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State of the Church: Hopeful and Promising

June 17, 2021

The following speech was given by executive director Colin Watson on June 15 during a special meeting of the Council of Delegates in lieu of synod. You can watch a video of this speech or read the full transcript below.

Every year, the executive director of the CRCNA offers a short speech to synodical delegates about the “state of the church.” This year is different for so many reasons. First of all, I’m here as executive director but have never been to synod in this capacity. 

Second, we don’t have synodical delegates because synod was canceled for the second year in a row. And, third, you – Council of Delegates members and people viewing this meeting on the livestream – really already understand our climate and conditions. You really don’t need me to tell you a lot about the state of our church. 

Where I want to start today is to remind us of who we are, and about our vision. We are a diverse family of healthy congregations, assemblies, and ministries. We express the good news of God’s kingdom with a view toward transforming lives and communities worldwide. This is who we are. This is our call from God. 

And we do this together by committing to work on five ministry priorities (Our Calling):

  • Faith Formation
  • Servant Leadership
  • Global Mission
  • Mercy and Justice
  • Gospel Proclamation and Worship

We are the church together. You are the church. Each of you represents a region, a congregation, a community that is doing ministry as God’s church wherever it is that you’ve been planted. You are sharing the gospel, you are fostering faith formation, you are offering vibrant worship and acts of mercy and justice, you are on a mission, and you are the church. 

What I want to do today is to provide you with a summary of what I’ve seen from my vantage point. And what I see is both hopeful and promising, despite the fact that we are coming out of a very difficult couple of years. 

Let’s start with acknowledging the difficulty that we’ve all experienced. The past two years have been filled with unexpected challenges. 

I assumed my current role on February 20, 2020 – and shortly thereafter COVID-19 surprised many of us and forced us to adapt. Our environment was quite different at that time – the COD had just decided that there was no way we’d be able to do our meetings online. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to rethink that decision, and now we’ve become experts at Zoom. Churches had to similarly adapt and do ministry in a very different way. 

At the same time, other events in the news brought continuing recognition of the racial issues in Canada, the United States, and beyond. While this wasn’t new, it forced us to think about our painful history and the ongoing racial realities in our countries and made us talk about these things. 

Within our church, several issues have similarly sparked conversation and sometimes heated debate. These include the human sexuality report coming to synod next year, restructuring in our denominational offices and senior leadership positions to better reflect Canadian and U.S. governance needs, and tensions around differing perspectives on social justice and race relations. 

As individuals, ministries, and congregations navigated these challenges, we’ve seen subtending issues arising. Pastors, for example, have been struggling with the extra stress of these past years. Mental health issues are increasing, and we’ve seen a rising number of relational issues as pastors and congregations seek to part ways. 

As congregations adapted to new realities of being the church during a pandemic, some have lost their second service, some have seen attendance dwindle, and others have had to discontinue programs and practices that had been in existence for a long time. 

In addition, societal fissures that have sparked polarizing conversation in the public square have wormed their way into our church sphere as well, sparking debate, arguments, and sometimes even cruel and hateful treatment of each other. 

Yet, despite all of this, I still report to you that the state of the church is hopeful and promising. 

Why? Because God is in full control of all things, and he has amazing things in store for his church. It is his church. In the midst of all of this difficult reality, many elements of Christ’s church shine through. And I believe these elements can best be seen through the lens of our new ministry plan – Our Journey 2025.

The CRCNA has responded to the current situation of our world by launching a new five-year ministry plan that we’ve called Our Journey 2025. This plan was developed as a result of many listening sessions with congregations and leaders across North America. What became abundantly clear through all those times of listening was that there are four common themes that we believe God is calling us to.

These four goals or “milestones” for our journey are as follows:

  • Cultivate practices of prayer and spiritual discipline.
  • Listen to the voices of every generation.
  • Grow in diversity and unity.
  • Share the gospel as we live it missionally, and plant new churches.

Let’s look at each of these in turn very briefly. 

We could not have foreseen how the four milestones of Our Journey 2025 would take on a heightened urgency in the past year. The combination of 15 months of COVID-19 restrictions with difficult issues that threaten to divide the church has and should put us on our knees together. As we truly seek to discern God’s will and direction, we deepen our engagement with milestone 1 – to cultivate practices of prayer and spiritual discipline. 

