An Irony of RCA History (apologies to R. Niebuhr).

One of the claims I here in defense of new “structures” [sic] is that they will enable the church to be more “missional,” which sometimes translates into being more “post-modern.” This is ironic. To see why we need a little history.

What may be called a “denomination” didn’t emerge in the Reformed church until well into the 19th century. The synod was meeting, but there was little staff, and denominational business was done through mission boards and agencies, many of them “ecumenical.” As the RCA moved into the second half of the 19th century, it began to pick up traces of what we later call “modernity.” I picked it up in, for example, the greater sophistication in numbers, in counting heads. This was necessary in part because the church needed money to pay for the synod, and the church found a fair method of apportioning the cost through charging by “head count.”

It was in the ’20s of the 20th century when the Reformed church launched what it called its “Progress Campaign,” the first all-church fund-raiser and joint task. This was the era when modernity hit its stride. This would become all the more streamlined as the boards hired more staff, and as what had now become the denomination needed to become more efficient in how it parceled out its staff.

Those with longer memories will recall how in the late 1960’s and early ’70’s the church brought the boards together into the General Program Council. All of this was the growth and strengthening of a “modern” denomination.

As we enter the working life of many who read this, it was by the late ’80’s that a number of folk were sensing that the governance of the church through the GPC and the General Synod Executive Committee was too cumbersome, or as may put it, redundant. Modernity shuns ambiguity and redundancy, and so the reorganization began that merged the GPC and GSEC. (Some of us protested that this mixed governance and program — but to no avail).

So — efficiency is the order of the day. And efficiency works best when it focuses on one goal.

And that’s the irony. That a new structure is proposed that does in fact work best with one goal in mind. But that’s modernity. It is not postmodern by any stretch.

The irony continues. The church order as it stands actually does fit a post-modern world as it allows the offices and assemblies to work at any number of tasks, goals if you will, and remain in the same church (this is catholicity).

In fact, there is a rather large theological mistake lurking. The Spirit is never, ever, about one thing. The Spirit explodes and is about “a million things” in a million ways. Which is where our congregations are and should be; and where our classes are and should be.

I can’t help citing some Dutch church history again (sorry!). But when that Reformed church (our mother and sister) struggled with its monarchical church order early in the 20th century, some called that order a “straightjacket.” Well it was either that — everyone marching to the same tune, to mix the metaphor. Or it was what others called a “hotel” church where everyone went to his or her own room and ignored the fact that anyone else was in the hotel. Either way it wasn’t church.

Do we really want to go this direction? Have we really thought about it?

One thought on “An Irony of RCA History (apologies to R. Niebuhr).

  1. Yes! Irony comes from the Greek word for ‘dissemble’, an unexpected view or exposure; as by way of holding up a mirror, providing a reflection. It is a Vision thing!I like your perspective for that reason. Memory and history are a powerful check on an imagination run wild (as in ‘visionary’). The ‘history’ of modernity is full of it. Pascal saw it coming and decrie imagination for that reason. Rousseau embraced it, separated it from memory/hisotry in his ‘Confessions’ (And thus perverted Augustine’s memoirs), and elevated it to an independent status. The rest is history… (purportedly ending with post/late modernity, but even Fukayama now has post-modern ‘second thoughts’ about that…Irony is indispensible in ‘testing the Spirit.’ Discernment should include it.It comes in three forms (better, in three dimensions, or vectors…).1. Socratic irony: providing a ‘teaching moment’ often through wit. The Monty Python folks excelled at that….2. Dramatic irony: usually in the form of overstatement or exceesive extra-polation. Also practiced in the drama-queen approach. Often more self-centered, in focus and in expressing anxiety.3. Tragic irony. This comes often only with hindsight! Chicago Invitation tried to engage in #1 reflections, but was heard as practicing #2. I think we are now closer to a #3 trajectory… I have heard it said that CI is too bogged down in ‘backward’ thinking. In reality, we are taking a full 3-D look at where we are, where we have been and where we are to go.

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