Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Future of RCA Communications...

It's been a privilege for me to participate in the 2009 General Synod as a delegate and as one invited to participate here on the RCA's General Synod blog. All my interactions with staff have been positive and affirming. This year's Synod was well-run and there was a good spirit in evidence from beginning to end.


As I've previously written here, the one aspect of Synod 2009 which did not seem to me to have worked well was our deliberations on the communications issue which culminated Tuesday with Synod approval of two bundled recommendations that the Church Herald cease publication. The extensive debate surrounding the six communications-related recommendations was commendably respectful and thoughtful. The parliamentary intricacies were occasionally daunting (including at least one challenge to a ruling of the chair, a reversal of the vote on the first recommendation which had initially appeared to pass by one vote, bundling five recommendations and subsequently unbundling them into two groups, etc.) but very well-handled by General Synod President Carol Bechtel.

To many of us, the main problem seemed to be the sketchiness of the three options presented to the delegates by GSC. Each seemed to envision the possibility of some future role for the Church Herald in an overall communications strategy. In retrospect, I firmly believe that assigning three such options to the advisory committees was a regrettable miscalculation. Especially problematic was the shortage of objective data which could have better informed the deliberations of the delegates. A primary reason why the advisory groups produced more than forty different recommendations was the fact they were based on a variety of assumptions which sometimes seemed contradictory. More substantial resourcing of the deliberations could have improved their quality. That's now water under the bridge. Hopefully a few lessons might be learned from this experience which may be beneficial to future General Synods.


I am struck by one apparent irony about RCA communications. While it may be true that members "voted with their feet" so to speak with regard to the Church Herald's diminishing subscription base, there would appear to be no empirical evidence that the RCA Today publication (which is very good) would necessarily fare any better if it were sustained solely on a subscription basis. RCA Today is supported by assessments and distributed extensively but not through subscriptions. So comparing one publication to the other is (in terms of viability), akin to comparing apples to oranges. None of delegates who spoke in support of the recommendations that the Church Herald cease publication acknowledged this crucial distinction. Yes, the subscription model no longer seems to work for a printed denominational magazine. Everyone at Synod seemed to agree that electronic communications is the wave of the future. And that is precisely where there seems to be a glaring inconsistency between Tuesday's Synod actions and the behavior of online consumers of information about the 2009 RCA General Synod!

At least two "official" blogs covered this year's General Synod--one on this official RCA General Synod web site as well as a separate one operated by the Church Herald. Commendably, administrators of the two blogs consulted with each other in advance and cross-promoted both blogs. A marvelous example of cooperation! It is striking to me that, for whatever reason, that the activity level at the Church Herald blog appeared to be higher than it was here on the RCA's official General Synod blog. That seems to empirically contradict the assumption that RCA members have decisively "voted with their feet (i.e. magazine subscriptions)" to effectively "kill" the Church Herald. Online, at least, it would appear that considerable interest remains in the independent perspective which the Church Herald provides. And everyone at General Synod seemed convinced that the future of RCA communications is becoming increasingly electronic. So, might that suggest that there could be a future role for an independent voice such as the Church Herald?

I am truly not interested in tilting at windmills, so to speak. Ecclesiastes 3:2 applies to organizations, too. But I wonder if the high level of interest in the Church Herald's General Synod blog might point to a viable future role in some electronic form?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Final Sessions

This morning's General Synod session was intense and draining as the delegates sought to forge a comprehensive communications strategy for the RCA. The advisory committee's six recommendations were extensively debated in three parts. The first narrowly rejected (after an initial one-vote plurality), a recommended two-year independent study of denominational communications. The second part was a bundled group of three recommendations concerning the future direction for the RCA Today magazine. An amendment was approved which instructed the GSC to consult with the Church Herald Editorial Council in the near to mid-term future. A third part was a bundle of two recommendations to effectively terminate the Church Herald's ministry. In apparent contradiction of the earlier amended bundle, the General Synod approved the third bundle which means that the Church Herald will almost certainly cease publication by the end of 2009.

In this delegate's opinion, the process which produced this result was (in retrospect) awkward and difficult. The final result is painful and might have been avoidable. But, nevertheless, the Lord is sovereign and His will be done.

Thanks to all who've prayed during this General Synod!

RCA General Synod: A Day in the Life of Synod

Final unofficial staff video of RCA General Synod, this time, they quiz delegates and volunteers!

Theological History

I sat in Synod today thinking about all the conversations that have taken place throughout history on important theological matters. I thought about the great councils of our early fathers and the debates that would take place on the third person in the trinity, God's grace or human will, and many more conversations that have so profoundly shaped what we call the Reformed tradition.

Today was one of those historic days.

All of us physically present and all of those praying at home, we were part of one of those historic theological decisions. I don't think we truly understand just how momentous this is, and maybe, neither should we. We are simply listening to the spirit of God and what God is calling us to affirm (and for some deny). As a body we spoke, we want to adopt the Belhar Confession as one of our standards.

