Essay

Off the Tracks

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This is a story of two of my good friends.  They don’t really know each other beyond name and face, but their stories strike me as so similar.  Both grew up in the Christian Reformed Church.  Both here in Iowa.  By and large, both are grateful for their heritage.  Neither ever sought to shed everything from their past.  They see and know the strengths of their background, as well as its weaknesses.  But they are not scarred survivors of catechism class or bitter victims of Christian school. 

As young men, probably in their early 30’s, both became deeply invested in efforts to begin new churches.  One of these congregations was a project of the Christian Reformed Church; the other a non-denominational church.  But the impetus was very similar, and I would judge, very admirable.   Both new congregations were to focus on reaching out to those who typically don’t feel welcomed by church.  People rough around the edges.  People who don’t own suits or dress shoes.  Blue collar.  High school drop outs.  People with very messy lives—alcoholism, divorce, public scandals.    These new churches, in very similar ways, worked hard to create a relaxed, non-judgmental, openhearted place. 

Both of my friends poured themselves into their churches.  I didn’t know them then, but just hearing them talk, it is evident that these churches were a lifework.  Both talk about their congregations like parents talk of their children.

Now in their 50’s, both of my friends are detached from and dismayed by their churches.  They are disappointed.  They look back regretfully on what has become of these congregations.  What has happened?

The simple—probably simplistic—answer is that my friends aged.  Where they once were exuberant, full of hope and ideas; now they feel like strangers looking in from the outside on the churches to which they gave so much. 

A story from one of them may be emblematic.  He recalls visiting his in-laws 20 years ago, when his children were young.  He would spend much of Saturday flipping through the yellow-pages (remember what those were?) and making phone calls looking for a vibrant, Bible-believing, evangelical church to attend the next day.  His in-laws are nominal members of a mainline church, who may or may not go to worship on a given Sunday.  Come Sunday morning, my friend and his wife would pack up their kids and drive up to 45 minutes to find that effervescent church.   No matter that they might have leave the house at 8 AM and not return until about noon, while his in-laws stayed home.  In hindsight, he now says how inconsiderate he must have seemed to his parents-in-law. 

Today when he and his wife go to visit—the kids are grown and gone—at about 7 PM on Saturday evening, one of them will say “Are we going to church tomorrow?”  If the in-laws say “Yeah, why don’t we?” they all go together to the parents’ church.  If the in-laws say, “Let’s not,” all four stay home, enjoying coffee and the paper together.

But beyond maturing and mellowing, both of my friends would now say that somewhere, somehow, their churches went off the tracks.  Neither one can point to any single, decisive moment.  Rather, almost every time those congregations were faced with a decision, they were guided by a desire not to be churchy.  Almost all the time, the decision-makers, the ones with the loudest voices, were those who were “passionate,” the people most “on fire for the Lord.”  The churches deferred to the answers being given by American evangelicalism and the agendas being peddled by the Christian bookstores.  My friends would say that some of the benchmarks of the church they believed important were thrown under the bus of friendliness and novelty.  And when they look at the churches they helped begin, my friends now see a lack of stability and discernment, but an abundance of frothiness.  They see the generation raised in these churches, including their own kids, most of whom have turned away from the church, at least for now. 

In the November 2011 issue of Perspectives, Jamie Smith wrote “A Peculiar People” (http://www.rca.org/Page.aspx?pid=7750) about the challenge of growing free from Dutch heritage, but still keeping Reformed identity—and how these two are often mistaken as identical.  Trying to get rid of parochialism, often leads instead to getting rid of Reformed theology.  This isn’t exactly what happened in my two friends’ congregations, but it is a close cousin.  Trying to clear the landscape of stodginess, to create an open, non-threatening space, there was little awareness that this open space wouldn’t stay open for long.  New rigidities have grown where old stuffiness was cleared out.

Both my friends would still endorse their initial impulse, the original vision of their churches.  But now they are too tired and too alienated to do much analyzing of what went wrong, or what might improve things. 

I’m not quite sure what “lesson” to take from my friends and their churches.  I sense their sadness and disconnect.  Was there a way these congregations could have maintained their original vision but found a different trajectory?  Is there something the larger church should see and learn here?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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