Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Are We Too Isolationist?

Recently blogger Tim Challies posted an essay describing the Christian culture in which he grew up as a child and teenager. Although he does not mention this, the essay, which has as title “The Enemy Next Door,” refers to the Canadian Reformed Churches of which his family at one time were members. Challies’ evaluation of these churches is negative, the main objection being that they were ineffective at evangelism. He contrasts the CanRef track record in evangelism with that of churches of which he subsequently became a member: In the latter much more attention was given to reaching the lost, and far more outsiders came to faith and were baptized. Trying to determine why the churches he grew up in seemed so unconcerned with passing on the gospel, he believes that the underlying reason was that they “often regarded the unbeliever as the enemy.” These churches, he adds, would never openly admit this, but the attitude nevertheless “seemed to be deeply rooted.”

The attitude became evident, he writes, in the fact that children would rarely be allowed to interact with children in the neighbourhood. This prohibition was inspired by the fear of corruption. That fear even affected some of the members’ attitude toward unbelieving friends Tim’s family brought to church: They were “mocked or scorned.” But rather than saving the church’s youth, the attitude had the opposite effect. Having been kept away from the world, and never having seen “the pain and heartbreak that are the inevitable results of forsaking God,” the children in these churches “developed a fascination with the world.” The results were seen in their lifestyle. “I saw more drugs, more drinking, more disrespect and more awful behaviour,” he writes, “in the Christian schools…than I did in public schools.”

Challies then describes the different attitude of his own parents, who allowed their children “to see unbelievers acting like unbelievers” (and so to notice the horrible effects of sin); encouraged them to be friends with neighbourhood kids, and themselves attempted to give unbelieving neighbours “the opportunity to meet the Saviour through them.” He concludes with the warning that when we want to protect ourselves from what we consider the enemy next door, “we are prone to take our eyes off the real enemy; we allow him to slip by, unnoticed…. The real enemy is not next door…. The real enemy, the most dangerous enemy, is within.”


Challies’ picture of the church of his youth hit a raw spot, and readers’ comments, both on the blog and on Facebook, showed this. Most comments expressed agreement with Challies’ negative assessment. True, there were criticisms as well. They concerned the problem of using children as “missionaries,” as well as what were considered Challies’ unfair criticism of Reformed schools. These are legitimate criticisms of the essay. Another problem is that Challies’ description is dated. It may reflect the inward-looking attitude of the CanRC some twenty years ago, but since then things have changed. Various evangelism projects have come off the ground in the last decade or so, and they are supported by increasing numbers of church members – including a large contingent of young people. Think of Streetlight in Hamilton, Campfire! and Stepping Stones Bible Camps, the short-time mission trips that our young people organize, the many local evangelism endeavours, the various urban mission projects in both eastern and western Canada, the work of church members in Haiti and Mexico. On a broader level, think also of the growing political involvement, especially through ARPA (the Association for Reformed Political Action).

I believe that especially in the case of ARPA the CanRC (and other Reformed churches) fill a gap that evangelicalism all too often left unattended. The same applies to Reformed ecclesiology and the Reformed stress on the intellectual aspects of the faith. In these areas, as many a thoughtful evangelical will admit, Reformed traditions suggest much needed corrections to practices in the evangelical world.

It is true, however, that the emphasis on evangelism and other outreach is a fairly new development and that some of these activities are still in their beginning stages. The description that Challies gives, while especially applying to the earlier years of Canadian Reformed history, is to some extent still applicable today, and his warnings need to be taken to heart even now. Our churches have established themselves, we have our church buildings, our elementary and secondary schools, our seminary, our teachers college, and so on. More time and money can and should be made available to evangelism and other outreach than happened in the past. So let’s express our gratitude to Tim Challies for reminding us of the deficiencies that need our attention. As the Dutch proverb has it: “It’s a friend who shows me my failings.”

Other reasons, other means?

To benefit from the discussion I believe, however, that we have to dig a bit deeper and see if there are additional reasons for the attitude that Challies describes. There is no doubt an element of truth in the suggestion that some of us tend to keep our distance from unbelievers, and that at least one reason is fear of possible evil influences. But we are also heirs of a Reformed tradition that gives less attention to the calling to evangelize than is the case in many other churches. Perhaps it is a result of the fact that for centuries the Reformed Church in the Netherlands (and also in a country like Scotland) was for all practical purposes the privileged church, and that the majority of the citizens were assumed to be acquainted with the gospel. After all, the nation was “Christian,” and everyone knew “the way to the church.” Striking in this respect is that the Belgic Confession in describing the marks of the true church does not mention mission and evangelism, even though that was one of the last commands the resurrected Lord gave to his disciples before his ascension (Matt 28:18ff.).

