What’s the Big Idea?

Quite a bit recently people have been ready to write the eulogy on the church, and particularly on organized religion.  Christianity is in crisis they say.  My own tradition is not exempt, it seems.  Recently John Van Sloten of New Hope Church in Calgary noted in a blog post that:  “the Christian Reformed Church is in desperate need of a big idea.”

As to why, Van Sloten, recently returned from some denominational meetings, said this:

“Our numbers are dropping, young adults in the church have disappeared, our congregations are aging, and according to discerning minds we are about 15-20 years away from the death spiral that many mainline denominations are now in. Some think we’ve held on this long because of one of our biggest idiosyncrasies; our tendency to control everything so tightly!

The writing is on the wall.”

He is probably right.  Our time has come.

But Van Sloten isn’t ready to give up the ghost just yet:

“And in order to stop the bleeding – no even more – in order to resuscitate the patient, drastic steps need to be taken.  No more incremental programming changes. No more technical fixes. We need something big; an adrenaline shot to the heart.”

I read his post with some interest, being a fellow clergy member in the same denomination.  He then poses two possibilities, which I proceeded to peruse with interest.

Let’s take them one at a time:

  1. If we don’t find a big outside the box idea, God will. And that big idea may play out outside of the box of the CRC (ie: he’ll let us die!)

OK, this is just a reiteration of the situation.  Something has to change, or the game is up.  Agreed.

Well this puts a lot of weight on the second thought.  Let’s hope for a game-changer.

  • 2. The CRC’s big idea must come from the centre of its core theology and be fully manifest in the pulpit. Theology and preaching are central to our identity. Surely God’s biggest idea for us would be borne out of and proclaimed from these places.

Here’s where the post came to a screeching halt for me.

Earlier Van Sloten had noted that there is an uptightness to the denomination — a need to control everything.  And it’s obvious this is not working.  One of the main ways I perceive that we are uptight and seek to control everything is regarding doctrine, or as he puts it, core theology, and it’s corollary, or how that doctrine/theology is often passed on:  preaching.  These are perhaps two of the hallmarks of our tradition.  But if things are dying and those are the hallmarks, perhaps its time for some new hallmarks.

I have a hard-time seeing this as a viable solution, or even a big idea.  To me, it comes across as more of the same.  Better grab the shovels.


I can think of recent events which are harbingers of what is to come:

1)  Two religion faculty members at Calvin College write some thought-provoking pieces about the challenge of reconciling Adam and Eve historically with the evidences of history, of literature, and perhaps most notably, scientific discoveries and the theory of evolution.

A quick taste of what they wrote:

One professor, Daniel Harlow, wrote that he was exploring from the perspective of mainstream biblical scholarship, which is that “Adam and Eve are strictly literary figures—characters in a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach primarily theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity.”

Harlow also wrote, “Genesis 3, read in its immediate context, does not depict the man and woman’s transgression as an act that infected all subsequent humanity. . . . For teaching about the Fall and original sin, then, we must wait for Paul and the church fathers.”

The other professor, John Schneider, wrote that the traditional understanding of the Fall does not fit with current science: “[T]he narrative of human evolution makes it very hard, if not impossible, to maintain [the position that human and demonic creatures are responsible for evil]. For it seems, on this science, that not just natural evils . . . but also the disposition for human moral evils, are practically part of God’s original design.”

Exceptional pieces written about an issue which the church at large is going to have to deal with theologically as it moves forward.  And it should be clarified that these two were not making grand new theological assertions, but merely showing how traditional thinking has to be rethought in light of new understandings in science and biblical studies. But apparently some do not want to move forward, and it was decided that these two had to retract their efforts or find a new place of employment.

Why?  Because their scholarship didn’t toe the line at theological constructs developed over 500 years ago.