We in the Reformed Church in America made a statement today that we stand for reconciliation, justice, and unity. The work continues as now 2/3 of the classes have to vote to affirm the Belhar confession. I trust the spirit of the Lord will continue present in those classis meeting just as the Spirit was present with us today. The poise, honesty, and theological convictions that people spoke from were remarkably encouraging to me. No, I don't agree with every statement that was said, but I think that is what makes the Belhar so convicting for me now.

What does it look like for me to live in reconciliation, unity, and justice with my neighbor that I disagree?

The Belhar Confession...voted in unanimous support from the what we want to confess to at our ordination vows.

Spirit guide us to be the disciples you are calling us to be.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Communications Recommendations

The Report of the Advisory Committees on the RCA Dialogue on Communication and the Church Herald presented tonight to delegates proposes an end to the ministry of the Church Herald. Among the six recommendations:

"R-68 To instruct the General Synod Council, in its capacity as the executive committee of the General Synod, in cooperation with the Church Herald Editorial Council, to facilitate an orderly cessation of publication of the Church Herald; and further, to ensure that the orderly cessation include appropriate severance for Church Herald personnel."

"R-69 To offer thanks to God for the ministry of the Church Herald."

Compared with the three "merger" options initially presented to the delegates, these recommendations appear to be much less amenable to the Church Herald's future than any of the three proposed options.

In the advisory group I participated in, there seemed to be little support for adding any assessment for communications. Accordingly, it seems difficult to imagine a workable alternative.

General Synod WILL Meet in 2010 After All!

By a vote of 145-72 the delegates reversed their Friday decision to effectively cancel General Synod in 2010. So General Synod plans to meet in Orange City, Iowa in 2010 after all.

The initial vote on Friday was 120-100 in favor of an amended GSC motion to not hold General Synod in 2010. Upon further reflection, the thinking of this year's delegates obviously changed.

What WE Believe.

No need to use some lame metaphor for this occasion.

The Reformed Church in America has just adopted the Belhar Confession as a fourth standard of unity for our church. I have to admit that I was more moved by the affirming response than I had imagined. At first I thought it was because I had invest so much time and energy over the past few days in the conversation and proposal (realizing it pales in comparison to those who have been working for decades on this). However, I think it was more that I feel that the RCA affirmed that they believe what I believe.

To give you a small window in to the process of offering advice, we had difficulty in crafting advice that clearly reflected the the advice of the whole synod. We had to wrestle with words that often seem so insignificant in other writings; words like "some" or "others" or "many." We had to decide if it really was accurate to say that "so many people said..." Often times we couldn't be so emphatic with certainty and would simply have to say "some." However, in one regard we felt confident that we could write "so many." And that is "so many people told us that they were ready to live out their faith."

I think this is what resonated with me the most and what makes this moment such a special one. It seems that the voice of the people revealed the prompting, the urging, the pulling, of the Spirit of God. There was a hunger in "so many" people to enter into ministries of reconciliation and justice and unity. Some of them just needed the permission as one pastor said when he considered preaching on issues of justice and privilege. Others needed the courage and, still others, needed the assurance that all of this talk of unity and justice and reconciliation was faithful to God's Word and to the calling on God's church. So many people now know that the RCA now believes what they believe.

For those who are still uncertain about the need for a new confession I'll offer once more my thoughts on that. Each of our previous three confessions arose out of conflict that was physically violent at times. It's difficult for us to imagine that such conflict over theological disputes around the Lord's Supper or the depravity of man should result in violence, but it did. The church responded with confessions to take a stand on the issues at hand and in hopes that the church could find unity. Since that time, the conflicts and violence have not ceased. However, the reasons for violence have changed. Since that time violence has erupted around issues of gender, of race, of class, of tribe. Out of the violence, cries arose, "God help us." Too often the church stared, perhaps with tears, but did nothing in response; their silence implying that God does not care about such "political" or "social" struggles and forgetting that God's children were dying.

Finally, finally, finally, finally, the church has answered those cries, belatedly for the past, but just in time for the future. We acknowledge their pain. We acknowledge worth. We acknowledge with them that God does care about their suffering. We have now said that we believe what they believe. In adopting the Belhar Confession as a standard of our faith we have taken a stand to say that God is a God of justice as much as God is three-in-one, that Jesus is much a reconciler of races as he is God incarnate, that the Spirit moves for unity as much as for morality. Having adopted the Belhar as a Standard of Unity, no one ever again can say otherwise. And to those who try the RCA now says, "We DO NOT believe what you believe."

I am proud of the Reformed Church in America and I say "Thank you."

