I wanted to explore some of the world of different Christian leaders, small and big. However, I wanted to report less on those and more in their own words. These will be published, slowly, over time. This, I trust, may open dialogue and understanding between various communities. Of course, an interview does not amount to an endorsement, but to the creation of conversation, comprehension, and compassion. Paul VanderKlay is the Pastor of Living Stones Christian Reformed Church. Here we talk about the Christian Reformed Church, community, church services, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You are the pastor of Living Stones Christian Reformed Church. One preliminary question. Pastors wear many hats within the church community. Some more demanding than others. What are bigger hats in the service of the Christian Reformed Church community at Living Stones Christian Reformed Church? Also, as a small sub-question, what does “Living Stones” mean within the context of the Christian Reformed Church tradition?
VanderKlay: Great question. Here’s where it comes from.
1 Peter 2:4–10 (NIV)
4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8 and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Christians are in some ways “little Christs”. The community of them is supposed to be a “temple” which as anyone would know in the ancient world is the resting place for the god. You can see that in Genesis 1. In the Israel story the big deal was that the Holy Creator God was living in the midst of an unworthy people, without destroying them. The church ties into that history and supposed to embody it. It often fails, but that’s the idea.
So as a pastor my main job is to do what I can to hopefully not stop that from happening. I think that is the right way of thinking about it instead of “making that happen”. Pastors don’t make Christians, they don’t make churches, Christians believe God’s Holy Spirit does that. We most get in the way, not unlike the disciples in the gospels who mostly got in the way.
This involves preaching and teaching and caring for people. These are the most obvious things that someone might see. The less obvious things are stewarding a culture. This is often the most important thing. It is the small “yes” and “no” to one thing or another in action that actually shapes what a church becomes. It’s not that different from anyone else’s life. We are shaped by what we say “yes” to and what we say “no” to. Churches are of course far more complicated because there are so many more people with histories and roles and power and sin. It’s almost always a mess but we believe that somewhere in this mess there is glory and in that glory God lives in the midst of his people.
Jacobsen: When Christian communities work to build a community, of course, they seem to have, at the heart of it, the image and example of Jesus Christ as depicted in the New Testament of the Bible to guide the construction of their community. How do you work within this framework to build, lead, and maintain the community at Living Stones Christian Reformed Church?
VanderKlay: If you were to read books from the Christian Reformed Church before the 1960s you’d read a lot about how everything in the CRC is a direct expression of what’s in the New Testament. Part of what happened in the 1960s was that this language went out of fashion. What changed? The Second World War.
Before WWII most CRC folks lived in relatively isolated churches in isolated ghettoized communities. We were God’s chosen people living in direct obedience to his Word. The war was a great mixing machine that put CRC people in barracks and trenches and after universities and suburbs with Baptists, and Mormons, and Jews and Catholics and atheists. The CRC was after that point a bit more aware of its own historical and ethnic heritage and the ways that it seemed every group claimed simple, clear application of the New Testament in their community.
It would be nice to imagine that pluralism yields sophistication, but it usually yields another new level of naivety. New ways of imagining faithful application came in from other Christian traditions in American and also a new degree of skepticism.
Traditions mix with ethnicity and local contexts to form the body of Christ which is his church. My father did this in Paterson NJ amidst the children of Dutch immigrants who wished to serve God by serving the black population fleeing the Jim Crow south looking for jobs in the industrial north. This was the context of my formation. Dutch Calvinism with Cold War Paterson as the civil rights movement reverberated through the church. The New Testament becomes “canon” bit in a unique way in each place. The mental maps of Jesus and his church get worked into real time and space in ways that are impossible to reduce or multiply. History is that way. So traditions are maintained, sometimes tweaked, sometimes changed, sometimes abandoned and later restored. It’s thoroughly human without excluding the presence of God.
Living Stones developed on the other coast but in similar ways. The crushing poverty of Paterson is replaced by the disposable suburb of Florin and Meadowview in Sacramento. Old saints die, or stay, or leave, new saints come. Change is constant but continuities persist. I bring the Bible into the conversation and the long narrative thread of the church gathers crystals in yet another unique solution something like rock candy.
