Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Christian Reformed Church

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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:

head shot w2Paul 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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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join The Churches of Christ

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Today’s guest post is by my friend Adam Ellis, a pastor and theologian I always look to for perspective and sanity on the most difficult theological topics. He’s also my number one source of Buechner quotes, and I always hold it over him that I met Buechner once but unfortunately startled him during the encounter because he was having a hard time carrying something and I came from out of his line of vision to help him. Back to Adam, he pastors a congregation in the Church of Christ denomination and offers some compelling reasons to join him (provided you don’t mind moving to South Carolina!): 

 

Frederick Buechner says most theology is essentially autobiography. I’d argue the same is true of ecclesiology. That being the case, there are a few things you should know going into this. I’m the preaching minister for a small congregation affiliated with the churches of Christ. I’m also the son of a Church of Christ preacher. I was a youth minister for various churches of Christ for over a decade, and I have a Masters Degree in Theological Studies from a school associated with the churches of Christ. My point is, when it comes to churches of Christ, I’m about as dyed-in-the-wool as they come.

Have you ever enthusiastically agreed to do something that you thought would be easy and fun, only to discover that it was more challenging than you originally thought it would be? That’s me…writing this post. The whole undertaking is fraught with difficulty for someone like me presuming to talk about people like us. It’s a little like trying to explain what you love so much about your family. For everything you love, there are faces and relationships that cannot be reduced to bullet-points. There are embarrassing moments that you either try not to think about or you learn to laugh at yourselves.

My first impulse is to talk about the obvious distinctives one might notice if they attended a church of Christ worship gathering. I could talk to you about our tradition of a cappella worship. Some congregations in our tradition are beginning to use instrumental music in their worship services, but even in these cases there is still a certain reverence for the beauty of four-part harmony. I could talk to you about our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (Communion/Eucharist). I could (and many might think I should) spend some time talking to you about how we practice believer’s baptism. However, I don’t really want to talk about those things here. These are much longer and more nuanced conversations than the task at hand allows for. I’ve been asked to tell you what I love about churches of Christ and why you might want to be a part of this tradition, and that’s a different conversation altogether.

Churches of Christ have their roots in the American Restoration Movement, which also gave birth to Independent Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ. The movement began primarily as a unity movement in response to the rampant bickering, division and in-fighting many saw among the different denominations (sects) in the early 1800’s. Two early leaders in the movement (arguably it’s “founders”) were Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander. Thomas was a minister for the “Old Lights, Anti-Burgher, Associate/Seceder National Presbyterian Church of Scotland”, and Alexander was in training to follow in his father’s vocational footsteps. You read that right, by the way. It was a sect of a sect of a sect of a sect. Both essentially broke official ties with this group over the group’s closed and exclusionary communion (eucharist) practices. However, their intention was not to break off and start another sect. Their intention was to draw the circle wider, not smaller.

They practiced open communion. In a revolutionary document titled The Declaration and Address, Thomas declared that division was a horrid evil. He said that the church could give no new command where scripture was silent, and that while creeds may be useful, they must not be used as tests of fellowship. His son Alexander concurred. Alexander was an incredible communicator and helped the movement to spread. Although they were often referred to by others as “Campbellites”, they refused to take sectarian names for their churches, preferring terms intended to be merely descriptive like “christians”, “disciples”, or “churches of Christ”. The sentiment is probably best summed up by another early leader named Barton Stone in a document known as The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery:

We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling…”

It’s easy to get confused, so sometimes you’ll catch some of us forgetting about all of this and perpetuating exactly the same kind of sectarianism we were intended to transcend. However, I believe unity is woven deep in the DNA of who we are as a people and when we lose our way, we eventually tend to find it again.

I’ll always remember the words of one of my professors from grad school. He said, “Here’s the thing about our people: If you can show it to them in the Bible, they can go there.” I’ve found this to be true and life giving. We always assume that there is more to learn. We assume scripture always has more to teach us. When I was growing up, I remember my Father telling me over and over again, “Don’t take my word for it,” when it came to matters of faith. I also remember him telling me that if I found that something he believed wasn’t right or true, I should move on. This is the prevalent attitude I have found in churches of Christ. Ideally, we try not to just believe a thing simply because it is the “Church of Christ” thing to believe. The question, “What do WE believe about that,” doesn’t really make sense in our context.

Each of our congregations is autonomous, and is ideally led by lay-leaders called “Elders” in partnership with a minister or ministry staff. There is no over-arching power structure to which we answer. There are pros and cons to this arrangement. On the one hand, it allows us the freedom to follow our consciences in the pursuit of truth, or, as a friend and mentor from another tradition once told me, “Churches of Christ are great, because you don’t have to turn the whole ship.”   On the other hand, I’m typing this post with the full knowledge that there will be some from churches of Christ who will feel quite strongly that what I have written is not representative of them at all.

Even so, I love these people. I love them like the quirky, complicated, wonderful family they are. They taught me to study scripture like it mattered…to try to speak where the Bible speaks, and to allow for difference, nuance, and ambiguity where the Bible is silent. They taught me to keep digging, to keep searching, to never be complacent or merely prop up the status quo. They gave me the space to grow. If any of that sounds appealing, maybe they could do the same for you.