General Synod Votes to Add the Belhar Confession as a Fourth Doctrinal Standard

After nearly two hours of debate, R-24 was approved 164-65. The action (if approved by 2/3 of the classes) would add the Belhar Confession as the fourth doctrinal standard officially recognized by the RCA:

"To adopt the following amendment to the first paragraph of the Preamble to the Book of Church Order for recommendation to the classes for approval: The purpose of the Reformed Church in America, together with all other churches of Christ, is to minister to the total life of all people by preaching, teaching, and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ,the Son of God, and by all Christian good works. That purpose is achieved most effectively when good order and proper discipline are maintained by means of certain offices, governmental agencies, and theological and liturgical standards. The Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice in the Reformed Church in America. Its Constitution consists of the Doctrinal Standards (which are the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism with its Compendium, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort, and the Belhar Confession), the Liturgy with the Directory for Worship, the Government of the Reformed Church in America, and the Disciplinary and Judicial Procedures."

This now goes to the classes.

The Belhar Confession's Relevance Elsewhere (e.g. the Sudanese context)

Sunday evening’s plenary featured presentations by the Our Call Forum on Global Mission and Christian Unity which included introductions of a number of ecumenical delegates and guests. Highlighting the Global Mission segment were resolutions honoring RCA missionaries Vern & Carla Sterk who served for more than 40 years in Chiapas. Much of the Christian Unity presentation featured a variety of perspectives about the Belhar Confession.

RCA missionary Debbie Braaksma affirmed the Belhar Confession from her perspective as a missionary to Sudan. “God has been at work in the Sudanese churches in an amazing way.” They realized their country’s desperate need for peace and reconciliation. Sudanese churches looked to their Lord for guidance. The New Sudan Council of Churches has provided leadership in that regard with their People to People Peace Initiative based on Biblical principles. Many have credited the NSCC’s efforts for paving the way for the signing of the comprehensive [north-south] Sudan peace treaty of 2005.

The Belhar Confession’s core principles of unity, justice and reconciliation are at the heart of RECONCILE’s peacemaking efforts. Some of the most intense recent ethnic conflicts have involved the Murle and Nuer and Murle and Dinka peoples. As fellow believers, these erstwhile adversaries could sing together, “Murle and Dinka – what bound us to be one? It is the cross of Jesus which brought us together in faith.” The Belhar Confession's principles speak not only to reconciliation and unity within the RCA but also among various ethnic groups in Sudan, etc.

Although Sudan’s 2005 comprehensive peace agreement has ended violent clashes between Sudan’s Khartoum-based military forces and southern Sudanese people, missionary Braaksma cited recent statistics that indicate that ethnic conflicts among southern Sudanese have recently become increasingly bloody. The death toll among southern Sudanese has recently exceeded that of western Sudan’s Darfur region.

Just three days before the start of this General Synod, I returned from a 20-day journey to Sudan and Uganda. I visited RECONCILE’s compound in Yei and am impressed with the quality and scope of their peacemaking initiatives. They are blessing many. Words of Hope (which I have been privileged to serve since 1985) is looking forward to partnering with RECONCILE in the areas of peace/reconciliation radio broadcasts as well as in future discipleship training initiatives. The Braaksmas' presence here at General Synod has been encouraging and helpful in that regard.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Putting it into Practice.

We might say that some swimmers become coaches. And, there are some swimmers who could never coach. It's possibly just as true to say that there are some coaches who could never swim. In other words, there are people who know all the right moves and techniques, but could never or would never put them into practice.

One of my favorite moments at Synod so far has been the ordination of our Professors of Theology. I asked around a bit and I am not aware of any other American denomination that honors that office. I am proud of us for that as I see it honoring Jesus' call to love the Lord with all our mind. I once read in a newspaper article a ranking of various denominations and their average SAT score. I remember that Unitarian Universalists were first, there was a Jewish and Lutheran denomination and then us!! The RCA had the fourth highest SAT average in the country. We are an educated denomination. We value education.

Our President-elect Seawood noted how well-written our General Synods often are. There are well-written reports and recommendations that reveal well thought out arguments (and often passion and feeling). Rev. Seawood affirmed this. However, he also noted how often it seemed that these great words were not put into practice. In other words, the RCA has often seemed to be a coach who knows all the moves and techniques, but could never or would never put them into practice. Rev. Seawood rightly called us to task on this.

Congratulations to him.

A challenge to us: to continue to value our education (even if it delays ordination) but not to view education as an end in itself. Continue to write well crafted recommendations (and blogs!), but not let the recommendation be our final act on the matter.

Professors of Theology
Great writing
But have to practice

James Seawood Elected General Synod President

Vice President James Seawood was elected General Synod President for 2009-2010. He was enthusiastically affirmed by a busload of members from Staten Island's historic Brighton Heights Reformed Church which he pastors. Some of the members present publicly expressed to the Synod their heartfelt appreciation for their pastor who will be installed Tuesday as the second African-American General Synod President. In keeping with tradition, all prior presidents present at this Synod joined Seawood on the platform for his acceptance remarks. By my unofficial count, nine General Synod Presidents stood with him including current President Carol Bechtel.