Now you’re wondering: Did I hear that right?  Academics forced to curb their research in religion and literature as it intersects with scientific developments, to stunt their own academic exploration in order to “submit” to theological doctrines developed during the lifetime of Galileo?  Yep.  Turns out that’s the route the college went, which is significant because Calvin is affiliated with the denomination we are discussing.  Rather than move forward, the message was loud and clear: let’s keep the engine in neutral, or maybe even pop it into reverse.

There are real theological issues the church must face here, and it’s time we act like adults and deal with them, as Peter Enns suggests, rather than sweep them under the rug.

2) A CRC pastor recently published a book about his own journey from faith to doubt.  His insights and experiences were welcome by many, but threatening to others.  He was encouraged to consider his options, and eventually felt he was better in a more progressive denomination. A few lamented his departure, many more were glad to be rid of such a troublemaker.

3) Part of the means of control in the denomination is expressed in what was formerly known as the “Form of Subscription.”  This was a statement dating back nearly 500 years that stated exactly what it is that we as a denomination believe doctrinally regarding God, Scripture and salvation, among other things.  (I know, hard to believe (no pun intended) that belief doesn’t shift or move forward in half a millennium.)

Recently (perhaps due to some of the above) it was suggested that this be updated. One crucial statement that many of us thought was a movement in the right direction was to note that the three doctrinal statements (Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism) are historic expressions of the Reformed faith have shaped our theological heritage and will continue to guide us (.  A small move, but a move forward.  It seemed a logical way to put it, because they are historic documents, after all.  They state concerns that were of vital interest in the era they were written.  But we no longer live in that era.  There are concerns today that those documents don’t address.  There are ways of understanding Scripture and faith and Jesus that didn’t exist when those were written. Advancements in biblical scholarship, critical study, archaeology, language, comparative religions and in many other related fields have given us insights they never had.  Not to mention developments in science.

In any case, many were shocked at this way of framing these confessions (apparently they thought they were ahistorical, having fallen from the heavens into the Reformers’ hands).  And unsurprisingly this updated Form of Subscription was rejected in 2011 in favor of something adopted in 2012 that looked nearly identical to the one it was supposedly ‘updating.’

On to Something

These three issues, among others, make me think that perhaps, after all, Van Sloten is on to something.

But in a sideways sort of way.

What may need to change is a letting go of the obsession over doctrinal obsessions, yes, there is a core that should remain, but there are plenty of peripherals that are less and less compelling to many many people, and it seems to me that our insistence on maintaining our dogmatism will be our death knell, not our salvation.

Recently the writer Jim Palmer confessed:

“So, I went to seminary, learned Greek and Hebrew, and got my M.Div. I was a Senior Pastor for several years and delivered a gazillion sermons. The working theory was that what people needed most was good, accurate, correct information about God. The idea was, have good theology and everything else will work out. It didn’t quite happen that way. There were lots of people with good theology and no inner peace or freedom.”

In other words, lots of preaching and obsessing about correct theology only goes so far, and in many cases, not far at all.

The reasons for this are myriad, but chief among them is the growing sense among many that God himself isn’t as concerned with how to describe, dissect, and diagram himself (or herself) as many theologians have been.  There is a growing sense that Jesus was about helping bring wholeness and freedom, healing and reconciliation rather than a ‘new yoke’ comprised of medieval theological formulations to which all must now submit.  To put it simply, many people just don’t care about doctrinal fastidiousness, and are concerned about day to day practical realities, the kinds about which Jesus so often taught and focused on: a father who had two sons, a follower who had a dead father, a woman caught in adultery, a tax collector who wondered if restoration and a new way of life was possible.

Living into God’s Story

Some time earlier in a related discussion, James K.A. Smith noted that churches obsessing over theology can still succeed:

“I’m just pointing out that the missional success of unapologetically Reformed churches like Redeemer in NYC (and it’s whole network), or City Church in San Francisco, are testimony that “thickly” Reformed (AND catholic AND missional) churches can actually invite people into God’s story and not merely attracted disaffected, previously-churched people.”

