You hear a lot of folks these days talk about “reformed theology.” Sometimes reformed theology is mentioned with a sneer or an eye roll. Sometimes reformed theology is given a thumbs up, as if it was the greatest thing since Calvin’s Geneva (minus the burning of “heretics” of course). For all of this confusion about what it means to be “reformed,” we have the humble little Christian Reformed Church that continues to surprise me with its vitality and life. Today Paul Vander Klay, who has the appropriate last name for this topic to say the least, shares what he loves about the Christian Reformed Church:
If Ed’s “Denomination Derby” is conceived of as a competitive display of self-promotion the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) will certainly lose. The CRC is fabulously poor at self-promotion. Let me explain.
Unless you’re from Western Michigan or have visited Calvin College you may not have ever heard of the Christian Reformed Church. The CRC has about a quarter million quiet members scattered in around 1000 congregations three quarters of which are within a couple hundred miles of Grand Rapids Michigan. This is not a recipe for church market success in North America.
While you may never have heard of the CRC or know anyone from it you’ve probably heard of a number of her famous sons (yes, sorry, they’re mostly boys). If you’re young and Reformed and you like to read old dead white guys you might recognize the names of Ned Stonehouse, Cornelius Van Til, Geerhardus Vos and Louis Berkhof. If you’re into newer philosophical books you’ll probably recognize Alvin Plantinga, his theologian brother Neal, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw and Lewis Smedes. Church growth lovers or haters of course will know Bill Hybels who grew up CRC.
One of our more famous rebellious sons is Paul Schrader who went on to explore his roots in his 1979 film Hardcore, not quite “safe for the whole family” but yet insightful. Many like him who leave the CRC have trouble fully leaving it behind. Ours is a thick culture.
You might notice that a bunch of your books come from Zondervans, Bakers and Eerdman’s publishers based in Grand Rapids, and if you’re really an evangelical Bible wonk you might know that the NIV translation project began in the Christian Reformed Church in one of her 4 colleges. All of this should indicate that books and education in the CRC is a very big deal. This is why its most famous conference with this crowd is the biannual Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, an institution founded to train preachers for our churches and teachers for our Christian schools.
Seeing this partial list of notables and accomplishments might lead you to believe that the CRC is a bookish clan and you’d be half right. The other thing the CRC majored in was farming, mostly dairy. The CRC’s parent/cousin, the Reformed Church of America was planted by Dutch city folk while the country folk of the Netherlands who left in the 19th and 20th centuries mostly joined the CRC.
“Reformed” has recently been tied to “young” and “restless” and too often “angry” or “cranky”. A lot of CRC folks have watched this new wave of mostly Presbyterians (more cousins) and it has brought up painful memories. The CRC used to be a lot more cranky about a lot of things but it brought a lot of pain. The most recent painful fight was over women in church leadership. It started in the 70s and lasted about 25 years. When CRC finally permitted it, about 70,000 people left. For a denomination where many folks are related to you, where you play “Dutch Bingo” trying to find mutual relatives, or who were your school mates (CRC folks start lots of Christian schools), these splits are personal and the wounds heal slowly. This is making the CRC fairly avoidant when it comes to what looks like the next big fight over same sex marriage.
If you visit a CRC you’ll probably find a rather shy but friendly group. The pastor will likely be well educated but cautious and not flashy or loud. CRC people have been called the “Jewish Hobbits” of American Christianity. Many like myself actually have Jewish roots back to the Netherlands. We’ve also been compared to Jews because of our comfort with the Old Testament. We’re kind of like Hobbits because we mostly keep to ourselves and can tend to be stubborn. The real difference between CRC folk and Hobbits is that we’re abnormally tall.
What I’m most proud of in the CRC, and why I stay, is that we as a denomination work really hard at trying to be faithful to God while also trying to engage our world. It takes a stubbornness about the Bible and the church, practical wisdom learned in a real zip code and a courage to doubt yourself to try to hold it all together. We read, think, and write a lot but aren’t usually too quick to grab onto something new. We’d rather wait, ponder and pray for a while before making a big change. This usually bothers both sides of a fight. We’re never as conservative as some want, and never as liberals as others demand. Again, think of Hobbits.