President-elect Seawood concluded his remarks by leading the delegates in singing "How Great Thou Art." If the fervent spirit of the singing is any indication, the next year should be a dynamic one for the RCA.

annoucement: Prayer

I want to invite all those delegates here at GS and all of those people who are praying at home to join us in prayer tonight.  Table 70 at GS.  9:00pm TONIGHT.  Specially around the Belhar confession.

May Justice, Reconciliation, and unity be True of us at it was with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace.

Open Swim - II

In Saturday morning's Advisory Forum we finally took on the Belhar. I'm not at liberty to say how things turned out, but I would like to take the time to say how things went. I know that I admitted in the last "Open Swim" that I would have to learn how to swim with others who have been welcomed into the pool. That was decidedly more difficult in the session during which we discussed the Belhar Confession.

I had expected to encounter objections to the confession concerning misapplication, namely homosexuality. I think that fear is poor motivation and believe that God can protect his church, but I understand the concern. What I had not expected to encounter was the blatant hypocrisy of those who stand so firmly on God's Word when it comes to homosexuality, but seem to relativize the texts that speak about poverty and wealth that are highlighted by the Belhar Confession.

One consistent objection revolves around the idea that God is especially concerned about the poor. I've addressed this in a post on the Church Herald website, but what left me unnerved was the seeming inability to acknowledge the presence of texts that say "woe to you who are rich," the Jesus came to preach the good news to...the poor. That God gave to the...poor to be rich in faith. "But God loves everyone!" I heard. Absolutely, but as broken people of God we do not and, thankfully, God does not let those who are cast out by us go overlooked. To know that God is with me always, but especially when I am down and out, is of great comfort.

I believe that the Belhar is more important now than I did before the forum. No pastor should be allowed to deny that God is a God of justice, unity, and reconciliation, nor should they be allowed to relativize texts into a hollow spiritualism. A standard takes a stand. In my next post I'll share some thoughts on why I think we should adopt it.

Trophy Time!

My apologies to staff for my departure. Saturday was a busy day for the Advisory Forum Moderators. Here are my belated thoughts:

Friday evening of synod captures for me the tension I feel with the focus of the denomination. It's the same tension, I think, that I feel with competition. Sticking with our (un)creative thread I've been maintaining, there is a tension I feel between striving to win the swim race and swimming because the strength and health in which it results. Is the only thing valuable about swimming getting the trophy?

Friday evening at synod two rounds of awards/recognitions were given. One was given to those church leaders that have planted churches this year. I must say that I was quite frustrated as the awards went out. I realize that celebrating something is one way to see more of it. It seemed at the time that we were valuing church planting over other activities. However, the following round of recognition went to churches who faithfully gave 10% of their budget or at $40,000 dollars to RCA Mission. I'm happy to say that the church I serve is one of those churches.

These two same threads were present in the report of the General Secretary. The talk of church starts and networks and charts and growth all sounds to me like corporate propoganda. At the same time, I had never heard such a strong call for social activism and justice from the podium at GS (acknowleding I've only been to 3). I had to admit to myself that there is room for both the pursuit of church plants and the pursuit of justice. And I had to wonder why I struggle to celebrate the former as much as the latter. Perhaps it was because of my experience in the Advisory Forum and the indifference to communication.

One thread of the discussion touched on the fact that the monies used for communication should be redirected to church planting because they are running low on funds. Another thread of the conversation suggested that the diverse views in The Church Herald were not helpful to new Christians coming to our church. The first thread seemed to betray what I am concerned about: that the main, if not only, thing many of the people in the room value is church planting and increasing our numbers. It seemed to say that communicating only has value as long as it does not impede our pursuit of growth. In other words, it only matters that we achieve the "trophy" of growth even at the expense of any other values. Perhaps it could be compared to taking steroids in order to win the race. The value of long term health is subject to a greater value to win.

I think communication has great value. I think being confronted with diverse views and wrestling with them has great value. I think that churches that devote themselves to ministry, regardless of growth, have great value.

RCA General Synod 2009: Quiz Show

New unofficial staff video of RCA General Synod, this time, they quiz delegates and volunteers!

What GS means to me

This has been my first GS ever and I have to tell you that it has been like a spiritual retreat for me.   I am sure some of you 'old timers' who have been to GS year after year might feel differently, but let me plead my case why it has been refreshing, sad, and propelled me to prayer.

1-The gathering of brothers and sisters from around the world who are RCA (and our ecumenical friends who are not - i really value their voices) is powerful to me.  For these few days I get a better view of what God is doing around the global context and not just in my home church or home city.  This perspective check is so good that it brings me to a place of hope and encouragement of how big and how intimate our God is.  Meeting brothers and sisters who think vastly different then I, but are part of the same family of God - is good to do.

2-Yesterday there was a moment that the seminarians gathered and there was a feeling of sadness.  Some of us were glistening in our eyes, some silent, some lamenting.  We were sad at some of the words people were using to speak out against the meaning of the Belhar confession.  The Belhar is something that is so important to me to help faithfully live into the Jesus way.  The Belhar helps me more faithfully interpret scripture.  The Belhar is a testament to how I see the spirit of God wooing us in the church.  I found out yesterday, that not everyone else feels that way.  I respect different opinions (though I strongly disagree with some).  I needed to lament some words that people spoke against the Belhar confession.  

