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Warning: this blog contains spoilers of Ted Lasso Season 3.

Scott beat me to the punch with his blog about the NY Times story of the controversy surrounding an historic Manhattan church, but there was another article in the Times on Monday that caught my attention.

It’s the story of Jolien Boumkwo, a Belgian shot putter who stepped in to run the 100-meter hurdles at the European Athletics Team Championships in Poland on Saturday after injuries forced her teammates out of the race. Teams receive a couple points just for competing in each event, and Belgium needed those points to maintain their overall standing. So Boumkwo stepped up to the task.

She was clearly not a hurdler, though with her long legs, she could simply step over each hurdle instead of jump. She finished 19 seconds behind the next slowest athlete – but she finished, a big grin on her face. And has gained appreciation the world over for stepping into this weird situation and taking one for the team.

The article brought to mind another sports story, this one fictional. At the beginning of the third and final season of Ted Lasso, the football (soccer) team AFC Richmond aren’t doing well. They lose game after game, and are predicted to finish last in the league.

Coach Lasso needs to do something to turn things around, and he stumbles across that thing after the team loses a friendly to Ajax in Amsterdam. He dreams up a style of play that is in fact based on the tactical approach called Total Football, most famously adopted by Ajax and the Dutch national team in the 1970s, centered around forward Johan Cruyff. The idea of Total Football is that any player (except the goalkeeper) can take the place of any other player, creating a fluid system of movement up the pitch in which no spot is ever empty – as soon as someone moves out of their spot, it’s covered by someone else, thus keeping the overall organizational structure while adapting to the immediate situation on the field.

I saved the final season of Ted Lasso for the week of synod, a decision I felt very good about as I escaped each night into the wonderful world of AFC Richmond. But with synod very much on my mind, when Total Football was introduced, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Christian Reformed Church could use a similar approach.

Leading up to synod, I read articles and listened to podcasts from folks on all sides of the HSR conversation. As I did so, it struck me that across the CRC, we have different definitions for what being CRC means. People keep saying, “This isn’t the CRC I know and love.” But progressives are saying that in light of what they consider to be a turn towards evangelical black-and-white thinking, and conservatives are saying that in light of what they consider a disregard for the historic doctrines of the church. It seems that our idea of what it means to be CRC isn’t the same across the CRC.

This isn’t a new thing. If you read Jim Bratt’s Dutch Calvinism in Modern America, or the handy little booklet that sits in the welcome center of many CRC churches titled “What It Means to Be Reformed,” there have long been three different emphases within the Reformed tradition. There’s the doctrinalist approach, emphasizing “a strong adherence to certain Christian doctrines as taught in the Scriptures and reflected in the confessions of the church.” There’s the pietist emphasis, focusing on “the Christian life and one’s personal relationship to God.” And there’s the transformationalist approach, which refers to “the relationship of Christianity to culture, to a world-and-life view, and to Christ as transforming culture” (quotes taken from “What It Means to Be Reformed”).

Might we imagine these three approaches, these three ways of being CRC, as positions on a soccer pitch? The doctrinalist defenders, the transformationalist forwards, the pietest midfielders?

There’s overlap between these three emphases, and none of them are meant to stand alone. In an ideal world people might gravitate to one emphasis over another, but yet lean on those who hold to another approach for balance. But I wonder if, in our ever-polarizing world, we’re beginning to think of our preferred emphases, not as one position on a field of others, but as the only way to play the game. And if this isn’t getting us a bit stuck.

And if we’re stuck, maybe the style of play needed to shake us out of our polarized rut is Total Football. Where we’re willing to step out of our preferred position and live into another emphasis for a moment. Willing to acknowledge the value of all three emphases in helping us live out a Reformed identity by working together in a fluid interchange as we move across the pitch to accomplish a common goal.

When Coach Ted introduces Total Football to the team, he tells them it’ll require conditioning, versatility, and awareness. It takes work – and humility – to exist in a system where you’re so aware of what other players are doing that you’re able to adjust your own play accordingly and do something that feels – to riff off of Paul Janssen’s Monday blog – a bit weird. A midfielder playing forward. A shot putter running hurdles.

That work is complicated exponentially in a denomination that spans not only North America, but now parts of Central America as well. Each of us, focused on ministry in our own context, only has so much capacity to pay attention to and learn from what others are doing hundreds or thousands of miles away.

And, at the end of the day, appreciating the different values within the Christian Reformed Church may not solve the current crisis. There are differences of opinions on human sexuality that might not be reconcilable.

But the question of CRC identity – and Reformed identity in general – is bigger than the current conversation around sexuality. And those conversations would be helped, I think, if we moved around the field a bit more, seeking to understanding other people’s positions.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


  • David Hoekema says:

    It’s difficult to imagine the three camps playing nice on the same field. But I’ll try really hard to be as hopeful as you are — that’s a gift to us all. (And yet didn’t the fancy confessional footwork of the HSR, reading into a 500 year old document a judgment on 21st century marriage, violate the off-side rule? I think it did, but please don’t ask me to explain either the footwork or the rule.)

    • Marlyn says:

      Similarly a group of players when on the playing field refuse to acknowledge the boundary lines of that field.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Laura, thank you for the creativity of this as well as the delineation of the 3 currents of being that exist in the Reformed River. I’m thinking about how this river might navigate a waterfall in the sparkling sunlight or the dark of night. Ah, the poeming cliff of being Reformed on/in the River of Life. Or, is it Re-formed?

  • Joel Slenk says:

    Great article. Other denominations and organizations could glean a lot from your description of total football and your ideas for its application across the human landscape.

  • Laremy says:

    I’ve always thought there was something “every square inch”ish about Totaal Voetball. It all seems uniquely Dutch. So your analogy works for me.

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