The Reformed Churches: Enlarging Their Witness
by Howard G. Hageman
Dr. Hageman is president of New Brunswick (New Jersey) Theological Seminary. . This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 21, 1979, p. 177. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The churches that bear the name “Reformed” are only a fraction of the churches in this country that represent the Reformed tradition. It is one of the curiosities of that tradition in the U.S. that, while Baptists are always called Baptists and Methodists are always called Methodists, many Reformed Christians are called Presbyterians! The difference, of course, goes back to the place of origin. Though both groupings belong to the Reformed family, the Presbyterian churches look to Great Britain for their beginnings, while the churches that are called Reformed had their origin in a variety of countries on the continent of Europe.
Two denominations in the U.S. include “Reformed” in their titles today -- the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. Both look to the Netherlands as the country of their origin, though in different ways. The Reformed Church in America, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1978, goes back to the earliest colonial times when New York was New Amsterdam; in addition, it has been enriched and enlarged by many immigrants from the Netherlands in the eighth century. The Christian Reformed Church was made up almost totally of 19th and 20th century immigrants from the Netherlands who represented a division that took place in the Reformed Church there in 1834.
By American standards, both churches are small. The total membership of the Reformed Church in America is 360,000, and that of the Christian Reformed Church is 288,000 -- far less than 1 million in total. Over 25 per cent of the CRC’s membership is in Canada, where that church has ministered extensively to Dutch immigrants since World War II. While there are a few RCA congregations in Canada, they represent only a tiny fraction of the denomination’s total membership.
Perhaps the best way to begin discussing the future of these churches is to consider their relationships with each other. Though closely related historically and theologically, they have had very different ecumenical histories. As one of the oldest American denominations (and one of the strongest in two of the original 13 colonies), the Reformed Church in America has always had an ecumenical posture, dating back to the early United Missionary Societies. It was an original member of the Federal Council of Churches, and of the National and World councils.
Despite this history of ecumenical openness, however, the RCA has had a consistent record of refusing to combine with other denominations in organic union, beginning with the old northern Presbyterian Church in 1876, followed by the then Reformed Church in the United States (now part of the United Church of Christ) in 1889, the former United Presbyterian Church in 1949 and, most recently, the southern Presbyterian Church in 1969. From this record it should be abundantly clear that while it in no way rejects a posture of ecumenical cooperation, the Reformed Church in America is nonetheless unwilling to surrender its denominational identity.
The Christian Reformed Church, on the other hand, has followed a much more isolationist course from its beginnings in this country in 1857. Though it has from time to time looked favorably on some conservative alliances, it has eschewed joining either the National or the World Council of Churches, seeking fellowship rather with groups like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or, more recently, with the new Presbyterian Church in America.
Within this decade, however, the two Reformed churches have begun conversations with each other. Not surprisingly, these talks have been disconcerting to the liberal wing of the RCA, which sees in them the threat of a church locked into Reformed confessional orthodoxy. The conversations have been equally distressing to the conservative wing of the CRC, which sees any cooperation with the RCA as leading to all the evils of participation in mainstream American Protestantism. But a strong middle group in each denomination has insisted that the two churches must address themselves seriously to the schism which has marred the lives of both for more than a century.
It would be impossible to predict where these conversations may lead. Probably no organic merger will take place within the next decade; many stubborn problems still must be resolved. But there is no doubt that talks will continue with greater seriousness. Instead of seeking ways in which they can react to each other -- the pattern of the past -- the two denominations should in the coming decade seek increasing areas of cooperation. It would be foolish to predict exactly what areas those may turn out to be, but it would be equally unwise not to point out a growing pattern of walking together for the future of the two churches.
Growth, Decline and Stagnation
During the past few years neither denomination has grown; both have stagnated. At an earlier period the Christian Reformed Church enjoyed a pattern of growth, but it seems to have been the result of heavy Dutch immigration to Canada; the rise leveled off when the’ immigration ceased. Despite protests to the contrary, neither church has yet discovered how to break out of its ghetto. In the case of the CRC and the midwestern section of the RCA, church growth has been largely a matter of remaining within areas where the denominations have had historic roots.
