BEYOND ETHNICITY TO MAINSTREAM EVANGELICALISM
During the 60's and 70's, directions set in the 50's continued and the CRC began to settle into its place as one American church among others. While Reformed distinctives were maintained and ecumenism was limited quite strictly to building relations with other churches considered true and Reformed (according to the definition of the Confession of Faith), CRC members and churchmen alike increasingly rubbed shoulders with those of other denominations. The CRCNA was zealous for Christian education and prolific in its production of literature, journals and educational materials. Colleges and seminaries of other churches were increasingly the beneficiaries of CRC members, both as students and teachers at these institutions. Schools like Calvin College, Dordt College, and Trinity College, as well as the numerous elementary and secondary schools built by CRC members for their children's education, came to be attended by those of other church backgrounds, but especially by those of the conservative, evangelical persuasion. The CRC Home Missions Board promoted the ministry of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship on secular campuses. The National Union of Christian School (now CSI) was founded to promote the formation of Christian day schools. And so by these means the CRC came to be known more widely among other American churches than at any time in the past. A theologian from another church who had become familiar with this "Dutch" church, once designated the CRC "the Pharisees of the protestant church." This was meant somewhat as a compliment, since the CRC was viewed as a bastion of biblical orthodoxy and moral integrity, more thoroughgoing in its piety than most churches and more intent on maintaining its tradition. There was also the negative aspect of this designation: maintaining tradition for tradition's sake and emphasizing a very strict moral code which was burdensome and sometimes tended to overshadow the free grace of God. The CRC's standoffishness towards evangelical ecumenical organizations also gave the impression that this denomination judged itself to be too holy for such contact. This fraternal designation thus rings true in many ways.
There arose at this time, along with the new missions thrust of the CRC, a drive for ethnic diversification and integration. Racism had been institutionalized in the Reformed churches of the Republic of South Africa and defended by Abraham Kuyper in his famous Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1898. The idea of ethnic homogeneity as the will of God thus had deep roots in the CRC mind. But the American civil rights movement and more faithful reading of the Scriptures put a great deal of pressure on this status quo. In fact, much to the surprise and delight of missionaries, they had some small success in their outreach to those of other backgrounds (Jewish, Hispanic, African-American, etc.), and despite their misgivings about having such "Samaritans" in the fold, they were forced ( like the early apostles) to confront the assumptions of the past. CRC communities became more and more suburban and so had more contact with the different ethnic groups which were migrating to the cities.
Already in 1959, the CRC adopted an admirable set of guidelines on the issue of race relations. This was supplemented in 1968 and 1969 by statements plainly calling the exclusion of people of other races from the fellowship of the church a sin which merited church discipline. To realize these declarations of synod, some agitated for fully integrated congregations, but deeply ingrained ethnocentrism did not die quietly. This ethnocentricism sometimes was out and out racism; sometimes a more naive paternalism prevailed; sometimes it was more a realistic desire to find a means to promote a kind of unity within congregations around cultural distinctives which need not be discarded for the sake of forcing people of radically different backgrounds to live and worship together. Sometimes it came to expression as simple social clumsiness (like when a person who visits a CRC service is informed by those greeting him afterward that his name is not Dutch, as if he didn't know! How does a person greeted this way feel?). Completely integrated congregations were promoted by some idealists and sometimes accomplished (there are a few outstanding examples of this in some places, such as Madison Avenue CRC in Paterson, N.J.). Sometimes congregations which found themselves located in racially changing areas simply fled the scene (moving their homes and church facilities out of such areas to maintain their "comfort zone" and homogeneity). Others followed the "separate but equal" thinking of South Africa (which more often was separate and unequal in reality) and formed racially homogeneous congregations among other ethnic groups (Northside Community CRC, also in Paterson, N.J., is an example of this type of ministry). While the motivation behind this activity was sometimes questionable (let "them" have their own place so they don't come among "us"), in the present-day this kind of activity is often condoned as the more effective way to do church planting according to the tenets of the Church Growth Movement.