At the time, I responded with:

I also agree with Smith that many Gen Xers and millenials are simply not interested in “relevant” worship or “contemporary” faith. Style and mode do matter at some level, but not nearly to the degree of the substance beneath.

As for Smith’s anecdotal evidence of ‘thickly’ Reformed churches, one could also give plenty of anecdotes of younger folks who have had it with ‘thick’ faith in a new package (see Driscoll or any young, restless, and Reformed types) and are interested in a more engaging, developing theology that *is* — as Smith notes — informed by the broad catholicity of the faith. But more than that, a faith that also has room for mystery, for realizing the limits of all theological perspectives (including, or perhaps especially, one’s own tradition), and is strongly interested in an incarnational, Christ-centered faith. Many are simply not interested in being forced into a theological or intellectual corner by having to ‘sign on’ for certain doctrines. This is where the rub is. They (and I) want to be informed by the historic confessions without being told: you MUST own every single piece of them, which is about as appealing as being told you MUST take that spoonful of cod liver oil because… wait, what were those reasons again? Never mind – we’ve always done it this way (it’s tradition!) – so open up and take it!

So many -across the generations- want, as Smith says, to live into *God’s* story more than they want to live into any single version of that story, because they realize God is beyond any single tradition. (And are simply tired of the hubris that says ‘ours is the best and truest’).

Smith went on to dismiss such efforts in living, thinking and working through the shifting theological ground that many are doing:

“Thomas Merton would have never been saved by “pub theology.” Or Pete Rollins. Or Rob Bell. Or Brian McClaren. Or much that has been touted as “updated” versions of the CRC.”

I responded as follows (and I quote at length as this was buried in the comments under an earlier post, but it articulates my concern with Smith’s dismissiveness):

As for Smith’s comment regarding Pub Theology. . . The point of pub theology, as far as I’m concerned, is not to be the latest ‘outreach’ effort or to mask as a new proselytizing fad. If pub theology is saving anyone, it is saving me. Saving me from the attitude that I’ve got it all figured out and no one else does. Saving me from an attitude that lets me live in my own little world with my own prejudices about different people, faiths, philosophies, or approaches to God. It saves me from dismissing someone out of hand when I haven’t heard their story. It saves me from an attitude that says, ‘I’ve arrived’. And I really like craft beer.

All the guys Smith has listed and summarily dismissed with a wave of his hand have informed my own faith journey in important ways. Its fine if he doesn’t like them, but the theological snobbery I perceive is exactly the sort of thing many of us would prefer to get away from. That attitude doesn’t further the conversation, in my opinion (understanding that this is a limited form of communication in which it is possible to read into things). I also fail to see the constant pejorative use of ‘liberal Protestant’ as being of much use. I just spent a week with mainliners from varying backgrounds (ELCA, PCUSA, UMC, etc) and was impressed at the ways many in these denominations are seeking to engage their communities for Christ in some good, healthy, and creative ways. Living within a historic theological tradition with flexibility and life. There may be things within those contexts that one does not like, but it is hardly a fate to be avoided at all costs. (And from whom we could even learn a few things).

My own desire is to be centered on following Jesus in how I actually live my life (though it is a constant struggle). I want a faith at which Christ is the center from which I operate, and the goal toward which I strive. I’m frankly not that interested in worrying about how big (or small) the theological circle is within which I operate. I want to be informed by the creeds and confessions (and have and continue to be shaped by them), but I am less interested in being forced to stand or fall on them. For our faith to have weight and depth – it must engage these important parts of our tradition. But for it to live and move and breathe – it must not be encumbered or chained to the ground by them. I am interested in inviting people into the center. The theological edges are frankly not that important to me, and I think a healthy agnosticism toward some doctrines that the confessions lay out dogmatically would be a healthier (and perhaps more biblical) approach.

So what’s the big idea?

