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Greater independence for the CRC in Canada, new Director hopes

BURLINGTON, Ont. – August 6 – Day two at the Burlington office of the Christian Reformed Church for Rev. Darren C. Roorda, the newly appointed Canadian Ministries Director. This lanky 45-year-old husband of Deborah and father of Bethany, Emma and Gracie has been in the pastorate for 15 years. At the time of his appointment by Synod 2014, he was lead pastor at Community CRC in Kitchener, Ontario, with more than 900 members. Contributing editor Bert Witvoet, who knows Roorda from serving together on the CRC Board of Trustees, decided to interview him in his new digs on behalf of Christian Courier.

Darren, what made you decide to leave the pastorate behind and accept a leadership position with the denomination as Canadian Ministry Director?

Essentially it was a process of discernment – listening to the voice of God as he exercises his way through my gifts and trusting the knowledge and discernment of others. All I promised to do was to be faithful to an interview process if I was nominated. I am starting in the same way that I went into the ministry after being an environmental scientist for about five years, with a kind of wait-and-see posture of what God’s going to do with the gifts that I have, and promising to use them faithfully. So far that’s been a recipe for all callings I have followed.

You told the delegates of Synod 2014 that you love Jesus. How did that love develop in your life?

There are so many ways in which God has developed that love in my life. My “Pake” [Grandfather] Joop Span loved the church dearly, and that filtered its way through my parents. And then there’s the local Christian Reformed church I grew up in. Furthermore, I had significant people in my life who breathed faith and the practices of faith. I can think of significant high school teachers. But it would be remiss of me to say that all the impact was from the church. Some of my key growing-times were in secular settings at the University of Waterloo, when I was challenged to stand up for what I believed, allowing me to compare my worldview against other competing worldviews. God helps you as you lean on him when you go through that, and you’re stronger because of it. Most recently, in the past 15 years as a pastor, I found people in my churches who were continually blessing and encouraging me, despite all my foibles and mistakes. It’s those people who almost parentally love you into greater maturity. It’s all about relationships.

That’s interesting. Many people talk about a personal relationship with Jesus, but as you answer my question about your love for Jesus, you talk about your relationship with people.

It’s one and the same, to a degree. I have a personal relationship with Jesus that is private, but even in that privacy I find myself sharing it with my wife, who is a constant encourager and faith developer. I fight against this idea that we can be Christian outside the church; – that it’s a private for-me-only religion, and that I don’t need others. That’s bunk. The church has said for 2,000 years that that’s impossible. You can’t be a Christian without the church, without other people.

How would you describe your feelings for the Christian Reformed denomination?

I love the Christian Reformed Church, but like most things that you love, you’re also critical. And you’re critical because you want that thing to be better. Think about your relationship with your kids. You love them to pieces, but boy, do you ever see their faults and flaws in ways that other people don’t. I see the Christian Reformed Church in the same way. There are problems and flaws, but I love it nevertheless.

Would you mind mentioning some of those flaws?

We tend to be a little too insular. The Christian Reformed Church is not known for its missional efforts in local neighbourhoods. If our mission is both word and deed, we miss out on the word part. Another challenge is: how do we ensure that our denominational leadership is local-church-minded, Christ-oriented and not caught up in bureaucracy? That’s why I am so glad with our new Executive Director, Steve Timmermans, who is a very relational person. Relational in our position means connecting with local churches.

A big part of your calling is to put the spotlight on the reality that the CRCNA is a bi-national church with different cultural and social contexts on each side of the border. What kind of challenges do you anticipate here? 

One of the key challenges is an awareness that the Canadian context and the Canadian Christian Reformed Church is unique. Many people assume that churches on both sides of the border are the same – life styles are the same, culture is the same. Working against that kind of ignorance is a huge task. But any American who has spent significant time in Canada will realize that, in spite of the heavy American influence through media and entertainment, to be Canadian is still very different from being American. At a personal level, to quote Andrew Kuyvenhoven, we are all damned sinners. And so our relationship to God is the same. But when it comes to exercising your gratitude for the work that Christ has done, then you start talking about what does that mean for a local church, a community setting, a cultural context, a national approach. And then, all of a sudden, you understand how that Canadian distinction matters.

Part of the new vision for denominational health is a greater emphasis on collaboration between the denomination and congregations. How do you intend to promote that kind of working together?

