- As I mentioned earlier, an accompanying question emerges: what is the purpose and function of a denomination? There was a pretty long era in American history where denominational loyalty was strong, and hefty structures went largely unquestioned as a locus for carrying out collective mission and ministry. As that era recedes in the rear-view mirror, most denominations are facing the need to downsize from a family station wagon to a Prius. Bureaucracies are rightly being called into question, and trimmed either by necessity (economic realities, ecclesiastical rifts, etc.) or by honest recognition that, structurally speaking, central offices need to be accountable for empowering the life of local churches, and not the other way around. I can’t count how many times during my time on RCA staff that I heard local church pastors express their frustration about denominational structures, ‘top-down’ dynamics, financial patterns, and so on. I felt I was surrounded by staff colleagues who were devoting their vocational lives to serving the church in meaningful ways, but that didn’t necessarily match up with the perceptions of those out in the local church who would often wonder aloud, ‘what is the denomination doing for us?.’ I wonder how those in local churches–those in pulpits and in pews–would perceive efforts at merger, and whether it would be seen as worthwhile stewardship of time, staff, and resources.
- I’m thinking today about my friend’s sister and brother-in-law, a couple in their early 40s with two school-age children. She grew up Presbyterian; he, Methodist, and they just started attending a Christian Reformed Church. Not because they were drawn to the CRC as a denomination, but because the experiences they were having with other churches in the Salt Lake City area left them feeling ill-equipped to give their children Christian moorings in the midst of an overwhelmingly Mormon subculture. The CRC congregation has simply been the church where they’ve had the best experience. Now, just because they didn’t go out looking for a CRC congregation doesn’t mean that the denominational affiliation is insignificant. Where it’s relevant, in this scenario at least, is insofar as it has provided the ballast, guidance, leadership, and resources to that local congregation. I wonder, would merger make us more or less nimble in shaping a joint body that could respond faithfully to the ongoing significant demographic shifts in our local communities? How are the RCA and CRC currently doing in adapting to the shifts in society and in church-culture?
- I am also remembering my experiences on the planning committee and as a delegate for the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the coming-together event of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council, which took place in Grand Rapids two years ago this month. Ecumenically speaking, it obviously represented a step towards greater unity, and it was significant for the RCA and CRC in that their previously divergent affiliations became a joint affiliation. That’s part of the reason the event took place in Grand Rapids. The idea was to have a huge showing of hospitality and involvement on the part of local churches. Well, getting people involved was like pulling teeth. No, worse than pulling teeth. It was awkward to see delegates from about 100 countries being welcomed by what we locals knew was such a teensy sliver of the RCA, CRC, PCUSA, and UCC congregations in West Michigan. It all went fine, of course, and anyone involved was blessed by it, I daresay, but I’m not sure I can fault the pastors and congregants who just couldn’t get excited about the prospect of an institutional merger. It was hard to convey succinctly how the joint efforts of those formerly separate bodies bore significance for our local churches, but that’s a legitimate question for which to demand an answer if there is a stated intention to spend the resources necessary for keeping such bodies going. In the end, the only selling point that pricked people’s attention was the prospect of meeting and spending time with Christians from all over the world, particularly the global south. Trying to hype the significance of an institutional merger was fruitless; telling midwesterners that they’d get to share a meal and conversation with an Indonesian or Nigerian and hear about the church in their local culture, on the other hand, kept a modicum of interest alive. I mention this because I think there would be relevant parallels in an attempt to merge the CRC and the RCA. We couldn’t expect wide enthusiasm about the nuts and bolts, and that’s okay; we’d have to hope those things would get hammered out by representatives with the requisite passion and knowledge. But we would proceed at our peril if we didn’t somehow build in accountability to the legitimate question, ‘what will this mean for everyone else?’
- In the grand scheme of things, yes, the RCA and the CRC are very similar. However, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to find a common position, as merger probably would necessitate, on specific issues that have created a fair amount of turmoil not only between the denominations but within them. For instance, a few years ago the RCA General Synod entertained a “missional structures” proposal that would potentially have eliminated the regional synod, an assembly which has no counterpart in the CRC (and of which the RCA has 8). There was intense opposition, and the regional synods remain in RCA polity, along with the consistory, the classis and the General synod. Would the regional synod have to go if the RCA and CRC merged? Then there’s something like the Calvin College requirement for faculty to send their children to Christian schools, which has repeatedly provoked debate in the Calvin and wider CRC communities. Again, there isn’t really a counterpart for that debate in the RCA, since Christian schooling has been a point of departure for the two bodies all along. I wonder how some of these internal hot-button questions would pan out collectively. Perhaps merger would be an opportunity to transcend previous conflicts, but it could also devolve into a tally of wins, losses, and compromises. Some other not-so-minor points of difference that I think would necessitate much deliberation: differences in approaches to world mission, women in ministry, children’s participation in communion, ministerial preparation and formation, how the business of a Synod is conducted, and how oversight and authority are carried out in relation to colleges, seminaries, and affiliate ministries. The RCA also has an ecclesiastical office of General Synod Professor; I wonder if that would be eliminated or if the CRC would pick that up too. Oh, and MONEY! How could I forget? Currently, per-member “ministry shares” in the CRC are around $300 annually, whereas the “per-member assessment” in the RCA is around $40 annually (with additional, smaller assessments determined and collected by the regional synods). Obviously, that’s a pretty steep difference when it comes to how much the local congregation is expected to contribute to the denominational pot, and also a commentary on each denomination’s attitudes around what sorts of things ought to be funded out of that common pot.
- A final thought: In one of Al Janssen’s comments on my first post, he noted: “‘denomination’ is not a theological category, ‘church’ is. I fear that if we start with denomination, we won’t get to the real issues.” I heartily agree. The prospect of merger would quickly become disastrous if not thoroughly grounded in a sound theology of what it means to be the church, the body of Christ, and propelled forward by a sound theology of what it means to live into Christ’s desire that we all be one. I hope I haven’t spent so much time on practicalities as to sound like I’m saying “why bother?” I hope I am echoing Al’s same fear, that to start with “denomination” instead of “church” would not get us to the real issues. So I wonder as well, maybe the best way to work out a merger with the requisite fear and trembling that should come with any exercise in unity and reconciliation would be to enact it at the local level. Make it personal, make it relevant with names and faces instead of acronyms. If merger is a worthy endeavor at the denominational level, then wouldn’t it follow that merger could be withstood at the local level, too? Surely there are at least a dozen places where CRC and RCA congregations and/or ministries are both operating within blocks of each other, each struggling to make ends meet when it comes to budget, or staffing, or simply having the resources to respond to the surrounding community (let alone competing for the same pool of potential new visitors and members). Let them join forces and merge–merge their names, ministries, worship services, committees, structures, global and local missions efforts, budgets, their education programs and their properties. Let them find the spots where they could become leaner, where they could become greater than the sum of their parts, where they could find surprising ways of being less and not more encumbered by being together. Let them hammer out what is worth squabbling over in the bigger picture of what they want to do and to be as one entity. If we could get even half a dozen of these local RCA/CRC mergers, would that be a representative pilot for what a comprehensive merger would look like? What would it teach us about the joys and the headaches of unity?
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