Perhaps it is this: that we learn to let go of our certainties, stop trying to railroad people into believing things they have genuine questions about, and be open to re-articulations of the faith that resonate with and reflect the concerns and issues of today.  How?  Well, as Van Sloten notes, the pulpit isn’t a bad place to begin.  Having preachers willing to be open about the challenges present in the text, to be honest about their own struggles and faith life, to exhort us to live into and live out the grace Jesus embodies and be less concerned about getting more sheep to ‘sign on the dotted line.’  Preaching that doesn’t cause us to reconsider, reflect, struggle, learn, and reformulate might just be preaching to the choir.

But it must go beyond the preacher. We must embrace grassroots efforts like Pub Theology, in which open conversation is the goal, preaching is set aside in favor of listening, and a setting is created in which all are welcome to the table without having to pass a litmus test of belief or behavior.  If we want to engage our communities on spiritual topics, we cannot expect to sit back and watch people show up at our worship gatherings.  We must be present in places where people already are, and drop our agendas of evangelizing everyone we meet — in our circles we don’t bring people to Jesus so much as to Reformed theology.  If we want to learn how to hold our faith amid the growing pluralism of our day, settings like this will get us started.  (Not to mention that a sure-fire way to ensure our further irrelevance will be to circle the wagons and congratulate ourselves on our unique theology.)

We could promote small group curriculum like “Living the Questions” or “Animate» Faith,” get serious about studying the Bible filtered less by preconceived doctrinal grids and informed more by serious scholarship and study that brings new light to old texts.

And finally, we must seek to find ways to bring the hope of the kingdom of God to our communities in tangible ways. I’m heartened by the many, many ways I see this happening throughout our denomination, and I think these signs of life are already present in growing ways.

Surely there are more big ideas out there (Add yours below!).  But these things may be a start.

In the end we can take heart, because the universe has existed for about 14 billion years, and the CRC has only existed for about 0.0001107% of that time.

The world will get on fine without us.


26 thoughts on “What’s the Big Idea?

  1. “Because their scholarship didn’t toe the line at theological constructs developed over 500 years ago.”

    Actually, six-day creationism only became vitally important to Christian faith fairly recently. Augustine wasn’t a six-day creationist. Aquinas was, but he also thought the universe could have existed forever without undermining Christian theology. And Calvin’s statements on interpreting Genesis are more nuanced than many believe.

    The solution to these problems isn’t to ditch the past. It’s to realize that there’s a much bigger, deeper, longer tradition that existed before the controversies of contemporary Christianity, and will, God willing, exist long after it. Arguing for more change, relevance, and progress is just playing right out of the same 20th century playbook.


    1. Hi Michael-
      Thanks for dropping by! You’re right, there is much more depth in approaching interpretation of Genesis within older traditions than more recent developments often acknowledge. However, when you begin to discuss the historicity of Adam and Eve, you do open a door to revisiting theology that is pretty old and well established, particularly issues of atonement, etc., that are built on a certain understanding of a historical fall. I agree with you that we need to revisit some of these older friends to realize the wisdom they had even before their time. I think progress means going back and looking at this very stuff, but also realizing we have to live in the present, and consider the future. Going backwards and staying there isn’t an option.


      1. Hey Bryan, Thanks for your comments, as well as those who responded. Your article is thought provoking, especially for those of us coming from CRC circles. But I wonder if you go far enough in criticizing the box our denomination puts us in. The CRC and many other denomination do put its members in a box, sometimes a very confining box. It does seem that the denomination is relaxing in its constraints to some degree, allowing for some flexibility. But that flexibility might also be seen as a problem.

