Articulating a Reformed Identity: What do you say when someone asks what it means to be Reformed?

Some models of campus ministry center around student worship. Many do not. Regardless, articulating a Reformed identity does give rise to some thoughts about what characterizes distinctively Reformed worship. Here are a few thoughts on Reformed worship from the “back door” of campus ministry.

Like the rest of North American society, the world of higher education is very competitive. Each educational institution competes with its peers for a limited amount of governmental support. Professors engage in competition to get their papers published and to obtain time and money for research, while students compete against each other for athletic, academic, and social acclaim. Service providers of all sorts likewise compete for a share of the campus market. This concentrated campus environment, where thousands of people gather every day, draws fast-food outlets, convenience stores, and political and special-interest advocacy groups, along with spiritual purveyors of all kinds, like vendors to a flea market. Each vies with all the others for space and recognition and for a place to peddle their wares. Each wants to become known as a provider of choice.

From deep within this environment, a stranger called me out. And in the moment of the calling, I was not entirely sure if I was being challenged or affirmed. In competitive settings, it is not always easy to discern whether some new thing is likely to grow toward a win-lose confrontation or a mutual advancing. The stranger was a Canadian Southern Baptist campus minister named Mel Cruickshank. I had just emerged from a meeting room that was too small for our group (but the best space available to us on campus that day). As I began to jostle my way down the crowded corridor of the student center, Mel called me out and ever so graciously, yet very persistently, proceeded to articulate my Reformed identity to me.

A Broad and Encompassing View of the World

Reformed people, according to Mel, open up space in which others are free to flourish. They invite people into a broad and encompassing view of the world in which there is room for each unique dimension of reality to celebrate its worth in relation to all the rest. When Reformed people are at their best, Mel testified, all the rest of us do better in our own unique ways too. Presumably, Reformed worship is likewise at its best when others freely testify that it is good for them too.

Identity presses toward particularity. Within the world of higher education we might identify Canadian higher education, higher education in Alberta, tertiary level educational institutions in Calgary, or specifically the University of Calgary. As the particularity increases, what is identified sharpens. To speak of a person’s religious identity as a Christian is helpful, but it begs the question What kind? Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, non-denominational? And within each of these categories is a plethora of distinctive types, each claiming its own specific and unique identity. At its worst, of course, this pressing toward particularity slips into sectarian strife; identity can be parsed so tightly that it turns people away from (against!) confessional kin and clan. At its worst, Reformed worship focuses on exclusion and becomes sectarian. But at its best, this turn to particularity highlights the unique and varied gifts each of us has, a multiplicity of gifts given by God for the common good. At its best, Reformed worship openly embraces the limit and uniqueness of our distinctive gifts.

An Appreciation of God’s Relation to the World

When Reformed people think about God’s relation to the world, they typically reach out to enquire about every nook and cranny of the universe. This tendency is a particular gift, an identifying characteristic. A deep appreciation of the sovereign scope of God’s relating to the world leads to a prevailing commitment to seek out God’s ways wherever we are in whatever we do. The sovereign scope of God’s relating inspires an ongoing quest to better comprehend all that is on offer. Worldviews (and the way of living they prescribe) are endlessly analyzed and refined, always subject to yet further reform and transformation as the biblical story illumines yet more of God’s way in the world. Every discipline, every vocation, every relationship, every neighborhood, each and every part of our world can participate in giving expression to this identity. Reformed worship that willfully excludes the arts, civic justice, or any category of people or any other domain of God’s creation, betrays its heritage.

Reformed identity has more to do with how we locate our place and engagement in the world than it does with liturgical acts or cathedral experience. Identity is then not so much a matter of what we do (though that certainly comes into play) but is more about being caught up in the mighty acts of God that are unfolding in our world today.

A Story That Encompasses All That We Experience

The scope and contour of a Reformed imagination arises from Scripture. God reveals. And the unique revelation given to us in Scripture is the touchstone from which we proceed and to which we return. The imaginative limit of the scriptural story is more than sufficient; indeed, it forever exceeds what we dare to hope or imagine.

The scriptural story opens us up to the full reality of this world. In Reformed worship, the whole story is on offer. The story encompasses all that we experience. It speaks of celebration and bewilderment, awe and tragedy, comedy and grace. There is unbounded goodness built into every day, and terrible rupture wreaking havoc throughout, order and chaos, lambs and lions, innocence and vengeance. And were it not for the suffering love of the One who ushered it into being in the first place, the story would empty itself into ruin unending. But—and the story becomes gospel by this divine intervention—Love Divine chooses to embrace the ruin and suffering of this world. Love bears it all. God’s redeeming love lights up the way of reconciliation and renewal for each dark nook and every evil cranny. Gathered by and around this light, all creation lurches onward in search of that great day when the unbounded glory of God is radiant in and through it all once more.

To be Reformed is to be caught up in this grand narrative. It is to live and move and breathe inside the world of this story. To be in this world is to be religious. It is to live attuned to the story or to wrestle in rebellion against it. There is no other alternative. To live and move and breathe is to bear witness, no matter what we are doing, where we are living, or how shallow our breathing. To be Reformed is to acknowledge that we live in totality (every part and the whole of us) before the sovereign Author of the story. We were made for such living; it is our mission. Each and every quirky one of us, every interest and skill, all our work and play is inevitably caught up in the story.

Integral to Our Daily Life

Articulating our Reformed identity is therefore part of the warp and woof of our daily living. Reformed identity is not beholden to some exceptional event, to a specified vocational role, or to an ethical limitation. It is given expression, rather, in and through the whole of life—body, soul, mind, and spirit. Rightly, therefore, a Reformed way of living eschews the all too popular polarizations that plague us today—traditional versus contemporary, evangelism versus transformation, institutional versus personal, word versus deed, head versus heart—focusing instead on how the uniqueness and diversity of each particular element can be appreciated in terms of the whole. As the tendency to compartmentalizing polarities gives way to integral living, Reformed identity is more clearly focused. Reformed worship is integral to, not segregated from, daily life. All of life is lived within the story; there is no part of who we are or what we do in the world that does not belong. The focus of a Reformed identity centers on the nature of that belonging. We belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. Our world belongs to God.

* * *

When Mel Cruickshank called me out, he did so because he longed to see a Christian Reformed campus ministry within the University of Calgary. “You belong here,” he said. Given the competitive nature of our world, the constant vying—also among religious groups—for attention on a campus, it was a stunning remark. Mel was not saying Reformed people somehow got it all right; he was not saying Reformed people were indispensable, or better than anyone else. No, Mel was simply affirming the gifts and fruitfulness that accrue to faithful articulations of Reformed identity. At their best, he found that such articulations open up space in which others are free to flourish in their uniqueness and totality before the face of God. At its best, then, the articulation of Reformed identity is a gracious act of hospitality freely offered for the common good.

In the fall of 2004, the Christian Reformed Church will launch a campus ministry at the University of Calgary. And just as we hope and pray that each Reformed congregation offers worship that opens up space throughout every nook and cranny of their own neighborhood so that others are free to flourish, so too we expectantly pray for the same hospitality to mark this new campus ministry, the competitive cauldron of North American society notwithstanding.

The story is still being written; what a marvel it is to be caught up in the midst of it—all the more so as our identity is known and celebrated by others.

 

Excerpt

At its best, then, the articulation of Reformed identity is a gracious act of hospitality freely offered for the common good.