Using Historic Strength to Make New Glue

In “The Mournful Sounds of Implosion,”
my colleague at Hope College,
Don Luidens, delivers an advance
eulogy for what he sees as the “pending
demise” of the Reformed Church in
America. “Catch her quickly; she’ll settle
below the horizon soon,” he warns.
Is it time to book the hearse, order
the f lowers, and arrange a decent burial
for the oldest Protestant denomination
in North America? Or, to follow Luidens’
image, should we plan on manning the
lifeboats and fleeing to whatever port
suits our fancy? I think not.

Luidens offers six “items” as his
evidence that the RCA’s impending “implosion”
is both inevitable and explicable.
While he is right about some of
what has changed over the last several
decades, I find that on balance his evidence
is inadequate or tainted. In particular
his conclusions on the denomination’s
disintegrating identity do not
hold water: they appear to be based on
the assumption that if the church deviates
from what made it successful for
the first couple of decades after World
War II, it will be doomed–even though
Luidens does not appear to like some of
what the RCA did in those years, such
as its rush to “suburbanize.”

A careful look at data on members,
money, priorities, and leadership over
the most recent decades, combined with
an understanding of new forces that are
giving the denomination energy and an
increasing sense of shared mission, show
that the RCA is moving in the right direction–toward what has most often made
it successful over its long history. I know
few in the RCA who have illusions about
our need for continued renewal. More and
more of us have experienced some of it.

Has the RCA Lost its Specific Identity?

Luidens’ items #1-3 (“Identity Dissolution,”
“Ideological Messiness”, and
“Theological Muddiness”) all claim the
RCA has lost any specific identity and
thereby dissolved the “glue” essential to
the denomination’s survival. But then he
adds: “Since the days of the fabled ‘Half
Moon’ and her crew, the Dutch Reformed
Church on this continent has struggled
with her identity.” I have no reason to disagree
but must also observe that those
struggles clearly weren’t fatal. The RCA
has survived, and at times thrived, for almost
four centuries. It would be arrogant
to claim that having lasted long means
that it is guaranteed to last longer, but
curiosity and a decent self-respect might
make us inquire further as to what the
RCA did and how, and whether this sheds
any light on our current situation.

Luidens mentions little that earlier
RCA generations did, such as found
New York City, establish three colleges and two seminaries, develop leaders who
influenced the First and Second Great
Awakenings, send early Protestant missionaries
to China, start a prayer movement
before the Civil War that featured
desegregated gatherings of thousands of
people in New York City’s business districts,
join vigorously in the social gospel
and ecumenical movements, and start a
major missionary effort that added German
churches to the denomination, to
name a few. Might what we have done in
the past have helped forge an identity we
can use to this day? I think so.

As to how the RCA did it in the
past, some relevant information can be
found in a book that Luidens himself
has co-authored with Corwin Smidt,
James Penning, and Roger Nemeth: Divided
by a Common Heritage: The Christian
Reformed Church and the Reformed
Church in America at the Beginning of
the New Millennium
(Eerdmans, 2006).
Chapter 2 describes the similarities
and differences between the RCA and
the Christian Reformed Church (CRC),
the authors observing that “there are
many reasons why one might expect
that the CRC and the RCA would be a
single denomination” (19), including
similarities in theology, ecclesiastical
and liturgical practices, adherence to
the same three confessions, a common
Dutch heritage, and a presence largely
in the same geographical areas.

But these, as we know and they say,
were not enough to prevent the secession
of 1857 that resulted in the CRC.
Though space precludes my recounting
the twists and turns in a well-written
narrative, it seems the reasons for the
schism are summarized in two of the
book’s passages. The first is very general:
“While the CRC has historically
placed greater emphasis on doctrinal
purity, the RCA has been more focused
on sustaining church unity. The CRC
has placed importance on fidelity to
theological standards, while the RCA
has tended to affirm personal piety and
evangelism as hallmarks of members’
Christian faith” (21). The second makes
reference to a spat over Freemasonry
and concludes: “On this issue, as with
other questions, the CRC and RCA split
over how much one was willing to tolerate
differences within the church body” (34).

The RCA approach to this and other
issues may sound familiar. General Synods
made pronouncements but let consistories
decide whether to heed them. The
denomination periodically found strong
leaders who could bring together factions,
joined in ecumenical endeavors without
having to agree with all its partners, argued
over whether evangelism or doctrinal
consistency mattered more but did
not split over it, and “following World War
II…increased its theological awareness
and productivity, while remaining committed
to church growth, evangelism,
and ecumenical fellowship” (46).

Whom should I believe? The Luidens
who believes muddiness, messiness, and
a lack of a stable identity will help implode
the RCA? Or the Luidens who co-authored
a book that describes so well how the RCA
has operated for nearly four centuries with
those same traits in the service of working
with their fellow Christians?