        There are a lot of long held teachings that are being tossed to the side, or in the process of being tossed. And that allows for a lot of diversity in CRC circles. Some of those teachings are: creation/evolution, historical Adam and Eve or mythical, women in office, marriage and divorce, the working and gifts of the Holy Spirit, perspectives on prayer, the homosexual perspective, the miracles of the Bible, who may participate in the Lord’s Supper and I imagine you could add several more. Add to this the diversity of other denominations and the issues that divide them, as well as the differences between Christian denominations. It’s getting to the point that you can believe whatever you want and still claim to be a Christian. And most of, or all of these groups and denominations claim the authority of the Scriptures to uphold their viewpoints. If you add groups, such as the Mormons (after all, they claim the Christian title too) the differences get bigger and bigger. You can claim almost anything as a Christian teaching and still call yourself a Christian. You could say that all those with theological degrees are not much more than spin doctors, putting their own spin on Christian teaching. Now the Christian box is getting bigger and bigger, let alone the CRC box. If the parts of Christianity don’t hold together, does Christianity itself hold together? I’m beginning to wonder.

        But I think the problem grows, as you place alongside the Christian box all the other religions of the world. Think of just some of the major ones: Muslim, Jewish, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mormon. I suppose the list could go on. They all have their core teachings, different from Christianity, as well as their inspired writings (Bibles) which give their own religion authority from God. And all these religions including Christianity are mutually exclusive. All claim to have the only way to have acceptance with God. Are they all wrong, or all right, or only one right? Or is it all wishful thinking?

        I would suggest they all (or most all) are primitive religions that try to explain the God who has revealed himself in creation and created order. Perhaps God had no intention to reveal himself further. We are simply to love, revere and live thankfully before the God who created us. Maybe people have made sin a bigger problem than God has. But man, in his inquisitive nature has tried to explain this God further than creation has, coming up with a variety of formulas, according to their own special revelations. It could seem that not only the CRC has created a tight box, but Christianity, as well as every other religion has put all kinds of restraints on people as to their beliefs. So what is the big idea?

        I’m sorry for the book. It just seems that your cry for more room in the box is also my cry, but I still want a bigger box, one that rings true to reality. Thanks for listening.


  2. Frankly, I’d love to have the magic bullet right now. I’d prefer it coming out of high powered rifle right now because I am up to it with my church. Which, ironically brings me to my post. I like John Suk’s comment, “church is local, and great ideas will grow organically in local churches.” Isn’t that why Paul wrote to so many local churches? Each had their strengths and weaknessess. The big idea will come if we sacrifice like Jesus sacrificed, not my will but yours be done. Local churches, sacrificing themselves for the sake of the people in which we serve, both inside and outside the confines of the local church. Local churches pooling their resources so that no one has need. People eating together in local churches, preferably fueled by kick ass gardens that we grow ourselves…maybe toss in a couple of chickens too. People praying together, not in isolation, but actually getting in the trenches and praying together. People meeting in the temple courts together, praising God. etc. etc. and the Lord does all the work. I think those acts are in the Bible somewhere. Like my brother Palacios, I too have no dog in “that hunt” but I do have scripture. It’s not that complicated, we just make it that way.


  3. interesting article and interesting responses. If you want a thoroughly Reformed/Biblical/Missional take on the church, check out Michael Goheen’s “A Light to the Nations.” Goheen is the new mission prof at Calvin seminary and is involved in significant missional church planting and renewal efforts in Arizona and Seattle. Goheen doesn’t see our tradition as being a stumbling block. In fact, he views our ignorance of such Dutch theologians as Herman Ridderbos (The Coming of the Kingdom) and Herman Bavink as one of the reasons the church doesn’t have the theological firepower to actually do missions. I guess burning the wooded shoes wasn’t as smart as we thought (my last name is Palacios, so I have no dog in that hunt other than good theology). I am currently doing my Thm with Goheen at CTS. It is my prayer that I can delve into the type of ecclesiology that embraces scripture as the inspired word of God, affirms orthodox doctrine, preaches boldly, builds up the body of believers, administers the sacraments faithfully, equips the saints for ministry, and shares the gospel with the lost. You know, the stuff the church is supposed to be doing anyways. It’s not that complicated. We just make it that way.


