How can the RCA think outside the box as it discerns its call? There are options to just doing what we have been doing. More here:
A Sample Denominational Focus 2013-2023:
Service to Returning Veterans and their Families
In order to command the support and participation of the entire RCA, a decade-long denominational focus would ideally meet these criteria:
• Addresses a documented need felt across each region of the denomination over the next decade;
• Employs talents, abilities and resources resident among our church members and leaders;
• Embraces appropriate, attainable roles for each level of governance from local churches to denominational agencies;
• Bases its actions and programs in Scripture;
• Appeals to a wide spectrum of theological opinions within the denomination;
• Goes well beyond institutional self-serving by embodying Christ among those outside of our membership;
• Strengthens connections to other people and institutions, religious and secular;
• Shares costs and benefits across every level and region of the denomination;
• Is clear and measurable.
As an illustration of how these criteria might be met, let’s work through one possible focus, namely a focus on outreach in service to military service women and men as they complete their foreign deployment and return to our communities.
Addressing a broadly-felt need:
The United States has been involved in undeclared wars in the Middle East for over a decade, the longest period of sustained military action in the nation’s history. Our Canadian sisters and brothers have managed to avoid much of this direct involvement, but not all. Many of their own military service people serve peace-keeping and treaty monitoring abroad for international bodies. This specific need will therefore be more urgent in the USA, although our Canadian churches have some important experience to share regarding living responsibly in a global society without constant resort to military force.
In US communities, we are just now beginning to appreciate the human and social costs of protracted foreign military engagement. The nature of the warfare has resulted in service people surviving battle but with grossly handicapping injuries and increasingly with hidden physical and emotional injury. Disrupted personal and family lives have been one cost of primarily using military reservists, often on repeated deployments. Impacts are widely geographically distributed as various reserve units are activated according to their specialized functions. During deployments and afterwards, families of those on active duty live in a society that seems largely unaware of being at war and which is concerned with other matters.
This situation stands in great contrast with the last prolonged period of war, World War Two, seven decades ago. The entire society was on war footing, resources diverted to support the war effort, service men conscripted and food rationed. Veterans returned en masse, ready to resume interrupted lives and were assisted in their education and home-buying by government subsidies in consideration of their service. The dead were publicly honored and the injured given treatment toward health. It was the period of growth for suburbs and churches. Veterans provided membership and leadership for our churches and the RCA played a significant role in that expansion as the nation returned to “normal.” Our churches are now saying final farewells to the last of these veterans, many of whom have displayed great devotion to their congregations.
Before and particularly after 9/11, America has relegated its warfare to page two rather than granting it headlines. Few Americans would be able to accurately estimate the number of our military dead since 2001, much less have an idea of the toll of the wounded or even guess at the number of troops we have deployed in the various fields of combat. We seem to have normalized warfare itself and that has moral implications. We have assigned to government agencies the tasks of assisting returning veterans and have persistently underfunded their efforts. Just as we have set war at a distance, we now keep those who fight it and return at a distance. If we would raise our antennae a bit, we might discover a remarkable number of directly and indirectly affected families just around the block from our churches.
As we came to know from WWII, Korea and then Viet Nam, the issues of post-war adjustment do not disappear easily. If all hostilities were to desist tomorrow, which they will not, it will take many years to mitigate its impacts. Supportive communities are vital to mitigation efforts. Churches and other local religious institutions once had key roles in helping veterans and their families to get on to the next phases of their lives and were, in return, rewarded with loyal support for a half-century. RCA churches pitched in because it was the right thing to do. It is still the right and humane thing to do, regardless of any potential return.
Employing resources in hand:
The RCA Directory lists 17 active military chaplains, 31 ministers in counseling professions, 99 institutional chaplains and 45 others in specialized and transition ministries. This count does not include pastors, active and retired, who may have previously served in military and other chaplaincies or possess advanced degrees and certifications in counseling and social work. We literally have the trained, the trainers and the trainers of trainers in our midst. We have a vibrant ministry to the disabled in the RCA that we share with the CRC. All of the above have their personal and professional networks and contacts in their specialties. For a small denomination, we have a mighty treasury of skilled leadership and experience that might be tapped for an outreach focus to folks in transition.
Local churches, who would accomplish the great bulk of the ministry, would want to learn from the above leaders, the most effective ways of approaching, including and assisting their community’s veterans and their families. The congregations’ own social networks, contacts, skills and prayers would add hands, feet, ears and hearts to the effort. What it would take to make a positive impact would not be all that different from local church life as we know it.
An Appropriate Role for Everyone:
Some communities may find themselves heavily impacted, since reserve units activated tend to reside near to their military facility or armory. A local church in such an area might reach out to other churches in its classis or regional synod for assistance. Once an active ministry is underway, classes might see to the pastoral care, ongoing training and support of those reaching out. There will be reasons to liaise with county and state agencies charged with providing services and to advocate within the community for greater recognition of the issue. Regional and General Synods are in the best position to coordinate with the RCA chaplains and other specialists to develop trainings and ongoing connections to local outreach ministries. Promotional vehicles of the denomination can spread the word and share the stories which develop.
Concurrent Study of Scripture and Prayer Life:
Hospitality, welcoming and service to others have their roots deep into Scripture and all churches would be well-served by an on-going program of related Scripture study and devotions that could be sponsored by the denomination and take contributions from churches, classes, seminaries and others involved in the focus.
Bridging Theological Differences:
Service ministry bridges theological divides and we could use that sort of solid connection with one another in the RCA. We have seen glimpses of that truth in recent efforts of assistance to RCA churches suffering losses from natural disasters. Nothing enriches our corporate life more than working to relieve the needs of others, no matter who they are or where they are.
Getting Beyond Self-serving:
The real losses and the persistent fears associated with terrorist acts, along with our nation’s defensive and offensive reactions to those losses and fears, have a faint echo in the RCA losses and fears about our declining numbers of churches and members. They are fears for existence. Our instinctive reactions and subsequent efforts are towards self-concern and self-saving as opposed to losing ourselves in service to others. We have been focused upon beefing up our numbers and strengthening our core in the RCA, efforts that have not been especially fruitful. It is time for a radical change in emphasis and focus.
Finding Allies in the Cause:
Many might say that this issue is not a church issue, but rather belongs in the purview of secular governmental bodies such as DOD and the VA. There is truth in that assertion; that is where direct and primary responsibility lies. But both entities have long recruited allies to their various causes. There are boundaries worth crossing for the enrichment of our communal life. Cooperation is not a new idea. Visits to the local VA hospital were once a staple of RCA Youth Fellowship and Guild groups. If we are clear that we are not out to proselytize but to witness through serving we can be again welcome allies. Local Legions, VFWs and military family support organizations are ready allies. Even veteran-oriented foundations, such as USAA Foundation, can be approached. First we must start with attainable program goals and build up a reputable network of proven assistance.
Shared Costs and Benefits:
If this national issue is taken on as a focus of the RCA’s ministry, then care should be taken in its setup and coordination to ensure that every region of the church is involved and receives supportive services. Open communication is a must along with open accountability.
Measurable and Clear:
There is an opportunity for learning here as well as serving. The population of those in and returning from military service is largely composed of younger persons of 20-40 years of age. These are the “missing demographic” in our churches and we will benefit greatly from contact with that age group; learning and listening as we serve. The outreach program itself will probably not increase our membership numbers, and we must be clear with ourselves and others about our purposes in serving. But the lessons learned and contacts made through service can help us design approaches to our communities with a more directly evangelical purpose.
Therefore, there is a necessity for setting measurable goals and for clarity in the accounting of outcomes. Lessons unrecorded are lessons lost.