During our seminarian seminar we take votes on all the issues that the delegates will vote on.  Some of us (like me) have voice on the floor, but we don't have vote.  During our vote it was a unanimous 20-0 in favor of the Belhar.  What are we seminarians hearing in the spirit of God, that some others aren't?

We have not voted on the Belhar yet.  This is Monday.  I am hopeful.  I am hopeful in a God that moves in surprising and wonderful ways when we gather.  I believe God is here and God will show up in good ways.  

God make our hearts more like yours.

3-And finally, General Synod reminds me of a spiritual retreat because of the way I have been propelled to humbly get on my knees and say "your will Lord, not thine".  May we all do that in the next few days.  May we do that the rest of our lives.  And may the spirit of God be gracious to us as we fumble through living the Christ way.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


This afternoon’s Our Call Forum on Missions was an inspiring opportunity to become better acquainted with the RCA’s global missions effort. Reports from the Middle East, Chiapas, Sudan, and elsewhere were encouraging and challenging. The Good News is being courageously and creatively modeled and proclaimed. Hallelujah!

RCA General Synod: Meet the Staff

Meet the staff! Clever, well done hilarious unofficial video of the staff hard at work. If you're a fan of GS I'd recommend showing this especially to the youth, the next generations of GS delegates.

Apparently, there are more to come! :)

Advisory Committees

For the third year, every General Synod advisory committee dealt with the same key issues. While the fruitfulness of this approach is dependent on selecting the "right" issues, this approach enables all delegates to engage these significant matters more extensively than would typically be practical during floor debate. Discussing challenging issues face to face in the context of a relatively small group can be more constructive than a series of 2-minute speeches from the floor of a synod plenary debate.

This year's two key issues were communications (possibilities for combining the Church Herald with the newer RCA Today publication) and the Belhar Confession. While the latter did seem well-suited to this process, the communications issue was more difficult. Although the delegates had three suggested options to consider, the process yielded a bewildering array of additional proposals. Thinking outside the box seemed to be the order of the day—squared! It seemed that tasking the delegates with the challenge of devising a denomination-wide communications strategy may have been a tad unrealistic--rather like asking a cross-section of 200+ individuals to craft a professional business plan or devising a winning game plan by polling the fans in the stands.

In the end, I’ve heard a preliminary report that a group of dedicated moderators spent the afternoon grappling with the output of the various committees and worked to synthesize them into a representative recommendation which will be considered by the delegates later in this Synod. After experiencing this process, the issues should be relatively familiar to everyone here.
I arrived late Tuesday evening from the far west, the northern part of the west. I am one of the pastors of First Reformed Church in Oak Harbor, WA on Whidbey Island. Whidbey Island is known for its foggy mornings and rainy afternoons. Though, I'm now three time zones away from that fog, I think this morning I may have come out of a different fog that the three hour time difference between here and there has left hovering over me.

In my experience, this year's Synod has been a combination of inspiring (our whole lives, the whole gospel, the whole world), a little confusing (are we celebrating the 188 new rca congregations, or questioning their "reformed-ness, or both?), weighty (will the Belhar Confession be placed as an equal next to our three historic confessions?), tense (Can the Belhar Confession be used as to affrim the place of praciticing homosexual people in the church?), personal (the Voskuils are freinds of mine and their daughter Elizabeth is a good friend of my wife Kristyn, Elizabeth is currently in a GR hospital), and full (I'm not sure how we will be able to conclude all the business before us by Tuesday afternoon). As my heart and mind bounce from inspired to confused and from tense to personal, I'm reminded of Paul's words to the church in Ephesus, "You are the fullness of him who fills all in all."

We're doing the work of the church, and somehow, mysteriously as we do our work, the one who "fills all in all" makes his fullness realized.

Marlin Vis

Marlin Vis preached this morning. I happen to personally adore the man and the courageous, prophetic words he has to offer us. Two things I want to share with you that I want us to remember.

1-Every decision we make here, keep the children in mind. I think we could even say, every decision we make in life, keep the children in mind.

2-Put down our swords. There is a time for us to debate, disagree, and discuss. But let us not kill each other foolishly over our agendas. Put down our swords.

3-Marlin concluded by saying, "Look folks, we all love Jesus here. We all do. The people on your right love Jesus just as much as you. The people on your left love Jesus just as much as you. We wouldn't be here if we all didn't love Jesus." Let us not forget that.

Grace and Peace today.
(I want to give a special shout out to you all who are praying. Thank you! Keep praying, the incense of prayer dances around the throne as we continue to seek to answer the question "What is God already doing? How might we partner with God?" Please leave a comment with some of the prayers that you have been praying. Grace and Peace my brothers and sisters)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Recommended Reads

The General Synod Seminarian Seminar (GS^3) had the privilege of spending some time with President Bechtel and General Secretary Wes Granberg-Michaelson before GS began. They were asked to bring some books that they would recommend to us to read.

