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Wherever I go in RCA (Reformed Church in America) circles these days, I get this question: “How’s it going with the 2020 Vision Team?” Some are genuinely curious. Others more cynical. Many are highly anxious. The follow-up question is often, “So, are we going to split?” The anxiety has only been heightened in the wake of the recent gathering and decision of the United Methodist Church to affirm a traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay ordination.
When I said “yes” to the invitation to be part of the 2020 Vision Team, I did so with much reluctance. The 2020 Vision Team is a team of twelve people tasked with developing three scenarios and their implications for a way beyond the current impasse in the RCA. While the “presenting issue” is human sexuality and how to define marriage, other issues have been smoldering beneath the surface for decades, like differences in hermeneutics (how we interpret and apply Scripture) and a lack of clarity around a shared Reformed identity. The RCA has long sought to hold the values of evangelical and ecumenical in tension, but what happens when these values spark lots of friction? Which one wins out? Does one have to win out?
The three scenarios we’re working on, which have been given to us, are the following: 1) staying together, 2) a radical reorganization and restructure, and 3) a grace-filled separation. You can learn more about the work we’ve been doing over the past eight months here. I was reluctant to say yes to this team because, obviously, the task seems so overwhelming, even impossible. Eight months into this, it still feels overwhelming. But it also feels, dare I even say it…hopeful?
I don’t use that word flippantly. Beyond a kind of blind optimism or wishful thinking, theologian Douglas John Hall describes hope as basically “faith applied to the future.” I’m choosing to trust the Holy Spirit to work through the often messiness and uncertainty of this process to bring us to a place of clarity. I’m choosing to trust that God has a future for us, even if it may look different than the way things are now. I’m trusting that God really is able to do vastly more than we can ask or imagine, especially when the task in front of us feels so impossible.
One of the reasons I have hope is because every time I leave one of our 2020 Vision Team gatherings, I leave with a greater love and respect for the diverse people on this team. We come from different regions, serve different churches, have different backgrounds, and hold to very different views (especially around human sexuality and marriage). And yet we’re learning what it means to show up differently with one another. We’re learning that we don’t have to give up our convictions (around this issue or any other), and we can still stay connected to one another. It’s what systems thinking calls “differentiation”—defining self and staying connected—and it’s at the heart of what it means to be emotionally and spiritually mature.Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is also an RCA pastor, and he told me about his daughter’s experience as a college delegate to General Synod a few years ago. It was one of the worst General Synods, I’ve been told, in recent RCA history. People were highly anxious and doing all the things anxious people do (as the saying goes, “anxiety makes us stupid”). The young woman was aghast at what she saw—the way “Christians” were fighting and yelling at each other. The low point was when she walked down the hall and saw one elder shove another elder up against the wall, get in his face and threaten, “Don’t make me to take you outside and beat your ass!”
These were elders. Spiritual leaders in their respective churches. And this young woman saw it all. She came home and told her dad, “I will never go back to General Synod again! And if this is the church, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it!”
I know, it’s an extreme example. But hearing my friend tell me this story broke my heart, and it was such a contrast from what I experienced a week ago in Houston with the 2020 Vision Team. I wish I could have brought that young woman along and let her sit in the room. She would have seen a group of Christ-followers who vigorously disagree choosing to move towards one another and listen deeply to each other, discovering that we actually have so much more in common than we may think.
I don’t know what the outcome of our work will be. Our whole team has committed to continually relinquish the outcome to God. We simply want to be faithful and courageous in the task we’ve been given. But we’re also choosing to model a different way in terms of how we interact with each other—a way that feels far more Christian than what I so often see (and have experienced) among church folk with deep differences.
And it makes me wonder…
What if the way we engage this process and who we are becoming through it (not just the 2020 Vision Team but the whole denomination) matter just as much to God as the outcome?
What if learning to move towards one another in our deep differences, holding onto our convictions but also staying connected, may be one of the most profound ways the Spirit wants to form us into the image of Jesus and produce among us the fruit of the Spirit?
What if the world could look at a group of Christians who are facing what seems like an impossible impasse, and see them love each other well? What if the next generation could see this?
