Can We Talk?–An Invitation to the Reformed and Missional Dialogue

Why spend time talking about being Reformed and missional? The short answer to that question is: “Because it’s a really good idea…and besides, the 2007 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America told us to.” But knowing that Perspectives readers will want more than that, allow me to indulge in the longer answer.

At the RCA’s General Synod of 2007, a “Missional Structures Task Force” proposed sweeping changes in the RCA’s structure that were intended to make us more missional. Delegates to Synod disagreed about whether or not this would be the case, but they overwhelmingly agreed that making drastic changes at this point would be premature. If I were to summarize the mind of that Synod (of which I was a part), I’d say we felt a pressing need for two things. First, we wanted the issue of structure to be discussed, not in a vacuum, but in the context of a larger and more pressing question of what it means to be both Reformed and missional. Second, we wanted to make sure that this broader dialogue was scrupulously conscientious in its attempt to involve the entire denomination.

General Synod 2007 defeated the proposed changes and instead passed a recommendation now commonly referred to as “R-16” in RCA jargon. R-16 instructed the General Synod’s Executive Committee to continue to facilitate a conversation among all the various assemblies and bodies within the RCA on “the missional purpose and work” of the RCA. “To gather wisdom, share ideas, and encourage experimentation, so that the RCA might discover new means by which to more effectively equip congregations for mission and ministry” and report back to the General Synod no later than 2010.

As the then vice president of General Synod, I was asked to convene a team to carry out this recommendation. As that team began to work, we identified key themes. We want to learn from multiple perspectives about what the missional purpose and work of the Reformed Church means, how it is being lived out, and how it might look in the future. We need to explore the relationships between “being missional” and our ecclesiology, our polity, our traditions, and the expected work of the Spirit in our ministry. We need to build bridges, to build trust, and consider the varied contexts of ministry. Finally, we need to ask how our discussions can enhance the ministries of our congregations.

With these themes and the specifics of R-16 in mind, the team crafted the basic outlines of a process for a two-year, denomination-wide dialogue on “the missional purpose and work” of the RCA by deeply exploring our understandings of and commitments to being both Reformed and missional in who we are and what we do. The dialogue would be informed by Scripture, by our traditions and our order, by our current contexts for and experiences in ministry, and by our understandings of how the Spirit is calling us forward in ministry. One very important thing to note about this process is that the implementation team is making no attempt to predict the content or exact outcome of the final report. This is because we don’t know where this process will lead us. That is up to you, the church, and the Holy Spirit.

The proposed process includes the following elements and timeline:

  • General Synod, June 2008: The Rev. Dr. Richard Mouw and a panel of people from within the RCA engaged the Synod in discussion around the Reformed and missional topic.
  • Fall, 2008: Extending the dialogue throughout the church with a DVD resource and a brief study guide. This resource is designed with enough flexibility to be useful in a variety of contexts–Sunday school classes, consistory retreats, classis meetings, etc. Feedback mechanisms are built into the resource.
  • Spring, 2009: The team would receive responses from these church-wide dialogue sessions, and from those responses prepare two documents: one, an interim report to the 2009 General Synod; and two, in consultation with specialists, a written survey. This survey would seek the kind of empirical data on missional understandings, activities, impediments, and outcomes from across the church, as mandated by the action of Synod.
  • General Synod, 2009: An interim report that will allow Synod to discuss preliminary findings, identify areas where further work is required, and make recommendations, if necessary, to assist in the completion of the dialogue.
  • Fall, 2009: Wide follow-up through the church, guided by the actions of Synod.
  • General Synod, 2010: A final report, with “future steps”, that might be undertaken.

General Synod 2008 received Rich Mouw and the RCA panelists with enthusiasm, and the dialogue got off to a great start. Our team worked hard all summer on a six-part DVD and Leader’s Guide that is based on the Synod 2008 discussion. It is due to go out to RCA pastors and other denominational groups and leaders this fall. Classis clerks will also receive a short 30- minute DVD entitled, “Invitation to Conversation,” which is intended to introduce classes to the dialogue and encourage the use of the full DVD resource in various settings.

A Plea for Participation

For those of you in the Reformed Church in America, I hope that you and your congregation will receive the General Synod 2008 DVD and indeed, the entire dialogue, as a gift, a blessing, and most of all a helpful resource for talking about things that are at the very heart of who we are as a church. I hope that the sense of interest and curiosity and excitement that I felt at General Synod is something that will spread throughout the RCA and that people will come away from it understanding that to be truly Reformed is to be missional.

To those who are not part of the RCA, you too have wisdom, experiences, and diverse contexts to contribute to a broader conversation. While the original impetus came from very RCA-specific events, the RCA’s conversation is really just a part of a broader conversation that will involve Reformed Christians across North America and will continue beyond the RCA-specific concerns and timeline. At the very least, both non-RCA and RCA will find the available DVD and the other resources provocative and helpful. You can access these materials at www.rca.org or 1-800-228-3813.

Finally, my hope is that people won’t be cynical about this conversation. I ask you not to sit back and say, “Oh, it’s just another denominational dialogue. I’m not going to participate in that. They don’t care what I’m saying anyway.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is an essential dialogue, and we do care what you say. You have a chance to shape the recommendations that come out of this process, and I hope and pray you’ll take that chance.

Carol Bechtel is the president of the General Synod of the Reformed Church America and a professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.