In the summer of 2006 my wife and I joined First Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois. The church is located 46 miles from our home so we can’t attend every week. (We attend a neighborhood Lutheran congregation, as associate members, when I am not speaking elsewhere.) We joined First Reformed Church, so far from our home, for several reasons. First, I wanted to submit my ministerial credentials to a Reformed body of believers and ultimately to other ministers, thus the Illiana Classis. Second, we wanted to unite as a couple with a local congregation that would wholeheartedly support our wholistic vision for ACT 3. (Several friends at First Reformed Church, unbeknown to us, had been praying for us to consider this decision from some years.) Third, my own views of ecclesiology have changed enough over the last fifteen years to lead me to embrace the Three Forms of Unity of the Dutch Reformed tradition with growing conviction. To put this in very simple theological terms, my understanding of the covenant and the church became increasingly Reformed. And fourth, I wanted to be connected, as a minister and as an individual, to a mainline tradition that was both theologically orthodox and genuinely ecumenical. The Reformed Church in America (RCA), of which First Reformed is a constituent member congregation, was my best choice based upon several factors. (Interestingly, the RCA is the oldest continuous denomination in the United States, dating back to 1628.)
What attracted me was the RCA’s vigorous mission emphasis with the goal to grow the number of churches in the fellowship over the next decade by more than 25%. The RCA has all the struggles that one encounters in the mainline but it also has an evangelical soul combined with a breadth of fellowship that avoids the rancor and narrowly defined sectarian bickering of many other Reformed groups. It is a church that wants to engage the culture without surrendering the gospel. (In the RCA one can find people on the far left, and even a few on the far right, but the catholic and evangelical middle is quite strong and healthy!) The global mission of the RCA states that it has four goals: (1) Evangelizing unreached people. (2) Empowering global partners. (3) Equipping RCA congregations. (4) Embracing compassion and justice. I happen to believe that all four of these goals are a vital part of a healthy church fellowship. Sadly, too many churches in North America emphasize one or two of these without the others. Don’t misunderstand, the RCA is far from perfect. It must face some serious theological issues on an annual basis, and it is in continual need of renewal like every church I know. But for me it was a great place to submit my credentials and standing as a minister of the gospel.
Yesterday, my wife and I attended a "Unity Service" at First Reformed Church. The church entered into a covenant arrangement with Shepherd’s Community Church in 2006. Shepherd’s, like 65% of South Holland, is predominantly African-American. The service was led by Shepherd’s pastor, Rev. Willard High, and the choir of Shepherd’s Community. The preacher was Dr. Al VanderMeer, pastor of First Reformed Church, who preached an anointed and powerful sermon. Anita and I loved the whole service. It seemed that many of the white members found it hard to "get into the style." But the point was not about style or show. It was, and is, about mission and the future. First Reformed Church is slowly, decade-by-decade, dying. Its future will be bright only if it finds a way to become multi-ethnic and genuinely diverse. South Holland is no longer a community of Dutch immigrants thus a journey has begun to see how God might lead this old Dutch church to embrace the "new" South Holland. This can be done but the journey will likely be filled with real joy and profound pain. Some are ready to embrace the missional church emphasis now. Others are resistant. White people do not easily become a minority in an African-American context. And sharing power and leadership is never easy in any cultural context. But the gospel is greater than human fear and cultural comfort zones.
In the end this missional challenge is a major reason for our joining First Reformed. I have always wanted to be involved in a racially diverse congregation where grace triumphs over stereotypes and cultural homogeneity. I believe the next ten years in the life of this old church, begun prior to the Civil War by faithful Dutch immigrants, will become an unfolding story of redemption and reconciliation. I want to be a part of this missional story even though I can’t be physically present every Sunday. I believe that the future of many American churches needs to follow a similar pattern. The real answer to racisim still lies in the church if we believe the witness of Scripture. I want to personally share in the answer thus First Reformed Church is a great place for me to purposefully connect to the larger church of Jesus Christ. Here I can confess the gospel in a Reformed context, embrace diversity and real mission, and practice my deeply held belief in holy catholicity.