You used the male language of collaboration. In my language, maybe traditionally a bit more feminine, I would use the word “relationship.” Denominational health places a greater emphasis on relationship between denominational leadership and congregations. That’s not just me speaking – that’s the churches speaking in the recent Strategic Planning process I have been a part of. People from all over have said, “We need the denomination to connect with us; we need to be in relationship with one another.” Once a year I want to go to every classis in Canada. We as staff want to serve our churches and classes well, because that’s what people in relationship do: they serve one another. Any pastor will tell you who’s done pre-marital counseling, that the first thing you work on in any relationship is communication. If you can’t communicate, everything else will go by the wayside. You’re not going to have a good sex life and you’re not going to look after your finances well if there’s no communication. All the initiatives I am thinking about one can place in this big hopper called communication.

The description of your position as CMD talks about mobilizing the churches and classes “to imagine and demonstrate a Reformed missional witness in Canada through community engagement, gospel proclamation, advocating for social justice and embracing racial diversity.” What do these four goals mean to you?

It makes me think of the recent emphasis in the Christian Reformed Church over the last couple of years on the five streams as our denominational priorities: Faith Formation, Servant Leadership, Global Missions, Loving Mercy/Doing Justice and Gospel Proclamation and Worship. We want churches to imagine wholehearted ministry practices to their communities. Out of Gospel Proclamation come social justice and racial diversity, for example.

Would you like local churches to adopt those five streams or priorities?

Yes. We would like local churches to make it the framework by which they do ministry. Sometimes people think of church as the place you go to on Sunday morning to sing out of the grey hymnal and hear a fine sermon. I’m not convinced that Jesus Christ intended the exact structure we have today when he said to Peter in Matthew 16, “Upon you I am going to build the assembly.” I think he imagined a group of people who worked in godly ways together. But not every church has to look the same. What loving mercy and doing justice looks like in a church in St. Catharines may be very different from what it looks like in a church in downtown Toronto, or in a Winnipeg Aboriginal setting, or a West Coast heavily Chinese setting. Of course, we still need Sunday morning services. We don’t want church to become some great humanitarian exercise.

Do you think the CRC in Canada has a unique role to play in furthering Indigenous justice and Aboriginal ministries?

Yes. We have done significant work with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and we support Aboriginal centres in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton, although the directors there do wish for greater church connection. Mike Hogeterp from Ottawa is in conversation with former Prime Minister Paul Martin in pursuit of Indigenous justice. I hope that we regain that desire for doing the ministry that Arie Van Eek and company started many years ago. We can’t be complacent. For example, I am living on land in Kitchener that was essentially taken from the Aboriginal peoples because it’s within 10 kilometers of the Grand River, and that was land promised to them. Just to say that’s water under the bridge is not right. Up until today we are still breaking covenant. The Christian Reformed Church is a healthy and good voice in the midst of all that.

Without denying the importance of being one denomination in two countries, would you agree that in the foreseeable future the emphasis for the CRC in Canada should be on developing our mission in a uniquely Canadian context?

The answer is yes. Not to the demise of being a denominational entity that shares resources and works together, but in such a way that the Christian Reformed Church in Canada gains greater independence, and permission and capacity to serve within Canada. I think the CRC in Canada owes much to Grand Rapids, historically and in our current context. I’m a local church pastor, and as part of that I have a pension package. Just recently, the American side of the church saved our pension bacon to the tune of millions of dollars. And people don’t know that. And that’s just a fiscal way in which the American Christian Reformed Church has blessed us to pieces. There should always be this partnership, this growing and working together. But at the same time I hope the Canadian CRC gets a stronger voice, a greater independence.

Keeping in mind the mandate given by Synod 2000 for Canadian churches to hold triennial meetings for the purpose of developing vision and strategy for ministry in Canada, can we expect a national gathering of Canadian churches in 2015?

Probably not in 2015. That would be a little eager. Part of that is my own learning curve, but part of that is also because the Canada Corporation has to get its ducks in a row. I think Spring of 2016 is more realistic. This fall the BOT will have this item on the agenda.

Final question. To what extent are you hopeful about the future of the CRCNA in North America?

I am very encouraged when I think of the creativity and the fine work that so many people in our denomination do. We are growing into our own skin of being the Christian Reformed Church and serving faithfully and well, in partnership with other Christian churches. But when I consider the CRC and other churches against the tide of secular culture, and see church body after church body getting smaller and dying, I can get very discouraged. I have to stop thinking that this is about numbers, and I must remind myself that it’s about character. I have to trust that, whether we are the faithful remnant or whether we are the joyous masses, it will be all in God’s design. Our job just has to be about being faithful and blameless, just like Abraham in Genesis 17: “Walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” And the promise is that out of that posture will come a massive amount of blessing to many people groups. And I hope that’s true for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

  • Bert Witvoet is a former educator and editor of various magazines, including the Christian Courier, who lives with his wife, Alice, in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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