While this is happening in a variety of ways in numerous places, I’d like to highlight a few for you. Faith Formation Ministries has launched an entire Faith Practices initiative, highlighting twelve spiritual disciplines and offering concrete ways of incorporating them into individual, family, and congregational life. A denominational prayer team led by Jon Hoekema has arranged for ongoing denominational prayer open to all. You can participate every month by contacting [email protected], and you will receive the Zoom link and prayer guide a few days before. 

In addition, at my request, the Council of Delegates has recently endorsed a plan for a year of denominational prayer culminating in the Synod of 2022. It is really critical for us to continue to be on our knees together. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each generation differently, and that has provided us with a great opportunity to live into milestone 2 – Listen to the voices of every generation. As we’ve adapted to the pandemic, for example, we’ve recognized the mental health toll it has taken, especially on our children and young people. This requires our collective response. 

Similarly, we’ve learned that we need to incorporate intergenerational voices into our online worship, and we’ve encouraged informal relationships across the generations to replace some of our more formal generation-specific programming. 

As we live into this second milestone of Our Journey 2025, we're grateful for a $1.3 million Lilly grant that will give church leaders a research-based action plan to not only retain youth and adults but also attract and fully integrate them into the life and leadership of the church. This program will be known as “Generation Spark” and is being launched in partnership with the RCA to build authentic, safe, and nonthreatening relationships across generations where there is opportunity to learn from each other. The project has started with 10 pilot churches with a goal of adding 20 more this fall. 

I’m excited about this project because, as in many other denominations, the average age of CRC members is increasing – and we have a significant challenge in reaching out to youth.

Some statistics highlight this need. The percentage of individuals who are unaffiliated with any faith tradition is rising – and the unaffiliated rate is higher among the younger generations. This is both a problem and an opportunity. As Reformed Christians, we believe that God’s Holy Spirit goes before us into unchurched spaces – and we should obediently follow, bringing the gospel into each of these areas.

In addition to the fact that the unaffiliated sector is growing and is most prevalent among the young, we are also seeing a phenomenon that we might expect. The faith community is aging, and among Protestant Christians it is aging fairly quickly. 

We are but a part of an ongoing societal trend in North America, where the younger population is large and increasing rapidly, and an increasing number of young people is spiritually unaffiliated. Listening to the voices of every generation is not an option – this is our gospel imperative.

In a similar way, as a denomination, we have a continuing need and a growing opportunity to reach out and embrace the significant diversity of races and cultures present all around us. The events of the past year have refreshed a desire in many of us to address racial injustice and care pastorally for all minorities and marginalized people that God has placed in our communities.

These desires are enmeshed in milestone 3 and its longing for reconciliation. We want to embrace our existing diversity and grow even more diverse but also celebrate the things that unite us as we live into Christ’s command to be unified, as he prays in John 17. 

In contrast with the world’s values, Christians are to exhibit a sense of unity that draws the world toward Christ. As Jesus says in John 17:20-21, “My prayer is not for [my disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

I believe that when we exhibit this unity that comes from Christ, it is an attractive unity that will prompt the world to believe that Jesus is who he says he is. 

And much like the population of the unaffiliated that is becoming younger, our communities and neighborhoods are becoming more and more diverse by race and ethnicity. Ethnic and racial groups make up an increasing share of the populations in both Canada and the U.S. – and these groups are skewed as heavily younger. Again, this provides a challenge as well as an opportunity for us as Reformed Christians.

And if I can share one more point with you on this subject, I would note that when we look at religious affiliation by race and ethnicity for black and Hispanic peoples, Protestant Christians have the highest percentage in their populations. Again, this is a mission opportunity for the CRC to articulate a holistic gospel across a wide range of races and cultures.

The CRCNA has not been idle in this regard. The Canadian office of the CRCNA has recently added a new position – a senior leader for diversity and race relations to help address this important issue. Similarly, the CRCNA’s Office of Race Relations has been hosting “Living Room Conversations,” webinars on race and engagement that enable people to talk about challenging issues in informal ways. In addition, the Office of Diversity has been intentionally connecting with and learning from various ethnic groups in the CRCNA. We need to continue these activities, and we need to do much more to continue to reach out to new cultures and neighbors in all of our contexts.

