Sometimes I wonder if the struggles the CRC is now facing are meant to kindle our imaginations so that we’ll be able to see a new thing that God has for us. What if God has brought us here — into this humbling confusion — to open our eyes?
Our denominational numbers are dropping, young adults are disappearing, congregations are aging, churches and pastors are fighting and, according to some, we are 15 to 20 years away from the death spiral that many mainline denominations are now in. What’s happening? Did we miss a turn? Have we been complacent in some way? Are we not seeing something that God wants us to do?
Theologian Walter Brueggemann once wrote, “If there is any point at which most of us are manifestly co-opted, it is in this way. We do not believe that there will be newness but only that there will be merely a moving of the pieces into new patterns” (The Prophetic Imagination). In order to perceive a new thing, Brueggemann continues, “We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable.”
What new thing could the Christian Reformed Church become if were we to free our imaginations?
Providence in Real-Time
Over the past fifteen years, our Calgary Christian Reformed Church plant has been on a journey into a new way of being God’s people, a way we could never have imagined that is based on some very old reformed ideas made new. Without us knowing it, God has been showing us what a faith community made to experience God everywhere might look like. He’s woken us up to a real-time sense of his paternal providence. John Calvin’s huge view of the Holy Spirit — that it inspires all truth and holds everything in place — has become viable and practical to us. And our view of Jesus has taken on cosmic proportions; as the resurrected one in whom all things now hold together! Someone who we really can know, in his glory, through everything that fills his world.
More precisely, God has reminded us of the true scope of his revelation: that he does speak through both the Bible and creation (which includes nature, human nature, culture and everything else that fills the cosmos). And he’s showing us what a life of faith, based on all that he’s saying, can look like. Growing up, I thought the Bible contained all I needed to know about God. While that was true in relation to matters of salvation, it’s not quite true in terms of experiencing the fullness of who God is via all that he is saying and doing in the cosmos. I lived with a very limited understanding of the revelation of God; a view that would have left my theological forbears — St. Augustine, John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck (to name a few) — wondering where I got lost.
But what if things changed in the CRC? What if we took this especially reformed accent — the firm belief that God speaks through creation — so seriously that we actually preached it (through and alongside God’s revelation in the Bible) on Sunday morning? I’m talking about engaging creational revelation as more than just an illustration, analogy, metaphor or culturally relevant bridge. What if we read God’s words in creation with new authority and spent more time with them and humbly submitted to them (like we do with the Bible)? What if we expected to hear the real-time voice of the Spirit, a word from God through a particular chapter or verse of creation? This is what Calvin said we’d be able to do — read the world through the lens of scripture. This is what Jesus did all the time. What if we followed him in this?
What if we took the idea of God speaking through creation to our places of work and expected to hear him there? What if we saw every single image bearing human being as an icon or as an embodied parable that Jesus might be speaking through? What if we seriously engaged the Holy Spirit’s authoritative words throughout history, culture, sport, science, commerce, and art?
Galileo saw math as the language of God. Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg read history as God’s revelation. If ever there is a book that says that God speaks through history, it’s the Bible. And if God speaks math and history then surely he also speaks supernova, radiation physics, chemical catalysis, colour theory, botany, biology, sport, film, music and dance. The God who made all things must speak farmer, investment banker, barista, manager, geologist, judge, stylist, electrician, landlord, accountant and carpenter!
What if the CRC became the church that led in reading, teaching and preaching God’s spoken word in both the Bible and creation? What if we’re the one’s who bring a new balance to the reading of these books?
While walking the campus of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary several years ago, I started dreaming about what would happen if all of the creation-embracing wisdom of the college came together with all of the theological wisdom of the seminary. What if the seminary helped the college better exegete the revelatory power and potential of philosophy, engineering and poetry? Instead of only citing God as Maker, or the one to thank and worship via creation, what if students were taught how to listen for God’s authoritative word in the midst of and through creation? What if college professors tutored seminarians on God’s word in nursing, computer science and journalism and taught them how to read those “creation texts”? And then, what if those seminarians one day led churches and preached co-illumining Bible/creation-based sermons and catechized whole lives based on the whole counsel of God? What if they taught people that their lives were living parables, empowered right now by a Spirit breathed by Jesus? Imagine churches everywhere engaging God’s word wherever it’s being spoken. How could that way of being not be relevant — in the fullest sense of the word — to the communities God has placed us in? How could that not lead to more worshipful lives?
Last year one critic noted that this way of preaching God’s word tilts against 2,000 years of Christian tradition. He’s right, it does. And I can’t imagine a more beautiful or new way of knowing and experiencing God everywhere.
A few months ago reformed theologian Richard Mouw defended this new idea to peer saying, “At worst it’s provocative; at best it’s true.” Imagine God waking the Christian Reformed Church up to who we are, to our own theological heritage, and then taking it in a whole new direction. Imagine his people of faith made new and using the profound gifts of wisdom and discernment that we’ve been given to see, hear and experience God in all things.
Can we dare to imagine something this new?
John Van Sloten is the senior pastor of New Hope Church in Calgary, and the author of The Day Metallica Came to Church.