Quite a bit recently people have been ready to write the eulogy on the church, and particularly on organized religion. Christianity is in crisis they say. My own tradition is not exempt, it seems. Recently John Van Sloten of New Hope Church in Calgary noted in a blog post that: “the Christian Reformed Church is in desperate need of a big idea.”
As to why, Van Sloten, recently returned from some denominational meetings, said this:
“Our numbers are dropping, young adults in the church have disappeared, our congregations are aging, and according to discerning minds we are about 15-20 years away from the death spiral that many mainline denominations are now in. Some think we’ve held on this long because of one of our biggest idiosyncrasies; our tendency to control everything so tightly!
The writing is on the wall.”
He is probably right. Our time has come.
But Van Sloten isn’t ready to give up the ghost just yet:
“And in order to stop the bleeding – no even more – in order to resuscitate the patient, drastic steps need to be taken. No more incremental programming changes. No more technical fixes. We need something big; an adrenaline shot to the heart.”
I read his post with some interest, being a fellow clergy member in the same denomination. He then poses two possibilities, which I proceeded to peruse with interest.
Let’s take them one at a time:
- If we don’t find a big outside the box idea, God will. And that big idea may play out outside of the box of the CRC (ie: he’ll let us die!)
OK, this is just a reiteration of the situation. Something has to change, or the game is up. Agreed.
Well this puts a lot of weight on the second thought. Let’s hope for a game-changer.
- 2. The CRC’s big idea must come from the centre of its core theology and be fully manifest in the pulpit. Theology and preaching are central to our identity. Surely God’s biggest idea for us would be borne out of and proclaimed from these places.
Here’s where the post came to a screeching halt for me.
Earlier Van Sloten had noted that there is an uptightness to the denomination — a need to control everything. And it’s obvious this is not working. One of the main ways I perceive that we are uptight and seek to control everything is regarding doctrine, or as he puts it, core theology, and it’s corollary, or how that doctrine/theology is often passed on: preaching. These are perhaps two of the hallmarks of our tradition. But if things are dying and those are the hallmarks, perhaps its time for some new hallmarks.
I have a hard-time seeing this as a viable solution, or even a big idea. To me, it comes across as more of the same. Better grab the shovels.
I can think of recent events which are harbingers of what is to come:
1) Two religion faculty members at Calvin College write some thought-provoking pieces about the challenge of reconciling Adam and Eve historically with the evidences of history, of literature, and perhaps most notably, scientific discoveries and the theory of evolution.
A quick taste of what they wrote:
One professor, Daniel Harlow, wrote that he was exploring from the perspective of mainstream biblical scholarship, which is that “Adam and Eve are strictly literary figures—characters in a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach primarily theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity.”
Harlow also wrote, “Genesis 3, read in its immediate context, does not depict the man and woman’s transgression as an act that infected all subsequent humanity. . . . For teaching about the Fall and original sin, then, we must wait for Paul and the church fathers.”
The other professor, John Schneider, wrote that the traditional understanding of the Fall does not fit with current science: “[T]he narrative of human evolution makes it very hard, if not impossible, to maintain [the position that human and demonic creatures are responsible for evil]. For it seems, on this science, that not just natural evils . . . but also the disposition for human moral evils, are practically part of God’s original design.”
Exceptional pieces written about an issue which the church at large is going to have to deal with theologically as it moves forward. And it should be clarified that these two were not making grand new theological assertions, but merely showing how traditional thinking has to be rethought in light of new understandings in science and biblical studies. But apparently some do not want to move forward, and it was decided that these two had to retract their efforts or find a new place of employment.
Why? Because their scholarship didn’t toe the line at theological constructs developed over 500 years ago.
Now you’re wondering: Did I hear that right? Academics forced to curb their research in religion and literature as it intersects with scientific developments, to stunt their own academic exploration in order to “submit” to theological doctrines developed during the lifetime of Galileo? Yep. Turns out that’s the route the college went, which is significant because Calvin is affiliated with the denomination we are discussing. Rather than move forward, the message was loud and clear: let’s keep the engine in neutral, or maybe even pop it into reverse.
There are real theological issues the church must face here, and it’s time we act like adults and deal with them, as Peter Enns suggests, rather than sweep them under the rug.
2) A CRC pastor recently published a book about his own journey from faith to doubt. His insights and experiences were welcome by many, but threatening to others. He was encouraged to consider his options, and eventually felt he was better in a more progressive denomination. A few lamented his departure, many more were glad to be rid of such a troublemaker.
