government officials, in the public square, and to (emphasis on "to") CRC members.  Frankly, and again respectfully, OSJ evangelizes for the political positions its taken much more zealously and directly than our foreign or home missionaries do for the Christian faith, and I'm not being hyperbolic in saying that.

Once again respectfully, there are few political positions -- on specific political issues -- that OSJ lobbies for where OSJ and I agree as to the political position.  But the bottom line is that the what OSJ says, not Doug Vande Griend or any other CRC member, is what the CRC says about this or that political issue/position.  Just today, another email blast went out from OSJ taking a specific position (framed as a prayer concern) about federal government action as to a proposed pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois.

Indeed, I would suggest that OSJ is at odds, politically speaking, with a super-majority of CRC members.  Still, appeals to the constraints of Church Order Article 28 go unanswered (that is, not even responded to).

To be clear, I am not pitching and never have pitched for the CRC to change it's political positions, but rather to take up, quoting CO Art. 28, "ecclesiastical matters only."  I want to be able to worship with those who disagree with my political (and economic, etc) thinking.  Having a big brother in Grand Rapids telling us who is right and who is wrong in our political (and economic, etc) positions (whatever the positions) is destructive toward that end.

Hi Doug,

I can vouch for the fact that you have been akin to the persistent widow in seeking an answer to broad questions about the proper sphere of activity of the church, particularly as it relates to Article 28 and the question of "ecclesiastical matters".  I have watched with great interest to see if anyone (much less any one of denominational employ) would answer your continual inquiries in the Banner comment section, on the Network, on the CRCNA website under various articles, etc.  I have yet to see anyone provide a convincing answer, and I don't even recall anyone attempting to answer.  I notice that Mr. Roorda has also not attempted a response.

I agree with you wholeheartedly in regards to the activity of the OSJ, who has adopted a predictably leftist slant in their choice of items to focus on, how they frame conversations, which facts they chose to present and which facts they chose not to mention or discuss, and which perspectives they deem worthy to present or reference.  Not to mention the fact that they often betray a serious misunderstanding of what Biblical justice is, and that justice and mercy are distinct from each other (they often conflate the two).  Despite the disconnect between the prevailing rhetoric and political pandering of the OSJ and that of many of the CRC rank and file members, the OSJ continues to multiply staff. 

Thank you, Eric, for your post.  In my initial post I noted that the fundamental purpose of most denominations has been "to do more together."  With your comment, and that of Doug, I more clearly see that such a purpose may produce denominational advocacy groups, such as the Office of Social Justice (CRCNA). Perhaps it is my own insecurities, but these groups feel patronizing and paternalistic to those of us in the trenches serving local congregations. Plus, and more importantly, the very existence of advocacy groups at a denominational level suggests that the prophetic function of the church lies with the denomination and not within the local church which has been gifted by the Spirit with the prophetic.     

With regard to not responding to Doug's comments, it really doesn't make sense to try to have a "discussion" in an online forum. We have spoken in person (a few years ago though, eh?) These are complex issues that don't lend themselves to sound bites. 

I supervise one of the OSJ staff that is a shared World Renew / OSJ position, and I have not seen this multiplication of staff of which you speak. There are a number of interns, fellows, etc. but the overall budget has tightened considerably. 

Wendy: To the contrary, I believe our personal discussion was more "sound bite-ish" than this more considered considered, written-down-so-you-have-time-to-think, Network exchange.

Yes, you and I did have some discussion some years ago.  There was not nearly enough time (we had a church event going on), nor nearly enough audience (it was just you and me) to make that discussion as meaningful as a Network exchange.

BTW, I have no idea at present about "multiplication of staff" -- whoever mentioned that, it wasn't me.

Finally, World Renew's organizational model would be a great model for OSJ.  World Renew is a separate legal entity, with it own Board of Directors (Trustees) and it does not receive ministry shares.  Indeed, World Renew is even more "separated" from the institutional CRC than Calvin College.  World Renew does work that the entire CRC membership pretty much supports -- hence World Renew's ability to very successfully raise funds without ministry share assessments.  Why can't or shouldn't that model be used by OSJ, especially given Church Order Article 28?  If it did, then those of a political inclination matching OSJ's could give to that work and those who of a different inclination could give to Center for Public Justice (in Washington DC, also its own organization) or another organization that did work in line with their political inclinations.

