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October 24, 2000

Calvin Profs Study CRC

A pair of Calvin College professors are planning a project with counterparts at Hope College to study the similarities and differences between the Christian Reformed and Reformed Church.

Corwin Smidt (left) and James Penning, Calvin political science professors, used a seed grant from the Calvin Alumni Association to commission and partially fund a survey this past spring by Calvin's Social Research Center of Christian Reformed Church members across North America.

They now are releasing the "first cut" analysis of that survey. In fact, this past weekend Smidt and Penning gave a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion called "Subcultural Identity and Religious Vitality: The Christian Reformed Church in North America."

There are some interesting findings in the early data. For example, fully one third of the CRC respondents did not choose the label "Reformed" to describe themselves religiously, opting instead for other labels, including fundamentalist, ecumencial, mainline, Kuyperian and liberal.

"These CRC members," says Smidt, "were less likely to have grown up in the CRC, more likely to have been members of a CRC church for a shorter period of time, more likely to be somewhat younger, more likely to hold the creeds of the CRC to be less important in their lives and less likely to have served in such roles as Sunday school teacher, elder, deacon and others."

Another one third of respondents chose the label "Reformed," but in conjunction with the label "evangelical." And the final third chose either "Reformed" by itself or "Reformed" with labels such as fundamentalist, ecumenical, mainline, Kuyperian and liberal.

"This is somewhat surprising," says Smidt, "but likely a result of the 'Americanization' of the CRC in the latter part of the 20th century. The fact that Canadian CRC members identity themselves less often as Reformed and evangelical would appear to be evidence of that 'Americanization' process, which the CRC in Canada may still yet face."

Smidt's survey included 78 percent U.S. respondents and 22 percent Canadian respondents.

The three CRC groups approach their faith in different ways. Those who see themselves as Reformed and evangelical tend to be more "pietistic" than those who are just Reformed. Bible reading, private prayer and weekly church attendance are all higher for the former. In the case of daily Bible reading there is a 14 percentage point difference with 57 percent of those who are Reformed reading the Bible daily vs 71 percent of those who are Reformed and evangelical.

The Reformed and evangelical group also tends to be more involved in church via such activities as Sunday School teaching, church committee and volunteering in church. The gap ranged from 11 to 17 percentage points. Those who identified themselves as non Reformed significantly trailed both of the other subsets in both the piety categories and the involvement categories.

None of the three subsets is too keen on denominational affiliation, seeing local congregational life as much more important. Congregational affiliation was rated as extremely or quite important by 79 percent of the Reformed and 80 percent of the Reformed and evangelical.

Meanwhile denominational affiliation was seen as extremely or quite important by 57 percent of the Reformed folks and 60 percent of the Reformed and evangelical crowd. The non-Reformed respondents were less enthusiastic about congregational affiliation with 65 percent saying it was extremely or quite important; they also were mild in their support for denominational affiliation with 45 percent thinking it to be extremely or quite important.

Smidt says the CRC is facing obstacles to denominational identity also shared by other denominations.

"The modern world poses formidable challenges to denominational life today," says Smidt. "And even within denominations many who attend churches aligned with a particular denomination do not choose to identify with that denomination or the religious tradition of which it is a part. There are people who join churches of a given denomination who know little of the denomination's history and might not even identify with the religious tradition of which the denomination is a part."

Smidt also notes the ability of broader religious forces to cut across denominational boundaries.

"Religious movements such as fundamentalism," he says, "encompass a variety of denominations. These movements can challenge the vitality of specific denominations since the religious identities of congregational members may be linked more with the broader religious movements than with the particular denominations to which they belong."

Smidt hopes to use seed money provided by the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship to secure a larger grant for ongoing research which eventually would lead to a book by him, Penning and Hope colleagues Don Luiden and Roger Nemeth, examining the CRC and RCA.

Smidt notes that no baseline research has ever been done on the religious beliefs and vitality of CRC members. This ongoing research project would "establish a historical benchmark" that then can be a reference point for future studies. Smidt, Penning, Luiden and Nemeth also are all part of the International Society for the Study of Reformed Communities, a group that meets every three years and includes representatives from around the world, including Reformed communities in such places as the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Hungary, the Netherlands and Scotland.

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Contact Phil de Haan.