The Dutch Reformed have a long and stellar tradition dating back to Dordt and beyond. One concept has been a covenantal understanding of Scripture that is exceptional and unique.1 Central to that understanding has been the family and transmitting the faith from one generation to the next. It is not unusual to find in our older congregation’s members who can trace the faith in their families back four hundred years or more. This is absolutely astonishing to most evangelicals today.
I recall when we planted our church and began assembling members. Once a month we would have a fellowship dinner and select individuals (there were only a few families then) to give their testimonies after eating. They were to answer two questions: one was how they came to Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship and the second was how they came to know Christ as Lord and Savior. We are, even today, predominantly (90%) a congregation of first-generation believers so these testimonies were very encouraging. Once we asked a couple raised in the Reformed church (How unusual was that?) to tell us what it was like to grow up in a Christian home. The husband related how he has always known Jesus as his Lord and Savior; there was never a time when he didn’t know Jesus. We were all shell-shocked! Tell us, we inquired, “How long has Christianity been in your family?” He thought for a moment and replied “about four hundred years.” That was something we had never heard before.2
Many may be unaware that the prevailing view among evangelicals is that “God has no grandchildren.” What this means is that every family views their children as unbelievers until they are converted at some later point in life. Of course this affects how they address and raise their children as well. Rather than nurture children of believers in the faith and with a Christian education, there are constant attempts to elicit a conversion experience and/or a confession of faith (as in the sinner’s prayer).3 Christian education is usually a foreign idea since they do not see their kids as believers. The “Christian” schools here in Brooklyn, for example (my children have attended a variety), focus on neither education nor nurture but on “getting these kids saved.” Hence they gather unbelieving kids from the neighborhood and see their task as evangelism.
Because of our understanding of the covenant and our long-standing practices derived from that, we have long been the envy of the evangelical world and even many Presbyterian denominations because we have retained our youth. The faith has been transmitted from one generation to the next successfully.
All of this to say that there appears to be a critical shift occurring in our circles. We are no longer retaining our covenant youth.4 I tend to get around the country visiting our churches more than most, and this is the reality I see and hear about on the ground wherever I go. One specific occasion came home to me in power.5 I used meal times to inquire of the adult sponsors at the convention, “Why are we losing our young people?” I stated that I was not asking why they are leaving the faith. Rather I was asking why they are leaving our churches for other, non-Reformed churches. While there will often be covenant youth who leave Christ and the church, that was not my concern. The youth today are by and large leaving our churches for other churches. What was once one of our greatest strengths is increasingly vanishing.
The interesting thing that struck me was that no one disputed the question. Instead they began offering their reasons for why this was so. In other words, they saw the same thing I saw! These sponsors were representative of the entire country and Canada. The phenomenon was apparently widespread and growing.
I have my own ideas, suspicions, and speculations as to why this is so. But for now I want to end here and ask you the same question: Why are so many of our young people going to other, non-Reformed churches?I ask you to please send me your answers, thoughts, or disagreements at email@example.com. I look forward to your correspondence. In my next article I will relate to you why I think this is happening. Then in the subsequent article I will make suggestions as to how to reverse the trend. Until then, the Lord bless you.
1. Although others confess God’s covenant our confessional tradition is somewhat unique in perspective. To explain and explore this would take me far beyond the scope of this article.
2. It has since been adopted into our vision statement. We want people four hundred years from now to look back at what began on Fulton Street in New York City and what he has done to grow and sustain his church.
3. Lest you misunderstand, we likewise believe all need to be born again (as stated in our Form for Infant Baptism). But in evangelicalism the focus is on s conscious conversion event, a spiritual birthday that can be marked on the calendar, for example.
4. Admittedly my observations here are anecdotal and not scientific. This would make a perfect DMin thesis for some ambitious pastor who could statistically verify and examine the numbers and causes.
5. I am a frequent speaker for Reformed Youth Services (RYS) at their annual convention. This ministry is a blessing to our churches and consistent with what I have been articulating in this article. Families are blessed to have RYS serve alongside them in nurturing our covenant youth. The annual convention has grown to more than 750 participants.
Rev. Paul T. Murphy
is the missionary pastor of Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URCNA) in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC.
He has been an elder and pastor for more than thirty years.