I find chapter 2 of Divided by a Common
Heritage
the more persuasive narrative,
and it seems to tell us how the RCA
has survived for almost 400 years, not
why it’s about to disappear.

On Members, Money, Priorities, and Leadership

Luidens’ items 4-6 (“Numerological
Numbness,” “Congregational Particularism,”
and “Financial Failures”) all claim
that practical failures make the RCA unsustainable.
He dismisses the efforts of
Our Call, a national effort endorsed by
the 2003 General Synod, to plant new
churches and revitalize existing ones (as
well as working on the infrastructure that
supports healthy churches) as “minimally
effective” and likely to “further obscure
identity, ideology, and theology.”

Luidens’ points on the effects of suburbanization
and the breadth of membership
loss over decades are well taken.
But his claim of imminent demise suffers
from a lack of numbers: he gives no data
on membership or money save the comment
that the RCA had “almost 235,000
active communicants” in the mid-1960s
and about 170,000 today.

To remedy this deficiency, I used the
“Orange Books” that the RCA issues each
year to report its General Synod proceedings
and membership and financial statistics
to develop a time series on members
and money from 1992 to 2008. These
numbers include a significant number
of years before Our Call began in 2003
as well as the five full years since. The
spreadsheet is available on request from
the author.

Members

The measurement of membership
on which the RCA bases assessments is
“Confessing Members.” It also collects information
on adherents, average worship
attendance per church, and the number
of churches in the denomination. For
each year, I multiplied the number of
churches in the RCA by the average worship
attendance per church to get average
(total) worship attendance for the entire
denomination. Chart 1 below shows confessing
members, confessing members
plus adherents, and average worship attendance
across the entire denomination
from 1992 to 2008.

Chart 1

The numbers hardly suggest an implosion.
The number of confessing members
dropped by over 10,000 from 2003
to 2008, but actual worship attendance
was almost exactly the same in those two
years. In fact, in 2008, for the first time,
average weekly worship attendance actually
exceeded the number of confessing
members in the RCA. The number of adherents
also is at a high for the entire 18-year series in 2008, reaching over 50,000
for the last three years. This recent increase
in adherents and worship attendance
strongly suggests that Our Call is
succeeding in increasing the numbers
of those calling an RCA church home,
whether they officially join it or not.

We also know that the Confessing
Member statistics are likely biased downward.
Churches are not assessed for inactive
members. At least one large church
in southern California is known to have
“capped” its confessing membership
numbers at a fraction of its usual worship
attendance. With its usual tolerance
of local variation, the RCA has left compliance
to the classes. Consistent with
a general point Luidens makes, many
churches report that “membership” per
se is a concept that matters little to some
people who are active in a church, so they
may not see a reason to join. New church
starts that are already conducting worship,
unless they are officially branches
of the parent church, are not counted in
membership or attendance numbers until
they are officially organized and their
consistories file reports.

Recent church-start information
especially suggests
reason for optimism: as of the
end of 2008, the end of the
first five years of Our Call, the
RCA had approved 114 new
congregation plans, ahead of
the 91 projected.

Money

If the statistics on membership
cast at least some doubt
on Luidens’ views on Our Call,
the statistics below in charts
2-4 make it clear that money
is not, by any reasonable
definition of which I am aware, “shorter
in supply” than previously, even with
the drop in number of members. The Orange
Books report both the total income
of RCA congregations and four ways in
which they use it–for RCA assessments
(General Synod, regional synods, and
classes), for other RCA contributions, for other (mission) contributions,
and for
congregational purposes.
Note that on
charts 2-4, the “Total
contributions”
line is the sum of
“RCA assessments,”
“RCA other contributions,”
and
“Other contributions.”
Some clear
conclusions can
be drawn from aggregate
numbers,
which are reported
in three ways: current
dollars for each
year, adjusted for
inflation, and adjusted
for inflation
but stated on a per-confessing-member
basis. (My adjustments
for inflation
used the Consumer
Price Index for All
Urban Consumers
[CPI-U] in July of
each year.)

Chart 2 shows
substantial increases
in total dollars of
income and dollars
used for congregational
purposes
over the entire period,
with a modest
increase in total
contributions (RCA
Assessments plus
Other RCA Contributions
plus Other
Contributions).

Chart 2

Chart 3 adjusts
for inflation but still reports total dollars.
Inflation-adjusted income during the
years 2004-2007 would appear to reflect
some improvement from Our Call, as all
of them are higher than any of the prior
years. Even the total income for 2008, the
year of the USA’s worst recession since
at least 1982, is higher than any of the
years 1992-1998 and is not much off the
highest years prior to Our Call.

