A Time of Turmoil — the CRC in the 1960s
The decade beginning in 1960 was tumultuous for North American society in general. The times were changing, and from entertainment to politics, these changes were revolutionary in many respects. Authority was challenged by the youth of the era in unprecedented ways. Many of these revolutionary changes took place on college and university campuses across the United States. Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan was no exception.
The revolutionary changes sparked in this decade appear to have climaxed between 1968 and 1972 — years when the United States was facing the greatest criticism about its involvement with the war in Vietnam. Calvin College was racked with unrest in these years too. After the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, it was Calvin College (in cooperation with local CRC ministers) that led an ecumenical memorial service in Grand Rapids. That same year an article appeared in The Banner (the denominational magazine of the CRC) arguing for the legitimacy of the war in Vietnam. The students and staff of Calvin College were the ones who protested the loudest against this article. In May of 1970, a Roman Catholic priest spoke at Calvin and enthusiastically encouraged civil disobedience, a speech for which he was warmly applauded. More examples could be brought forward.
The important thing to note for our purposes is that this unrest was not limited to social and political life. It soon spread to include worship practices in the CRC, at least in the Grand Rapids area. For instance, in March of 1971 there was a presentation at Calvin College of the Andrew Lloyd Webber production which made a mockery of our Lord Jesus Christ. Two weeks later, as part of a Lent program, the services on the Knollcrest campus employed parts of the same blasphemous production as preludes and postludes. This was not an isolated incident.
In 1968-69, the sermon in its “traditional” form came under attack in the University Hills CRC in Michigan. Said the pastor, J. Harold Ellens, “University Hills Church recognizes that the sermonic form for proclamation is not the best necessarily and certainly not the only mode for the church’s proclamation.” He further stated in a letter to the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen, “Whatever medium succeeds is God’s medium of announcing His grace. That is proclamation.” In a similar way, Donald H. Postema, a CRC chaplain at the University of Michigan, asked, “Is the monological sermon the only way for powerful proclamation? Could not choral reading, poetry, drama, dance, film, dialogue, whatever form of communication that is available, be used to proclaim the message of God?”
We find the same Donald H. Postema in 1972 playing the part of Judas Iscariot in an Easter worship service at the Lagrave Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids. Others portrayed our Lord Jesus and the other disciples. Leading this service was Calvin Seminary professor Harold Dekker.
Under the leadership of Bernard Pekelder (a CRC minister), the worship services at Knollcrest continued to be a source of deviation from traditional CRC worship practices. The services were occasionally punctuated with filthy language (in prayer). They included music by such notables as Peter, Paul and Mary, the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, and the Beatles.
Although the CRC had not officially moved in any of these directions (via synodical initiatives or decisions), some of the churches of the Grand Rapids area were actively experimenting with worship and liturgy. They seem to have done so under the shadow of more radical developments at Calvin College and Seminary. These developments were not always initiated by students. In fact, many of those organizing, leading, and participating in these novel worship activities were ministers and professors. Among them we find professors Nicholas Wolterstorff, Harold Dekker, Melvin Hugen, and John Worst. Ministers included the above-mentioned Bernard Pekelder and Donald Postema. One seldom reads about students themselves leading these activities or pushing for a move in this direction. The changes appear to have come from above rather than from below. This pattern will become more evident as we proceed to look at the official developments.
Next time: Synod 1964