    1. Hi Dominic-
      Thanks for the reference – someone else mentioned Goheen today. I’ll check it out. I definitely hear you. Perhaps we do make it too complicated. My concern is that the things you note may work great in West Michigan or among similar bubbles of ‘the faithful’ (though less and less so, see this recent article on MLive), but elsewhere, doing the ‘same old’ is less and less satisfying to many. There are simply too many challenges to ‘belief as usual’ to justify not doing some serious theological wrestling, even as we seek to continue to follow Jesus in the midst of it. I think Palmer’s quote above speaks to some of those challenges, among other things. Thanks for joining the conversation!


  4. I wonder if it’s fair to ask what role incoming money has in shaping the way our denomination postures its theology. As we witness the downgrade of american democracy as it is more and more coupled with crony capitalism, the voices of certain people groups and ideas are almost entirely shut out, while the ideas and dreams of those with money are catered to.

    Certainly there is politics at play even within the various institutions of our denominational structures. How far-reaching do the hands with money extend? As I think of Bryan’s example if the two Calvin College professors, and the response to their scholarly work, it troubles me greatly that theology stepped in to correct their conclusions. It’s Galileo all over again. And so I wonder, are there a handful of wealthy donors giving to Calvin College, for example, who insist on maintaining a specific, more literal view of Scripture, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary? Do they threaten to pull their finances if things move forward and away from what they’ve determined to be absolute?

    I have a deep appreciation of our denominational history, but it must be kept in proper perspective, or it becomes a stumbling block to our faith. John Calvin stood up boldly in his day to speak against what had become of the church, in light of all the new means of interpreting the Scriptures that came about in his time. He determined that the church had slowly meadered way off track from the Text. And so I wonder what that bold Calvin would do if he were here today, given the incredible amount of new tools we have at our disposal to unpack the meaning of Scripture — language, science, context, archaeology, historical documents, etc. I’ve wrestled with this a great deal and it’s discussed more extensively in my upcoming book, “Cracking the Pot: Releasing God From the Theologies that Bind Him.”. (Wipf and Stock Publishers)

    Maybe the “big idea” is to be all-around swathed in humility as we approach the Text, each other, and those with differing interpretations. Maybe we need to recognize our historical documents for what they are — historical documents. Maybe we need to embrace and rest in the places of unknowing. Maybe we need to view theology through the lens of Scripture, rather than viewing Scripture through the lens of our theology. It’s the Text that’s full of life, afterall, and so maybe if we allow it to speak to us and move among us in real and tangible ways that extend beyond our head and reach into the physical world around us, maybe that would be one “shock in the heart” that would inject a little life back into the church.

    Those are my immediate thoughts/questions.


    1. [For our faith to have weight and depth – it must engage these important parts of our tradition. But for it to live and move and breathe – it must not be encumbered or chained to the ground by them. I am interested in inviting people into the center. The theological edges are frankly not that important to me, and I think a healthy agnosticism toward some doctrines that the confessions lay out dogmatically would be a healthier (and perhaps more biblical) approach.]

      [I wonder if it’s fair to ask what role incoming money has in shaping the way our denomination postures its theology. As we witness the downgrade of american democracy as it is more and more coupled with crony capitalism, the voices of certain people groups and ideas are almost entirely shut out, while the ideas and dreams of those with money are catered to.]

      [Maybe we need to embrace and rest in the places of unknowing. Maybe we need to view theology through the lens of Scripture, rather than viewing Scripture through the lens of our theology.]

      Hey Brian and Chris! (from the guy in the next tent at the “Goose”0
      “Spiritual but not Religious”
      “Faith, not Religion”
      “Christ follower, not Christian”
      Are these “cop-outs” or reactions to “errors”? May I say? “Yes!” I am fascinated how differently Jesus did theology than we tend to. Our “systematic” theology or logical sequence is so unlike Jesus. To “define” the Kingdom of God/Heaven; Jesus told story after story after story after. . . To clarify love of neighbor; Jesus told a story.

