The Final final (maybe…?) report of the Vision 2020 Task Force was released. You can read it here. This series of posts will look deeper at the recommendations not just from a pragmatic lens, but also through a theological lens. While many have given up on the reality that the church order is theological, I cannot accept that. If we cannot see the church order as a theological document, then this entire enterprise is lost. While we may value things like ease and efficiency, this cannot be the driving values. If they are, we have lost sight of what we are about.
From the outset, I want to affirm the hard work of the task force. It was an impossible task with which they were charged, and I think they have done their work faithfully. There are parts of the report that I affirm, and more parts that I critique. But my desire is that critiques are to be understood not as attacks (personal or otherwise), but rather, my desire to contribute to the discussion in what I hope will be a constructive way.
You can read other posts in this series on restructuring, and on the concept of affinity.
New Mission Agency
The second recommendation by the 2020 Task Force is a new mission agency. The intention is certainly laudable. It allows those who leave to continue to support missionaries without it being a part of the denomination from which they seceded. For some, financial contributions to anything connected to the RCA may be objectionable, even though contributions to global mission do not go to support any other program of the denomination. Mission work has been one of the things around which the RCA has historically rallied, and it is through this legacy that the RCA has had a very outsized impact on the world. This is the attempt of the 2020 Task Force to continue that legacy and allow people to feel as if they are a part of something, even if they are not.
As with the others, there are concerns and questions that I have about this, and I think these need to be answered, at least in some way, before the General Synod is adequately able to decide on this. For this reason, I am incredibly grateful for the minority report, resurrecting a noble tradition that has, for some reason, been abandoned in the RCA and which allows the minority to do several things, including (1) place, on record, their position and their dissent from the majority, (2) and in doing so, respecting the existence of the minority, (3) allows the minority to argue their position, and therefore (4) gives the body more to consider than just a binary yes or no vote on one perspective on, usually, rather complex matters. Indeed, this minority report is the single most theologically informed part of this report, and I give thanks that someone contributed a theological understanding to this rather than the primary focus of efficiency and organizational calculus. The minority report is excellent, and I will not reiterate their points here, of which I am in substantial agreement, but I will, in the strongest way possible, recommend that you read it. The essence of what this does is it completely divorces global mission work from the life of the church, and creates yet another parachurch organization. Parachurch organizations have their place, however, it becomes problematic when parachurch organizations are seen as churches, or begin functioning as one. This recommendation completely ignores the ecclesiastical and ecclesiological grounding of mission.
This separation of church and mission is not only theologically problematic, it is practically a minefield and does not, at all, present a solution in any way.
First and foremost, the first obvious problem is the question of the composition of the board of this mission agency. The recommendation gives the GSC the responsibility to form an implementation team to create this agency. But how is this to be done? It is one thing to create an agency within the RCA, it is quite another to create an agency completely separate from it. Who will approve the bylaws? Who will do the drafting? Who will serve on the board of directors? Will it be people who remain in the RCA? Will it be half people from the RCA and half from elsewhere? If so, how do we define the elsewhere? Will this new agency take a drastically different trajectory in terms of mission philosophy and approach than the future RCA?
There are obvious questions about the functioning of this agency, as well. Will this new agency continue the RCA’s practice against colonializing through mission work in which we aways work with local mission partners rather than just forming a global network of RCA churches? Will the new agency be competent to adopt a stringent extra-confessional code with which missionaries can be required to agree? If so, who defines what that code is? If we are moving global mission out of the RCA, then we are we taking funds from the RCA’s mission work and relocate it to a completely separate organization? Does this assume that the Reformed Church will no longer do any global mission work?
There are questions about the impacts that this will have on our mission partners. Because the RCA has such a significant mission heritage, including a long history of ministering to the total life of people (which includes medical work and education, as well as others), the RCA is respected around the world, even in places where other Christian groups are not desired or welcomed in the same way. If we completely separate the mission work from the RCA, will this have an impact on the functioning and continuation of our missionaries in particular places around the world? Indeed, for Americans money is often one of the most important things. But in other places, it is not always about money but also about history and relationship.
There are also questions about whether this solves anything or simply shifts the conflict elsewhere. The reason that we are at this point now is a weariness of struggling. However, might missionaries be required to sign a statement affirming a traditionalist view of marriage? If so, how will this be decided? It is hard to imagine a scenario in which a battle will not be fought. Even if a hyper-partisan board of directors is chosen, such moves would not go over simply and easily. The conflict will continue, it will just be shifted. Out of sight and out of mind does not mean gone.
This new mission agency is ecclesiologically problematic, and includes innumerable practical problems which cause this to not be a solution, but a conflict at least as bad as what we have now, perhaps even with greater stakes. It’s one thing to divide a small denomination in the United States, it’s another thing to throw our global work, some places with decades, even centuries, of meaningful and fruitful partnership into uncertainty simply because some do not want to fund mission work if that money is stewarded by the Reformed Church in America.