Carol Bechtel recommends:

Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath
Ellen Davis, Scripture Culture and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible
Carol Bechtel ed., Touching the Altar The OT for Christian Worship
Paul F. Bradshaw, Two ways of Praying

Wes Granberg-Michaelson recommends:

Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of all Nations
Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom

The Beauty of General Synod

It's so easy to be cynical, pessimistic, and negative in life. I was reminded that today, through seeing the beauty of General Synod in the simplest places.

While walking around in the cafeteria, the diversity of GS really stood out to me in ways that I don't always notice: The older elder delegates, those that are physically disabled, those who do not speak English as a first language were all signs of diversity that really caught my attention in ways that I don't typically notice. It made me think how people have sacrificed to come to GS. They have sacrificed their time, their comfort, their community, and time with their loved ones to be here.

Secondly, hanging outside of the DeVos fieldhouse before the evening session, I was privileged to see older people eating and presumably enjoying ice cream. Ice cream seems like such a simple pleasure, but for some reason it caught me off guard to see those who are older eating ice cream, and seeming so peaceful and satisfied in the treat.

Thank you God for showing me the blessing of being in community with those who are not like me, their faithfulness and simple pleasures. May your Church here in North America as well as the church catholic become more and more like the vision of your church that was seen by St. John the Divine!

Embracing the whole gospel with our whole lives for the whole world

In his annual General Secretary's report, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson reminded the General Synod of a past conversation between RCA's Gregg Mast and the late Bob Bast. They had imagined combining the offices for Social Witness and Evangelism. It didn’t happen then, but the idea was right.

We must learn to “shout the gospel with our lives.” These two areas of ministry are often viewed separately. Those committed to one often seem less than enthusiastic about the other. Wes asserted that "we must learn how to shout the gospel with our lives. A whole gospel reaches out not just to our immediate neighbors but to the whole world. That will require new, deeper, and more radical forms of discipleship."

"It’s the whole gospel that calls for our commitment—the inward and the outward journeys, dependent on one another, because it takes both to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. To a younger generation, alienated from religious institutions and skeptical about Christian faith, a gospel that doesn’t speak to injustice and suffering is seen as hypocritical. And a church that engages in social action but is disconnected from spiritual power is seen as empty. And they are right."

Wes cited recent findings that "on average last year, the typical church member in the U.S. gave only 2.5 percent of his or her income to churches and Christian ministries. Of that amount, the average congregation gave just 2% of its budget to international mission efforts of any kind, whether evangelistic or for relief and development. In the RCA, our congregations give on average about 2.86% of their income to denominational efforts in global and local mission. So think of it this way: those in the church are giving only a little more than 2% of 2% of their income to address the overwhelming needs of the world."

Wes summarized, "We have come to Jesus. We have claimed Jesus. Let us follow Jesus."

Wes had no specific recommendations to bring in tonight's report. He noted that our direction established through Our Call is being faithfully carried out. "From my heart, I have one earnest pastoral plea: Let us embrace the whole gospel with our whole lives for the whole world. Let us commit from the depths of our hearts to be disciples for Jesus Christ."

Amen! Thanks, Wes.

Lee DeYoung

Preach it Wes!

How many times did I want to stand up and say "Alright now, preach it Wes!" 

Wes is so right.  My generation - the emerging and current leaders want to see what our actions are.  Don't just preach the word (though important) live the word.  Come on now - Amen!  Live it!  Come on church, listen to the words of Amos 5:24 "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."  Sisters and brothers...this is the gospel!  Jesus lived and walked with the poor - church, are we listening?

When I was in Oman my Muslim friend said, "You see Jes, you Christians in America care more about what you think.  Your doctrine has gotta be right.  We Muslims care more about our practice.  Are we practicing what we believe."  Ouch!    I then said to him, friend, this may be true of some of my brothers and sister in the USA, but that isn't all of us.  Good thinking and good practice, they need to be married.  So friends, let the wedding ceremony begin.  May the spirit of God be gracious to us as we fumble our way forward.

Open Swim - I

I serve as a moderator of one of the new hip and cool Issue Advisory Groups. These are groups that advise a committee that will form a recommendation on certain, hot topics of the Synod (this year it's Communication/Herald/RCA Today & adoption of the Belhar). Our first meeting was a get-to-know-you affair. Our second was designed to address options for the future of the denomination's publication(s). What I was struck by is the fact that "there are are other people in this pool." During an open swim, anyone gets to jump in; those who like laps, those who like cannonballs, those who tread water and those who like to swim along the bottom. I have no choice but to swim along or get out of the pool.