Just trying to be constructive ...

The OSJ started as a one person director in 1994 and expanded to an actual office in 2000.  As such, the office is quite young at 22 or 16 years old depending on how you define its beginning.  The OSJ website now lists a staff of 9 plus a fellow and another contract employee.  In common parlance, that represents a multiplication of staff. 

Given the forum that we are in, with the stated goal to "create...value by commenting, questioning, sharing, and helping each other", it seems sort of silly for you to say that it doesn't make sense to try to have a discussion in an online forum.  If that is the case, just shut the joint down.  The discussion you see here is not a series of sound bites, despite your derogatory description.  What you see is people seriously and honestly grappling with issues in depth. 


Eric, you are correct that if you go back that far it is a multiplication. I do think that you need to take into account that the "staff" listed includes fellows and part timers and interns. 

When I refer to some discussions not being appropriate for an online format, I am referring to the big picture things like "should we get rid of OSJ." Clearly we are not going to be able to address that in a forum like this. I did not mean it to be derogatory, just a matter of fact. Someone had questioned why no one from the denomination responds to Doug's comments on various articles throughout the Banner, Network, etc. 

I'd be happy to very specifically respond to that question Kris, but only if Staci says its OK.  My response to similar questions in similar threads have gotten me in trouble.

Part of my answer (which I hope doesn't get me in trouble already), is that you are asking the wrong question.  The denomination engaging in political lobbying isn't OK even if OSJ's (or even Synod's) understanding about Biblical justice is fully correct (not that I think OSJ's is).  Just as the denomination should not be opening dairy operations across the country (because it isn't the self-described task of the denomination, and wisely/properly so, to be in the dairy business), so the denomination, via OSJ or otherwise, should not be engaging in the political lobbying of governments about specific legislation or political postures, in behalf of CRC members; nor the lobbying of CRC members as to specific legislation or political postures.  The OSJ/denomination doing so stands the CRC church order on its head, making the denomination that which directs the congregations (whether they want it or not, like it or not, object to it or not), instead of the other way around.

Again, I refer to the constraints of CO Article 28, as well as the CRC's general historical appreciation of the Kuyperian concept of institutional sphere sovereignty.  Both political lobbying and operating dairy farms are good things to do, and things we have to do with the understanding that all of life must be done with the recognition of the lordship of Jesus Christ.  The objection relates to who "we" are when these activities are undertaken.  

Staci -- may I specifically respond to Kris' specific question, or is that outside the topic of this thread?


Staci: I am being as "constructive" (in my criticism) as I can, given what is.  Church Order Article 28 has meaning, even if the meaning is forgotten or ignored.  I'm not "undermining" the church but rather doing the opposite, encouraging "the church" to be what its rules provide for it and not otherwise.  And I think the language I use is both respectful and factual.

If I'm "undermining," this entire post by Sam Hamstra is undermining.  He and I are both trying very hard to be constructive.  Were I not intending to be constructive, I just wouldn't bother with any of this.  It takes my time and I have a very full occupational, family, neighborhood and church life.

It is simply not the place of the denominational leadership to write ministry plans period. The denominational leadership is not the church. Churches write ministry plans. The denominational folks could provide a great service if they provided expertise in assisting the local church write effective and viable ministry plans in the local context. The church isn't located at 1700 28th Street Grand Rapids is located in neighborhoods all across the fruited plain coast to coast...This, I believe, is the whole point of the discussion. We simply no longer need most of the functions and personnel located in GR in order to carry out the mission of the local church. This is the paradigm shift we've been processing as local churches. All the assistance we need to formulate, train and carry-out our work is available "off-the-shelf" for pennies on the dollar from a broad spectrum of the "church" writ-large. These are relentless facts and we need to account for them. 

This might sound crazy, but I think our denominational approach to renewal has been too direct. 

Growth, renewal, even revival are the result of prayer, preaching of the Word, repentance for sin and worship. That's not just my opinion, it's what happened in the Bible (Pentecost and it's Paul's "Ministry Plan" wherever he goes) and throughout history (the Reformation, the Methodist revival and the Great Awakenings). Following God's command to pray, preach, repent and worship doesn't guarantee revival, but it's safe to say real revival doesn't happen without believers who are passionately devoted to Christ through prayer, preaching, repentance and worship.

