All grown up

Happy birthday! My church’s birthday is coming up in about a month. She’s turning 40. We usually speak of such milestones as anniversaries rather than birthdays. But for the purpose of this article, “birthday” is the better term.

Forty. By the time we hit 40, there are a number of things that have probably happened in our lives. We have completed our schooling. We have a job. And we have moved out. For some of us, these milestones happen earlier than for others – we all know adult children who spend far too much time on their parents’ sofa, oblivious to the nudges and hints that it might be time to venture out on their own. The food, laundry and valet services are simply too attractive to warrant such an adventure.

But those are the exceptions. There is something liberating and motivating about making your own decisions, running your own household, and yes, making your own mistakes.

My church is turning 40, and she is ready to take on the responsibilities of a 40 year old.

Many of the Christian Reformed Churches in Canada are about the same age or a bit older; there have been quite a few 50th “birthday” parties advertised in Christian Courier.

The Christian Reformed Church rode the post WWII immigration wave and many of our Canadian churches were organized during that era. Our churches were made up of immigrants. They had little education, they could not speak the language and they had few resources. But their faith was strong, and they knew how to work together. They were salt-of-the-earth types. During those early years, the CRCNA churches relied heavily upon the denomination to guide their ministries. We affirmed that there were a lot of things that we could not accomplish on our own. We needed the denomination.

Reason to celebrate
But we have grown up. The church profiles we complete when seeking a new pastor now document the occupations and education levels of our members. Seated in our pews are accountants, lawyers, business professionals and educators. Presidents and professors and retired pastors sit on our boards and our committees. A significant number of our people have a post-secondary education and for most of our churches, there is usually a doctor in the house, either academic or medical. Yes, we have grown up. We have the skills and the resources to do church on our own. We don’t need our denominational parents like we used to.

This is not something to lament but to celebrate. “Congregationalism,” like so many other “isms,” has been perceived negatively. But “congregationalism” is not some evil pariah that threatens to dismantle all the good that we’ve accomplished since the CRC was birthed in 1857. In many ways our churches already are independent and self-governing. We have the skills and the resources to manage our own ministries, and to determine which ministries we should be supporting and developing. We know our communities and neighbourhoods, or at least we should. And if we don’t yet, then it’s time that we took some ownership and responsibility for the people on our doorsteps. We have access to resources for counselling, conflict management, vision setting.

It’s about doing church locally, at home. In some ways, it’s a return to the Acts 2 church where “[t]hey devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer, . . . praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” This is what it looks like when you do church “congregationally,” that is, at home.

This new/old approach to ministry means that it is time to venture out on our own – like grown-ups. We still need the denomination, but not in the same way we used to. Like an adult child, we still love our parents and we still need them. But not in the same way we needed them when we were young and ill prepared to manage our own affairs. It’s time to make our own decisions about how we will use our resources; we need to evaluate the effectiveness of how we spend our time and our money, and we need to do church in a way that is relevant to our members. My church’s 2015 financial statements indicate that 25 percent of our financial resources went to denomination and classical ministry shares. While that 25 percent includes ministries closer to home in cooperation with other area churches, it remains that almost all of our ministry dollars are spent down the highway and not in our backyard.

When we (our churches) were young we relied upon our parents (the denomination) to tell us what we needed to do and how to do it. To their credit, our denominational leaders have been asking of late, “How can we help you? What can we do to enhance your ministry?” Like most parents who see their children growing up, they may be a little hurt when we say to their offer to help, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Without a doubt, there remains a role for the denomination. There still are things we can only accomplish when we work together. But in terms of ministry opportunities and self-care, it’s time to recognize that our churches have grown-up. They should be finding their own way in the world, seeking God’s leading and living out his commands to love him above all and our neighbours as ourselves. They should, and then can.

  • Rita is the Pastor of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Cobourg, Ontario. This is the third church she is pastoring. She spent 12 years in administration at Redeemer University College.

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