Skip to main content
Listen To Article

It was a facetious question. More or less.

“Have you ever considered planting churches that are very intentionally open and affirming of LGBT folk? Given the demographic data I’ve seen on today’s young people, it would seem to make some sense.”

Church planting, mission, multiplication, outreach, evangelism—whatever you call it, whatever form it takes, always stretches us, always calls our presuppositions into question, always puts us in contact with people who are different from us.

Must we only sing music from the sixteenth century accompanied by the organ? Could we borrow from today’s pop music and be accompanied by guitars?

Why not re-baptize people in their swimming pools, if that is what they desire? It would be so meaningful for them.

Thirty or forty years ago, church planting brought these sorts of questions to our attention. The responses were all over the board. What is gained and what is lost? What is essential? What can be modified? What can be scrapped altogether?

We haven’t reached a consensus on music, worship styles, clothing, re-baptism, and lots of other things for which new church planting was a catalyst. But might we agree that we’re all better off for the discussion? It has clarified things. While it produced conflict and some church splits, it also provoked us to examine our practices more deeply. It spurred us to deeper faithfulness and thoughtful innovation. Farther in the past, it was those who served in global missions who were constantly having such discussions. As our contact with the non-western church increases in the days ahead, we will have new discussions.

I’ve never been fond of the motto “Reformed, and always reforming.” As modern, North American Protestants is there any real danger that we will treat the church like a prehistoric mosquito forever entombed in amber? I don’t think so. Even the most conservative or most traditional churches are always changing, adapting, and reforming in all sorts of ways—not all intentionally, and not all in ways that are immediately visible. “Always reforming” is in our DNA, and probably even more pungently in the air we breathe.

The bigger reason I’m dubious about “always reforming” is that it provides cover for all sorts of screwy ideas. Ask a question or put up a challenge to some new idea, and the response will be “…always reforming.” A bit like “missional.” Any and every half-baked notion can be made to fit that term. One of my rules of thumb about innovation is that it is done best by those who value, rather than reject, what they are altering. Beware of those who don’t trust the process, the tradition, the collective church.

As a pastor of a congregation that many would label “traditional,” I grow weary of hearing others sound off about the changes they’ve embraced. Too much of the time the changes feel superficial. Fads and quick fixes. Too much of the time “always reforming” seems driven by utilitarian, market forces. “It will work…People like it…The church will grow.” To plant some LGBT open and affirming congregations solely because of future demographic trends would be similarly utilitarian. There has to be more.

In the past few months, I’ve grown fond of the term “experiment.” I’ve learned of it through discussions about “adaptive change”—those profound and perplexing challenges we face for which we do not have answers. Our typical problem-solving methods and strategies will not suffice. Experiments then give us permission to try, to act differently, to behave our way into new ways of thinking. It may or may not “succeed,” but it may help us to better address the adaptive challenge, to understand a bit more. I would argue that for the Reformed Church to plant some LGBT open and affirming churches might be just such an experiment. Let’s try. See what happens.

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.

One Comment

  • Stephen Hielkema says:

    "…according to the Word of God" completes "always reforming." It's not that we remain open to cultural change, but that we are always looking to His Word for our transformation. I, too, have become weary of using this phrase for what you aptly called experimentation.

Leave a Reply