Category Archives: The Church

Reflections on “The Holland I Never Knew”

UC Observer

Anne Bokma and I have some things in common.  We both have Dutch ancestry.  We both belong to the first generation born to post-war Dutch immigrants, though she was probably born about a decade before me.  We both grew up Canadian Reformed.  We’re both no longer Canadian Reformed.  But we also have some differences.  I suppose chief among them would be the fact that I’m not Canadian Reformed because I moved to Australia and became Free Reformed.  She remains in Canada and is now a Unitarian.

I learned about Anne’s experiences from an article she wrote for the United Church Observer, “The Holland I Never Knew.”   You should read it.  It’s well-written and provides some good insights into the thoughts and story of someone ex-CanRC.  It doesn’t strike me as being bitter or angry — more matter of fact and reflective.  Let me add some of my own reflections upon reading it.

I’m saddened by it more than anything else.  I find it particularly sad because in this story the gospel of grace is absent.  One might instinctively say that you could expect that from someone in her shoes.  Hold on.  Could it be that a regular, clear, sound communication of the gospel of grace was actually objectively missing in this story?  Isn’t it at least possible?  Yes, I know there are other possibilities, but we should be open to this one.

I look at my own upbringing and I shudder to think that I came so close to Anne’s story.  I grew up in a community where a church split happened in the 1980s.  One week some friends were at our Christian school, and the next week they weren’t.  Ostensibly the split happened over some points of doctrine, but there were other — ugly — things simmering beneath the surface.  There were other things going on too, things best left unsaid, I think.  I grew up being rather spiritually indifferent and not a little cynical.  I was going to join the Air Force and quietly slip away from the church to pursue my own life by my own standards.  The Air Force was my ticket out.  Until it wasn’t.  One day the recruiting office phoned and gave me the bad news that saved my life:  I was a bit near-sighted in my right eye and therefore disqualified from the pilot selection process.  I washed out after barely beginning.  That was a major crisis for a young man who had only ever dreamed of turning and burning in CF-18s.

Into that time of crisis stepped some people from a neighbouring CanRC who ran an annual youth camp.  This was a special group of believers, folks who took the gospel seriously and who also made discipleship of young people a priority.  I’d been to this camp before, but it was in 1991 that something finally clicked.  I was confronted with questions of ultimate importance:  why are you here on this earth?  Who are you living for?  What’s this life all about?  Who is Jesus Christ to you?  There’s no doubt in my mind that God worked in a powerful way through these sincere, spiritually-minded CanRC brothers and sisters to bring me to a deeper and more meaningful Christian commitment.  To this day, I praise and thank God for them.

When it comes to national life, there have been patriots (or better:  nationalists) who look at their country and no matter what side it takes, it’s right because it’s their country.  Some take that approach to the church too.  They will never admit that their church/church federation has done anything wrong or has ever dropped the ball on anything.  Ecclesiastical pride is something that I’ve never understood or encouraged — it runs totally contrary to what the Bible teaches.  The church is made up of sinful people and, as a result, there’s going to be a lot of messy stuff going on.  We should be able to openly acknowledge our brokenness, both on a personal level and on an institutional level.  In the past, I’ve written blog posts that have been critical of some aspects of CanRC church life.  I caught some flack for doing so — not just disagreeing with what I was saying, but the fact that I was saying anything negative or self-critical.  I don’t regret it.  We should be able to talk about these things.  There are two things we need more as Reformed people (wherever we are, Canada, Australia…):  1) the humility to admit our failures, lacks, weaknesses, and yes, even outright sinfulness or toleration of sin; 2)  the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed unambiguously and clearly as our only hope.

Yes, ultimately we all bear personal responsibility for the bad choices we make.  I was personally responsible for my cynicism and spiritual indifference as a young man.  I was personally responsible for seeking freedom (call it “redemption” if you want, but it’s pretty skewed) in the cockpit of a fighter jet.  We can say the same for Anne Bokma and the choices she’s made — personal responsibility is there too.  Yet, does the church always get away scot-free?  Does the church never bear any responsibility for her gaffes or failures?  Can’t we be honest about that and admit that we have much to learn about being a church of Jesus Christ?  We are not only individually disciples of Christ, but also corporately.  We’re disciples together, disciples who yet have much to learn from their Master.  The greatest danger is when you prematurely conclude that you’ve graduated.  Think about that.


Vector That Meal!