3) Part of the means of control in the denomination is expressed in what was formerly known as the “Form of Subscription.” This was a statement dating back nearly 500 years that stated exactly what it is that we as a denomination believe doctrinally regarding God, Scripture and salvation, among other things. (I know, hard to believe (no pun intended) that belief doesn’t shift or move forward in half a millennium.)
Recently (perhaps due to some of the above) it was suggested that this be updated. One crucial statement that many of us thought was a movement in the right direction was to note that the three doctrinal statements (Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism) are historic expressions of the Reformed faith have shaped our theological heritage and will continue to guide us (. A small move, but a move forward. It seemed a logical way to put it, because they are historic documents, after all. They state concerns that were of vital interest in the era they were written. But we no longer live in that era. There are concerns today that those documents don’t address. There are ways of understanding Scripture and faith and Jesus that didn’t exist when those were written. Advancements in biblical scholarship, critical study, archaeology, language, comparative religions and in many other related fields have given us insights they never had. Not to mention developments in science.
In any case, many were shocked at this way of framing these confessions (apparently they thought they were ahistorical, having fallen from the heavens into the Reformers’ hands). And unsurprisingly this updated Form of Subscription was rejected in 2011 in favor of something adopted in 2012 that looked nearly identical to the one it was supposedly ‘updating.’
On to Something
These three issues, among others, make me think that perhaps, after all, Van Sloten is on to something.
But in a sideways sort of way.
What may need to change is a letting go of the obsession over doctrinal obsessions, yes, there is a core that should remain, but there are plenty of peripherals that are less and less compelling to many many people, and it seems to me that our insistence on maintaining our dogmatism will be our death knell, not our salvation.
Recently the writer Jim Palmer confessed:
“So, I went to seminary, learned Greek and Hebrew, and got my M.Div. I was a Senior Pastor for several years and delivered a gazillion sermons. The working theory was that what people needed most was good, accurate, correct information about God. The idea was, have good theology and everything else will work out. It didn’t quite happen that way. There were lots of people with good theology and no inner peace or freedom.”
In other words, lots of preaching and obsessing about correct theology only goes so far, and in many cases, not far at all.
The reasons for this are myriad, but chief among them is the growing sense among many that God himself isn’t as concerned with how to describe, dissect, and diagram himself (or herself) as many theologians have been. There is a growing sense that Jesus was about helping bring wholeness and freedom, healing and reconciliation rather than a ‘new yoke’ comprised of medieval theological formulations to which all must now submit. To put it simply, many people just don’t care about doctrinal fastidiousness, and are concerned about day to day practical realities, the kinds about which Jesus so often taught and focused on: a father who had two sons, a follower who had a dead father, a woman caught in adultery, a tax collector who wondered if restoration and a new way of life was possible.
Living into God’s Story
Some time earlier in a related discussion, James K.A. Smith noted that churches obsessing over theology can still succeed:
“I’m just pointing out that the missional success of unapologetically Reformed churches like Redeemer in NYC (and it’s whole network), or City Church in San Francisco, are testimony that “thickly” Reformed (AND catholic AND missional) churches can actually invite people into God’s story and not merely attracted disaffected, previously-churched people.”
At the time, I responded with:
I also agree with Smith that many Gen Xers and millenials are simply not interested in “relevant” worship or “contemporary” faith. Style and mode do matter at some level, but not nearly to the degree of the substance beneath.
As for Smith’s anecdotal evidence of ‘thickly’ Reformed churches, one could also give plenty of anecdotes of younger folks who have had it with ‘thick’ faith in a new package (see Driscoll or any young, restless, and Reformed types) and are interested in a more engaging, developing theology that *is* — as Smith notes — informed by the broad catholicity of the faith. But more than that, a faith that also has room for mystery, for realizing the limits of all theological perspectives (including, or perhaps especially, one’s own tradition), and is strongly interested in an incarnational, Christ-centered faith. Many are simply not interested in being forced into a theological or intellectual corner by having to ‘sign on’ for certain doctrines. This is where the rub is. They (and I) want to be informed by the historic confessions without being told: you MUST own every single piece of them, which is about as appealing as being told you MUST take that spoonful of cod liver oil because… wait, what were those reasons again? Never mind – we’ve always done it this way (it’s tradition!) – so open up and take it!
So many -across the generations- want, as Smith says, to live into *God’s* story more than they want to live into any single version of that story, because they realize God is beyond any single tradition. (And are simply tired of the hubris that says ‘ours is the best and truest’).