There are other factors. The Canadian Reformed Churches have always stressed, and rightly so, the importance of doctrinal purity. This is a great benefit and one of the reasons why we attract at least some outsiders to our churches (including, initially, the Challies family). It also helps explain the rapidly increasing interest in Calvinism throughout the evangelical world (see on this John van Popta’s article, “Young, Restless, Reformed” in Clarion, January 1, 2011). This is a reason for gratitude. On the other hand, there is perhaps a tendency to associate our liturgical tradition (for example) too closely with purity of doctrine and therefore to hesitate to make the changes that may enable outsiders to feel more at home in our services.

Then there is the Reformed stress on the cognitive aspect of the faith. As I indicated, this is an asset. Yet is may also mean that we are hesitant in admitting the needs of the emotions. Today, however, we live in a climate that stresses the importance of feeling, and if we are ignoring that aspect we may well set up a stumbling block to outsiders. It may also mean that we put more emphasis on the need for right knowledge than for living the proper Christian life. The Christian faith is not just a matter of knowing, but also, and first of all, of being.

Yet another element may be our vision of the church. We have been taught, again rightly so and in accordance with Art. 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession, that we must join the true church. But as has been pointed out in recent years, the “ought” too easily evolved into an “is”: We are the true church and since (if the logic is relentlessly followed) there can be no more than one true church, we are the only one. Therefore we tend to be standoffish with respect to other churches and find it difficult to agree that we can learn something from them – for example from those that put the mission mandate front and centre. To suggest that they can teach us something is too easily dismissed as un-Reformed.

The same attitude, incidentally, has meant that there has been limited contact with the writings of other Christians. I still remember the time when many of us believed that the only truly acceptable literature for us was what was written by Reformed authors. Indeed, even today there is significant hesitation to recommend, without severe warnings, the work of Christians who do not belong to our churches (I am thinking of the writings of C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, N.T. Wright, and various others).

The result has been a kind of isolationism that has been harmful not only to outsiders but to church members themselves as well. For is the Holy Spirit not also working among other Christian believers (1 John 4:2)? I hope that we can find ways and means to cooperate where possible with these believers in our common struggle against an increasingly secular society, in our response to atheistic attacks on the faith, and in our efforts to reach the lost. True, a critical attitude and critical reading are necessary, but that applies even to Reformed theologians and authors. Working with others therefore does not have to imply that we throw away the good things we have inherited from our Reformed ancestors. Nor should we. But again, faithfulness to Scripture and loyalty to the Canadian Reformed tradition do not forbid cooperation with other Bible-believing Christians. There are, by God’s grace, many of them.


Rob Schouten said...

A few thoughts about Dr. Oosterhoff's question.

1. The memories of my childhood in the CANRC in the 1960's and 1970's do not agree with what Challies writes in his blog essay.

2. It's true that the church community of my youth was ethnically homogeneous, consisting almost exclusively of Dutch immigrants and their children. It's also true that the church to which I belonged was confessionally self-conscious and strongly motivated to pass on a sound doctrinal heritage to the first generation of Canadian-born children. It may also be fair to say that ecumenical relationships were not high on the list of priorities and that evangelism was discussed not in terms of programs but as the responsibility of every believer through his or her words and deeds.

3. From the beginning, however, the immigrants who established the CANRC showed a genuine concern for ecumenical relations. A brief perusal of the Acts of Synods in the 60's and 70's shows that a lot of work was done in seeking contact with both the Christian Reformed Church and the Orthodox Presbyerian Church. Considering how small our federation was in those days, it's amazing that so much energy was devoted to these matters. Today, we have mature relations with a variety of churches which share our confession of faith.

4. In the interests of obtaining a more rounded picture of what the CANRC were like, it should be pointed out that these churches began to send out foreign missionaries within a a couple of decades of their small and fragile beginnings. Today, we are still a very small federation of churches but we have wide-ranging mission projects in Brazil, Indonesia and China. We can be thankful for an impressive growth in the span of just a few decades.

5. I did not experience in my childhood the firewall between the church and community described by Challies. I and my church friends played regularly and freely with the other neighbourhood kids. We also had many conversations with them about questions like why we went to a different school, why we went to church every Sunday and why we believed the Bible to be a special message from God.

6. In all the years of being a member of the CANRC, I have never seen any non-members “mocked or scorned” when attending a worship service in our midst. What Tim describes is horrible but I am convinced that the reactions like the ones he describes were anomalous even in the 1960's and 1970's.

To be continued in part 2

Rob Schouten
Aldergrove, B.C.

Rob Schouten said...

