Missional Church and Historical Fairness

Part of the ideology of the “Missional Church” movement in the RCA is historically inaccurate and unfair.

The ideology proposes language that the RCA has heretofore had something like a “settler” mentality, or whatever, and that now the RCA has to move to a “missional” mentality.

Well, it’s typical of ideology to make caricatures of history.

Yesterday I happened to be looking through the Historical Directory, 2000 edition. I happened to be visiting my parents, and we were trying to remember some facts about some old RCA names, like Howard Schade and Richard Vanden Berg.

In passing, I noticed how many new congregations had been started in Brooklyn between the years 1824 and 1977. Thirty-five of them. Yes, 35 new congregations in 150 years. That’s more than one new congregation every 5 years, on the average.

By one classis, the South Classis of Long Island, now the Classis of Brooklyn.

So it’s just not fair to propagandize revolutionary change in the RCA on the basis of advocating some new “missional” mentality to replace an old “settler” mentality. Those “settlers” certainly believed in New Church Development.

Yes, a great number of those congregations exist no more, though some do, and two of them are very strong. But we all know that from new church starts, that the survival ratio is low.

Yes, there is no question that we need to examine the realities of declining numbers and we need to envision revitalization. But we also need leadership that is more honest with the realities. Not just for the sake of integrity, but also for the practical requirements of success.

By the way, those two old lions of the RCA, Richard Vanden Berg and Howard Schade, were secretaries, successively, of the Board of Domestic / North American Missions. My father told me how hard they worked in support of inner-city churches, how much they encouraged them and advocated for them, and found them money to support their salaries.

These secretaries did not answer to any Chief Executive. They answered to their Boards, and they were committed to the ministries they supported. They were free to advocate for their ministries before the assemblies (because of the distinction between governance from program), and they did so. That, I submit, is good missional thinking and pratice.

Best,
Daniel Meeter, VDM

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4 thoughts on “Missional Church and Historical Fairness

  1. Right on, Daniel!Of course, I cringe just about every time our staff who consider themselves to be “upper echelon” (difficult to do in a structure with no heierarchy)try to relate RCA history. My memories of fascinating stories of the colonial era RCA with no mention of rebellions or schisms, or of how John Henry Livingston was somehow responsible for Frelinghuysen’s log cabin seminary training, may not warm the cockles of my heart, but they do cause a bit of acid reflux. When I was on the Comission on History, some of us lamented that there were, apparently, no historians available to help inform the General Synod or its agents. As I watch our denominational life, I wonder if the old adage about those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it is wrong. I suspect we will make a worse mess of it this time around.As for what you say about boards and proper missional relationships, I am reminded about what a wise man named Daniel Meeter once wrote about denominations as we understand them being a fairly modern invention. Of course, he wrote it in a Historcal Series of the RCA volume, which means it probably won’t be read by too many of the staff (now, if we whited out Meeter’s name on a few copies of “Meeting Each Other” and wrote in Carver’s, we might have a shot), but I digress.My thought was that, if denominational structures are a modern invention, wouldn’t it make sense, in a post-modern world, to dismantle them? Might that not even be a “missional” act? What might happen if we all went back to being churches . . . and, in the RCA, covenant communities?

  2. Thanks for this, Dan.In the midst of the debate over “missional structures” last year I was struck by a different historical amnesia. It was often said that the church order was constructed for a church of a different kind of society — the small town and rural society of the seventeenth century.The truth in this was that of course the old order was constructed in an earlier time, which included the societal ways of being in the world. The order was not, however, constructed with a “small town” mentality. It was constructed with cities in mind (granted 17th century cities were much smaller than our current megaloposes). Hence the presence of the collegiate system that remains in our order. Now, there are profound historical shifts that have taken place. Those shifts have affected our shared understandings of the world, and have placed the order under considerable strain. But the tensions run much deeper to the question of how we can understand the gospel at all. One small example: how do we of a radically individualist era understand being “in Christ”? And so how can we understand the eucharist? Which does lead us, eventually, to the church order.We do not live in a rectilinear world (modernity). If I understand him correctly, this is what Okke Postma is up to — helping us to articulate a curved reality (well, it’s more than that, but let him explain!). This is a post-modernity that reaches far back — and far forward. Enough!Al

  3. Long ago I gave up arguing against the often heard remark that the Reformed tradition lacked ‘missionality’; no matter how you slice it, it is baloney! Yet, unlike the Synod preacher of a few years ago who managed to proclaim that Pentecost had never gotten to Geneva, it pays attention to wonder about historical data, such as the question where the 6,600 Reformed congregations came from less than fifty years after Luther’s bold act in 1517. (And we’re not even counting Lutheran congregations here…). Talk about church planting!It really is in our DNA. Of course, we often practiced growth by church ‘division’ but then again, I never recognized the mathematical notion of ‘multiplication’ in the way that same word is used in church growth circles. They speak as though a church multiplies itself; that is confusion of substance and operation. In arithmetic, a number cannot multiply ITSELF, it is ‘done unto’, so to speak; multiplication is an operation. That a church has a missional function has never been denied. Proposing that this function is the sole end all and be all, is not the reality of a live sustain and life giving organism, but the nature of a virus. Last I heard, we proclaim Ave Verum, nor Ave Virus.History helps us to sort out and trace what is of the God of Life.Why is the church in such a rush to proclaim viral cloning as THE way to life and truth?I serve one of those churches, founded with support of Brooklyn Classis (and given its first communion ware on loan for twenty years by one of its churches), we have not forgotten how two of my august pastor predecessors, Philip Phelps (yes the one who also started Hope college)and a hundred years later, Bert Bossenbroek, were both paid, not by the congregation, but by the Board of Domestic Mission.Okke Postma

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