Report on the 2013 Christian Reformed Church Synod

The Christian Reformed Church in North America held its annual Synod meeting from June 7-14, 2013 in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The latest survey of those in the CRC pews, showing a number of disappointing trends. The average age is increasing. Fewer homes have children. People spend less time in personal devotions. Sunday evening attendance is down. The highest rate of giving to the church was among those aged 75 and older… Nevertheless, over 170 CRC congregations speak a language other than English or Dutch. Altogether, CRC congregations speak 21 different languages including Korean, Navajo, Laotian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Swahili.

 

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) held its annual Synod meeting from June 7-14, 2013. While the meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan was not as heated as in past years, many controversial topics were addressed.

Synod 2013 addressed same-sex marriage, capital punishment, increasing diversity, a struggling publishing house and what to do with congregations who want to form a classis [i.e., presbytery] where churches agree to not send women as delegates.

A new “affinity” classis in Michigan?

Two churches from western Michigan asked that synod create a new classis for congregations that believe the Bible reserves church offices for men. Trinity CRC of Sparta, and Second CRC of Kalamazoo do not ordain women and do not wish to participate in classis meetings where women are delegated. In 2010, both churches attempted to transfer to Classis Minnkota, which has a policy of not allowing congregations to delegate women to classis meetings. Minnkota and the two classes of these congregations all brought overtures to Synod 2010 approving the transfer. However, synod denied their request. Synod instructed the two churches to find a classis closer to home.

After years of meeting with other neighboring classes, the two Michigan congregations decided any closer-to-home classis would have to be brand new, based on affinity of belief that the Bible reserves church leadership offices to men. The CRC already has two “affinity classes,” but these are based on ethnic affinity rather than theological belief. The two classes of these congregations sent overtures to synod, asking that a new classis be formed in Michigan, stating that “several churches (10-12) have expressed their desire for such a classis as a better option than remaining in a classis where they function in conflict with their biblical convictions and under registered protest.”

Synod 2013 was not keen on creating a theological classis. Concern arose that forming a new classis would “create a fixed uniformity that runs contrary to biblical principles and practices of unity.”

Rev. Joe Vanden Akker of Classis Minnkota said now that those approving women in office “have a position of power, other concerns are being swept under the rug.” Other delegates were concerned about losing churches to the new classis.

“I hope there are not churches thinking about leaving our classis,” said Rev. Timothy Howerzyl of Classis Zeeland. “In our classis we have a great diversity of opinions, but we’ve forged a careful policy of holding together.”

In the end, Synod 2013 decided that the 2010 idea of joining Classis Minnkota was the better idea. Delegates voted 133-47 not to create an affinity classis, and voted 163-12 to allow the two Michigan congregations to transfer to Minnkota provided the move is agreeable to all parties.

Classis Hamilton elder delegate Jacob Ellens commended the two congregations for their work and patience. “I’m struck by the amazing amount of effort these churches went through to do the right thing and remain in the CRC,” he said.

Proposing to add the Belhar Confession into the Public Declaration of Agreement

All CRC officebearers must sign the Covenant For Officebearers, newly adopted by Synod 2012, but for those delegated to synod a different statement must be affirmed, called the Public Declaration of Agreement. The opening session of each synod asks delegates to stand to give their assent to the Agreement. The CRC Board of Trustees had proposed a revision to the Public Declaration of Agreement because the agreement had never been revised and since the new Covenant was approved the previous year the timing seemed good. But the proposed Agreement went beyond the Covenant For Officebearers and also included the Belhar Confession. Synod 2012 rejected the Belhar Confession as a full confession alongside the Three Forms of Unity [i.e., The Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Belgic Confession] and placed in a new category – Ecumenical Faith Declarations – that would not be binding on officebearers. Synod 2012 also explicitly refused to include Belhar in the new Covenant For Officebearers.

Synod 2013 noticed that the Board of Trustees inserted the Belhar into the proposed Public Declaration of Agreement and, following the advisory committee’s recommendation, decided to remove the Belhar Confession from the Public Declaration of agreement. The proposed Agreement was adopted but without the Belhar Confession listed.

Revisit capital punishment when already have “exemplary” statement?

The left-of-center Classis Grand Rapids East brought an overture asking the CRC to revisit its stance on capital punishment. The request was to “Appoint a study committee to formulate a CRC position on capital punishment.” The current stance was adopted in 1981. It says the Bible allows governments to use the death penalty as punishment for the most serious of crimes, but that the Bible does not require government use of capital punishment and governments ought to use this extreme punishment as sparingly as possible.

The current capital punishment position was adopted by Synod 1981 and has been praised as an exemplary statement. Denominational scholar, J. Gordon Melton, in his book, The Churches Speak on Capital Punishment speaks highly of the CRC’s statement from 1981: “This sensitive and broadly based study is unrivaled in its depth and thoroughness by any similar official documents produced by churches which have adopted an abolitionist stance.”