Eventually discussions of racial justice were pursued even more vigorously and a standing committee (Synodical Committee On Race Relations-- SCORR) was formed in 1971 to help the church navigate through these difficult waters. Apartheid was declared a heresy. Scholarship help was offered particularly to foster the development of minority-group leadership, a kind of "affirmative action" program within the church. The churches began to examine more carefully what practices might have more to do with Dutch cultural heritage than with Scriptural directives, and at times even Church Order regulations were altered or suspended to allow for the realities created by the growing diversity. New worship styles reflecting different cultures began to appear.
Presently there are a number of different ethnically distinct groups within the CRC, most of which date from this period. Among these are Native American (mostly Navaho and Zuni), African-American, Hispanic, and Chinese. Of more recent origin are Korean (there are quite a large number of these) and Vietnamese congregations. Home missionaries currently are far more broad-minded than their forebears and are reaching out to all without discriminating. Each year at the meeting of synod, time is set aside to celebrate the CRC's growing ethnic diversity. Recently, such progress has been made in this area that some voices are heard calling for the discontinuation of SCORR, saying its mandate is no longer relevant. However synod has judged that racism remains a problem in many places and that SCORR's ministries of education, advocacy, and minority leadership development are still needed.
It is worth noting that this race relations discussion was in the dual context of the United States' civil rights movement and also of the CRC's new evangelistic initiatives. In regards to the latter, it must be pointed out that missions was still evolving during this period from the formation of congregations among Dutch immigrants to a more outreach- oriented program of church-planting. Evangelical/dispensational churches propelled into vigorous evangelistic activity by their eschatology (the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 indicated that the "END" was near!), promoted slogans and strategies to reach the world for Christ by the year 2,000. The missionary movement was going ahead full steam. The CRC was coming into its own as it came out of its shell. The challenge of missions was thus brought before the church in many ways. Home Missions, as mentioned before, began to focus more on evangelistic outreach in its ministries. This, along with preservation of the Reformed confession and morality against the encroaching world and heretics, became a new focus for the church, though there was always a bit of tension between those who promoted antithetical pietism and those who wanted to be at the front lines in claiming souls for Christ. Theoretically, this tension should not exist, but among more conservative folks, the missions enterprise always seemed fraught with the danger of compromise as evangelists sought points of contact and many times focused on social ministries to establish these.
R.B.Kuyper had drawn up the guidelines for Reformed evangelism. During the late 60's and early 70's James Kennedy of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (formerly part of the Presbyterian Church of the United States but presently part of the Presbyterian Church of America) developed the program. CRC Home Missions began to promote this program vigorously in its "Key '73" evangelism thrust and developed a curriculum using Kennedy's materials to train CRC lay persons and pastors alike in a technique of Reformed outreach and discipleship. Many criticized it as gimmickry or as compromising with Arminian theology, but for others this program met a need for practical education in how to do personal evangelism. The program involved neighborhood visitation during which a memorized presentation of the basics of the gospel would be presented. The "door-to-door sales" approach is a little obvious, but this was far better than the little that was being done in many places. Many churches used the program in the 70's, and many CRC members became involved in neighborhood canvassing. This activity had the subtle effect of raising the consciousness of the church members as to their vocabulary and "churchy" style which could often be obstacles to new people coming to visit their churches. "User friendly" is a term born of the personal computer boom, but small efforts began around this time to make church services more transparent and understandable for seekers, more "user-friendly!"
Another very significant development in these decades was the birth and development of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). The CRWRC was established as an ongoing arm of the denomination to provide disaster relief internationally and domestically when a major effort was undertaken to provide relief for the victims of the great Ise-wan Typhoon of 1959 in Japan. Some other background and developments which were formative for CRWRC are also worth examining.
During the period after the war, communism spread and Marxist states were established in many places. Newly liberated countries (former colonies) became ideological battlegrounds, and sometimes open warfare erupted (as it did in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in many African and South American countries on a lesser scale). So-called "liberation theology" began to develop which reinterpreted the Scriptures radically and redefined the church's mission as social activism. The World Council of Churches by and large took this tack, which gave its constituent churches a new mission, since they had virtually abandoned the idea of salvation from sin in the traditional, biblical sense. The gap between rich and poor was widening, with Reformed Christians in the developed countries usually finding themselves decidedly among the wealthy.