When we combine the first three milestones as a lens through which to see our neighborhoods, we recognize there is tremendous hurt all around us crying out for gospel healing. So our renewed commitment to milestone 4 – to share and live the gospel missionally and plant new churches – is timely and appropriate. We are privileged to share the good news with our neighbors, and we have been learning new and effective ways of doing this. 

Resonate Global Mission has taken the lead in most of these efforts, and it recently held a Glocal Summit with over 400 people in attendance. The emphasis was on equipping and encouraging people to share the gospel near and far in their own Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (see Acts 1:8). If you were unable to attend, I encourage you to check out the video recordings of sessions still available on Resonate’s YouTube channel. 

This milestone is a critical part of the gospel – it’s God’s command. Though we have an OK track record of planting new churches and worshiping communities, we need to get better. That’s why the CRCNA has recommitted to church planting as a denominational imperative. 

So how are we doing overall, and how is your denominational staff engaging with individual churches?

We also know that many of our existing churches are declining – we can see this in our own communities – and we also see it in the statistics on worship attendees and members. Our statistics bear out these truths.

This is the landscape of the CRCNA denomination as of today. There are currently 1,024 CRC churches across the U.S. and Canada. We track significant engagements that our denominational ministries have with each of our local churches. A significant engagement includes a personal connection with the local church and may or may not include mass mailings to churches, or general conferences. 

Over the past year, our ministries had over 3,000 engagements and touched almost 70 percent of each CRCNA church – I commend my colleagues for this work, and we will continue to do even more as we come alongside local churches for the sake of the kingdom.

It’s not commonly known just how diverse the CRCNA is. Of our more than 1,000 churches,

  • more than 100 are Korean.
  • another 100 are made up of other minorities, including Hispanic, African American, SEAPI, and more.
  • another 100 self-identify as multiethnic.

So, in total, if you were to look at all of the categories, almost one-third of our churches (341 congregations / 32%) are ethnic-minority or multicultural churches. Many of these ethnic-minority and diaspora churches are stressed, especially in the wake of the pandemic, but they are persevering. Our engagement percentage with these churches is not as high as with majority-white ethnic churches, but we are improving. 

We also keep track of our regional engagement with churches as well as at the classis level.

Membership trends, though troubling, show some signs of promise. When we look at our older traditional churches, we see signs of decline. However, new expressions and newer churches are reaching new communities.

Our total number of churches over time, for example, has remained relatively stable for the past 15 years. There has been some decline in recent years – down from a 2014 peak of 1,103 churches. But overall our number of congregations has been relatively stable. 

Help is available to churches considering change. In addition to many denominational ministries, we have a new initiative called Vibrant Congregations – a third space shared by both the RCA and the CRCNA – which helps churches figure out the best path forward for them in their context in terms of church renewal, tapping into resources from both denominations, and beyond.

Taken in the aggregate, total Sunday attendance (in person) lags behind membership. That can be a troubling sign. But to see what’s really going on, we need to take a closer look.

For many years our Yearbook survey tracked only official membership. Recently we’ve added average Sunday attendance as well. We’ve noted that these numbers can vary greatly. In some of our long-standing but declining churches, attendance is only a fraction of membership.

But in our growing churches, the number of attendees is significantly higher than the number of members. In fact, more recently planted churches tend to have higher growth than older churches. Additionally, more recently planted churches tend to be much more racially and culturally diverse. This again amplifies the need to plant more churches – plant them among younger populations; plant them among more diverse populations.

This is something for all of us, in every region, to get engaged in. 

This is further seen when we look at the 341 ethnic-minority and multicultural churches in the CRCNA – attendance outstrips membership. This is a good sign of health and growth in those populations.

And as a further sign of growth – the new online campus that many of our congregations have discovered during the pandemic has provided us with both a challenge and an opportunity to reach new people and different audiences than we ever have before. 

So, per our ministry plan, as we see these new opportunities unfolding before us, we are called to

  • prayer and spiritual disciplines.
  • reach new generations.
  • embrace new cultures.
  • engage in planting new churches.

I hope that you are as encouraged as I am by the plans and initiatives that have begun as part of Our Journey 2025. Of course, plans are only part of the process. We also need commitment from individuals and congregations if these milestones are going to become part of our CRCNA identity. And part of that commitment comes in the form of financially supporting the work of the ministries of the CRCNA.