During an open swim you get to do just about whatever you want and wherever you want. However, if you want to tread water where others are doing cannon balls, something has to give. As I listened to some of my "swimmates" I wondered about values. Not whether or not they have values, but whether or not their values are broad and varied enough (because we're in the middle of the process, I'm not sure if I can be more specific so I won't). Is communication a value worth investing in? Or, is it not a value when church multiplication is on the table? I had to wrestle with this perception of mine. I also had to wrestle with whether or not I can swim in the same pool with them? Can my desires and theirs mesh? They are certainly welcome here, but something might have to give.

Mme. President's Report

Wow. I've been mulling over President Carol Bechtel's Report over lunch, and no I feel it's time for me to put down my thoughts.

Introduction: My name is drew yamamoto, and I am part of the General Synod Seminarian Seminar (GS3) and this is my second time at GS. I love GS, and I'm mourning the fact that it may not happen next year. I am from San Francisco, CA, and I am a senior in the Western Theological Seminary Distance Learning M.Div. program, and a member of City Church of San Francisco.

Once again: Wow. Go Carol go! On my way back from lunch, a friend and I were discussing her report. What I took away from it: How do we stay faithfully Missional and Reformed? How do we remember our Reformed heritage without idolizing it, yet at the same time, saying that it is something that makes us distinct? Carol seemed to be challenging us to live out our identity in being a Reformed Church in America.

Excellent report Mme. President. Thank you.

See you in 2011

I was against R-6.  Meaning, I would like to see GS meet next year.  

Here is why:
1-A gentleman recapitulated Dr. Bechtel's presidential speech beautifully at the microphone...part of being Reformed is the fundamental belief in the power of the Holy Spirit in the gathered body.  As President Bechtel said, "We believe the spirit speaks most reliably and consistently in the gathered body of God."  Let us then gather together.
2-Let us remember we do not gather at GS to simply "do business" but it is a time were we strengthen our fellowship and continue to ask as a body 'what is God doing in our denomination?'  These are words that General Secretary Wes spoke to the seminarians this week.
3-Finally, it is my hope that the Belhar will pass at GS.  It is also my hope that the Belhar will pass at the classis level.  If this is true, we must wait 2 years then for it to be added as one of our confessional standards if we do not have GS10.  I think that would not be a good thing for us to wait that long.

That being said, I am aware of the finanical situation.  Times are difficult, yes.  Might we become more creative?  What would a GS10 online look like?  This would cut the cost and allow GS to meet.

Pool Closed Next Summer.

I think by now you'll notice the theme of these threads. It helps me stay interested. Anyway...

By a slim margin, the Synod decided not to convene in 2010. I think it was 120-100. The major concern seemed to be the economy. It's all in the way it gets communicated. Are we talking about saving $225,000. Or, are we going to give every member $1 back next year? Well, yes. One speaker suggested that the money saved go to mission at the local level. Another speaker wondered how valuable the connections are that are developed at annual synod meetings? Can you put a price tag on them?

I tend to agree with the latter speaker. My church will "save" about $200 next year. We couldn't even have a church potluck for that. I can already say for myself, that I've thoroughly enjoyed the swim for the past two days. In 2010, I think other first time swimmers would have too. I don't think this was the right decision.

No 2010 General Synod

The first major vote of this General Synod was quite an unusual one. Based on economic considerations, General Synod will not meet in 2010. This has occurred only once before in the RCA's long history--in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression.

The amended proposal from the GSC was approved by a 120-100 vote:

R-6: "To instruct the officers of the General Synod to convene the 2010 General Synod with the intention of transacting no business and declaring that a quorum is not present; and further, if no quorum is present, the officers elected and installed at the 2009 General Synod shall continue as the officers of the General Synod until the next stated session;to be approved by two-thirds of the classes submitting votes to the General Synod office by December 1, 2009."

Costs saved by not holding a 2010 General Synod will be reflected in a net reduction in the assessment.

Next step is up to the classes. An extraordinary decision for extraordinary times . . .

Lee DeYoung

The Lifeguard.

Carol Bechtel was my favorite (and only) Hebrew professor at Western Seminary. Her demeanor (sp?) at the podium is no different than it was in the classroom. She is soft spoken and I would say gentle. She often is, but her report this morning was sharp and to the point; like a life guard who warns children not to get too close to the deep end of the pool. Her reflections on worship, on baptism, and on commissioned pastors were insightful and a care-filled warning.

Where is worship in the pursuit of our call? Where is grace in our view of baptism? Where is our integrity in the commissioned pastor process? Of course, Carol was more pastoral in her phrasing, but no less direct. As with worship yesterday, I was convicted that what we are doing is important. For example, we're not just talking about baptism in the church. At it's heart we are talking about God's providence, grace, and the good news we have to share with parents who love their children. It's not irrelevant to society, then, if some churches or pastors in the RCA are choosing not to baptize infants. It bears directly on the message we have to share with them.

Carol began her speech with a "thank you." So, I'll end this post with a "thank you" as well. Thank you Carol for the warnings. If we aren't careful with such essential tasks as worship, baptism and who we call pastor, we are in danger of slipping into waters that are too deep for us to get out of. Let's hope that Carol's warnings bring us back into more manageable waters.