      Hope to catch up with you two again!


  5. Amen. Nicely done! I love the CRC, and will always be a member of the “family,” I guess. But I changed my mind (about a lot) and so it was only fair that I leave as long as the CRC insists on being a confessional church. I always knew where the lines were.

    Not sure there is one idea that will be great enough for the whole CRC. Church is local, and so great ideas will grow organically in local churches. Of course, that means most local churches will languish, because the conditions on the ground vary so much. The days when people would stay loyal to GR and even its most middling sem grads just because it was the True Dutch Reformed Church are long past. Local churches have to be excellent in every way for local churches to flourish. The more we (can’t get rid of that first person plural pronoun) look for a centralized answer, the more likely we are to fail.

    So, my thinking is that if there is a great future for the CRC, it lies along the path of becoming more congregational when it comes to synods and confessions and classes. This will give congregations and regions more freedom to pursue the kind of Reformed “mind,” (or something else) they want. Letting our agencies sink or swim as independent non-profits (while allowing them to continue cultivating support in CRC’s). Tri-annual synods that are more celebratory than regulatory. Slimming down the C.O. by two-thirds (we seem to use mostly articles 12 and 14 and 17, anyway). Getting Calvin College off of the denominational ownership list. And the seminary too. Better preachers (my observation is that we have lots of well-meaning pastors who struggle to communicate in a compelling manner, and who don’t get how today’s pastors need to be entrepreneurial). Well, there are a few semi-big ideas, I guess.

    None of this is going to help the whole denomination. But it may unleash some local churches!

    In the mid-fifties there was a huge debate about how “boardism,” was taking over the CRC and how that sort of centralization had to be stopped. Well, what was boardism then looks like total decentralization now. I can’t believe–short of an amazing turn of grace–that anything coming down from the BOT or the agencies is going to help the CRC turn the corner. Not organic enough. It always lands in the pews like another dollop of “giddy up” from GR, about as appealing as a command to go to the gym and do fifty push ups sounds to me–and this in spite of the fact that I never met a 2850 employee I didn’t really like. (In the UCC, a bit further down the road, less than 50% of pastors even bothered showing up for the last Presbytery meeting. What is happening here, I think, is that people are so sick of the denominational machinery that they just ignore it, and there doesn’t seem to be much anyone can do about it. Is that where the CRC is headed with its top-heavy machinery?).

    I appreciate (and understand) John Van Sloten’s clarification of what he does at New Hope. The wording in his blog about “the core,” left me scratching my head, at first, too. More of the same uptightness about some supposedly perfect confessional tradition won’t sell, won’t inspire, won’t teach, won’t grow.

    Anyway, thanks Brian. Nice, thought provoking post.


    1. Interesting thoughts, John, and some helpful suggestions. There is much to say about decentralization and a move toward a sort-of congregationalism. Interesting point about the UCC and lack of denominational involvement. There does need to be organic change that is owned at the grassroots level. The challenge is that there are many differing perspectives on what kinds of change we need. But a more congregationalist approach might allow such diversity to somehow co-exist? Interesting stuff – thanks for reading and commenting!


  6. Bryan, you don’t touch upon really, the other reality is not just being “church” but “doing church” from a governing angle. There needs to be a shake up in a big way at the top. Allow new and fresh denominational direction thinking and doing that is rooted in the creeds, confessions, and built upon the Bible. Enough of the old guard being asked to lead this or that agency or committee. When the new is brought in, the old needs to move out and not have their fingers in the system… which unfortunately is happening at the top level right now. “Pope-like” leading could very well be the downfall of the denomination, not theology “on the edge.”

    Great article… you as well John Van Sloten.