Chart 3

If charts 2 and 3 cast some doubt on
Luidens’ view, chart 4, which adjusts for
inflation and puts the numbers on a per-confessing
member basis, is much more
damaging. Total income per member rose
from $926 in 1992 to a peak of $1,538 per
member in 2007 before falling to $1,328
per member in 2008. Total income and
amounts spent for congregational purposes
from 2003 to 2008 were above the
same levels for every year prior to 2003, the start of Our Call, and total contributions
were above all previous years by
2005.

Chart 4

Most surprising, though it is not evident
from the charts, is that other mission
contributions by congregations (i.e.,
for projects and groups outside their
walls) took a sharp step up in current
and inflation-adjusted dollars beginning
in 2005 and stayed there, with an
increase even in 2008. These contributions
the last four years are 50 percent
in inflation-adjusted dollars per member
above their highest levels before 1998–
perhaps a sign of higher commitment by
many RCA members. But are congregations
neglecting the RCA and simply
tending their own nests? I think not, if
we look carefully at the priorities of Our
Call and, I believe, of most members.

Priorities

The purpose of Our Call was not to
add as much revenue as possible to the
denominational offices. It was to start
new congregations, to revitalize existing
congregations in every way and, beginning
in 2008, to help give the RCA a genuine
multiracial future. Denominational
staff structures and programs have been
reconfigured around the priorities of Our
Call for these purposes, and churches
customarily pay part of the cost of programs
like church multiplication. Luidens
claims that mega-churches of around 1,000
or more members typically
have little interest
in aiding denominations,
but only fifteen
to twenty of the
RCA’s 933 congregations
fit that description
in 2008 and some
of them have been
very supportive of the
denomination both financially
and in other
ways.

It is clear that
Luidens is simply
wrong when he
claims RCA financial
resources have been
shrinking: they have
been growing. A nd his dismissal of Our
Call as a positive factor in our membership,
financial picture, and priorities
seems simply inaccurate.

Leadership

According to Luidens, the RCA’s polity
is falling apart, its presbyterial system
is ineffectual, and the “rule of elders”
hasn’t worked. I don’t think everything is
great in this regard, either, but a look at
General Synod presidents, the General
Secretary, and the laity over the last two
decades paints a clear picture of an ongoing
renewal, not a collapse.

Let’s begin with presidents. (Full
disclosure: I am a past president of the
General Synod.) From 1956 through the
election of 1991, with only one exception,
General Synod presidents would alternately
be elected from an eastern state
(most often New York) in one year and a
non-eastern state (often Michigan) the
next. Most, judging by the names, were
Dutch. Luidens’ premise that the “rule of
elders” used to be strong has to be doubted
for this era: what elder could fancy
himself a national leader when, during
this 36-year stretch, clergy were elected
97 percent of the time, the exception being
the legendary Elder Harry DeBruyn?

This pattern changed abruptly beginning
in 1992, when Elder Beth Marcus,
the second in a string of eight straight
non-eastern presidents (1991-1998), became the first woman elected president,
and the former system of alternating by
region, probably aided by the decisions of
a small group, fell apart. Then, in a sharp
reversal, six of the eleven presidents from
1999 to 2009 were from the East; only
two of the others came from Michigan
and one each from California, Colorado,
and Iowa. Two were elders (one male, one
female); one was the first woman pastor
elected; several were Dutch and one each
was of Asian, Hispanic, and African-
American descent.

If Luidens is right in his reasoning, the
RCA should be in big trouble: there seems
never to have been a period in which the
Dutch “ethnic identifier has lost its potency”
so decisively at the level of the top leadership,
and the election of six presidents
from a declining region tells us something
has changed radically. I discuss that something,
which I consider positive, in my section
on our “new glue” below.

As to leadership of the RCA’s denominational
staff, Wes Granberg-Michaelson
has been the General Secretary since
1994. His hiring and Our Call are to me
further evidence of a fairly sharp discontinuity
in the RCA in the early 1990s
relative to the earlier post-World War II
era, but one consistent with the church’s
long-term history. Granberg-Michaelson
is widely believed to have been hired because
the denomination wanted a visionary
leader as its General Secretary. He
considers himself (and I believe is considered
by most others) as evangelical,
ecumenical, and strongly supportive of
social justice initiatives, and his background
is quite varied.

While at least a few influential Eastern
clergy are opposed to a strong General
Secretary on principle and believe our
polity vests authority for major changes
only in assemblies and elected officials,
Granberg-Michaelson’s leadership and
Our Call seem to have widespread support.
This fits RCA history: some eras are
shaped heavily by strong leaders, while
in others the leadership seeks mainly
to keep the waters calm. Lack of strong
leadership for the denomination now
would be unusual given the combinations
of opportunities and threats faced
by mainline Protestants.

