The Mournful Sounds of Implosion

Those are the gentle, mournful
sounds of a denomination imploding.
Sad to say, they are not the first, nor
will they be the last. But this time it’s
the Reformed Church in America which
is slip-slidin’ away. Crushing in on herself.
Catch her quickly; she’ll settle below
the horizon soon. Get a last snapshot and
hold it in your mind for posterity. It was
here; it flourished; it ministered; it floundered;
and then it was gone.

Postmortems will abound as folks
try to figure out “what went wrong.” Perhaps
it should be sufficient to say, “her
time was up.” That won’t satisfy everyone.
Blame will be placed on individuals,
groups, and policies. Some of it will be
nasty and personal, and much of it will
be dead wrong. In advance of those recriminations
it is possible to see some of
the underlying forces which propel the
implosion and to recognize their inevitability–and, perhaps, thereby to forego
the unholy personal vendettas and character
critiques which are so much a part
of ecclesial postmortems. To that end,
here are six “items” for the reader’s consideration.

Item #1: Identity Dissolution

Since the days of Henry Hudson’s
fabled “Half Moon,” the Dutch Reformed
Church on this continent has struggled
with her identity. For centuries, the answer
was found in a common ethnicity.
“Dutchness” bound together the early
generations of the RCA on the East
Coast with the later arrivals in the Midwest.
Ethnicity was the underlying social
source of Reformed Church identity
well into the twentieth century, even in
the historic New York-New Jersey corridor.
As late as the 1910s, my grandfather
was called to his first church in the
Hudson River valley in part because he
could speak Dutch, for that congregation
still had a Dutch-language (albeit midafternoon)
Sunday service. By the end of
the twentieth century, however, the only
“Dutch” folk in the Eastern RCA were
found in the hinterlands of the Mohawk
and Hudson River valleys, and in the
pulpits supplied by transplanted midwestern
pastors. Not much has changed
since my Frisian grandfather’s day; the
denomination still depends on midwestern
churches as its principal source of
ministerial leadership.

The Reformed Church’s midwestern
enclave has been slower to unload its
Dutch baggage, in part because of the
constant infusion of “new Dutch blood”
from the Christian Reformed Church
(whose own gentle, mournful knell is beginning
to pulsate).
 
The denominational craft has carried
us far, but its time is up. It has sprung
debilitating leaks which can no longer
be plugged.
 

But that ethnic identifier
has lost its potency; it has become,
increasingly, an ersatz bundle of characteristics–family name, hair-color, social
connections–rather than any religious
or cultural factor distinguishably Dutch.
And it has been replaced by…what? Is it a shallow combination of inertia (“we’ve
always done this; we’ve always gone here”)
and stubborn persistence (“we won’t succumb
to the corroding forces of secular
pluralism”)? Or is its marker a carbon-copy
of frontier American evangelicalism,
indistinguishable from that of countless
other church groups?

Identity issues have been raised repeatedly
by RCA leaders, especially by
General Synod presidents who are often
the beneficiaries of fractious, political
partisanship. The most notable occasion
was in 1984 when President Leonard
Kalkwarf famously asked: “Who are
we? What is the glue which holds us together?
“His query echoes down through
the intervening years, meaning that we
would be hard-pressed to define the RCA’s
unique identity. The General Synod president
of 2009, raising the same question,
answered in terms of “worship, baptism,
and ministry,” echoing the recent World
Council of Churches’ themes of baptism,
eucharist, and ministry. While an eloquent
reaffirmation of the RCA’s heritage
in these three dimensions, it was unclear
how the RCA version is unique compared
to those of other denominations.

Item #2: Ideological Messiness

Two generations ago, arguably at the
height of its influence and ecumenical
visibility, the RCA began to experience
ideological fissures which came to define
the last half of the twentieth century.
Discernable “liberal” and “conservative”
wings struggled for ascendancy–the former
housed largely, but not exclusively, in
the urbane and urban Eastern churches,
and the latter rooted in the staunchly
conservative soil of the Midwest. Around
such issues as the civil-rights movement,
the Vietnam War, women’s ordination,
and the relative importance of evangelism
vis á vis social witness, two parties
coalesced and confronted each other.

Of course, these issues were not
unique to the RCA; other mainline and
evangelical denominations had similar
struggles. Unique to the RCA, however,
was the confluence of region, ethnicity,
and ideology. Regions of the denomination
squared off. Clergy and laity joined
party ranks, sometimes allied, sometimes
separated. Clergy were often seen as
more “liberal,” although not on all issues.