Jacobsen: What are the proceedings of normal church services at Living Stones Christian Reformed Church on the main service day? How do you plan and execute special events, e.g. weddings, baptisms, funerals, and so on?
VanderKlay: By temperament I am a creature of repetition. Days and weeks for me are mostly the same if I can help it. On Sundays we gather to study the Bible, to enjoy the company of old friends and new, to pray, to offer financial sacrifices to God, and to worship which is culturally the strangest thing we do in a secular world. We attempt to inhabit a fandom that goes all the way back to an obscure people living in a portion of the world destined to yield geographical genocide. We believe that the God of the world ceded the planet to a rebellious steward-race to eventually redeem it at great ironic cost. We do what ancients would recognize but moderns abhor. We relate to this king up in the sky imagining he enjoys our sacrifices and offerings whether in cash, check or song.
Because my congregation is small and mostly old I do more funerals than weddings. It might sound strange but I like doing funerals better. Why? Because weddings are often distracted by emotions going in every direction but the right one. Funerals bring a focus that only loss can give. People are ready to settle down and listen at funerals. They are ready to sit and assess and explore how they are spending their ever decreasing number of moments. Things of real value are contemplated and shared. While there are often remarks about someone’s work life seldom do we pay attention to money kept or used on diversion or satisfaction-seeking. More often we learn about the time spent with loved ones, the sacrifices given for the welfare of others. Funerals seem to provide holy moments even for those skeptical of the holy. So in my planning for these things, as I said at the beginning, I try not to get in the way. I try to tell the truth which can be difficult at a funeral. The devil’s tool at a funeral is nostalgia and vanity. I only do funerals for sinners, which means all of us. This lets me talk about God’s generosity even if the stories of human goodness need to be embellished.
Jacobsen: Any community has the problems of a community, whether internal dynamics or the pressure from the wider culture. What are some of the bigger difficulties in the maintenance of a church? What are some of those difficulties from within, e.g. members leaving or financial difficulties, or from the outside, e.g. popular cultural influence at odds with Christian Reformed Church teachings?
VanderKlay: It’s no secret that churches in North America are shrinking. Before I talk about this it’s important to know that this is the exception to the rule right now in the world. While numbers of Christian worshippers decline in Western Europe and North American they are growing or booming just about everywhere else. It has always been this way in the history of the church. The Lord gives and takes away. We’re not dualists really.
There is near endless speculation and anxiety about this in North America? Is it science that makes the Bible unbelievable? Is it affluence that makes us less hungry for God because we can fill our lives with cars and vacations and homes and porn and video games and genetically-selected offspring? Is it that the church has simply lost its way or gone corrupt with power, sex and money? As with most things it’s likely “all of the above” and “more than we can know”.
The frontier between “church” and “not-church” is always moving and never empty. We’re all given 24 hours in a day and need to figure out how to fill them. The last 50 years have exploded with ways to spend our time that most generations could hardly imagine.
The ubiquitous uncertainty of life through most of human history tempted the church of past generations to focus exclusively on next-life destinations. While that’s clearly something to talk about the fast transition to modern-80-year-Western-lifestyle-security has left the church a bit flatfooted. The church needs to endure without losing the narrative thread. The Orthodox church has endured Islam and Communism, we’ll see what the European churches can do.
We often do our best when we are challenged. Affluence tempts us to sloth. Christianity seems to do best from below, not from positions of privilege and established power.
Church members face all of the difficulties of everyone else, hopefully however they do so less alone. We try to support each other, emotionally or even financially.
Christians believe that the story of humanity will finally have a happy ending. We believe that joy is foundational, not loss, and that heaven and earth will one day be reunited and the struggles we face now will be, as one saint said, like a night in an inconvenient hotel. It’s easy to discount “pie in the sky bye and bye” but it sure beats lonely resignation buoyed by some sense of pride about the dark cold end of the universe.
Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
VanderKlay: It’s a privilege to try to share a few thoughts. I hope they were helpful.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Pastor VanderKlay.
Image Credit: Paul VanderKlay.