Orthodox Reformed churches had always had benevolent ministries. Relief in times of natural disaster was the rule in these churches, and there was also some day-to-day ministry to the poor in the vicinity of the churches. The Dutch Reformed, with their zeal for distinctly Christian institutions, had developed labor unions and political parties as well as mental hospitals which they considered part of the kingdom of God. Foreign missionaries regularly carried on holistic gospel ministries which were both Word and deed ministries. But during the 50's and 60's the American civil rights movement, the challenge of Marxism, and the new directions of the mainline churches in the WCC, brought pressure on the Reformed to consider more deeply what was their social calling. Thus research and reflection was carried on by the RES, which eventually published its booklet, "The Church and its Social Calling," in 1979.
Even before this, however, the CRWRC had been established to minister on behalf of the denomination in its own sphere, that of disaster relief. At first more reactive to natural disasters, the CRWRC gradually became more proactive and oriented toward engendering structural change in situations of poverty and social oppression. In this, it somewhat overstepped its synodical mandate. Some tension came to exist as CRWRC sometimes separated its "deed ministry" from the "Word ministry" of the clergy and saw itself as the advocate and mobilizer of the deacons and lay people for its ministries of mercy. These came to be characterized less as disaster response and more in the areas of literacy, agriculture, health care, community development and so forth--long-term social ministries which were often not connected to local churches in any way, which sometimes incurred criticism especially in places where CRWM personnel were also stationed. In some of its projects CRWRC received public funds (especially from the government of Canada) and in doing so was sometimes forced to curtail any distinctively Christian references in operations which employed these funds.
In order to carry out its mandate, CRWRC helped organized and train deacons at both the local and classical levels. Regional deaconates were organized under CRWRC's guidance and deacons were given training in the calling of deacons, social justice issues, and mobilization of church resources--both finances and personnel--for their activities of disaster response as well as longer-term types of outreach. In some cases, para- church organizations which carried out specialized ministries grew out of these efforts. Examples of such in the U.S. would include the Luke Society ( which is a medical/literacy/social-service provider focusing but not limiting its ministry to the impoverished area of Cary, Mississippi), the Barnabas Foundation (which provides legal advice and stewardship/estate planning assistance), Bethany Christian Services (which carries on pro-life activities like counseling and adoption services; operates unwed-mother homes), Bethesda, Pine Rest and Christian Health Care Center (which provide mental health care services), Center for Public Justice (which offers Christian lobbying/voter education services), etc. CRWRC of course encouraged all these efforts, most of which are fine ministries of CRCNA people. Local churches were also encouraged and given training to carry on ministries to homeless and indigent, with many churches instituting food pantries and second-hand clothing distribution, recruiting volunteers to serve with Habitat for Humanity, offering day care and/or after-school programs for the children of single parents, etc. Networks of work teams were also organized for rebuilding projects in response to floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.
CRWRC is highly respected for its works of mercy and for its training programs. Other denominations have funneled their own offerings and volunteers to it, recognizing its excellence and not wanting to duplicate bureaucracies in carrying out their ministries. Recently, CRWRC's deacon- training programs are being adapted for the training of deacons in foreign churches as well as an aid missionaries involved in church planting and leadership development.
One other major ministry of the CRCNA which blossomed during this period is that of literature and publications. In the early days, materials for the teaching and study of the Heidelberg Catechism were the focus of the Publications Board. As the Sunday School movement led the CRCNA into expanding its church educational program, new materials were produced and a philosophy of church education (distinct from a philosophy of Christian education which was carried on in the day schools) was articulated ("Church education in the CRC," 1974). C.S. materials were of a very high caliber, and these too began to be employed by other Reformed denominations. A translation committee was organized to publish major Reformed writings in foreign languages, especially those of countries where CRC missionaries were deployed. Independent societies for Bible publication and distribution, tract publishers, and the previously mentioned publication houses (Zondervan, Eerdmans, & Baker), all of which are still active at the present time, fill out the picture of literature ministries occupying the members of the CRC during this period.