I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church. I was born into a Christian home, baptized on the eighth day, Sunday-schooled at age four, children’s-choired at eight, catechized at 13, faith-professed at 17. I went to Christian day schools from K-12, then Calvin College and Calvin Seminary. I serve as a pastor in the CRC. Our children attend a Christian school. My wife is on the Christian elementary school board, and I am on the Christian high school board. We are in, and in deep.
I am profoundly grateful for the denomination that gave birth to the institutional structure in which I was nurtured and continue to be able to learn, grow, and flourish. I have many fond memories from growing up within this framework, and experiences that have been rich and formative. But seismic change rumbles beneath our feet, and for the sake of God’s kingdom and mission – and for the viability of this “Christian Reformed World” that I value – I feel I must downgrade denominational identity as part of my overall outlook. I think fourth place is appropriate.
This doesn’t mean that church is my fourth overall priority, something I attend to only after my relationship with God, my wife, and my kids. Rather, I mean that I see myself first and foremost as a follower of Jesus, a loved child of God, a Christian – shall we say. Second, I am a part of a local faith community. This is where I am loved, shaped, challenged, worship, and live out God’s calling. Third, I am a part of a centuries-old theological tradition in which I take great pride, find a compelling lens into the scriptures, and a big beautiful worldview through which to engage culture at large. Great minds in our tradition have shaped my Christian faith and provided me a certain accent with which to proclaim the gospel. And then, fourth, I would note that there is a denomination (sister churches, partners in ministry, a church order – which is desperately in need of an overhaul) that provides a basic structure for our ecclesiastical functions. The sense of identity I derive from this denominational scaffolding is what has been downgraded; it must fade into the background where it can provide a foundation, framework, and network but little else.
DENOMINATIONAL DARK SIDE
Things can get ugly when denominational allegiances supersede other aspects of faith and community identity. I recall stories from my grandfather about Reformed Church in America (RCA) kids throwing something out a car window at him and his CRC friends while they were walking to school, and about how when they were young men the CRC guys refused to ride together with the RCA guys despite working in the same place. In my own childhood I watched as the split over women in office tore our church and community apart. I remember the animosity and insults we exchanged at school, thinking we were supposed to be mad at each other just because our parents were mad at each other. Fortunately after a few weeks we kids saw the foolishness in this and our playground realities returned to normal, even if the adults didn’t do the same. Such has been the strange and sad tribalism that often emerged in Protestantism. The comedian, Jim Gaffigan, does a bit on the Reformation joking, “See those people over there with almost the exact same belief system, I want to kill them.”
However, hostile and tribal denominationalism isn’t even the main reason I’m suggesting a downgrade. Rather, it’s because of God’s missional call on the church. Simply put, the idea of denomination is completely irrelevant to those outside the church. Some readers may not feel this as acutely as I do from the vantage of an urban ministry context in Canada, but I suspect most will feel it to some extent. With Christian practices and perspectives in general becoming increasingly irrelevant to the world around us, the idea of reaching out with the triangle and cross in hand creates an additional hurdle that people new to the faith find confusing and somewhat off-putting.
MISSON OVER DENOMINATION
I long to see people find new life in Jesus. I long to shape and serve a faith community that is passionate about reaching those far from God. This is not going to happen because of a renewal at the classis or denominational level. And while I would long to see our churches and denomination thrive, I have seen a number of “renewal pushes” that were thinly-masked attempts at institutional self-preservation. Self-preservation and survival should never be the goal, but I believe they could be beautiful by-products if we were to downgrade denominational identity and truly orient ourselves around the mission which God has entrusted to us.
Some will think this suggestion is too “congregationalist.” Others will write me off as an anti-institutional millennial, or someone young and naive with no appreciation of tradition. I am none of these things. I am, however, able to see that most of our churches are not growing and that fewer still are growing by reaching new people with the gospel. (Those that are reaching new believers almost all have a very light denominational identity). Many of our churches are dying for the wrong reasons, and central to this palliative state is the extent to which they prioritize denominational identity. It’s time that we start to ask some hard questions about denominational identity and how God longs for us to be the church of Jesus today.
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