In the RCA there have been some recent exceptions to this traditional pattern. One is the development of a sizable number of Hispanic (and, to a lesser degree, black) congregations in northeastern urban areas like Brooklyn, the Bronx, Newark and Hudson County, New Jersey, which once were centers of traditional Reformed Church strength. The usual pattern of church flight from these areas seems to have been arrested as the RCA has begun to minister to the groups that have moved in. The fact that a denomination which had no record of previous work in Hispanic countries has had some success in meeting the needs of Hispanic immigrants to northeastern Cities may mean that, on this front at least, the RCA has been able to break out of its ghetto.
The other obvious exception is the enormous success of Robert Schuller in Garden Grove, California. While all kinds of questions have been raised about Schuller from within the Reformed Church -- some arising from petty jealousy and some based on serious concerns of theological integrity, the fact remains that the Schuller pattern has worked in Orange County, California, at a time when the rest of the church has been in stagnation or decline. The question for which no one seems to have the answer is how much of the Garden Grove Community Church’s success is the result of its leader’s charisma (at least several attempts at imitation elsewhere have been disastrous failures) and how much is the result of principles applicable elsewhere in the country.
The RCA’s top leadership has obviously decided to bet on the thesis that at least some principles of Schuller’s successful church are transferable. The denomination has recently raised a $5 million church growth fund, part of which is to be used in developing new congregations in the Sunbelt, particularly in Texas, where up to this point the Reformed Church in America has been totally unrepresented. Realizing that congregations, like individuals, do not do well in isolation, and that isolated congregations of the RCA have not been successful in the past, church leaders plan to develop clusters of congregations, rather than lone outposts, in these new locations.
At this point, therefore, the RCA is on the threshold of expanding into a rapidly growing area of the country where it has not previously had congregations. It should be pointed out that expansion of this kind seems necessary, since demographically the church is locked into areas like the northeast (where population is declining) and the midwest (where it is at least stagnant). Assuming that the move works, a decade hence there may be a growing number of healthy Reformed churches at various places in the Sunbelt.
If this happens, given the churches which already exist in southern California, Arizona and Florida (to say nothing of the growing number of Hispanic congregations back in the northeast), then at least two predictions of trends for the next decade would seem to be in order. The first would be a shifting of the power centers away from New York and Grand Rapids to some unspecified location where the growth of the church will be taking place.
The more important prediction, however, has to do with what this shift could mean to the theological character of the Reformed Church in America. That character in recent years has been a middle-of-the-road ecumenical Protestant stance, hotly challenged but never dominated by a much more conservative evangelicalism in certain parts of the midwest. Given the overwhelming evangelical ambience of the Sunbelt, however, and the safe assumption that the RCA must reflect that attitude in order to succeed in the area, it is not difficult to predict that what has been the dominant theological position of the church may very well in the next ten years become a minority one as the conservative evangelicalism of the new Sunbelt churches joins forces with the existing strength of that position in the midwest.
The Christian Reformed Church presently contemplates no such massive, invasion of new territory, but population movements have already involved it in areas where there has hitherto been no Reformed witness. The usual pattern has been for a new church to be formed with a nucleus of Christian Reformed people whom industry has transferred to an area in which there is no existing CRC congregation. The nucleus is hardly enough to sustain congregational life unless other people in the community can he attracted. It is here that the enterprise has met with serious problems, for the CRC has always insisted on a life style different from that of its Reformed sister -- the maintenance of Christian schools, opposition to secret societies, two worship services (morning and evening) on each Lord’s Day, etc. By and large, the American Protestant world has not been sympathetic to these demands, and CRC growth in new areas has therefore been small.
It is safe to assume that the next decade will see questions being raised in the CRC about the essential character of many of these traditional demands for the life of the church. To what extent are they holdovers from situations in the Netherlands in which they were meaningful, and to what extent are they applicable in the U.S. in the last quarter of the 20th century?
Though the Christian Reformed Church is geographically limited and has usually chosen to live outside the mainstream of American Protestantism, it ought not to be cast in its traditional stereotype of hopeless Dutch conservatism. While there are undoubtedly those in that church who would like nothing better than to perpetuate the pattern of the past, there are a growing number of people in the CRC who believe that their inheritance has something significant to offer to the U.S. Already the holistic approach of Abraham Kuyper to theology and society has enabled the Christian Reformed Church to undertake some significant ministries in u
rban areas. It will be interesting to see how this group will seek to enlarge the future ministry of the denomination in other areas of this country.