I am grateful to report that God’s people continue to be abundantly generous, even in this year of pandemic. When some churches felt the sting of economic recession and of COVID-19 closing their doors, others were able to pitch in and help. In total, we raised more than $800,000 to provide grants to 175 congregations to help sustain them and their ministries during the pandemic. 

To me, this is an example of the church being the church and communities coming together to help those who were hurting during the pandemic. 

And in our shared-funding program – ministry shares – we also see continuing generosity. This past year for the first time, we switched from a per-member assessment model to a faith-promise model for ministry shares. 

This felt risky during a year of economic uncertainty, but I’m pleased to report that over $18.4 million has been pledged for shared ministry. Some of these pledges (more than 100) even came from small, emerging churches that had never felt able to participate in the past. We are so grateful that this new system allows all of us to join in ministry together, for God’s glory. 

And while I’m talking about numbers, every year we provide an opportunity for churches to complete a survey describing their current status – their health – their participation with each of our areas of ministry priority – and their engagement with the four milestones of Our Journey 2025. The results continue to be encouraging. 

Our churches are characterized by vibrant worship, engaged discipleship, good leadership, and care for their community that results in acts of mercy and benevolence. In fact, our top five scores show that our congregations

  • urge us to apply the Bible to every area of our lives.
  • encourage us to build relationships with one another.
  • are places shaped by grace.
  • nurture the faith of children in practical ways, including mentoring by seasoned Christians.
  • engage children in the life of the church.

These are things to celebrate. But in our fast-paced and changing communities, the survey also identifies that we need to do even more. Our bottom five scores show that we must become better at 

  • individually building relationships with other Christians.
  • having our congregations be places where people of all generations find their spiritual home.
  • having our congregations be more encouraging to women to develop and use their leadership gifts.
  • having people in our congregations feel they are part of Christ’s worldwide church.
  • having people in our congregations better respond to the call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (see Mic. 6:8). 

So where does that leave the CRCNA today and as we move into a post-pandemic reality? I still hold tight to my belief that the state of our church is hopeful and promising. Here are some more signs of hope:

First, a Structure and Leadership Task Force (SALT) produced a report, now approved by the COD, to adapt the structure and senior leadership of the denomination. While this may seem administrative and far removed from our greater calling of sharing the gospel, I’m excited about what it means. 

The recommendations recommit us to unity as a denomination. Yes, we have differences regionally, nationally, and even from congregation to congregation, but we also have deep, shared commitments to the Reformed faith and to our calling as God’s people. These recommendations unite us in those shared elements of our faith. 

Second, these recommendations recognize our diversity and the need for contextualizing our ministries in different ways. This includes not only allowing for greater direction and control of ministries within Canada by Canadians but also for contextualizing ministry regionally and for our various ethnic-minority churches, emerging churches, and church plants. 

Third, our new ministry plan, Our Journey 2025, is exciting. I encourage us all to fully live into it, recommitting ourselves to prayer and spiritual disciplines, to remembering that every generation matters in the well-being of our churches, to becoming hospitable congregations that emphasize how every ethnicity is precious, and to renewing our commitment to sharing God’s riches – spiritual and otherwise – with our neighbors nearby and globally, as we support new vibrant communities of faith. 

My belief that the state of the church is hopeful and positive is not blind. I recognize that the challenges facing the church are immense, but we know that God is on the throne, not us. 

As we emerge from this time of pandemic, I think about new beginnings. We have the opportunity for new beginnings now, as a unified denomination, with great opportunities facing each one of us in our neighborhoods. 

I had a new beginning of my own yesterday. I became a grandparent for the first time, and while I am not there with our grandchild in Philadelphia, I have spent lots of time in the past few hours looking at photos of that little baby in the arms of her mother and father. I have realized that we are emerging from the pandemic with a new opportunity. We’ve been blessed anew by God. He has opened our eyes to new possibilities of what can be done in each of our neighborhoods. My prayer is that we will grasp those opportunities with both arms and fully embrace them. 

In 2 Chronicles 20 there is a story about Jehoshaphat being faced by a great army. He calls the Israelites together and prays, "Our God . . . we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you."

And that is our prayer today. We do not know exactly how we are going to face all of the challenges that are before us, but our eyes are fixed on God. May he continue to bless the Christian Reformed Church in North America. 

Colin Watson, Sr., Executive Director
Christian Reformed Church in North America