I won’t be so bold as to try to sell our church to you. That’s usually just not our way. We love having new folks come and join us. Jamie Smith is one of our more famous recent joiners. He seems to be carrying on in our bookish, philosophical tradition. So visit Calvin College for the Festival or a CRC in some non-conspicuous corner someplace. We’re proud about our institutions and accomplishments, but don’t be surprised if we’re a bit shy and slow about some things. Be patient with us and you might find you’ve made a thoughtful friend.
About Today’s Guest Blogger:
Paul Vander Klay: I’m a third generation CRC minister. I grew up in my father’s racial reconciliation church in Paterson NJ. I was a missionary in the Dominican Republic and currently pastor a small, multi-everything congregation in Sacramento CA. I love to read, write, and enjoy the interesting people God has made. I blog at http://leadingchurch.com.
About Denomination Derby
This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.
We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.
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9 thoughts on “Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Christian Reformed Church”
This is a largely accurate and charming portrayal of my denomination. But let me add something else I love about the CRC — it is presented as a monolithic culture, and it can often seem like it, but on the individual church level, there is so much variety — in worship style, in membership. For a church that had a reputation as being rather inward-focused, I’d say we’ve got a good number of members and churches who are passionate about giving to their neighborhoods (particularly when it has to do with children), about justice issues. I’ve belonged to 4 CRC churches in my life, each very different from each other. 1. An all-white, family-based, internally-focused (i.e. not a lot of engagement with the city or our neighborhood), organ / hymns-only / minister wears his domine robes in the morning, still a lot of Dutch accents in the congregation. 2. Episcopalian in worship style, mostly white, passionate about justice and refugee issues, shy and reserved and proud of it. 3. Half African American and half Caucasian, with an African American pastoral team and a white worship director, a black-church-style worship service with no liturgy, lots of hugging, contemporary singing, and a tendency to go off even the loose script to engage in prayer and 30-minute singing sessions. 4. Church that was started as an African-American chapel, now mostly white, high enough level of involvement with the neighborhood and justice issues that they tend to neglect their own a little, with worship style/music choices it tries to honor all of its generations, but also the most diverse church I’ve gone to as far as race, culture, class, developmental ability, age, economic status, and criminal status. So I guess what I’m saying is: we may have strong Dutch roots, but we’re not all the same.
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Thanks Natalie, quite true. I’ve been a member of three in my lifetime, my father’s in Paterson, Madison Square CRC in GR during college, seminary and missionary service, and now Living Stones Sacramento. All three inner city congregations with strong or majority African American membership.
I discovered the Reformers when I moved to Southwest Michigan eight years ago. I appreciated reading this as I know very little about the history. But I have found my RCA church to have a deep respect for God’s Word (yes, including the OT) and a great heart for our community. I am in no way, no where Dutch, but they’ve taken me in as one of their own.
An accurate description for sure. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Peter De Vries. He’s been one of my favorites ever since my mother told me many years ago not to read his books. His deep insights into the CRC and his ability to humorously point out our flaws, have made me as a reader feel like I’m in his “inner circle.”
Theda, DeVries’ books are being republished (check Amazon). Jim Bratt has insightful comments on him in “Dutch Calvinism…”; and there have been analyses by Rod Jellema and others. His use of various forms of humor, plus pointing out conservative and liberal religious foibles, plus his spiritual angst in “The Blood of the Lamb”, making him a compelling read. Often he comes back to his Calvinist upbringing.
Like Traci, I am not Dutch and found myself in a CRC after being born & raised as a Methodist. At first, I mistook the CRC shyness for standoffishness, but I have learned how caring they really are, and I love how they love Jesus!
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Let’s not forget that the CRC has always taken seriously the call of sending out missionaries around the world. We also believe that sharing God’s love through our relief work (World Renew) is important. Although sometimes it has seemed that sending missionaries to “foreign lands” has been easier than being involved in our own communities.
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