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Many Reformed churches have meal ministries.  You know the sort of thing.  A family in the church has a newborn baby.  Some ladies (typically the ladies) organize some meals to be brought over for a week or two.  Or someone comes home from the hospital after major surgery and then they get to enjoy two weeks of lasagna and casseroles.  In the last church I served, the deacons and their wives organized all of this using a helpful website called Meal Train.  You can find it here — it’s absolutely brilliant.

These “meal ministries” are often directed inwards.  They exist only for the membership of the church.  But do they have to?  Couldn’t we take something that we’re already doing and then use it to serve the community around us as well?  I wish I could say that I thought of that question.  Credit goes to Kevin Harney.  In his book Organic Outreach for Churches, he asks:  “What if we continued taking meals to church members, but we also made this service available to people in our community who don’t know Jesus?”  He calls this vectoring.  You vector an existing program or ministry in the church meant to serve the members.  You just redirect some of the time, energy, and resources a couple of degrees outward.

Harney relates how this concept was implemented at Corinth Reformed Church:

The first family in our community to receive meals as a result of our vectoring this ministry outward were friends of my family.  They didn’t attend any church.  We had met when our boys were in the community soccer program.  The wife was having surgery soon and her recovery would be very slow.  My wife called her before the surgery and asked if it would be okay to line up five or six families from our church to take them meals on the day after she got home from the hospital.  At first, she didn’t know how to respond.  Finally, she cautiously said, “I think that would be okay.”

When she came home after surgery, people from the church extended love and care to her and her family by taking meals for a week.  They were not pushy or aggressive.  They just used their hands to prepare meals and then delivered them with the love of Jesus.  The entire family was touched and blessed by the kindness of the church.  Once she was up and around, she called the church and got the address of every person who had brought her a meal.  Then she went to each home and delivered a little potted plant as a thank-you.

Several things happened through this whole process.  Bridges were built.  Friendships were forged.  Service was offered.  The love of Jesus was incarnated.  And our church learned that it’s not hard to take something we are already doing for ourselves and vector it a couple of degrees to also serve our community.  (pages 144-145)

What a great idea!  It’s a simple way to help direct the church outwards to those around us.


Reaching Out at the Expense of the Church?

Organic Outreach

Most believers will agree that the church should be outward looking and care about the lost.  However, for some, it’s a question of timing.  You might hear things like, “First, we need to take care of ourselves.  We have to take care of our own people and their needs first and then, once everything is in order within the church, then we can start looking outwards.”  I struggle to find such a mentality in Scripture.  In Scripture, what the church is called to be, it’s called to be all around at all times.  It’s called to simultaneously care for its own members and for the lost — they are not mutually exclusive.  One could even question whether our priorities should be the other way around:  putting the lost first.  Consider this excerpt from Kevin Harney’s Organic Outreach:

When people complained to me about our outreach efforts, about the financial costs, or about the changes we were making at the church, I asked them, “As followers of Jesus, what do we have that can never be taken away?”  Sometimes the person stared at me with a confused look.  So I clarified what I was asking until they understood.  They often began to list elements of their heavenly inheritance.

“We have heaven as our home.”

“We have the family of God, the church.”

“We have the love and grace of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, cleansing from our sins.”

Once they got rolling, they ended up with a great list of the heavenly storehouse of blessings Jesus’ followers have.  After conversing about all of that, I would ask them another question:  “What do lost people have that will last forever?”

Very quickly, most people ended up saying, “Nothing.”  Or they said, “Eternal separation from God.”  Most of the time, this became a sacred and sober moment, sometimes accompanied by tears, as we talked about how people who are without Jesus, no matter what they might have in this world, really have nothing of value.

From this point of biblical understanding, we usually began to have a meaningful discussion about how the church should use its time, resources, and influence to reach those who are spiritually poor.  (pp. 36-37)

One could go further and say that a church that cares about the lost is also going to be serving its own membership in the process.  It’s well-known that as believers share their faith, they find that their own faith is strengthened and encouraged.  One should never pit these two against one another.


Challenges Facing the Canadian Reformed Churches

As most readers know, last September I accepted a call to the Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania.  We’ve applied for our visa and are waiting for the approval to come through.  I expect, however, that within six months we’ll be moving to Australia.  That means a farewell to the Canadian Reformed Churches is imminent.  As my departure approaches, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the CanRC, who we are, where we are, and where we’re going.  I think to myself:  if I were to come back in 10 or 20 years, would I still recognize these churches?  I see several significant challenges facing the CanRC.  Below I’m going to discuss three of the most prominent.  I have written about each of these challenges separately, but here I’d like to address them together and identify the common denominator.