7. Dr. Oosterhoff is still concerned about the “we are the only true church” mentality. My concern is quite different. I believe that many of our youth have adopted a practical ecumenical attitude which sees all churches as being essentially the same regardless of any official beliefs. Whether one is Reformed or attends a neighbourhood evangelical church or goes back to the Roman communion makes no difference in one's relationship with God.Decisions about where to be a member are often made not in terms of whether or not a church faithfully confesses, preaches and teaches the good and sound doctrine of the apostles and prophets but rather in terms of whether one feels personally fulfilled in the worship experience or whether or not the church has the requisite number of “programs” deemed necessary to be a respectable church in our time.

8. Dr. Oosterhoff deplores the once prevalent attitude that Reformed believers should read primarily Reformed books. She is not happy that this supposedly narrow-minded attitude still prevails in some circles. My thought is that I'm not that happy to see Reformed believers drinking up the thin gruel offered in the evangelical bookstores while ignoring the solid food offered by writers who share their confession and heritage. As a pastor, I'm not surprised that warnings are issued in regard to writers such as N.T. Wright. After all, this scholar espouses certain views which have been identified by many of our NAPARC partners as not fully in accord with the adopted confession of our faith. In the end, what Reformed leader could be unhappy about Reformed congregants reading primarily Reformed literature? Isn't that why we have Reformed publishing companies and Reformed websites?

Rob Schouten
Aldergrove, B.C.

Gerhard H. Visscher said...


While I am quite willing to have someone point out Canadian Reformed failings, and not too bad at pointing out some of them myself, there are some things about this whole discussion that I find quite annoying.

The first is the fact that with one brushstroke the Can Reformed are dismissed and set aside. Tim may be writing from his own unique perspective, and the journey of his own family may have been helpful for him to have a better approach to witness to unbelievers than others, but I grew up in the same church of which Tim writes long before he did, when things I suppose were worse yet, but I don't remember being told that unbelievers were the enemy. As a boy, I played with them, as did my siblings. Whatever the problems may have been there, I doubt that Tim has identified them. Besides, where is the mention of that church's passion for foreign mission? Or the attempts to witness downtown at "Living Waters"? There we did not treat unbelievers as enemies either.

But the point that annoys me even more is that while criticizing the Can Reformed community for not understanding baptism rightly and not having enough adult baptisms, he appears to have left the whole Reformed community for a church which holds to little more than adult baptism (at least judging from its website). Two thousand years of church history are undone, countless doctrines are up for discussion, and the Reformed community is going to be judged from the vantage point of one who holds to an erroneous view of baptism. I am left wondering who exactly is isolationist?

No church is perfect, and churches need to make progress by God's grace, as we all do. But this analysis of our failings rubs me the wrong way, and I doubt that Reformed Academic does us a service by giving it even more attention.

Gerhard H. Visscher
Caledonia, Ontario

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

I appreciate the responses by the Rev. Rob Schouten and Dr. Jerry Visscher to our post “Are we too isolationist?” The two authors come with facts and observations that serve to moderate Tim Challies’ radical critique of the Canadian Reformed Churches. They are right, for example, in pointing out that foreign mission, as well as ecumenical endeavours, have been on our churches’ agenda since the very beginning, and they also show that isolation from unbelieving neighbours was certainly not universal among us. I thank them for reminding our readers of this. It adds to the corrections I myself had already made to an overly negative portrayal of our churches.

One of the two respondents, Dr. Visscher, asked us why we gave attention to that negative portrayal in the first place. There were two reasons. The first one was my concern about what I consider the unwarranted wholesale critique of our church, our fellow church members, and the federation as such. I therefore began by listing the corrections to which I just referred. Although some of them had already been made in comments on the Challies post, I believed that they should be expanded upon and made more generally known. I considered this especially important because several of the respondents expressed full, uncritical agreement with the accusations.

Secondly, there was the fact that so many apparently recognized themselves and their church in the Challies portrayal. Obviously, in their opinion the accusation that we are deficient in evangelism was not without foundation. And I have to admit that they have a point: A comparison of our practices in this respect with those of many evangelical churches shows that the latter place more emphasis on evangelism, including personal evangelism, than we do. Reading such evangelical periodicals as Christianity Today will make this abundantly clear. I therefore tried to investigate the reasons why traditionally we have, generally speaking, shown less concern for the lost, and for the missional mandate, than some other Christians.

