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Reformed Church: It’s Not Always a Crystal Cathedral

Times Staff Writer

Judging by his appearance, the youthful minister of Anaheim Hills Community Church could have worked his way through school modeling for the label of the Dutch Boy paint can.

For Tim Van Heest, who attended his denomination’s college and seminary in Holland, Mich., the resemblance is not accidental. His father and both his grandfathers were ministers of the Reformed Church in America, a 350-year-old denomination once known as the Dutch Reformed Church.

“I was thinking it was genetic,” Van Heest said of his vocation last week, during a break in the denomination’s annual meeting at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. For the first time in its history, the church held its General Synod on the West Coast.

350,000 Members

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But Van Heest, 32, said only a few families in his California congregation have hereditary ties to the Reformed Church, most of whose 350,000 members are clustered in the Northeast and Midwest, where early Dutch immigrants first settled.

“The vast majority come from other backgrounds,” he said. “There are very few Dutchmen in our church.”

The 10,000-member Crystal Cathedral, founded by the Rev. Robert Schuller, the television evangelist, is probably the best-known church in Orange County affiliated with the Reformed Church, but there are five smaller congregations in the county that are much more typical of the denomination.

Along with Van Heest’s church in Anaheim, there are Reformed Churches in Irvine, Buena Park, Laguna Hills and San Juan Capistrano, where Schuller’s son, Robert Anthony Schuller, is the minister.

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Each of the other congregations has had to work out its relationship with the towering presence of the Crystal Cathedral, which some have acknowledged as a mixed blessing, providing both a point of identification as well as a potential competitor.

“We find a sharpening of our identity through the Crystal Cathedral,” said the Rev. Duane Tellinghuisen, 60, of the Community Reformed Church of Buena Park, who was also a delegate to the synod. “We haven’t lost people to it. We haven’t gained people from it. There is a sense of pride that we can say we are of a sister denomination.”

The largest Reformed Church congregation in Orange County, next to the Crystal Cathedral, is that of Lake Hills Community Church. Its pastor, the Rev. Harold F. Leestma, 67, was a minister at the Crystal Cathedral for 12 years, and the Laguna Hills church offers one drive-in service each Sunday.

Only about 10% of the 1,200-member congregation is of Dutch descent, said Leestma, father of shuttle astronaut Cmdr. David Leestma. The membership is equally distributed by age, he said, including about one-third coming from nearby Leisure World.

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The denomination’s name recognition with Schuller and, for older members, with Norman Vincent Peale, “has made some difference” in attracting congregants, Leestma said, “but I don’t think that’s why they come.”

More Intimate Setting

Some people might choose Lake Hills to find a version of Schuller’s theology in a more intimate setting, Leestma said.

“We’ve always been known as a friendly, family-centered congregation, with a lot of emphasis on education,” he said. In general, Leestma said, “people are looking at the local church rather than the denomination,” concentrating on “who’s the preacher, what’s the music?”

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In a follow-up letter sent to all first-time visitors to his Anaheim church, Van Heest said, both Schuller and Peale are mentioned.

“They’re the only names that people recognize,” Van Heest said.

In addition to defining their relationship to Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral, Reformed Churches in conservative Orange County face another challenge: the denomination’s generally liberal posture on social and international issues, including membership in the National and World councils of churches.

“We’re not pushing a denominational agenda, and we don’t stress our denominational ties,” Van Heest said. “We downplay it, but we need it for our identity and accountability.” The denomination’s stands on social issues, he said, “are not a front and center thing for us.”

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Dispute Over Speaker

One such dispute, pitting the denomination’s leadership against Schuller, came when Schuller forced the synod to move the keynote address of a representative of the African National Congress from the arboretum of the Crystal Cathedral to the nearby Doubletree Hotel in Orange.

“Our people have not gotten caught up in some of the major social issues,” Tellinghuisen said. “People are interested in a program that ministers to their needs.”

In choosing a name for the 150-member congregation, the Anaheim church--like some others in Orange County--decided to use the word community rather than the word reformed.

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“We’re uniquely announcing our community identity,” Van Heest said.

Leestma agreed that the word community in the church’s name was an attraction, along with the parklike grounds and 15-acre lake. “That’s important,” he said. “It does draw people.”

The primary concern of his 500-member congregation, which uses both terms in its name, Tellinghuisen said, is “how can the church help us be more relevant to the people in our community?”

The congregation, which has been in Buena Park for 32 years, “sees its ministry within a three- to four-mile radius of the church,” Tellinghuisen said.

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“The Reformed Church is strong in Orange County,” Leestma said, “but it’s not always known as the Reformed Church.”


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