The Reformed Church in America (RCA) addressed a range of significant questions dealing with their future at the RCA's General Synod, which met June 6-11 on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Mich.
“Their questions were substantial and challenging,” said Steven Timmermans, executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
One particularly significant item that was discussed was an interim report from what is called the Vision 2020 Team. This team was formed by the RCA’s General Synod 2018 with a mandate to prayerfully explore how the denomination should move into the future, given the deep divisions that currently exist within it.
The team has been meeting for a year, and it asked the General Synod 2019 planning team for significant time on this year’s agenda to discuss their preliminary work, and to solicit input.
Instead of focusing on current tensions, such as those related to human sexuality issues, the Vision 2020 Team asked General Synod 2019 delegates to spend time wrestling with potential futures for the denomination.
“Will it continue as is, should it radically restructure, or might it graciously separate?” said Timmermans, summarizing the options presented to the RCA general synod.
To prepare for this conversation, in the weeks leading up to the general synod, delegates participated in a series of webinars that covered topics such as spiritual and emotional maturity, as well as healthy engagement with conflict.
Then, at General Synod 2019 itself, delegates built on that foundation by participating in a session that encouraged them to hold on to the convictions that define them, but also to connect with others who may feel differently.
With this preparation in mind, RCA delegates spent several hours on Friday and Saturday discussing potential scenarios in small groups. Each scenario, summarized as follows, had been developed by the Vision 2020 Team.
Staying together and doing nothing—what the team is calling Option 1A—presents the current reality of the RCA denomination.
“If we continue to do ‘business as usual,’ the default future seems to be one of continued tension, frustration, and polarization over our differences, especially regarding the present issue of human sexuality and marriage,” the team wrote in its report.
Option 1B calls for current RCA structures and governance to remain the same. The change would be the adoption of a “centered-set” paradigm, centered on key, unifying theological beliefs and convictions.
What this means for the RCA, as the Vision 2020 Team proposed, is that “consistories and/or classes [could] decide where they stand on matters beyond the key theological convictions.”
Scenario 2 is intended to explore the impacts if the denomination were “to radically restructure the leadership and organization of the denomination to enable Christians with diverse beliefs, commitments, and missional practices to work harmoniously together under a denominational ‘umbrella,’” said the team’s report.
The team explained the essence of the second scenario this way: “If you think of it like a house, it would be like tearing down a house and rebuilding it. The same people would be in it, but the structure would be different.”
The Vision 2020 Team envisions that theological clarification, especially on issues of sexuality, marriage, and ordination, could lead to separation. They outlined three options:
- 3A: Determine that the RCA is theologically moderate (living in the tension) on issues of sexuality, marriage, and ordination, and those who do not agree can leave graciously.
- 3B: Determine that the RCA holds to a theologically traditionalist view of sexuality, marriage, and ordination, and those who do not agree can leave graciously.
- 3C: Determine that the RCA is theologically open and affirming on issues of sexuality, marriage, and ordination, and those who do not agree can leave graciously.
Over the course of the two days, delegates discussed each of these scenarios in depth. The Vision 2020 Team gathered their feedback and on Sunday, June 9, presented a preliminary report about the findings.
Responses from delegates included the following:
- We are getting present to the loss before us—it’s becoming real to us—and we’ll need time to process the pain.
- We are also getting present to the complexity of each scenario.
- We long for unity.
- The way we are showing up—being both defined and connected—is different and working.
- Some desire to stay together; some don’t believe staying together is a possibility.
- Some are exhausted and fatigued with the conversation about human sexuality; some feel the conversation needs more time.
- Some believe we will not be able to stay together and do nothing without great loss; some believe we can endure this conflict well.
Delegates were given the opportunity to respond to these summarizations at their tables, before general secretary Eddy Alemán shared a few words. He expressed thanks to delegates for their honesty, respectfulness, grace, and compassion in difficult conversations. He then shared words of encouragement, especially appropriate for Sunday, Pentecost.
“We need to remember that we are the anointed people of God to bring hope, to bring transformation, and to proclaim the gospel to the world,” he said. “Today is a good reminder of that. We’re not walking alone. We have the Holy Spirit with us, helping us to serve God and people.”
Alemán also provided answers to this question: What can be done with this General Synod 2019 experience? He suggested that delegates, as they return home, keep praying for the Vision 2020 Team, for the process, and for God’s guidance for the denomination; share hope with pastors, congregations, and classes; and encourage people, especially those without hope.
Brian Keepers, a pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, and a member of the Vision 2020 Team, closed the team’s presentation with words of thanks and a call to personal responsibility.
He also referenced a line in former interim general secretary Don Poest’s sermon from opening worship: “The world is watching what we decide; God is watching how we decide.”
Keepers added, “The outcome of this process matters, but we believe how we arrive at the outcome matters just as much. We ask you to stay engaged. We’re in this together. . . . Can we be for each other, even if maybe we don’t agree?”
He then invited delegates to discuss at their tables what they were celebrating, lamenting, and hoping for. A time of prayer followed.
The evening plenary session ended with delegates laying hands on the Vision 2020 Team, as delegate Jonathan Sherrill offered prayer, asking for a “double portion plus” of the Holy Spirit to be present with the team.
“On this Pentecost we ask that you do it again: pour out your Spirit. Pour out your power,” he prayed. “You’re in the revelation business, and we ask you to do that again.”
The Vision 2020 Team will use the delegates’ feedback, alongside feedback from surveys of RCA members, to inform its work over the next year. That work involves developing a recommendation or recommendations that will come to General Synod 2020 for consideration.