If the goal is denominational renewal, we'll never get there. If the goal is to become more zealous prayers, preachers, repenters and worshipers, God might respond and renew our denomination. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, "Aim for earth and you'll never get it. Aim for heaven and you'll get earth thrown in."

How about instead of another organizational shake-up or denominational report on sexuality we do some research on how much devotion our members have to prayer, preaching, real repentance (not the word-smithed kind you find in Mainline litanies) and worship? Based on that research, we might find we're doing well and the Lord just hasn't willed that we grow in the organizational sense. Or we might learn that these fundamental components of Christian life are missing. In that case our Ministry Plan will write itself.

Staci: The whole point of this article is precisely about who is undermining whom. The ministry belongs to the local church. The administrative office personnel don't speak for the church. They're supposed to facilitate the ministry of the local church, not supplant it. Local churches in our current paradigm are essentially nothing more than a funding source for the agenda developed at 1700 28th. Street G.R. MI. The fact that there is a ministry plan originating from that address is precisely the nature of our problem. Our system is up-side-down. Too much money is moving in the wrong direction. The local church's own ministry is subordinated to national and international agenda. The current model is simply not sustainable. Sam is asking us to rethink and re-imagine our options while we still have critical mass. 

I agree that the model needs to be re-imagined. However, I disagree that the denominational office is supplanting the ministry of the local church. I'm also wondering if you would prefer that there not be a plan at all? Or is it just calling it a ministry plan that bothers you? When I talk to pastors about their local and global ministry, they don't say "well, I'd love to do more, but we don't have any budget because we are paying our ministry shares." And they would be free to tell me that, because the organization for which I work does not receive any ministry shares.

I'm really curious to see the next installment in this series. Can't wait to read it Sam!

Me, too ... Still working on it, Wendy! 

But I will add that when I served as a pastor of a local CRCNA congregation, the denomination supplanted the ministry of my congregation, and the congregation would have loved to do more but couldn't because of ministry shares. Just two days ago, I received two personal phone calls from CRCNA pastors who, while thanking me for starting this conversation, shared the same experience.  

On a similar note, I find broad support from CRCNA pastors, including this one, for the work of World Renew. Your agency meets congregations in their context, walks alongside of them, and provides opportunities to extend their witness.  Keep up the good work.


Wendy, the denominational offices do not constitute the church of Jesus Christ. The local church is where the ministry is supposed to happen. The local church could use help in crafting ministry plans with stated goals and objectives that are then matched with appropriate budgets. Instead, we are left to work that out on our own....which we do. Then the 'administrators' show up with their ministry plan and ask us to sign to that as well. Now we've changed the original logic of the administrative offices . I realize we did that gradually, over a long time, but we did change! I think we need to get back to basics and make a whole series of moves that leave the local church in the best possible position to thrive. The current model doesn't. Our membership numbers in 1985 compared to 2015 tell a dramatic story. Our leaders are responsible for it. Change something. 

I agree that the local church is where ministry is supposed to happen. But are not all Christians supposed to do ministry? Therefore wouldn't it follow that the denominational office is also the church?

It's interesting that you say the administrators should help with ministry plans, that's what I thought they did! Isn't that what home missions does? Healthy church? SPE and SCE?

That said, I do believe there needs to be structural and cultural change. On the part of administration yes, but also on the part of churches. Membership numbers have declined in most denominations, it's not unique to the CRC. We need to find the growing churches in our denomination and find out what they are doing. We need to listen to our church planters when they tell us that things need to be different. We need to listen to our youth (and by youth I mean 20 somethings, not almost 40 somethings like me who are sadly called in to some of the denominational meetings to represent the "youth" voice!) And by listening, I don't mean sending out more surveys. I'm not sure what it is about the CRC that is so paper-driven. In some of the task forces I've been on I suggest that we ask churches and classes what they want, and I'm told that churches are sick of filling out surveys and that we've already surveyed them. This not just a denominational building thing. I work with churches and often ask what makes their church unique, what skills has God gifted them with, and I'm asked if I have a survey they can use to find out. 

How do we have these conversations?

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