Maybe we’d not only be more hopeful ourselves, but we might actually offer a hopeful vision to the world of what it really means to be the church, the Body of Christ. A hopeful vision that would compel others to say, “I want to be a part of that!”
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, IA.
I hear some great Trisha-Taylor and Jim-Herrington teaching here. Prayers for the RCA and the body of Christ. Thank you for this, Brian.
Brian, thanks for this, and I think it’s important, because it gives implicit testimony to what the RCA most needs. As one of my friends has pointed out, the problem in the RCA is about relationships, that we no longer engage in the right scale in precisely those kind of relationships that you are building and, may I say, discovering in your work on the team. If I compare the RCA of 1969, fifty years ago, to the one I know today, we had so many more regular and operational venues for people to come together from across denominational lines to do work in good relationships. For whatever reason, a succession of General Secretaries and GSECs and GSCs have worked steadily to reduce those venues, whether in the name of efficiency or cost-cutting, or simply to offer less resistance to staff discretion and more efficient staff leadership. The Carver model of GSC behavior aggravates this trend enormously, and tragically. We’ve become a closed communication system. Your positive experience on the Vision 2020 gets repeated every time we allow ourselves to do this kind of thing, and I experienced it on the General Secretary Search Committee a decade ago. Please, please, let’s consider a general structure that allows for many more venues, opportunities, boards, commissions, committees, whatever, where RCA folks from all over whatever map can come together and work together and learn to love each other. If we keep it only to General Synod, well, then we get what we have.
Well said, Daniel.
Thank you Brian and the other 11 for your efforts on behalf of all of us in the RCA. I am sure you all have other great demands for your time.
Very sad example for that young woman to see. Glad the 2020 team is holding each other in love.
Blessings and Shalom
Thanks, Brian, for a helpful article. The CRC is wrestling with the same issue of same sex marriage and whether such can be full members of the church or hold office. We are a bit behind the RCA but not far. Your possible solution of “differentiation” sounds good to me. But realize its not really a new solution, but only a new way (and name) of considering an old solution.
We’ve done this before in considering such things as divorce or women in office. Our denominations have taken very specific stands in the past on these issues. But as they became relevant and hot topics in our culture and churches, we allowed for members (and at times, churches) to hold to differing views in the church while retaining denominational allegiance. We’re Reformed but we don’t enforce a specific code on some issues.
In a sense this is a matter of relaxing our denominational orthodoxy. It’s what many mainline denominations (not the United Methodist church, yet) have done on a variety of controversial issues. In essentials unity, in non essentials liberty, in all things charity. I guess this issue before our churches is a matter of essentials or not.
Thank you, Brian for your thoughtfulness. I believe you are correct in thinking that the journey, the process are as important as the outcome. In fact, the process of differentiation you describe is the way forward. We must learn to love in our differences if we are going to reflect the life and Spirit of Jesus. Blessings be upon you, the 2020 Vision team, and the people who are the church of God in the RCA.
Thank you, Brian, for this piece. I too have been wondering what is going on. After reading your piece, I am grateful you a part of this hard task.
It strikes me how every time we gather groups like this together to share, talk, and build relationships, we hear stories of hope, differentiation, and sincere respect and love, and every time these groups report out to the wider church, starting with the General Synod, their report gets crushed under the weight of an “angry mob” from both sides of any issue.
“We’re just too different. ‘They’ aren’t faithful. ‘They’re’ not ‘true’ Christians.”—Hallmarks of a church that refuses to do the harder work that you are describing that reflects the work Jesus calls is to do.
This doesn’t surprise me, but it does grieve my heart when I look out at our wider culture and the myriad issues our society seems so divided on without hope of bridging the silos that keep us apart. Here the church has within its gospel mandate (Christ makes of Jew and Gentile one humanity; Be one, as Jesus and the Father are one; you are ambassadors of reconciliation) a message of hope and reconciliation for our culture, and we reflect the culture rather than Christ’s call.
I cling to your hope, Brian, for hope may save the Church and offer the world salvation as well.