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.