There I stood. In front of a small Christian Reformed congregation in Waterloo, Ontario, publicly professing my faith at the age of 23. A former fundamentalist Baptist evangelical who had found her home in the Christian Reformed Church, I finally came to a moment of commitment and vows, of submission and promised faithfulness.
And I took the plunge and made the vow: “I do, God helping me.”
Commitment to and membership in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) was not a given for me. My last name does not begin with “Van” nor does it end in “-sma.” My family has no allegiance to King or Wilhelmina. And I grew up in Calvary Baptist Fellowship, not First Christian Reformed.
Before I set off for college, my home congregation imploded amidst vicious infighting and leadership transition. I found myself adrift ecclesiastically. So I floated. I attended Mars Hill Bible Church at the height of Rob Bell’s popularity. I tried out a small non-denom church plant. I took a deep dive into a missional movement cohort of people just trying to “love Jesus and be church” which, unsurprisingly, fell apart due to personality drama and conflicting interests.
I found myself an ecclesiastical orphan and missed being a part of God’s gathered people, until one Sunday morning I followed a few of my favourite professors to church. I sat down in a pew at Hope CRC in Oak Forest, Illinois, and I heard the word of God preached with conviction and compassion. I received the bread and cup with joy and celebration rather than the usual guilt and shame. And I witnessed the promises of God spoken over a tiny, squirming infant as the water splashed generously on her head.
And God whispered to me: “You are home.”
Now as a Minister of the Word in the CRC, I have had countless opportunities to witness and to walk alongside others in that same moment when they realize they are home – not just in this congregation, but also in this denomination. Teenagers and young adults born and raised in the CRC, fellow ecclesiastical orphans and outsiders like me, and others who never knew church could be for them too, that Jesus could be for them too.
Community Christian Reformed Church, Kitchener, Ont.
The death of denominations?
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the death of denominations, or at least how we need to be willing to sacrifice denominations for the sake of mission and kingdom-building. And this sounds like a strong argument. Who wants to be against mission and kingdom-building, right?
My concern is that a lot of changes being argued for in the pursuit of “mission” seem to come from a place of fear. Fear of decline. Fear of irrelevancy. Fear of losing cultural capital. Fear of losing ground. While I am not against change – I’m a clergywoman in the CRC; my very existence is the result of major change – I want to argue for change from a place of love.
Calvin, having witnessed and had a hand in a major time of ecclesiastical change and upheaval, argued that every generation needs to “change . . . traditional practices and to establish new ones.” But he also warned that “we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe” (Institutes, IV.X.30).
Change from a place of fear often results in quick fixes and rash actions. But to effect change from a place of love takes discipline. A disciplined love seeks to understand the wisdom behind the way things are and make a compelling case for how we can make them better. A disciplined love seeks the wisdom of the community rather than simply following the loudest voices. A disciplined love creates the space for us to disagree and live with one another while at the same time listening together to the voice of the Spirit in our midst.
When I vowed to share faithfully in the life of the church, to honour and submit to its authority, and to join God’s people in the work of God everywhere, I committed myself to practice a disciplined love at home in a particular community shaped by Scripture and confessions, by practices and church order. The things that shore all this up are what seem to end up on the sacrificial pyre when we downplay denomination: identity and structure, policy and procedure, church order and agencies, distinctiveness and history, church offices and ordination, sometimes even sacraments and proclamation.
Take it from one former ecclesiastical orphan and outsider, we have a good and beautiful thing going on here in the Christian Reformed Church. May we, with God’s help, recognize the unique gifts God has given us, confess where we have failed, and commit to changing the denominational aspects of God’s church only with disciplined love and for the glory of the One we belong to in body and soul, in life and in death. Thanks be to God.