I still believe that such probing is necessary, and that those who love our churches should not shy away from it. Of course, I realize the dangers. It so easily becomes a struggle of words, it may inspire a fatiguing activism, and it may alienate both traditionalists and anti-traditionalists. If engaged in at all, it must be done wisely, in a sincere attempt to find the will of the Lord for our relationship with the world. But it must be done. And in fact, it is already being done, at least to some extent. Today we hear and read (also in Clarion) more about the need to extend our missionary endeavours than was the case in the past, and especially the younger generation is clearly being inspired by the desire to contribute to these efforts. In that respect we can speak, I believe, of a paradigm shift. Let us encourage these young Reformed Christians and take their concerns and activities seriously, even if it means challenging some of our beloved and well-established traditions. That is inevitable in any event. After all, the hallmark of a Reformed church is that it must constantly be reforming. To deal with that requirement wisely and well, we need the help and guidance of our theologians. I am therefore grateful that two of them reacted to our post.


Frederika Oosterhoff said...


The reference to the younger generation brings me to a remark by the Rev. Schouten about the idea of the true church. He points out that this idea hardly lives any more among some of our younger members. I think he is right, and the tendency among some of them to find their spiritual sustenance in other (especially evangelical) churches is a matter of concern. Nor is it sporadic; it happens frequently, and also in solidly Christian families. That should make us think. True, it may be a matter of intellectual laziness and/or the desire for programs and messages that are emotionally satisfying, never mind their doctrinal content. If so, instruction and correction are needed. But it is also possible that there is in the experience of younger members something substantial missing in our churches, church services, and church activities. With such concerns we should deal seriously and pastorally. We could begin by inviting these members to voice their concerns and defend their choices, and by listening to them.

I hope that my comment will be received in the spirit in which it was written. My desire and goal are not to raise controversies; I only ask that we continue a discussion which I believe is necessary and indeed overdue.

Bill Bartels said...

I read the article by Tim Challies, but my experience was far different. I grew up on a dairy farm and attended a local one-room school, which was predominantly run and operated by the local Baptist church. Our parents allowed us to socialize and mix with the other students. After school we participated in sports, and we attended the local Baptist church outreach programs, like VBS, Christmas concerts, etc. I don’t recall how much evangelizing we did to our fellow students but there certainly was no animosity or disrespect for one another. My father interacted with the neighbours on a regular basis and he would quite often speak in his broken English about the Lord Jesus. My father was well respected in the community.

It puzzles me that Tim Challies focuses only on his negative experience within the church. He makes no mention of the preaching and of Reformed doctrine. This, it seems to me, puts him in the same category as those who focus only on the user-friendliness of a church. Of course we need to show love and compassion to our neighbours and those who live in darkness. We all need to work at that. But if you don’t have the faithful teaching and preaching then you cannot show genuine love. It is impossible to separate the three.

The July 27, 2011 issue of Christian Renewal has an article by Kevin Deyoung, titled “The secret to reaching the next generation.” I quote: “Thom Rainer did a study a number of years ago asking formerly unchurched people the open-ended question, ‘What factors led you to choose this church?’ A lot of surveys had been done asking the unchurched what they would like in a church. But this study asked the formerly unchurched why they actually were now in a church. The results were surprising: 11% said worship style led them to their church; 25% said children’s/youth ministry, and 37% said they sensed God’s presence at their church. For 41%, someone from the church had witnessed to them, and 49% mentioned friendliness as the reason for choosing their church. Can you guess the top two responses? Doctrine and preaching - 88% said the doctrine led them to their church, and 90% said the preaching led them there.”

Is Tim Challies’ harsh criticism of the Canadian Reformed Church (in which he was taught in his youth) and their outreach program, any less condemning than those he is accusing of not being friendly and accommodating? I am convinced that he would have been of greater service to the Lord and the church if, before writing the article, he had admonished the Canadian Reformed Churches in a loving and brotherly way. Then we would all have benefitted.

One other point: Tim writes that his experience in the Canadian Reformed Schools was negative, and that the behaviour of those attending was worse than in public school. I have no way of judging that but I do know that all of mankind is capable of committing gross sins. The children of the covenant are no exception. But should that be a reason not to send them to a Christian school? The mandate of the parents and the church is to educate the children in the fear of the Lord and to have them educated therein. As parents we have promised this to the Lord, and we have to fulfil that promise regardless of the children’s desires or disobedience, until they reach the age when they have to take responsibility for themselves. We are thankful that many of the young people who Tim went to school with are now mothers and fathers who continue to see the importance of the education they received, and who strive diligently to maintain Christian education and to improve it. Some of those young people have become leaders and forerunners not only in Church but also in society. I appreciate and am thankful that the teachers of our Christian schools continue to be of great assistance to students and parents.

So who is the enemy within? There are many enemies within. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy and sometimes the enemy is disguised. But enemies we have and will continue to have whose goal it is to destroy the church.

Bill Bartels
Ancaster, ON