Challenge #1 — Nominalism and Christless Christianity

One of the greatest challenges that faces many immigrant churches is getting past their identity as immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.  This is well-documented and it has challenged us as well.  Still today, in many of our communities, we are known as a “Dutch church” and we sometimes think of ourselves as such too.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a Dutch heritage — in fact, we can even celebrate it.  The problem comes when that’s what defines us.  We go to church merely because that’s what the descendants of Dutch immigrants do.  The church becomes a social club, rather than the gathering of Christian believers and their children.  Closely related to that is the phenomenon Michael Horton has described as “Christless Christianity.”  In his book of that title, he described much of American evangelicalism as Christless, but his critique bears upon us as well.  At least some CanRC people are very comfortable speaking about God and debating points of theology but become quite uncomfortable when it comes to speaking about their Saviour Jesus and a personal relationship with him through true faith.  Jesus is more of a concept to think about and debate, than a person with whom you relate and to whom you may even speak.  To complicate matters, an emphasis on “covenant obligations” misunderstood only as strict moral imperatives has sometimes led to a twisted conception of Christianity as a system of law-keeping.  Law and gospel become hopelessly confused.  For these reasons, and others, the spirituality of some in the CanRC has far less vitality than one would hope for.

Challenge # 2 — Undermining the Authority of Scripture

There is an ongoing debate in the CanRC regarding origins.  We need to recognize that there is a story behind this debate.  The back-story began with unbiblical ideas about hermeneutics and the nature of Scripture.  Those advocating openness to a variety of positions regarding origins come at these questions from a certain standpoint.  They have their presuppositions or pre-commitments.  Those of us resisting this openness also have our presuppositions.  These (typically non-negotiable) presuppositions determine where you’ll land.  The challenge is, when it comes to hermeneutics and the nature/authority of Scripture, are we going to start with Scripture itself?  Or do we approach Scripture as autonomous judges with criteria we’ve developed ourselves for ascertaining how and when Scripture will speak to us?  You see, the real issue is not fundamentalist “creation science” vs. mainstream science.  The issue is:  will we take the Word of God on its own terms and have it as our starting place and ultimate authority in every endeavour, including science?

Challenge # 3 — Maintaining a Reformed Identity

What does it mean to be Reformed?  I was sometimes asked what “Reformed” means when I was a missionary.  My answer was always:  “back to the Bible.”  Reformed people are historically people of the Word.  Yes, some of what we do in our churches is culturally conditioned.  But much more is biblically conditioned, arising from careful reflection on and application of the Word of God.  There is a sound reason why a Reformed worship service in Brazil looks virtually the same as a Reformed worship service in Canada or the Philippines — because they all want to follow Scripture.  It seems to me that some are too quick to want to throw out certain aspects of our Reformed identity without really asking the questions that need to be asked.  Why do we this or that?  Why do we say things this way in our confessions?  What are the reasons?  What’s the history behind it?  In general, our age is not known for careful reflection and deep thought.  Unfortunately, this sometimes spills into the church too.  Some get carried away with their own preferences, their own feelings, their own desire for a certain type of “worship experience.”  We see other churches who seem to attract a lot of interest, who also seem to captivate some of our people and draw them away, and we begin to wonder if we shouldn’t emulate them in some respects.  Along the way, our Reformed identity begins to get watered down and sometimes almost completely obscured.  If our traditional Reformed identity is more cultural than biblical, this is no big deal.  But if it’s the other way around, we have a challenge on our hands.

The Common Denominator

Far more could be said about each of those challenges, but let me conclude by identifying the common denominator shared between each of those challenges.  Each of them emerges when the Word of God is ignored or disbelieved.  You cannot underestimate how important the Word of God was for the Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century.  Literacy, printing, and vernacular Bible translation were God’s gifts to allow his church to recover his Word and reform accordingly.  Today I fear we are in grave danger of taking these gifts for granted.  Look at the challenges again.  True spiritual vitality can only exist where people love the Word of God, read it for themselves, treasure it as it’s preached, and embrace its gospel promises.  The Word is the answer to challenge #1.  Challenge #2 has to do with the authority of the Word.  When God’s people humbly submit to his Word as their starting point and their ultimate authority in absolutely everything, they will not get carried away by the wisdom of this age.  Similarly, when it comes to a Reformed identity, the Word is everything.  It must sovereignly determine our worship, our piety, and our polity (church government).