My colleague, Roger Nemeth, and I
found in the 1980s that, in the midst of this
contentiousness, a third party emerged to
serve as the glue holding things together.
We called these folks “loyalists.” Their driving
motivation was denominational unity,
whatever the cost. While typically leaning
to the right of center on theological and social
issues, they were more
dedicated to denominational
survival than to ideological
purity. As might be expected,
they were often folks who
had been raised in the RCA,
 
The loyalists, used to being mediators,
have thus become the “left flank” of
the denomination, throwing them into
the unfamiliar quandary of having to
live up to their conservative stripes.
 

with “Dutch” roots, considerable
leadership experience
at the denominational and
regional levels, and a strong
sense of the value of the denomination’s
history and creedal traditions. By appealing
to the liberals’ affinity for history and
tradition (yes, “liberals” have been the
unique custodians of the RCA’s heritage,
often being the most knowledgeable and
vociferous defenders of such arcane documents
as the Book of Church Order and
the RCA Standards) and to the conservatives’
commitment to biblical ascendancy
(for “conservatives,” their interpretation of
biblical authority always trumps issues
of polity), the loyalists held the disparate
extremes together. At the time we estimated
that there were, roughly, equal
groups in each of the three parties.

But that was then, this is now. The
intervening years have not been kind to
the liberals, who have deserted the RCA
in significant numbers. Ironically, by its
rhetoric much of the conservative branch
has failed to notice this historic departure.
They continue to rail against “liberalism,”
but their target has moved to other, more congenial denominational
homes. The loyalists, used to being mediators,
have thus become the “left flank”
of the denomination, throwing them into
an unfamiliar quandary. Congregations
and leaders that historically saw themselves
as intermediaries are now under
pressure to live up to their conservative
stripes. The current squabble about the
status of homosexuals and their defenders
in the RCA is only the latest skirmish
between “left” and “right”; interestingly,
the few “liberals” who remain in
the church have found themselves with
largely silent allies on this challenge du
jour. Indeed, the strongest proposal from
the “left” on the issue (as reflected at the
General Synod of 2009) is to continue the
dialogue–a classic position taken by loyalists
who are loathe to force an issue to
what may be a disastrous conclusion.

Item #3: Theological Muddiness

In several studies of RCA
members from 1976 through
2000, Roger Nemeth and I
found that there was little
knowledge of and support for
the great creedal Standards
of the Reformed Church.
When asked about the Heidelberg Catechism,
Canons of the Synod of Dort, and
Belgic Confession, laity largely responded
with, “Huh? ” Those who had heard of
these creeds gave them little understanding
or support. It appeared to us that the
RCA had no “Standards” to speak of, a
comment which we made in a series of
articles in the recently deceased Church
Herald
. Among pastors, there was considerable
apathy (even antipathy) toward
the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession.
While Heidelberg was largely endorsed,
it was rarely preached–although
that is a mandate to which all RCA ministers
commit themselves.

Upon the advice of critics, we altered
our more recent survey questions in order
to assess levels of support for the tenets
of the creeds, rather than for the creeds
by name. Not surprisingly, we found that
there was a rather high level of assent
to such doctrinal verities as the sovereignty
of God, the divinity of Christ, the
importance of the Bible “for faith” and
“for action,” the virgin birth of Jesus,
and so forth. Equally popular, however,
were Arminian heterodoxies, such as a
widespread affirmation that our own actions
and beliefs (and not divine election
via “predestination”) are central to determining
our eternal fates. Similarly, RCA
folks generally affirm that all faiths are
human efforts to comprehend divine glory
and that Christianity is not the only
route to eternal life.

What emerges from these data theologically,
then, is a generic form of American
evangelicalism with a thin Calvinist
overlay. The authority of Scripture for
faith and life becomes transmuted when
washed, as it has become in the RCA, in
the language of biblical inerrancy. Its descriptive
insights are lost to prescriptive
formulations. Rather than see the Bible
as a dynamic, living guide to life’s unfolding
complexities, subject to interpretation
and wonderment, our respondents
read it as a self-evident “how-to” book
for right living. How-to “authorities” are
chosen for their being mediagenic rather
than for the richness of their faith and
life or the fulsomeness of their thinking.
Ad hominem theology abounds. “The Bible
says” whatever the authoritative speaker
wishes, and the biblically illiterate person
in the pew has few defenses against
outrageous truth claims. The textual dilemmas
attendant upon the composition
of Holy Writ present a cornucopia of canonical
manipulations and uncertainties.
Tacitly recognizing this thicket, RCA
ministers, like others in the evangelical
mainstream, avoid it by resorting to even
louder and harsher truth claims. “The
Bible says” becomes “THE BIBLE SAYS!”

