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Part II: The Ties That Bind

What keeps members of church denominations together?

I over-winter geraniums because I’m too cheap to buy new ones each spring. For geraniums, the life is in the stems, not the root and not the leaves. In contrast, an apple tree is sustained by deep, underground roots. My orchid’s life is in its leaves.

The church – the local congregation – finds life in its members. Not in its pastor. Not in denominational boards, great theologians or history. A church’s spiritual life resides in its members.

So what does that mean for the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), which has been losing 3,400 members per year since 1992? In the last issue of Christian Courier, we surveyed a century of membership data for the CRC, tracking the downward trend that many denominations are experiencing. We examined some possible avenues for growth and the benefits of church clusters. But I didn’t go into detail about what happened in the 90s to precipitate such dramatic decline.

It began with a denominational dispute about whether women can become Ministers of the Word. In 1996, after a tumultuous debate, the CRC opened ordination to women while allowing individual congregations to decide differently. Since then, the denomination has faced perennial division.

Unity is essential to Christian vitality. We are one body, Paul says, and each has a part (1 Cor. 12). A healthy denomination respects all its members without qualification. Division causes decline. Be careful, Paul warns, when you bite and devour one another – there will be nothing left but bones (Gal. 5:15, paraphrase).

In recognition of this critical situation, Synod 2018 adopted Overture 18, an appeal to the entire denomination to focus on reconciliation, based on the premise that conflict – unresolved conflict – is one significant underlying cause of membership loss.

But we don’t need to wait for the Council of Delegates’ next ministry plan cycle. We can start rebuilding healthy church communities right now. I believe that Christians in Canada and the U.S. can come together to praise our Lord as a reconciled church.

Building community
Let’s go back in time once more.

The year is 1910.

You are on the harsh edge of the prairie. Hot dust in summer. Brutal cold in winter. Life is tough when snow drifts through a tarpaper shack.

Your village, on a gravelly bend of the North Saskatchewan River known as Fraser Flats, is where you gather with other immigrants, hoping to make a new life in Canada.

One day tragedy strikes. Two community children are dead. You can hear the tarpaper flapping mournfully in the relentless wind as neighbours gather. “As a result of this meeting,” the record reads, they “decided to form a church. Times were difficult. […] But, together, they could come together to praise their Lord and to draw strength from their communal meeting with God” (firstcrcedmonton.ca).

Later that same year, the record reads: “First CRC is incorporated. Worship services are held in a tent.” A tent? In Fraser Flats? Now you can hear canvas flapping in the winter.

Four years later a building was completed. After all, when, together, community people come together to praise their Lord, they find strength.

A century later, First Christian Reformed Church of Edmonton is going stronger than ever. Over 1,000 people gathered for the centennial in a grand city venue. Classis Alberta North numbers about 9,000. No more tarpaper. No more canvas. The sound you hear now is hands clapping in praise.

Did you notice the double “together” in the first quote? “Together, they could come together.” It’s not a typo. It means that if the people of Fraser Flats came together, they could do something none of them could do alone. They found the strength of God and they grew.

Whether you are in Edmonton or El Paso, Belleville or Bellflower, the same rules apply: clusters of people gathering together to seek and serve God have been the core strength of CRC congregations since the founding years.

Influence and growth
There’s an old joke about a preacher driving home after Sunday worship. He asks his wife how many truly great preachers there are in the world. His wife replies, “There’s one less than you think.” Great line. It’s absolutely true.

Preachers generally make less positive membership change than you can measure. And I know: I’ve measured hundreds of church graphs, observing the rise and fall of membership over decades. I generally cannot identify when a preacher arrived or left based on the membership charts.

Members (not preachers) create your church or the churches around you. The life of your church resides in the clusters of members who walk with God. I believe a significant cause of the CRC’s decline is conflict – broken relations at the denominational level, at the classis level, at the cluster level and in congregations. It’s like we’ve forgotten all about Fraser Flats.

Before 1996, members of the denomination argued over topics like worship music and biblical authority. Disagreement is nothing new, but it became a structural part of the CRC’s fabric when Synod decided to honour two ways of interpreting Scripture – allowing individual churches to welcome or bar women from the pulpit. Instead of reducing conflict, it was set in stone. And every day that passes in which we fail to address that division, we pass it on to the next generation.

Restoring Unity 
I believe restoring healthy positive relations among the church people, congregations, classes and leadership is key to the viability of the CRCNA. No, I know it is.

Can we, like the residents of Fraser Flats, come together to draw strength from our communal meeting with God? Can we seek forgiveness from each other? (Matt. 5: 21-26). Can we forgive one another in order to restore unity in Christ? (Matt. 6:14-15). Last June, Overture 18 urged Synod to focus on denominational unity and reconciliation – to reestablish binational unity, as much as practicable.

Synod agreed, urging the Council of Delegates and the executive director to include a focus on reconciliation in the CRCNA’s next ministry plan cycle. But there’s no time to lose – we can’t wait any longer. We need to rebuild the strong, positive elements of shared confessions and commitments now.

This will require the greatest care and focus. It requires us to set aside destructive distractions, partisan loyalties and divisive posturing. It will require submission to the Lord of the church universal.

Find out more: 
You can read Overture 18 online at crcna.org, Agenda for Synod 2018, pages 334-51.
The response to that Overture is in the Acts of Synod 2018, page 473.

Read more in the “Ties that Bind” series
Part I: Why your church is losing members and how it can grow again
Part III: How reconciliation can lead to resurrection

Author

  • David Snapper

    David has been studying growth patterns in the CRCNA since 1976, when he discovered a box of abandoned Jaarboekje dating back to 1901. He’s written an MDiv and an DMin dissertation, as well as an Overture to Synod in 2018, on church growth and decline.

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