Soon it will be seven years since the first steps were taken to organize a federation of churches now known as the United Reformed Churches in North America. It seems appropriate, then, for us as members to reflect on the way by which Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of the church has led these congregations. But recounting the many blessings experienced also requires a humble confession of the sins which still stain our lives every day. Only in this way will a reflection on the past stir us to rededicating ourselves to serve the Savior-King with ever greater devotion.
The background and occasion for the decision to organize another federation of Reformed churches on the North American continent can be rehearsed in a few sentences.
Such a rehearsal is not only appropriate for those who lived through the years before 1995 but especially necessary for the children, young people, and growing number who have come from other denominations with a strong desire to unite with a faithful church which without compromise seeks to proclaim and live by the sovereign grace of God in Christ Jesus.
Decades of Turmoil
By the late 1980s and early 1990s a growing number of Christian Reformed people either with or without pastoral and consistorial leadership broke ties with that denomination. Hardly did this come overnight or without much soul-searching and prayer.
For at least three decades that denomination was experiencing an “identity crisis.” Before 1940 the Christian Reformed Church, under its leadership, was staunchly Reformed as so many of its synodical decisions demonstrate. But shortly after World War II strange winds begin to blow within those broader assemblies. By the 1960s and early l970s two divergent groups could be clearly discerned. One was agitating for change and the other was seeking to maintain the confessional basis upon which those churches had been founded.
Soon the focus turned to the issue of women in ecclesiastical office. One synod would modify what an earlier synod had decided, only to be changed again the following year.
The fundamental issue, often pointed out in many excellently-written articles in this periodical, lay far deeper. It was the issue of the clarity, the trustworthiness and the absolute authority of all that the Bible clearly teaches. At stake also was the biblical view of the creation of the universe and man. Only when after repeated protests and appeals for two decades met with no favorable response, did congregations and many members leave the Christian Reformed Church.
A New Federation Is Born
Out of that unhappy situation the organization of the Alliance of Reformed Churches arose, prompted by the invitation of the Lynwood IL consistory. Within a few years, after much discussion and preparation, a large number of those churches decided to organize as the United Reformed Churches in North America.
Already as a “preparatory” meeting several far-reaching decisions were taken. First, of course, on the official basis of the federating churches an unswerving commitment to Holy Scripture as the absolute authority for doctrine and life and subservient to it the Three Forms & Unity. Also tentative approval of a Church Order was approved which recommended the use of the 1957 edition of the Psalter Hymnal and its liturgical formularies.
“Charter membership” for churches and ministers was left open until the first official synod, scheduled for the following summer These uniting churches were also arranged in three “classes” or regional assemblies to meet either two or three times annually.
With this, let us engage in a “statistical review,” found in the annual Yearbooks, first published for the URC in early 1998. Although these say little about spiritual life and ecclesiastical faithfulness, they do remind us of the growth, both in the number and membership of these congregations, including a few not yet fully organized.
Presently the churches in the URCNA are served by 832 elders and deacons and 115 ordained ministers. Of those ministers 74 are pastors in congregations, 8 or 9 engaged in outreach both at home and abroad, another 4 as professors of theology. 3 “on leave” and 26 listed as “retired” but who often help out when requested.
In Canada there are 31 URC congregations with 6,489 members; in the United States 50 with 12,053 members. Twenty-seven were able to keep their church properties in agreement with the 1970 synodical decision of the CRC.
Some congregations have experienced amazing growth, even doubling their membership within four or five years. Two record a significant loss of members. Six small congregations, the latest Athens, Ontario, have disbanded. During this period five ministers of the Word have died. Meanwhile, at least six ordained pastors left for other fields of labor, two quite recently to serve the Reformed Churches in New Zealand.
From the statistics other encouraging factors can easily be gleaned, although some consistories still fail to report as fully as requested by our Stated Clerk. Internal growth can be somewhat measured by number of baptisms. Each year there are almost twice the number of live births reported for either Canada and the United States, while the number of recorded deaths in the URC is always somewhat lower than the national averages. Also the number received into membership each year far exceeds that of those who have transferred. A much smaller number are listed as “resignations” every year.
A steady expansion to new areas continues. Recently, in the Belgrade, Montana, area a group of Reformed believers is organizing as a URC congregation. Also serious efforts are being made to establish a URC church in Bellingham, Washington, and Muskegon, Michigan, and possibly elsewhere.
Especially in the beginning it was often said that the URC would become no more than an “asylum” for discontented old folk who resisted all change and longed to return to what the CRC was fifty or seventy five years ago. But decisions taken at its preparatory assembly and confirmed by its first official synod clearly demonstrate that the URC’s aim is to be a confessionally faithful Reformed federation striving earnestly to reform itself according to God’s Word and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let anyone who still thinks the average URC consists largely of old people attend one or two services. By far most of those present are young couples and families with three, six and even more children and young people who fill many a pew twice every Lord’s Day.
Until now - and hopefully this will continue for decades – the URC has resisted any attempt to place under denominational Committees and Boards any work which a local consistory and congregation can, by Christ’s commission and the Spirit’s guidance, carry out. With many other ministers and members I, too, have witnessed the slow but continual drift in the CRC towards a hierarchical control by boards and their “experts.” Often this has throttled, far more than many are aware, the zeal and strength of local congregations and the exercise of the office of all believers. Also in this respect the URC, together with many ordained ministers and members without any CRC connections, is seeking to develop a Reformed character unique in these times when all the main-line denominations are losing active members by the tens of thousands every year.
Not a word or phrase of the above, however, is intended to “grieve” any faithful consistories and members of the CRC who are still striving to maintain that church’s historic positions. For that this writer, now almost 87 years, owes under God’s providence far too much for the instruction and spiritual care which he has received.
In the above we have only mentioned what is observable and has been reported. Far more significant, indeed, would be careful and prayerful reflection, in so far as possible, on both its “strengths” and its “weaknesses.” But for every faithful member of the URC the time is here not only to reflect on the way in which the sovereign Lord has also been leading these churches but especially to rededicate ourselves to his service in gratitude for all the blessings received.
Dr. Peter Y. De Jong has faithfully served the Church of Christ as Minister of the Word and Sacraments since 1940. He is a member of the Lynwood URC in Lynwood, IL.