Women and Ordination
In the recent past the attention of both Reformed denominations has been taken up with the role of women in the ministry. In 1972 the Reformed Church in America repealed its ancient prohibition against women serving as elders and deacons in consistory (both ordained lay offices) but retained the prohibition against their serving as ministers of the word. Since 1972 repeated attempts to do away with that prohibition have fallen just short of the two-thirds of the classes (presbyteries) necessary to make the change. Since the language of the denomination’s Book of Church Order already reads “persons” and not “males” in its rules governing ordination to the ministry, what is at stake here is really the repeal of a 400-year-old interpretation rather than of a specific law. Because of that fact, after it was announced to the 1978 General Synod that the proposed change had again failed to win a two-thirds majority, several classes proceeded to ordain women on their own. One class had in fact already ordained a woman in 1973, but in compliance with a strong request from General Synod, no other ordinations of women took place between 1973 and 1978.
Now that the issue has been joined in such a way that the question must be decided judicially rather than legislatively, some provision for ordaining women in the RCA seems assured. Since several ordained women are already serving in the ministry, it is hard to imagine any ecclesiastical action returning matters to their earlier status quo. Since at the 1977 General Synod a woman elder did well in the race for the vice-presidency (in the RCA the vice-president of General Synod is heir presumptive for the presidency the next year), it seems well within the realm of possibility that during the coming decade a woman (elder or minister) will be elected president of the General Synod, the highest office the church can bestow.
In the Christian Reformed Church the debate is at a much earlier stage; it may be longer and more heated, but advances have already been made. At its 1978 Synod the denomination voted to open the office of deacon to women. Whether the CRC will proceed to admit women also to the offices of both elder and minister remains to be seen. It is as deacons that conservatives can most easily envision women serving. The CRC may adopt the gradualist pattern of the RCA, or it may be forced to follow the more authentically Reformed tradition of viewing the three offices as a unity that cannot be broken.
Theologically speaking, the RCA is now more at peace with itself than it has been for many years. While there is still a very vocal and active right wins, a broad centrist evangelicalism across the church gives a more unifying position than has previously been the case.
Attracting much discussion is the recent proposal of the RCA’s theological commission that baptized children be allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper. In a church that has a strong commitment to covenant theology, that practice would seem to be the logical outgrowth of the theological premises, but the measure is being strongly opposed by those who feel that it would represent a serious lowering of the solemnity of the sacramental occasion. Paul’s admonition that “everyone should examine himself first and then eat the bread and drink the cup” is usually cited by the opposition. But since no change in the Book of Church Order is required, it seems likely that the new practice, which has already begun in some congregations, will be taken up by many others, though the whole question of Christian initiation will continue to be an unresolved problem in both churches -- as it is in Western Christendom generally.
Liturgically speaking, both churches have come a long way in the past decade, and attention to liturgical integrity and significance seems to be a sure characteristic for both in the future. Gone are the days when liturgical concern could be dismissed as the hobby of a few aesthetes. The CRC has at least one congregation which realizes Calvin’s ideal of the celebration of Word and Sacrament every Sunday. While no such congregation exists in the RCA, a growing number of churches have forsaken the traditional pattern of a quarterly and very penitential observance for a more frequent and joyous form of celebration. The number of congregations which celebrate the Supper monthly or on the great festival days is a growing one.
In times past, committees have been appointed to “revise the liturgy”; their task was to alter the punctuation and modernize the language of the 16th and 17th century liturgical forms. Those forms are still printed for congregations that wish to use them, but the number is a decreasing one, even in parts of the church where a few years ago the traditional forms were virtual “sacred cows.” The traditional revision committee has been replaced by a permanent worship committee which is to continue to suggest meaningful liturgical forms for congregational use.
Worship and Preaching
The charismatic movement has undoubtedly played a part in freeing up the liturgical life of both churches. Though it has had almost no strength in the CRC and only a small representation in the RCA, it has had a much larger effect on the worship of both churches than its numbers would seem to indicate. Worship had been almost uniformly stiff and formal and largely dominated by the domine (the traditional Dutch term for minister) to the extent that in many congregations he read the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer as a solo; in recent years the liturgy has become more varied and relaxed, with a great deal more participation by the people.
