Reformed Church in America Is Imploding, Professor Says

The Reformed Church in America ship is sinking, argues one Reformed believer.

"Listen. Do you hear them? Those are the gentle, mournful sounds of a denomination imploding," Donald A. Luidens, professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., wrote in an article featured in November's Perspectives. "The denominational craft has carried us far, but its time is up. It has sprung debilitating leaks which can no longer be plugged."

"It was here; it flourished; it ministered; it floundered; and then it was gone ... It is time to look for a new vehicle, or collation of vehicles, to move the church faithfully and compellingly into the twenty-first century."

Luidens makes several arguments – including "ideological messiness," "theological muddiness" and the weakening of polity – supporting his claim.

Amid years of contention between liberals and conservatives over issues such as the civil-rights movement, women's ordination and evangelism with regard to social witness, Luidens says "loyalists" emerged to keep the denomination together. They were more dedicated to denominational survival than to ideological purity, he notes.

Though the two extremes were held together then, today many liberals have left the RCA in significant numbers and conservatives have shifted their target to the loyalists and continue to "rail against 'liberalism,'" he says.

Moreover, Luidens points out from studies of RCA members that many in the Reformed churches have little knowledge of the doctrinal standards of the denomination, including the Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of the Synod of Dort, and Belgic Confession. Though there is a high level of assent to such doctrinal verities as the sovereignty of God, the divinity of Christ and the important of the Bible, the Hope College professor found that there is also a widespread affirmation that personal actions and beliefs are central to determining their eternal fates and that Christianity is not the only route to eternal life.

"What emerges from these data theologically, then, is a generic form of American evangelicalism with a thin Calvinist overlay," he says.

He adds, "'The Bible says' whatever the authoritative speaker wishes, and the biblically illiterate person in the pew has few defenses against outrageous truth claims."

Luidens believes the "highpoint" of theological messiness in the RCA occurred with the 1997 Formula of Agreement. The RCA established a full communion partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ. Many opposed the UCC partnership because it supported an open and affirming view on homosexuality.

Numerically, membership has continued to decline in the RCA, he notes. "Active communicants" fell from 235,000 at its peak in the mid-1960s to roughly 170,000 today.

Luidens argues that the RCA has relied on "internal growth to feed its membership rosters, with a constant trickle of migrants from the Christian Reformed Church as a supplement." But by relying largely on RCA members having children, "the RCA set itself up for the devastating demographic fact of declining birth rates."

Bradley G. Lewis, professor of Economics at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., agrees with Luidens on some points but doesn't believe the struggles in the denomination are as fatal as the Holland professor contends.

"Is it time to book the hearse, order the f lowers, and arrange a decent burial for the oldest Protestant denomination in North America? Or, to follow Luidens' image, should we plan on manning the lifeboats and fleeing to whatever port suits our fancy? I think not," Lewis argues in Perspectives.

Lewis refers to Luidens' own book, Divided by a Common Heritage: The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America at the Beginning of the New Millennium, to make the case that ideological or theological conflicts do not spell the end of the denomination. Over the years, he says, RCA leaders have argued on evangelism and doctrinal consistency but did not split over it. The RCA also joined in ecumenical endeavors without having to agree with all its partners, he points out.

"Whom should I believe?" Lewis asks. "The Luidens who believes muddiness, messiness, and a lack of a stable identity will help implode the RCA? Or the Luidens who co-authored a book that describes so well how the RCA has operated for nearly four centuries with those same traits in the service of working with their fellow Christians?"

Regarding numbers, Lewis cites RCA's "Orange Books" to show that while the number of confessing members dropped by over 10,000 from 2003 to 2008, actual worship attendance remained stable. Also, the number of adherents was at a high in 2008 at over 50,000.

Those statistics suggest that the denomination is succeeding in increasing their numbers, whether those attendees officially join or not, Lewis notes.

The glue that once held the RCA together may have eroded, but Lewis suggests that new glue is already forming. Lewis sees hope in some of the new developments including: the new array of options for training ministers in Word and sacrament, coached clergy networks that offer support and encourage accountability, general synods that have given greater voice to delegates, greater dialogue between conservatives and liberals on what they've learned from visiting Christians in other countries, and foreign churches seeking partnerships with the RCA.

Indeed, the RCA ship as they knew it in 1970 or 1980 has imploded, Lewis affirms. But the current RCA vessel is nowhere near the ocean bottom, he suggests.

"I do not wish to ignore the parts of Luidens' analysis that correctly point out how much the RCA has changed and how hard that process has been, nor how much work remains," Lewis makes clear. "But I believe that the denomination is revitalizing itself faster than most realize."