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

AEAdam Ellis is the husband of Dana and the father of Emma & Chloe. He has a Masters Degree in Theological Studies from David Lipscomb University, and he worked for over a decade in youth ministry in various congregations across the south eastern United States. For the past 6 years he has been employed as the preaching minister for a congregation in South Carolina, and he’s been working on the side as an adjunct university Bible instructor. Frankly, he’s kind of a geek about theology and pop-culture, but his wife and daughters love him, so he’s ok with it.

 

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.

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.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

 

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Vineyard Movement

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Today’s guest post for Denomination Derby is by Amanda Nash of the Columbus Vineyard. If you’re ever in Columbus, OH, it’s referred to as, “The Big Vineyard.”

 

I didn’t grow up in the Vineyard. I came in to the movement as a college student and a new Christian looking for a place to grow and serve with my fresh faith. I had no idea that the first church I visited would become such a major part of my history for the last 17 years. In fact, I was a slow “convert” to the Vineyard. I went through a very critical process where I explored whether this was truly the place I wanted to call my church home.

I am immensely glad that I did make that decision. Over time, I have found so many things that I love about the Vineyard. Though I know that we are far from perfect, the more I am a part of it I simply love the heart of our movement. Here are four reasons why I love the Vineyard, out of the many I could list:

 

The Vineyard and the Kingdom of God

The Vineyard movement has at the core of its theological DNA the central teaching of Jesus: The Kingdom of God. Everything we do is seen through this lens of the Kingdom, i.e. the rule and reign of God. We want to be a part of the Story of God, which is the story of His Kingdom breaking in on Earth as it already exists in Heaven. While we have the future hope of his Kingdom coming in full, that is not the end of the story. In the now we can still ask, “what would this place look like if God were the King, if he were really in charge?” We want to be a part of seeing His Kingdom in this world and at work within ourselves, by the power of his Spirit.

I resonate with the picture that N.T. Wright puts forward regarding the whole of the gospel. That is, that in Jesus, God has inaugurated His Kingdom – the long awaited putting-to-right of creation (and everything that entails). I find that concept right at the heart of my own movement. I am so encouraged to be living out the theme that was at the forefront of Jesus’ own ministry.

 

The Vineyard’s Both/And Theology

The Vineyard movement has a Both/And Theology. There are many areas that we in the Vineyard try to hold in tension. We often say we want the best of both worlds. We want to be evangelical and charismatic; we are committed to scripture and to hearing a fresh word from God’s Spirit; we want mercy and justice; we believe in the spiritual realm of healing and warfare and that the world God created includes a deep appreciation of the sciences; we want to be connected to the historical and traditional church and explore new and contextualized expressions of faith.

This tension brings many people of different backgrounds together. I love that the Vineyard movement gets to bless a lot of other traditions by virtue of holding them in tension. And in reality, we are the ones who are blessed in doing so. It means that so many people who think very differently end up calling the Vineyard their home; I love the growth and vibrancy that comes from that reality.

 

“Everyone Gets to Play” in the Vineyard

The Vineyard movement believes Everyone Gets to Play. We don’t present pastors as the religious elite that no normal person can aspire to become or be called to. The church is functioning at its best when people are released to operate in their gifts. This means that no matter how old you are, no matter what your gender is, no matter your background, we want people to operate based on faithfulness, calling, and gifting.

This means that as a young woman – 19 years old – and fairly new to the Vineyard, I was able to jump into leadership opportunities. As I have responded to a call on my life to be a pastor, there is no limit to me as a woman to how much leadership I am allowed to have. The Vineyard has promoted me as a woman and as a young person and has encouraged me to respond to the call of leadership on my life.

 

The Vineyard Gives Away Our Best

Finally, in the Vineyard movement we Give Away our Best. The Vineyard is an international church planting movement. We are constantly developing leaders and giving them away to continue the increase of the local church all over the world. This means that we fully embrace the notion that nothing is ours. Everything is for His Kingdom. Even though it hurts, we say goodbye to people for the sake of His Kingdom.

I was serving here in Vineyard Columbus (Ohio) for almost 10 years when our church decided to send a plant to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Even though I was an influential leader in our 20something community, our church sent me and my husband and 8-month-old son to be a part of the church plant team along with 5 other significant leaders in our church. I love the culture of being open-handed and making lots of space for new people to rise up.

 

I didn’t know what the Vineyard was 17 years ago, but I am so glad I stumbled into this incredible Kingdom-centered movement that has helped me to grow, challenged me to risk and promoted me in the call God has on my life, while giving me space to be imperfect. I am truly honored to call it my family.

 

photo 2About Today’s Guest Blogger

Amanda Nash is a wife and momma of three. She has worked at Vineyard Columbus for over 10 years with three years off church planting in Amsterdam. She has a BA in Religion and English Lit and is currently pursuing her MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary.

 

 

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.

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.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

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