Reformed Christians Strive to Diversify Congregations, Leadership

The Christian Reformed Church in North America is one of several predominantly white Protestant denominations confronting "the sin of racism" and emphasizing racial diversity in their congregations.

Although CRC has grown more ethnically diverse, leaders of the 300,000-member denomination see that they still have a long way to go for reconciliation.

"Where the tension arises is how do we get to this goal of creating a multi-cultural church," said CRC executive director the Rev. Jerry Dykstra, according to CRC Communications. "Our sin (of racism) is with us today in this church. It has been so easy to judge people by the color of their skin, how they speak, what culture they are from."

Dykstra addressed those attending the biennial Multi-Ethnic Conference over the weekend. The conference was held as hundreds of Christian Reformed members were gathering in Palos Heights, Ill., for their annual Synod.

The Rev. Pedro Aviles, a former pastor and current professor of church and ministry leadership at Trinity Christian College, says CRC's next major growth will come by intentional steps in obedience to the kingdom mandate for embracing diverse peoples and ordaining such leaders.

"God's kingdom is advanced by people of color who are led by people of color," Aviles said, according to CRC Communications.

Concerns were raised this year over the lack of minority voices in the leadership of the denomination. Pledging to support ethnic minority members, Dykstra presented his vision of racial diversity and a plan to accomplish that vision.

"We are taking a new approach to how we do business in the denomination and there will be places for other voices," Dykstra said at the conference.

The pledge came just as CRC leaders elected the first African American woman to its vice president position. The Rev. Shelia Holmes, pastor of Northside Community CRC in Paterson, N.J., was elected on Saturday as leaders met under the banner of unity and diversity.

"We are realizing that we (ethnic minorities) are part of this denomination," Holmes said, as reported by the denomination's news service. "We are not just sitting back. God has positioned us in place to talk about unity and reconciliation. … Change is happening by the power of the Holy Spirit."

Changes toward diversity are being made in congregations across the country, as evidenced by a survey released this month. According to findings from the National Congregations Study – which was directed by Mark Chaves, professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke University – the percentage of congregations with more than 80 percent white participation dropped from 72 to 63 percent between 1998 and 2006-07. The percentage of attendees in predominantly white congregations with at least some recent immigrants jumped from 39 to 51 percent. Moreover, 78 percent of people – a drop from 82 percent – attend congregations with a white pastor.

CRC leaders at Synod 2009, which opened on Saturday, will discuss the Belhar Confession, a 1982 document written in the context of racism in South Africa. It declares apartheid a heresy and a misrepresentation of the Gospel and appeals for unity, justice and reconciliation.

The Interchurch Relations Committee of the CRC has recommended that this year's synod propose to Synod 2012 the adoption of the confession as its fourth standard of unity.

Last week, delegates of the Reformed Church in America voted to adopt the Belhar Confession as part of their standards of unity. The proposal must be approved by RCA's regional groups of churches.