NANAIMO, B.C. – For the last few years the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) has expressed denominational unrest in a myriad of ways, including increased vocal and public scrutiny with what people view as “the denomination” (our agencies and their boards). To put it briefly, those who serve the Church – specifically those who serve at denominational headquarters – seem to be demanding a voice. In order to do something about it, the denomination has assembled three task forces to study different angles of the same issue: the culture of the CRCNA.
Unfortunately, most of what’s resulted has focused on the denomination as it is expressed in its structures, lines of authority, agencies and boards. Though this is good work, it has the potential to limit the scope of the Holy Spirit’s invitation to our Church today by letting the majority of the denomination off the hook. If God is asking us to change the culture of the denomination, we have to understand that the denomination is bigger (or perhaps smaller) than those who serve at an agency, sit on a board, publish a magazine or support missionaries overseas. We are the denomination. You and me. We are the Christian Reformed Church and God is asking us to change too.
Jesus talked of judging others quite clearly: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6.39). Can we ask “the denomination” to change but not the local church? Like Jesus is described as doing for the lukewarm followers in Laodicea, Jesus has come a-knockin’ on the hearts of those who call the CRC home (Rev. 3:20). Are we going to send him next door to Burlington and Grand Rapids, or are we each going to invite him in, opening ourselves to the power, presence and desires of the Holy Spirit?
To put it in terms that apply to what the CRC is facing today, can we commit to no longer demanding the transformation of another (person or entity) until each of us has sought and submitted to God’s transformation? This isn’t to imply that there is no place to voice concern, discouragement or disagreement. What I mean is that to really change the culture of this denomination, God has to change the individuals of our denomination as well as our structures; there is no trickle-down-theory that will bring our denomination into more faithful obedience to God. I have felt this very acutely as a pastor in the Church, learning to submit myself to God’s change, yearning for change among the people of my worshipping community, knowing so much of it depends on what the Holy Spirit does and how each person in my church partners and submits to God.
For our part in this mess and stress, the Lord asks us to submit to him. For all of our love of covenant – stressing the initiating action of God and his promise to never forsake – we are missing opportunities for covenant renewal: times of confession, corporate, personal, for sins we’ve committed and for ones others have committed; times of hearing the Word and call of God and publicly declaring our willingness to obey; times when the people of God gather to admit personal and communal brokenness and to cry out to our God who hears; times when people come to understand what God’s Word says and why it matters (Neh. 2). Instead, many of us choose the easier option of placing the onus on someone or something else, believing that if we change “the denomination,” things will get better. But this sort of change will not last. The pages of Scripture are full of stories of God acting and people struggling to fully submit, wishing instead to focus their energy on changing others: Sarai forcing Hagar to birth an heir, Saul suiting up David, Jonah sulking, Paul persecuting Christians. Only when God’s will is done do things go the way they ought.
Seek his face always
Because of our sinful human nature, we’ll always find new things to change, new systems to be frustrated by, more people and things outside of ourselves that should be different. And some of these things will be God’s will for us to change. What’s needed, though, is deep discernment, mature spirituality, extreme humility and selflessness, in order to see as God sees.
Earlier this summer, a handful of CRC leaders in British Columbia gathered together in prayer and silence, accepting God’s invitation to ask him what he wants from us. God doesn’t want us to wait for the denomination to figure it out; the Holy Spirit is already at work, hovering over our chaotic waters locally as well as globally, speaking to each of us about the shalom that can be. As we gathered to pray and read God’s Word, it was a bittersweet and holy time. Hard things were confessed, personal convictions and directions were tested and façades of ignorance were knocked down. Each of us brought a unique witness of God at work in the CRC, sharing stories about denominational leaders on their knees before God at the Prayer Summit, stories about being convicted to stand up for the oppressed at Classis meetings, stories of people committed to daily prayer for renewal in our Church, stories I wish all of us could hear more often. There were tears and there was silence, frustration and pain, a deep love for the Church to find again what the people of God will always find in covenant renewal: the amazingly faithful God inviting us to deeper fellowship with the Trinity.
Along with a firmer conviction of God’s call on our personal lives for change, we heard God’s grander call for the Church: we believe God wants to see more of this kind of seeking and searching from us at the grassroots level. We believe that more than God desires refined structure and process, he desires our hearts. We believe that now is the time for our covenant renewal as the people of God. Without that renewal, our newly appointed Canadian Ministries Director and Executive Director, newly formed Boards and realigned agencies will mean nothing. May we, the people of God, the true definition of the Church, open ourselves to receive and be ruled by our King.