Why restudy the issue? The overture’s grounds claim that the current statement was “formulated more than thirty years ago.” Also mentioned is that “the United States is the only nation in the developed world that allows capital punishment.” (Author’s note: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore all have capital punishment and are not normally considered part of the “undeveloped world.”)

Grand Rapids East argued on the synod floor to have a study done, with a general concern that the nation’s criminal justice system is flawed.

“What we have is a broken criminal justice system that is badly in need of reform,” said Rev. Emmett Harrison from Grand Rapids East. Developments in DNA analysis have shown convicted criminals to be innocent. A disproportionate number of incarcerated persons are people of color. The United States also has a high incarceration rate.

But the overture’s request to study the issue was turned down. On Monday, June 10, synod voted 129-44 to reject the request.

Faith Alive reorganized, board disbanded

The CRC’s joint publishing house with the Reformed Church in America (RCA) was reorganized after years of financial struggles. On June 10, 2013, Synod followed the denominational Board of Trustees recommendation and dissolved the board of Faith Alive Christian Resources, effective June 30. The remaining functions of publishing will be temporarily under the supervision of the denominational Board of Trustees.

“Primary among the difficulties is the changing market conditions,” reads the Board of Trustees report. “While at one time most Christian Reformed congregations used Faith Alive materials for church school and other congregational curricula, that is no longer the case – and that trend has been perceptible for quite a long time.”

Once known as CRC Publications, Faith Alive emerged in 2004 as a joint publishing agency with the Reformed Church in America. Between 2006 and 2011, Faith Alive saw a decline in sales each year. On February 14, 2012, Interim Executive Director Joel Boot wrote a special letter to all CRC congregations saying, “Faith Alive is facing significant financial headwinds” and “needs your support” by giving them “first consideration” when choosing curriculum materials.

On June 30, 2012, Faith Alive saw its first sales increase from the previous year. In addition, Synod 2012 approved a 3% increase in ministry shares per member, most going to sustain Faith Alive.

But the positives were too little too late. On November 30, Faith Alive announced it would be cutting 18% of its staff. The denominational Board of Trustees learned that Faith Alive would be out of cash by June 30 with nearly $1 million in debt to design and production services. On February 22, the denominational board approved plans of realignment and dissolving of the Faith Alive board.

Synod concurred in their vote on June 10 and the board will be dissolved effective on the 30. The “critical functions” of Faith Alive, such as Sunday school curricula, will be assigned to other areas of the denominational structure. The denominational magazine, The Banner, will be temporarily overseen by the denominational Board of Trustees.

“Faith Alive needs to change,” said Faith Alive Director Mark Rice. “It’s not anyone’s fault… It’s a different market than it was 20 years ago.”

On July 3, Faith Alive released a statement saying, “We have not gone away! We are still here, and we are still doing the same ministry…” CRC news release the same day reported that sales will continue and that the last financial quarter was “up substantially over last year.” The joint CRC-RCA hymnal, Lift Up Your Hearts, was just released in May.

Faith Alive’s goal looking forward will be “creating vibrant ministry,” whether by creating its own materials or linking churches to outside materials, Rice said.

No concrete strategies to carry out the Great Commission

The denomination is “focusing on social and environmental issues that create tensions, diffuse our energies, and result in more members leaving the CRC, while ignoring our ineffectiveness with carrying out the fundamental task to which Jesus called us,” so said Ground 4 of an overture from Classis Northern Illinois.

The overture asked to mandate all CRC agencies and Board of Trustees to “develop concrete strategies to carry out the Great Commission.” The overture quoted interim Executive Director Joel Boot’s address to synod 2012 as well as CRC Home Missions director, Moses Chung on the seriousness of the CRC’s situation. The overture also called attention to the decline in CRC membership as reported annually in the Yearbook. 2008 showed a membership of 268,000 while 2012 had 251,000 members, with declines each year in between.

The overture could have been more brutal with the numbers. In fact, the CRC has seen a decline in total membership 18 of the last 20 years. In 2011 the CRC saw its largest decline since 1994, with the 2011 Yearbook showing 6,882 less total members than the 2010 Yearbook.

The overture did not find a receptive audience at Synod 2013. The advisory committee that discussed the overture concluded that the CRC has “a good balance of proclaiming the gospel in word and deed.”

In the words of the reporting Liveblogger, Synod 2013 turned down the overture because it “did not take into account the work already being done” and that it “does not reflect the breadth of work that is occurring throughout the denominational agencies and ministries, including partnering with local churches.”

Just hours later, a report from a recent survey would bring more discouraging statistics about the denomination.

Survey: CRC is older with fewer children, less prayer and Bible reading

Synod heard a report Monday, June 10, on the latest survey of those in the CRC pews, showing a number of disappointing trends. The average age is increasing. Fewer homes have children. People spend less time in personal devotions. Sunday evening attendance is down. The highest rate of giving to the church was among those aged 75 and older. Loyalty to the denomination is still low among younger adults.