How do we address these challenges?  It starts with each of us examining ourselves and our attitude towards the Word.  Do we really love the Word of God?  Is it delightful for us to read and study it personally?  Do we love to hear the voice of our Saviour speaking through the preaching?  Do we humbly submit to that Word as children respecting their exalted Father, as subjects respecting their majestic King, as creatures respecting their sovereign Creator?  Healthy, joyful, gospel-centered, outward-looking, God-honouring churches are produced by the Word of God and its impact on individual believers.  No good for ourselves or others will ever come from neglecting the Scriptures.

I know that this might come off as quite negative about the Canadian Reformed Churches.  I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that all is dark and hopeless.  I see many positive and promising developments in our churches too.  Yet the challenges that I’ve been discussing are not to be sloughed off or casually dismissed.  One only need to see where our Dutch sister churches are to recognize that, left unaddressed, these challenges will lead down the same road.  I don’t want that to happen, for I love the Canadian Reformed Churches.  For 40+ years, these churches have been my spiritual home.  By God’s grace, in these churches and through them, I have come to know the Saviour and believe the gospel.  I have much to be thankful for as a CanRC member.  I pray for these churches to flourish and continue to grow to the glory of God — and I pray that this growth will be on the only solid foundation available, the infallible and inerrant Word of God.


Confessional Conferences for Reformed Unity

Reformed Meeting

Back in the early 1990s, a unique effort was made to address several  pressing issues facing Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  The issues of concern were primarily egalitarianism (leading to women in ecclesiastical offices) and evolution.  This period saw a mass exodus from the Christian Reformed Church over these very issues and ones related to them.  From concerned CRC and ex-CRC churches, an organization developed which eventually became known as the Alliance of Reformed Churches.  The ARC was approached to convene a series of conferences aimed at developing a confessional approach to the above-mentioned issues of concern.  The hope was that confessional documents could be developed which would provide the basis for doctrinal unity between various Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.  The ARC agreed to take this on.

The first Confessional Conference was held in July of 1993.  Christian Renewal reported on it in the September 13, 1993 issue.  Attendance was not all that impressive.  Some of the noteworthy individuals in attendance were Dr. John Byl, Dr. Margaret Helder, and Dr. Nelson Kloosterman.  Attendees came from Orthodox Presbyterian, Christian Reformed (and ex-CRC), PCA, Canadian Reformed, and other churches.  The 1993 meeting reviewed a document prepared by the organizing committee on hermeneutics.  Several speeches were also presented on the subject of creation and evolution.  The intention was that a confessional document on creation would be prepared and presented at the next conference in 1994.

I have been unable to find much about the 1994 conference.  It was scheduled to be held July 13-16.  From this report, it appears that it was held, but the attendance continued to be disappointing.  Another conference was supposed to be held in 1995 to discuss ecclesiology, but because of the attendance issue, it was scrapped.  One never hears about the Confessional Conferences again.

From one perspective, the Confessional Conferences could be regarded as a failure.  However, it was not a waste of time or effort.  Today we still have two important documents that came from these conferences.  These documents should receive more attention.  The first is a Reformed Confession Regarding Hermeneutics.  The second is a Reformed Confession Regarding Creation.  These are both drafts primarily written by the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Both are precise and faithful summaries of biblical teaching on these important issues.  They feature affirmations of the correct teaching and denials of various false teachings.  They are well-worth reading and studying.

Why did the Confessional Conferences fail?  Obviously the attendance was an issue, indicating a general lack of interest in North American Presbyterian and Reformed churches.  Worse yet, there was especially a lack of interest from the membership of the Alliance of Reformed Churches itself — the very organization which agreed to organize these conferences.  Moreover, the ARC was the vehicle engineering the launch of the United Reformed Churches.  That took place in 1996.  Much time and energy was being directed towards establishing a new federation and, understandably, there seems to have been little appetite for a broader outlook on unity.

Could an idea like this be revived today?  For example, could NAPARC be the vehicle to convene a new series of confessional conferences?  We have to be realistic.  I rather doubt that the appetite would be there any more today than it was in the early 1990s.  Just observe that, since then, there have been further developments in various NAPARC churches.  For instance, on the issue of creation and evolution, the URCNA took a position at Synod Escondido 2001.  The RCUS has also taken a firm position, as have others.  While it sounds like a good idea on paper, the reality is that the desire for developing a common confessional approach to these matters is going to be weak.  Churches faced with some of these contemporary theological challenges today are going to be best off investing their time and energy with an “in-house” approach.