Item #4: Numerological Numbness

RCA membership peaked in the mid-1960s at approximately 235,000 active
communicants. Today it stands at roughly
170,000. This decline has spawned a
truckload of theories, most fueled by ideology
and others by fear. The bulk of the
decline has been regional; the Eastern
synods of the RCA accounted for most of
the drop, at least initially. This decline
gave rise to an easy critique that the
East’s “theological heterodoxy” was the
cause and a “return” to orthodoxy the solution.
As was said about American religion
in general, “conservative” churches
grew, “liberal” churches declined. Allies
of this interpretation saw the numerical
drop-off as a symptom of the secularizing
forces of modernity and “relativism,”
combined with an unhealthy dose of political
liberalism. Again, the solution was
to return to the RCA’s purported roots.

What has become apparent in the intervening
years, however, is that broader
social forces have been at work and that
the initial regionally varied impacts on
the RCA have become more universal in
recent years. Throughout its history the
RCA has relied on internal growth to feed
its membership rosters, with a constant
trickle of migrants from the Christian
Reformed Church as a supplement. Children
of RCA members have been raised to
be the next generation of RCA members.
While this has always had a mixed results
(some offspring stay, others don’t),
the sheer numbers of children so raised
meant a slow but steady rise in the RCA’s
overall numbers. My other grandfather
was one of ten siblings. Half of them
stayed in the RCA, half did not. But compared
to the two parents, the five children
who remained spelled spectacular church
growth. However, my wife and I have two
daughters. If only half stay in the RCA,
the denomination declines substantially.
This fact has now played itself out across
the Reformed Church. Baptism statistics
tell the tale, beginning in the late 1950s
in the Eastern churches and extending
today into the Midwest. By relying largely
on internal growth, the RCA (like most
mainline denominations) set itself up for
the devastating demographic fact of declining
birth rates.

The second route of entry for new
members into the RCA has been through
a grand religious ballet that sociologist
Benton Johnson has called “the circulation
of the saints.” Since the end of World
War II–again, having its initial impact on
“mainline” denominations like the RCA,
but more recently inundating “evangelical”
ones like the CRC–religion in the
United States has been a free-market environment.
 
The result of the coming and going of
membership over the past half century
has been a net numerical as well as
theological loss for the RCA: beginning
with the sharp decline in new births and
baptisms, accentuated by the ebb and
flow of members only marginally
committed to the denomination.
 

Competition for members has
generated a free-for-all; joining and leaving
congregations has become a near-universal
experience. Church-growth
gurus recognize–and preach–that a
generic Christianity, one which appeals
to a wide audience and demands
little specific biblical
or denominational knowledge
from participants, is
the most marketable one.
For the RCA, this factor has
compounded the challenges
laid out above.

Beginning again in the
East, in the 1950s the RCA
was eager to join the grand
ballet. The suburbanization
of Eastern metropolae fed
this frenzy. New folk coming
into local congregations
had to be grafted into the traditions and
history of the RCA, a problematic endeavor
in many self-consciously “community”
churches. Since the newcomers’
first allegiance was to their congregation
of choice (often the result of personal invitations
or locational convenience), the
denominational overlay was light. Moreover, the “Dutch” heritage was seen as a
liability and was treated as a quaint vestige
of a bygone day. At the same time, the
venerable Standards of theological rectitude
held little sway in an environment
as open and free-flowing as the emerging
religious marketplace. Since many of
these recent arrivals had migrated from
other denominations–from Catholic to
Baptist to Methodist to Lutheran–that had historic
differences with the RCA,
pastors and church leaders
became adept at papering
over theological differences.

Perhaps the highpoint
(or nadir) of this theological
messiness occurred with respect
to the 1997 Formula of Agreement.
It was the Calvinist-descended, homosexual-welcoming United Church of Christ
and not the eucharistically distinctive
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
that generated opposition among RCA
conservatives to the accord. So far had
a theological heritage been transmuted
into American politico-religious terms.

For all their Eastern origins, these
patterns are in full flower across the denomination
today. The result of the coming
and going of membership over the
past half century has been a net numerical
as well as theological loss for the RCA.
Beginning with the sharp decline in new
births and baptisms, accentuated by the
ebb and flow of members only marginally
committed to the denomination, the RCA
has lost numerical ground. Noble gestures
(the “Our Call” initiative of 2003 is
one such appeal) aimed at stemming the
tide are minimally effective but have the
long-term likelihood of further obscuring
identity, ideology, and theology as local
church marketers pitch their appeal to
local audiences.