The survey reporters did give two findings that were encouraging. The average respondent said their congregation was healthier now than five years ago. Secondly, although respondents showed they read the Bible less than previous surveys, they still reported a high view of Scripture.

Rodger Rice, presenter of the findings and who helped conduct the study for the Calvin College Center for Social Research said, “Every church in this denomination that doesn’t have a clear vision of what God wants them to do, better ask him.”

Yes to concrete strategies to increase ethnic diversity

On Thursday, June 13, Synod 2013 voted to establish many concrete strategies to increase ethnic diversity on all its leadership boards and committees.

The CRC has been self-conscious for many years about being a homogenous Caucasian Dutch church. Nevertheless, over 170 CRC congregations speak a language other than English or Dutch. Altogether, CRC congregations speak 21 different languages including Korean, Navajo, Laotian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Swahili. Moreover, the CRC classis with the most congregations is entirely Korean-speaking – Classis Pacific Hanmi. The Korean classis is growing rapidly, from 39 congregations and 2023 members in 2008 to 50 congregations and 3168 members in 2012.

Whether out of “white guilt” or “pursuing diversity” the CRC continues to be self-conscious about its perceived lack of diversity. At Synod 2009, while Advisory Committee 1 was charged with approving the reconstruction of the Ministry Council, it came with other recommendations. They reported that “within our committee we heard a strong message of concern and pain regarding the role of people of color within the leadership structure of our denomination.” They called for the Board of Trustees “to be relentless and faithful advocates in promoting multiethnic communication, dialogue, and leadership development.…” They also called for “an ethnically inclusive group to develop a statement of vision and strategy for increasing multiethnic representation within the leadership of the denomination.” This “group” eventually became the first Diversity in Leadership Planning Group.

Diversity in Leadership Planning Group I made proposals to Synod 2011, but was met with opposition by many minorities. The All-Korean-speaking Classis Pacific Hanmi and arguably the most diverse of all classes (Greater Los Angeles) both wrote overtures asking that the report and recommendations be rejected and to form an expanded task force.

Synod 2011 passed some of the recommendations. One of which was the closest vote of the year: “all future hires be made in accordance with the CRCNA’s current ministry plan scorecard diversity objectives with its goal of 25 percent racial minority leaders in CRCNA positions of senior leadership.” But Synod 2011 decided to reconstitute the committee and give it the remaining mandates not adopted in 2011.

The reconstituted Diversity in Leadership Planning Group II brought its report to Synod 2013. The 2013 report mentioned that the 2011 report was received with “ambivalence,” noting “Synod 2011 did not approve several key [Diversity Group] recommendations…”

The new 2013 report gave recommendations to greatly expand recruitment tactics, training of personnel, changing the nomination process for denominational leadership, and creating a two-year position with an annual budget of $500,000 to implement all the changes.

The new report also strengthened the language of establishing racial quotas, saying, “The nomination processes… shall ensure that the goal of 25 percent multiethnic representation on boards is achieved” (Recommendation F.1).

“If you don’t have a goal, nothing moves you,” responded Rev. Peter Byma from Classis Pacific Northwest.

Synod 2013 approved most of the recommendations by the Diversity Group II, but did not approve creation of a two-year position. It also softened the language of F.1 from ensuring the 25 percent multiethnic goal “is achieved” to “is actively pursued.”

Synod mandated the executive director to oversee development of the strategies and alignment to meet the goals. Instead of a $500,000 budget each year for two years, synod approved $100,000 annually for two years to accomplish this.

“Let’s start with our own homes and personal lives and community,” said ethnic adviser Rev. Jimmy Han. “It’s not just about trying to be top-down – it’s about trying to give goals, set goals, not to be multiethnic but to be a loving church to your community.” Delegates applauded his words.

Responding to homosexuality and same-sex marriage

Should homosexuality be studied in order to advise churches and clergy on how to handle situations raised by legal same-sex marriages? This most reported part of Synod 2013 will have its own article to cover not only what synod decided but also some recent developments.

Other matters

Synod responded to requests from two Canadian classes to have more awareness that the CRC is a bi-national denomination. Synod refused Classis Toronto’s request to have Canadian members of the Board of Trustees meet separately, and also refused Classis Niagara’s overture to form a task force in response to a January conference of Canadian CRCs that raised concerns about Canadian concerns being overlooked. Synod 2013 responded by saying their concerns were already being addressed by informal means as well as the work being done by the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture.

Synod responded favorably to an overture from Classis Toronto to form a study committee regarding religious persecution and religious liberty. The overture’s request was granted only minor discussion. The committee will be mandated to help equip the church understand and respond to persecution both in North America as well as other parts of the world.

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is Pastor of North Blendon Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich.