Monday, July 25, 2011

Academics and Church Membership

Thank you, Freda, for beginning an important discussion. In this post, I would like to highlight the connection between academics and church membership, by first telling my story and then giving some suggestions.

I grew up with the assumption that the world was cleanly divided into two camps: people in North America were either members of a Canadian Reformed church (CanRC) or they were heathens. How this thinking arose in me is quite unclear, as this was certainly never taught explicitly by parents, teachers, or ministers. But neither was it, as far as I recall (and my recollection is not perfect), taught against, and I have spoken with many who felt similarly, as well as many who didn’t. This remained my view until somewhere during my graduate studies in physics, just under 20 years ago. This despite attending a public school in Fergus for Grades 11-13, where many others attended who belonged to other churches, and where my geography teacher invited me to a discussion of faith & geology (which I ignored impolitely; after all, he couldn’t have been a Christian). Furthermore, as an undergrad at the University of Waterloo, a number of my classmates and even the professor with whom I interacted most were Christians; their invitations to talk about Christianity were equally impolitely rejected. Of course I could not attend Redeemer College where the devil walked in slippers; in Waterloo he walked in wooden shoes. I did not get involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). Fortunately, matters of faith and academics were not entirely sidelined, as I was involved with a Canadian Reformed student fellowship which met in Hamilton about once a month during the academic year and held a retreat during most years. When considering which graduate school to attend, I recalled the map of North America on which “all” the churches were plotted, and its vast USA wasteland: except for Grand Rapids, Laurel, and Lynden, there were no Christians in that heathen land.

So it appears black-and-white thinking was solidly entrenched in me, likely due not entirely to denominational influences and perhaps more due to my own immature personality.

It was not until I received from an elder in Langley CanRC a copy of an early issue of Modern Reformation (I think it might have been the issue themed “Wanted: Thinking Christians”) that I realized my false dichotomy: there were actually confessional, Reformed Christians in North America outside the CanRC. And eventually, I grew to understand that even Baptists, Pentecostals, and Mennonites (etc.) are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Around the same time, thanks to an erudite high-school teacher friend, I became aware of books such as Creation Regained by Al Wolters. And suddenly I soared into the world of academics and faith with newfound wings, and have learned to appreciate (although not without critique) the Reformational philosophy of Dooyeweerd (and his colleagues Schilder and Vollenhoven), and entered with confidence the world of InterVarsity as well as other broader networks of academics and Christians. Along the way, I have grown in my regard for the Reformed distinctives, and am committed to confessional Reformed church membership.

I believe few are today walking in my shockingly insular footsteps of some twenty years ago. But there is still more I think we could grow in, in the area of academics and church membership. We could better prepare our university-bound students to appropriately engage their classmates, their professors, their discipline, rather than stick to those they know. We should send our students into public or Christian universities with confidence, grateful for their background, and not be afraid that too much interaction will dilute their faith. We ought to encourage our students who go to university to be appropriately open to new and challenging ideas, and not just to gain the knowledge and skills they need to get a good job. We should not expect our students to simply carry on the cultural traditions and notions of their fathers, but rather to discern, develop, and deploy their talents for the glory of God and the advancement of the Kingdom in its cosmic scope.

I am encouraged by recent developments in both BC and Ontario in which a student retreat is held prior to the new academic year. But I am discouraged that these discussions are not routinely followed up in regular meetings throughout the year. I would like to encourage those organizing these retreats to set aside time to discuss matters such as those I’ve raised in the previous paragraph, and to promote ongoing conversations perhaps led by members of their own community who are experienced in academics.

Being a Christian and an academic can be an isolating experience. As a member of a congregation, you may be one of only a few who take advanced studies. As a university student, you may be one of only a few Christians. But perhaps our vision is not large enough to see and engage with more of our fellow academics who are Christians, and perhaps we can do more to encourage diligent and significant scholarship.

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.