  7. Nice piece Bryan. One clarification on my ‘big idea’ idea… I’m not referring to something from our theological tradition that we’ve ‘already’ fully articulated and lived into, I’m referring to something we may have ‘missed’. At our church here in Calgary we think that ‘missed thing’ might have something to do with getting serious about what we say we believe about God’s two books. Don’t know how familiar you are with what we’re doing in that regard. I recently wrote a piece (summarizing the thesis of my book, The Day Metallica Came to Church; Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything) in the RCA theological journal PERPSECTIVES (in response to Scott Hoezee, Jason Leif, and JKA Smith’s comments on our church’s thing) This new way of thinking (and preaching) continues to unfold into something pretty amazing for our community.


    1. Hi John-
      Thanks for the clarification. That is helpful, and I apologize for any misrepresentation on my part. Grateful for you getting the ball rolling (or keeping it rolling) on this kind of conversation. I will definitely check out your book and the Perspectives article. Good work!


  8. Great thoughts.. growing up in a CRC background myself I resonate. I’ve recently launched a non-profit that in many ways is designed EXACTLY to do engage in ways to which you refer. (You may of hit a few hot buttons for me. 🙂 )

    You note: “..we must seek to find ways to bring the hope of the kingdom of God to our communities in tangible ways.”

    Check out our project. http://overflowproject.org/ We HOPE MANY CHURCHES and communities will join in! Register to take a 50 day challenge starting this coming Easter. We want and hope many will join together. It’s about changing the way we live to make a difference in the world, in a very tangible way.

    Grace and peace.


    1. Hi Wolt-
      Nice to hear from you! Thanks for the reminder of the good work you are involved in. Will see what I can do to get my new community involved. Let me know if you’ll be in DC anytime soon!


  9. I think you’re getting warmer. I thought the same thing about Van Sloten’s: transforming the pulpit is just more of the same. Might accomplish some good, but probably not the degree of redirection we need. But I think you might not be deconstructing this thing enough – isn’t needing a “Big Idea” in and of itself the same thing we’ve been trying for 150+ years? Maybe the problem isn’t our preaching or our methods – maybe it’s us?


    1. Ha! You may well be right, Mark. Someone else also made a similar point on Facebook: stop thinking about ‘big idea’! There is no magic pill. I should have noted as much in the post, but I think everyone realizes that. My suggestions weren’t so much ‘big ideas’ as possible next steps to take. Thanks for joining the discussion!


    2. I agree Mark. I think the issue is us. As people of God I think we need to kick the dirt a little and do some soul searching. Inevitably, this results in going back to our theologies and creeds but always with the aim of informing our future action/praxis. Should we be asking ourselves, are we what we think or what we do? Personally, I see a rich expression of such movement in the Missio Dei conception, ie. Van Gelder, Bosch, Newbiggin etc. Nevertheless, we don’t need a magic bullet or a crack-whip savvy new program on evangelism to save us (or the CRC for that matter). What we need, we already have – Perhaps the better question is, do we want to share it?


  10. Thanks Bryan. I appreciate this. As a CRC MDiv student I live in this tension. I agree that we’re due for a seismic shift of sorts. I am convinced that this must mean more than a change in how we are preaching and formulating doctrine. In fact, I’m convinced it is within the missional paradigm that the seeds of hope can take and grow.

    Your line, “preaching is set aside in favour of listening” encapsulates my passion and future thesis work. For hundreds of years, the Reformed tradition hasn’t been short on things to say – the question today is who is listening? And I think we all know the answer to that. I’ve spent the summer researching various theological/philosophical work in preparation for some intentional grappling with these issues in print. It’s my hope that I can contribute in this struggle, not for the sake of my tribe even, the CRC, but for the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.


    1. Good stuff, Jesse. Sounds like some important things are brewing within you. Would love to read your work when you get to that point. And I am with you, I think more and more of us are motivated by participating in the Kingdom rather than salvaging an institution (which God has used no doubt – but it is a vessel, not the thing itself).


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