Item #5: Congregational Particularism

Which leads inevitably to item #5,
the fact that congregants join congregations
first and denominations only incidentally.
Both its staff and elected leaders
might survey the denomination’s
fortunes and pitch concerted initiatives
of new-church planting or old-church
renewal, but the reality of church life is
a local one. Individual congregations increasingly
homogenize around particular
cultural characteristics–evangelical fervor,
social outreach, “biblical” preaching,
contemporary music, and so forth–in order
to find their market niche. Efforts to
inject denominational mandates into the
mix are often seen as intrusive. Thus,
many congregations have refused to support
RCA missionaries while making such
groups as Focus on the Family or Habitat
for Humanity their prime benevolence
beneficiaries; others have diverted money
from denominational projects to local
ones. Denominational “intrusion” takes
other guises as well, from interventions
by staff into congregational or classical
affairs to General Synod’s modification of
the qualifications of elders, deacons, and
ministers of the Word.

All of these instances are emblematic
of the weakening of polity within the RCA.
The presbyterial model of governance,
characterized by ascending levels of authority
and predicated on rule by elders,
is no longer compelling. The ineffectual
involvement of most elders at higher judicatory
levels trumpets the demise of this
once-powerful, unifying thread in the
fabric of the RCA. So does the reluctance
of many clergy to participate; the number
of “regulars” at General Synod is a source
of sideline humor and is symptomatic of
so many ministers’ lack of enthusiasm at
taking their turn in extra-congregational
conclaves.

Item #6: Financial Failures

Not surprisingly, in the face of all
these trends and challenges the funding
of the RCA has floundered. As identity has been lost, as ideology and theology
have been confounded, as numerical decline
jars up against congregational and
denominational claims, money has been
in increasing demand and shorter supply.
This problem too has some structural
roots. The RCA began as an urban denomination
in the big cities of New York,
New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, boasting
a large number of “tall-steeple” congregations.
 
Formerly, an economy of scale operated
among RCA churches: the largest were
the most generous, the smallest the
least so. Today that ratio is reversed.
 

These were largely parish congregations,
their membership drawn from
the immediate vicinity. As local congregations,
they experienced little competition
for members and were not overly
preoccupied with drawing in newcomers.
A ll Dutch immigrants to the vicinity
came to them and were quickly
absorbed into the familial network;
when others arrived, they found a path
for involvement well beaten by wooden
shoes and readily acceptable as the way
things were done.

Tall-steeple pastors held a distinctive
role in the RCA, and many of the
denomination’s elected and appointed
leaders were drawn from their ranks.
These churches were the most generous
in giving to denominational activities
too, ref lecting their significant resources.
Indeed, an economy of scale operated
among RCA churches: the largest
were the most generous, the smallest
the least so.

But all of that has changed in the
era of the mega-church. Largely suburban
and small city, these congregations
of 1000 or more souls are heavily invested
in their own survival. Since they
draw from a wide territory, they are in
direct competition with many other congregations,
RCA and other wise. The results
are major investments in internal
programs and staff, expensive membership-recruitment efforts, and congregationally
sponsored missional activities,
so that today the largest RCA congregations
give proportionally much less
to the denomination’s activities than
do churches of 200 to 500 members.
Moreover, with understandable concern
for keeping their pews filled, pastors in
these congregations rarely have time to
be involved in denominational leadership
roles.

Fiscal tensions have led to creative
and contorted financial and institutional
adjustments. Personnel cuts have
been severe: the ranks of missionaries,
church executives, and support staff
have steadily diminished over the past
quarter of a century. The most recent
victim of this strategy has been the denomination’s
long-standing magazine,
the Church Herald. When its denominational
subsidization ceased, its demise
was inevitable. “Restructuring” has
been another instrument of these painful
excisions, as the General Synod has
given birth to the General Synod Executive
Committee, the General Program
Council, the General Synod Council
and other manifestations of super vision
and program emphasis. Tragically,
through all of this, some faithful folk
have been ignominiously ground up. As
a former leader once put it to me: “The
RCA spends a lot of time and effort finding
the best person they can for a particular
leadership role, and once that
person has been chosen, the church
begins to ‘bring him down a peg’!”

Conclusion

A great deal of energy and a lot of
human and financial resources are being
expended in an effort to preserve
the life of the RCA. A nd this is not surprising;
many of us have an abiding
love for all that this ship of faith has
borne over the centuries. But it is time
to begin to think of what is coming in
its wake. What vessel will carry us from
here? Will there be a distinguishable
church structure that extends beyond
the local congregation, or will congregations
be aligned with multiple associations?
What I hope this essay has
accomplished is to suggest that there
are patterns beyond our individual control
that are compressing the RCA in
ways which spell its impending demise.
The denominational craft has carried us
far, but its time is up. It has sprung debilitating
leaks which can no longer be
plugged. It is time to look for a new vehicle,
or collation of vehicles, to move the
church faithfully and compellingly into
the twenty-first century.

Bradley Lewis respectfully disagrees with Donald Luidens. Read his essay Using Historic Strength to Make New Glue.

Donald Luidens is professor
of sociology at Hope College in
Holland, Michigan.