I cannot argue with Luidens when
he suggests that the RCA would benefit
from more effectual leadership by elders
(and deacons) since I made a similar
case in my presidential report to General
Synod in 2007. I believe Luidens
underestimates the extent to which the
RCA, in the post-World War II period,
collectively cultivated exactly what he,
I, and many others claim not to want.
That is, the denomination often taught
lay leaders to manage the church just
as they did their other organizations;
allowed or even encouraged clergy domination
of our classes, regional synods,
and general synods; and accepted the
idea that many if not most of our members
might have low commitment even
as others centered their lives on the
church. These measures worked, albeit
with some negative consequences, in
an era when most people expected to
join a church as a matter of course and
when the mission frontier was seen as
somewhere far overseas.

We all know this system has been
shattered over the last twenty years.
A number of the most vital churches I
have visited have gone through conflict
or sharp declines in attendance or both
at the beginning of their revitalization
efforts. I suspect Luidens and I are having
this exchange in no small part because
both of us recognize the damage
of some prior practices, but we do not
agree on what the RCA could do about
it or what replacement would be best.
Is the recent era of change the final
evidence of a “shallow combination of
inertia…and stubborn persistence”
or “a carbon-copy of frontier American
evangelicalism, indistinguishable from
that of countless other church groups”
that Luidens fears? Or is the RCA returning
to its real roots? I think the
latter.

The RCA’s new glue

I share the view that some of what
used to glue the RCA together no longer
does. But unlike Luidens, I believe a glue
of new identity–not generic but distinctive–is already setting up. In part this is
happening as the RCA replaces decrepit old structures with new ones that already
are showing some vibrancy.

1. The RCA’s rich new array of options for
training ministers of Word and sacrament
compared with twenty years ago
offers real promise for generating leadership
attuned to the nation’s demographic
future and the mandate of the
gospel.

2. The RCA is on the cutting edge of creating
small, coached clergy networks
that offer support and encourage accountability
and continuing education,
funded by Lilly grants, in an era
when lower-level judicatories often do
not provide the framework of support
that used to be present.

3. In the last five years General Synods
have had near-revolutionary changes
that encourage delegate interaction
and give every delegate a voice and vote
on major issues, partially replacing a
system of advisory committees that
had given much more power to those
familiar with the complex polity connected
with synods.

4. The denomination has just completed a
decade-long process of considering the
Belhar Confession from South Africa
as a permanent addition to the Standards,
the first in over 400 years. This
year the delegates voted (with about 70
percent in favor) to ask the classes to
approve the Belhar as a permanent
new Standard, with classis votes
scheduled this year.

5. Some rapid change in unexpected places
has eroded a traditional fault line.
Both conser vatives and liberals now
talk about what they’ve learned from
visiting Christians in A frica, Asia,
and Latin America.

6. Several foreign churches have sought
partnerships with the RCA, and one
major multicultural congregation in
San Francisco left the Presbyterian
Church in America to join the RCA.
That congregation has already set
up another one in Denver. It appears
sometimes others see strengths in us
that we overlook ourselves.

Conclusion

I sense a coalescing by a majority in the
RCA around several principles. First, we have
a strong collective sense of being called to follow
Christ in mission to the world, with the
mission field stretching from our backyard
outward. Second, we take seriously Christ’s
admonition that we should love one another
so that the world may know we are his disciples–that we accept what some others see
as “messiness” in the service of working together
on a shared mission. Third, we take
theological discussions seriously. Fourth, we
know that Christians who are different from
us have a lot to teach us. And finally, we are
called to be a multiracial denomination even
though that has been relatively unusual in
American society. Granting the different contexts
the RCA has experienced historically,
I think these principles represent us in the
past at our best.

I do not wish to ignore the parts of Luidens’
analysis that correctly point out how
much the RCA has changed and how hard
that process has been, nor how much work
remains. But I believe that the denomination
is revitalizing itself faster than most realize.
This changed RCA is likely to last because
its revitalization comes from an inside movement
grounded in new realities and drawing
on our long-term strengths–especially
a seriousness about working with our fellow
Christians within a relational structure and
with some reasonable but not overly rigid
boundaries.

The RCA ship as we knew it in 1970 or even
1980 indeed lies imploded on the ocean bottom,
never to return. And about that sinking I would
endorse a slightly amended version of Luidens’
view: blame has been “placed on individuals,
groups, and policies; some of it” has been
“personal and nasty, and much of it” is “dead
wrong.” Many in the post-World War II mainline
Protestant denominations expected to remain
in elite staterooms on a never-ending cruise. For
the end of that era we can use diagnosis but not
recriminations.

But I wouldn’t suggest that you look for
the current RCA vessel where the old one
sank anytime soon. Why would you find the
living among the dead?

Bradley G. Lewis is
professor of Economics
at Union College in Schenectady,
New York.