While there are still some congregations in which the traditional patterns are maintained, the number is increasing in which the old Calvinist liturgical framework (preparation, proclamation, response) is being restored; the fleshing out of this liturgical skeleton is done in a variety of ways, depending on the situation, of the individual congregation. It is not difficult to imagine that within the next few years this pattern will become almost universal in Reformed churches, together with an even wider observance of the Christian Year than is now the case (and the present practice is far more extensive than it was a decade ago).
Preaching continues to be central in the life of both denominations, and there is no indication that this focus will shift. It may well be that sermons will continue to grow shorter (they have already shrunk from 45 minutes to 20 within living memory), but that trend will persist because of increasing congregational liturgical and sacramental life and not because of any lack of emphasis on preaching. A move toward de-emphasis of preaching did appear in the ‘60s, but it has now been completely reversed; there is every indication from this generation of Reformed seminary students that good biblical preaching will be a continuing interest for some years to come. While Reformed churches have not recently produced any great preachers in the traditional sense (what denomination has?), both the RCA and the CRC have more than a fair share of competent preachers who take their task seriously. One likes to think that the next ten years will see that number increase.
The Future of Missions
The Reformed Church in America became involved in the world missionary movement much earlier than did the Christian Reformed Church. The RCA has therefore had to face, in a way the CRC has not, some of the problems which that movement today involves. Specifically these are a shrinking financial base at home and the rise of the indigenous churches of the Third World. Numbers of Reformed Church members have decried what has happened to the world missionary movement as a result of these factors and have urged a return to “old-fashioned” missionary work in a hitherto untried territory.
Partly in response to these pressures and partly in connection with its church growth movement, in 1977 the RCA decided to launch a new venture in Venezuela; it already has one missionary in the field. It would not be accurate to call this an “old-fashioned missionary effort among the heathen,” since there are Pentecostal groups in the area with which, it is hoped, close cooperation will be possible. In that sense, the new program is more in line with the mission philosophy of those who advocate working in concert with an indigenous church. The fact remains, however, that the project in Venezuela represents the first new missionary move in a long time in the Reformed Church in America and may well be a harbinger of things to come in a reinvolvement with the world mission of the church in the next decade.
Since allusion has already been made to the charismatic movement in connection with liturgical life, something more ought to be said about the future of that movement in the Reformed churches. In a real sense, it depends on the future of the charismatic movement in Christianity generally. Is it a wave of the future, or will it, having done its work, subside and become lost in the general life of the church? Because of a traditional Dutch rationalism (which can be conservative as well as liberal), it has never made the headway in the Reformed churches that it has in some others, though there are some RCA congregations in which the charismatic movement has proved to be divisive.
My own hunch is that, so far as the Reformed churches are concerned, charismatics may continue as a small minority for some time to come, but the movement’s principal effect on these churches has already been felt. Especially in the RCA, where for more than two centuries a theology based on experience has been a lively tradition, it has been able to reinforce that tradition and enlarge its sphere of influence. In both liberal and conservative wings of the RCA there is less rationalism and more piety than was the case 20 years ago. That fact may well account for the apparent growing theological consensus, but it would seem to be the lasting effect of the charismatic movement in the Reformed churches and one that probably will not change in the future.
Five or six years ago, when enrollments in the three seminaries of these two denominations began to show a marked increase, there were dire warnings about the placement problems that were being created for the future with an increasing number of ministers for a shrinking number of congregations. There can be no question that the situation has been tight, though it has never reached the proportions that were predicted. But given the quality of the large number of men and women who have been preparing for the ministry, it would almost seem that the Lord of the church knew more about the future than the church did!
Certainly the great thing that has happened in the Reformed churches recently -- something which one hopes can be continued into the foreseeable future -- is a new awareness of themselves and of their responsibilities and their possibilities. For the moment at least, they have put behind them any thought of looking to another denomination for their future -- unless it be that more of their future lies with one another. They have realized that while their smallness is something that can be a hindrance in many fields of endeavor, it can also be a virtue enabling them to do at least some things which cannot be undertaken by many larger denominations.
As for the immediate future of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America, many problems lie ahead: many tensions that will have to be resolved and at least some tendencies that make me personally uneasy. But I am also aware of a Spirit and sense of excitement that may well ensure for these churches a better future than their recent past would indicate.