Our Glue

I appreciate the initial focus of Carol Bechtel’s General Synod President’s report. Many of her predecessors’ reports explore the important question: “What is the glue that holds us together?” (e.g. What is our identity?)

Indeed, that is a crucial issue for a denomination which began nearly four centuries ago as a distant extension of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Whatever utility that identity had in the 17th century has inexorably diminished over the years. One continuing aspect of our collective identity has been the enduring commitment (at least officially) to our historic confessions. That’s one reason why the proposed addition of the Belhar Confession is a very big deal. I resonate with Carol’s concluding answer to this question: “GOD.” Amen! How that “rubber meets the road” as we seek to engage the surrounding culture is a major challenge and an opportunity for creativity.

With regard to worship, Carol observed that no one format has a corner on what it means to be reformed. She insightfully alluded to the “Our Call” logo which includes phrases reflecting the six dimensions of “Our Call” but none of which mentions worship. That actually seems depicted in the stylized graphic image at the center of the logo which does seem to depict worship (without mentioning it in words).

Indeed, our glue (identity) is shared commitment to God. Thanks, Carol!

Lee DeYoung


I spent Thursday in training as a moderator for the Advisory Forums. We were begin trained in leading the groups who will discuss the two major issues before General Syond this year: communication and confession. One of the conversations was difficult and confusing. The other conversation was somewhat hopeful. That is, until I got to dinner and overheard some of the side conversations that were going on. They were, to say the least, quite ridiculous. The finer details don't need to be mentioned here.

Suffice it to say, that I was in a foul mood and not in any mood to worship with a body of people who could produce such silly ideas. I have to confess that I'm often not in the mood to worship if I'm not the one in charge. This evening was no different. And, yet, I have to admit that the experience of opening worship was much like that of jumping in to a cool pool on a hot summer afternoon: refreshing. In other words, I have to confess that worship well done has the ability to move even a stubborn heart like mine.

I was forced to admit that all those gathered for synod were welcome at God's table and that God had fed each of us. I have my own ideas of what we should do with that nourishment, but each of us was there seeking to be fed by God. Each of us was there to confess that without the sustenance that God provides we would have little chance of moving forward. There is great unity in that one act. I only hope that we (I) can act so humble as we move through the rest of synod. I think that many people would find that refreshing.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Gathering Together

Anticipating General Synod 2009, 1 Cor. 12:12 springs to mind: "For just as the body is one and has many members, all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ."

My name is Lee DeYoung. My home congregation is Hager Park Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan where I've been a member since 1982. It's my privilege to serve on the leadership team of South Grand Rapids Classis and to represent SGR as an elder delegate to General Synod. As part of my staff responsibilities with Words of Hope (an RCA-supported media ministry which began in 1945), I have attended all but one of the General Synods since 1985. I appreciate the personal interactions as well as the chance to observe these annual milestones in our denominational life. This year represents my fifth opportunity to participate as a voting delegate.

I trust that 1 Cor. 12:12 resonates for every participant who is gathering in Holland for the next few days. Its meaning deepens for me through the experience of meeting and interacting with literally hundreds of fellow RCA members who assemble in one place at one time from every classis, regional synod, council, commission, as well as from some of our global mission fields.

Having just returned this week from a 20-day journey to Africa (Sudan and Uganda), I am looking forward to further consideration of the Belhar as well as the many significant challenges before us as the Body of Christ. Many are very similar to those faced by fellow-believers in other denominations and cultures. As members, we differ in many respects and yet are called to work together as one. That's never been easy (extending all the way back to Paul's time). But it's our calling and responsibility. May we prayerfully seek the Spirit's leading and equipping to faithfully accomplish this!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Welcome to General Synod!

My pastor this last week said that General Synod is like the best polity class you could ever take.  Well good, just like Peter TeWinkle said, I am looking forward to diving in!

A bit about me.  My name is Jessica (Jes) Kast-Keat.  I just finished my second year at Western Theological Seminary and have two more years left (4 year track).  I am under care of classis at Hope Church in Holland, Michigan.  The RCA world is newer to me, but is now the denomination I am planning on being ordained in.  I have a wide Christian ecumenical background.  I was invited to the RCA Emerging Leaders Conference in Nashville this past fall where God used this time to show me that the RCA was a home that I could be a part of.  I looked around the table and saw 50% of the people there were of my gender and many different ethnicity's represented.  I thought, if this is the future of the RCA, I want to be a part of this! 

I am married to Jim Kast-Keat who works at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI.  I have loved seminary so much that Jim just began his journey at Western this year on their distance learning program.

What I am looking forward to at GS:
1-Celebrating the 30 years of women's ordination 
2-I am hopeful about our conversation around the Belhar
3-Being with other seminarians and delegates on our journey this week

Like Peter, I enjoy the cyber-conversations, so please engage with thoughts and questions.  Different perspectives are welcome.

Grace and Peace,