The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) is not a large denomination. It currently has 227,900 members, compared to the Lutheran Church’s eight million. Its relatively small size, however, has never stopped the CRC from large-scale outreach and mission work or from big-picture thinking. But membership has been steadily declining for 25 years, and no one seems to know how to stop it.
The CRC has lost 88,000 members since 1992 – more than all the CRCs in Canada combined – and on this critical issue CRC leaders are silent. At the present rate, it will fall below 220,000 members in 2020 – far from the “400,000 by 2000” vision of the early 90s. The CRCNA is at the most significant moment in its history. This three-part Christian Courier series will examine growth patterns in the CRC, many of which apply to other denominations; look at membership dynamics; and identify ministry options for your congregation in the future. It is possible for local church leaders to guide congregations towards new life.
A tale of two churches
Before looking forward, we need to go back.
The year is 1954. The war is over, and soldiers have returned home to marry and to normalize their lives. Some prosperity is returning after decades of dust-bowl poverty.
In and around Edmonton, Alberta, an amazing 11 new CRC congregations are being established as post-war immigrants flood the region. By 1960, the congregations will total 6,760 members, including 3,800 children in 1,300 families.
Let’s go to a different town, same year. Here too, a new congregation is being formed – this one by urban immigrants. By 1960, this new suburban church – we’ll call it Grand CRC – will total more than 1,000 members. Imagine having 542 children in one church! A hundred infants in the nursery and 212 teenagers in catechism class. Imagine baptizing 45 children in one year! It was, by all measures, a bright star and a sign of God’s blessings for the CRC.
In 2018, 64 years later, the Edmonton-area churches have blossomed to about 8,600 souls in 33 congregations.
But Grand CRC? It closed last year.
It’s a specific period, 64 years – the lifespan of men and of many churches. I will look at how the Edmonton-area churches have sidestepped this trend in the next article. For now, I’d like to look at the significance of that number for the CRCNA.
Welcome to my world
After four decades of research, I can explain what happened to Grand CRC. It’s what happened to First and to Broadway CRC in Grand Rapids and dozens more. The same rules apply in Nova Scotia and in your congregation. What happened in Fraser Flats also happened in Churchill, Pella, Chino, Lynden and many other places. Nanaimo and Charlottetown are not so different as you may think.
Come see what I see. I’ve been studying your world for 40 years.
Let’s begin with the big picture. The Christian Reformed Church grew virtually every year from 1857 until 1992. Since then, it’s been losing members at the dramatic rate of 3,400 per year, from a peak of 316,415 to 227,968 in 2018. On average, each congregation has lost 125 members – a 35 percent decline.
The local church, the congregation where you meet to worship each Sunday, may seem unchanged. After all, life hums along as it has for decades. Preachers preach a little bit too long. Councils meet too late into the night. Baptisms, graduations, weddings and funerals. Not much changes.
Or does it? In addition to membership loss, the past quarter-century has brought material losses to the denomination’s ministry, including reduced world and domestic outreach, partnering with the RCA, a shrinking denominational budget, reduced pastor and elder participation in boards, and a distressing flurry of disruptive changes in the administrative structure – sometimes known as the institutional church.
Given all that, is there anything Grand CRC could have done to prevent closure? What should the CRCNA be doing now? We’ll answer that question by looking at the growth options for any church, alongside the most important factor in stability and longevity – proximity to other churches.
Experts say that church plants are the most effective at evangelism. What if we simply add more new congregations? Can we out-evangelize our losses?
No. It’s not that simple. In fact, the CRC has added about 150 congregations during the same period that it lost 88,000 members. New congregations are not (yet) sufficient to slow the loss.
Can we grow by having more children? That’s unlikely. Your church probably has fewer young families than ever before, and the average number of children per family is 0.9. Humour aside, we do not have enough children to grow the CRCNA.
Can we attract new members from other congregations or by welcoming new neighbours in our community churches? Maybe, and this is an important component of membership growth for the CRC, but our track record has not been encouraging. Even as we add congregations – and therefore add more “front doors” – we are attracting fewer people each year.
What about immigration as a source of new members? Many new cultures are now part of our cities and communities, and our churches are slowly become more diverse as a result. People from Asian, Pacific Island and African nations are joining the CRCNA and God’s global family, but unfortunately, the rate of joining is not sufficient to change the downward trend at this time.
These four ideas for membership growth all have merit and must be pursued faithfully, but none have proven sufficient for reversing the decline. It’s time to look in an entirely different direction.
Since 1978, I’ve charted and plotted hundreds of church graphs. From that research, I’ve learned some of the rules I didn’t know back when I served as a church planter. Here is the most important one: Like car dealers, CRCNA congregations tend to thrive in close proximity to other CRCs. The more, the better. These “clusters of congregations” were once called Kolonies in a derogatory way, a term of scorn for their isolation and insular habits. Things have changed.
Clusters today serve as essential islands of stability. Clusters offer a symbiotic relationship among the congregations which share resources that come only with size, including sufficient children for youth groups, accessible pulpit supply, pastoral camaraderie, member fellowship, combined services and friendly competition. Even small clusters may enjoy day schools. Larger CRC clusters house a college or university. Not to be discounted – clusters have pools of eligible and culturally-similar marriage partners, a benefit that contributes to membership and ministry stability. Clusters often offer secular employment to their own members, creating a flourishing community, because it really is “whom you know.” These and many additional benefits are found inside clusters.
Your congregation’s relationship to its cluster of surrounding CRCs is among the most important predictors of growth and longevity.
We’re going to get back to Fraser Flats, Alberta, and to Grand CRC, in the next article. Let me end this piece by telling you about two additional congregations.
One was a suburban congregation planted just five miles from Grand CRC, also in 1954. It too experienced dynamic growth and then decline. Like Grand, it too disbanded exactly 64 years later.
This is not unusual inside very large church clusters. It’s so common that I call it the One-Generation-Wonder pattern. It looks like this: the founding members took over a suburb in 1954. They flocked in and were mostly the same age – early 20s. They had kids who grew up, couldn’t find nearby housing in the 80s and moved away to a newer suburb. About 60 years later, the original members are all 88. The church lived its life cycle and closed.
One more church, also about five miles from Grand CRC, almost shut down too. Membership was flagging. Resources were gone. Housing around the church became vacant and the community began to change.
But then something happened. That original church did die. Just about completely. It died and was born again to a new life – a new ministry, a new community and a new identity. That resurrection is what I want to talk about next.
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