Smith went on to dismiss such efforts in living, thinking and working through the shifting theological ground that many are doing:
“Thomas Merton would have never been saved by “pub theology.” Or Pete Rollins. Or Rob Bell. Or Brian McClaren. Or much that has been touted as “updated” versions of the CRC.”
I responded as follows (and I quote at length as this was buried in the comments under an earlier post, but it articulates my concern with Smith’s dismissiveness):
As for Smith’s comment regarding Pub Theology. . . The point of pub theology, as far as I’m concerned, is not to be the latest ‘outreach’ effort or to mask as a new proselytizing fad. If pub theology is saving anyone, it is saving me. Saving me from the attitude that I’ve got it all figured out and no one else does. Saving me from an attitude that lets me live in my own little world with my own prejudices about different people, faiths, philosophies, or approaches to God. It saves me from dismissing someone out of hand when I haven’t heard their story. It saves me from an attitude that says, ‘I’ve arrived’. And I really like craft beer.
All the guys Smith has listed and summarily dismissed with a wave of his hand have informed my own faith journey in important ways. Its fine if he doesn’t like them, but the theological snobbery I perceive is exactly the sort of thing many of us would prefer to get away from. That attitude doesn’t further the conversation, in my opinion (understanding that this is a limited form of communication in which it is possible to read into things). I also fail to see the constant pejorative use of ‘liberal Protestant’ as being of much use. I just spent a week with mainliners from varying backgrounds (ELCA, PCUSA, UMC, etc) and was impressed at the ways many in these denominations are seeking to engage their communities for Christ in some good, healthy, and creative ways. Living within a historic theological tradition with flexibility and life. There may be things within those contexts that one does not like, but it is hardly a fate to be avoided at all costs. (And from whom we could even learn a few things).
My own desire is to be centered on following Jesus in how I actually live my life (though it is a constant struggle). I want a faith at which Christ is the center from which I operate, and the goal toward which I strive. I’m frankly not that interested in worrying about how big (or small) the theological circle is within which I operate. I want to be informed by the creeds and confessions (and have and continue to be shaped by them), but I am less interested in being forced to stand or fall on them. For our faith to have weight and depth – it must engage these important parts of our tradition. But for it to live and move and breathe – it must not be encumbered or chained to the ground by them. I am interested in inviting people into the center. The theological edges are frankly not that important to me, and I think a healthy agnosticism toward some doctrines that the confessions lay out dogmatically would be a healthier (and perhaps more biblical) approach.
So what’s the big idea?
Perhaps it is this: that we learn to let go of our certainties, stop trying to railroad people into believing things they have genuine questions about, and be open to re-articulations of the faith that resonate with and reflect the concerns and issues of today. How? Well, as Van Sloten notes, the pulpit isn’t a bad place to begin. Having preachers willing to be open about the challenges present in the text, to be honest about their own struggles and faith life, to exhort us to live into and live out the grace Jesus embodies and be less concerned about getting more sheep to ‘sign on the dotted line.’ Preaching that doesn’t cause us to reconsider, reflect, struggle, learn, and reformulate might just be preaching to the choir.
But it must go beyond the preacher. We must embrace grassroots efforts like Pub Theology, in which open conversation is the goal, preaching is set aside in favor of listening, and a setting is created in which all are welcome to the table without having to pass a litmus test of belief or behavior. If we want to engage our communities on spiritual topics, we cannot expect to sit back and watch people show up at our worship gatherings. We must be present in places where people already are, and drop our agendas of evangelizing everyone we meet — in our circles we don’t bring people to Jesus so much as to Reformed theology. If we want to learn how to hold our faith amid the growing pluralism of our day, settings like this will get us started. (Not to mention that a sure-fire way to ensure our further irrelevance will be to circle the wagons and congratulate ourselves on our unique theology.)
We could promote small group curriculum like “Living the Questions” or “Animate» Faith,” get serious about studying the Bible filtered less by preconceived doctrinal grids and informed more by serious scholarship and study that brings new light to old texts.
And finally, we must seek to find ways to bring the hope of the kingdom of God to our communities in tangible ways. I’m heartened by the many, many ways I see this happening throughout our denomination, and I think these signs of life are already present in growing ways.
Surely there are more big ideas out there (Add yours below!). But these things may be a start.
In the end we can take heart, because the universe has existed for about 14 billion years, and the CRC has only existed for about 0.0001107% of that time.
The world will get on fine without us.