Also on Sunday? Or: also on Saturday?

 

An Adventist church in Huntsville, in the American state of Alabama, has recently launched a remarkable initiative. From now onwards there will also be a church service on Sunday mornings. But Adventists should to worry unduly: the members of the First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Huntsville have not apostatized and have not done away with the Sabbath. On Saturday mornings it will be business as usual in the church that seats about 1.200 people: the Bible study followed by a traditional worship service.

The service on Sunday morning does not target the regular Adventist church goers. The aim is to attract non-Adventist, in particular ‘non-churched,’  fellow citizens to a short church service—people who may find it strange to go to church on a Saturday. The initiators emphasize the informal character of the service, and those who come are encouraged to ‘dress down’.

The leader of the pastoral team indicated that he expects there may be some Adventist church members who may now prefer the Sunday service. However, that is a possible side-effect he is willing to accept. He has received strong support from some: Here is an Adventist congregation that is willing to think ‘outside the box’ and is prepared to try unconventional things to get in touch with people they did not reach until now. Others see only huge dangers. They feel that the Sabbath is the Adventist trade mark par excellence and offering services on Sunday may only create a lot of confusion. Is the Sabbath not that important after all . . . ? And, so the argument continues: before you know it, the Sunday service increases in importance, and the services on Sabbath will become secondary . . .

I have never visited the First Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Huntsville. I have never met its pastoral team and have no idea of the atmosphere in this congregation. However, I am strongly inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt—and, in particular, to trust their judgment. Yet, it immediately occurs to me that the time slot for a service is not the only factor that determines whether or not one will ‘reach’ the people. Most important remains the challenge that the gospel and the Adventist perspective is translated in such a way that people will understand it and see its relevancy. I will follow the Huntsville experiment with keen interest!

In the meantime I have a suggestion for the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN). This faith community is seriously concerned about the future of the Dutch church. It is therefore launching a broad survey in an attempt to find out what the members of the church expect from their church. It is hoped that many ideas may emerge that will give local congregations a new lease on life. It is a praiseworthy initiative. Of course, one may also pose the question whether the church leaders should not, above all, wonder what God expects of their church, rather than to zoom in on the question what the people want. But yet . . .

The average town and village in the Netherlands differs greatly from Huntsville, Alabama. Many Dutch people no longer regard ten o’clock on a Sunday morning the most suitable time for going to church. Many—especially the younger generation– prefer to sleep in, after having partied on Saturday evening. Might the PKN perhaps experiment with services on Saturdays (for instance, late in the morning, with a good breakfast), as people are on their way to go shopping) in some centrally located buildings? Or on Saturday afternoon, with coffee and tea, after the shopping had been done? Perhaps this may be a method to reach a public that is less and less inclined to visit a church on Sunday morning . . . ?

In any case, I am keenly interested in the results of the PKN survey. Other faith communities may probably also learn a lot from its outcome.

 

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Lessons from the Carmelite monks

 

Friends in the beautiful Belgian city of Gent had reserved a room for us (my wife and myself)  in the local Carmelite monastery. The monastery of this ancient mendicant order is situated in the busy heart of the historic city of Gent, but nonetheless is an oasis of rest. The website of the monastery tells the visitor that the Carmelite monks of Gent continue to form a living community. Looking at the size of the historic buildings, the monumental eighteenth century church and the magnificent garden, it would appear that it is, indeed, still very much a ‘going concern’. But there is another side to it. Little is actually left of the real monastic community. Only some seven elderly monks remain.

The major part of the complex us presently in use as a conference center named ‘het Rustpunt’. After a significant renovation it offers excellent meeting facilities. A number of spacious rooms are very suitable for group meetings or seminars. The ‘Refter’ has been changed into a very comfortable breakfast room. On the second floor, along the monks’-corridor, the few remaining monks have their lodgings. One floor higher, along the Eliah-corridor, one finds a series of comfortable hotel rooms for a few dozen guests. One of these rooms had been reserved for us during the past weekend.

If one does not like rest and quiet, and finds it hard to be without television for a few days, this is not the place to stay. This is a place for those who appreciate this kind of environment. It seemed to me that this would be an eminently suitable place for someone who wants to write a book and is in search for a place where one can concentrate for a few weeks, while thinking and working . . .

It is a good things that the Carmelites of Gent have succeeded in giving their center a new purpose. However, at the same time, it also made me sad. Hardly anything is left of an idealistic initiative that for many centuries gave lots of people meaning to their lives and provided a long tradition of serving God in an intense manner.

The Carmelites in Gent are surely not the only ones who see how their tradition is about to end. This experience is shared by people in all kinds of faith communities—also within Protestantism and even in the Adventist sphere. Local church communities that once flourished decline and disappear. Organizations and forms of experiencing the faith and of translating faith into service fall into disuse. Buildings may have to be closed and sold. And people are left with the vexing question where this process of decay will eventually end.

Does not honesty force us to conclude that a major part of the problem is that often the church is so attached to the forms that the content has receded into the background? That as christians we have not succeeded in time to create new forms for living our faith and have not devised new strategies to give expression to our desire to serve the people in relevant ways? Unfortunately , we find in all faith communities—including the Adventist Church—too many instances where a small group of people try to hang on to traditions that have outlived themselves, while they have not succeeded in creating new forms before it was too late. As a result there may still be a monks’ corridor, with some activities that have been started to postpone the inevitable end for a little time. The experience of the Carmelites in Gent teach us a clear lesson.

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TV on Sunday morning

 

In spite of the flu shot, I was, like many hundreds of thousands of my fellow Dutchmen, attacked by by the virus of the current flu-strain. It took some determination to keep going. Last Saturday morning it was a bit dubious whether or not my audience would still be able to understand my guttural sounds towards the end of the sermon. Fortunately, intense coughing fits or periods of awkward frequent sneezing were delayed until after the service.

I am sure that, especially last Sunday, I did not radiate a lot of energy. It was the kind of day that was spend mostly hanging on the couch with quite a bit of television watching. I must admit that I regularly watch some religious television programs on Sunday morning. It is something I got used to during the periods that we lived in the US. On Sunday morning one religious show  follows the other on most American channels. A few are worth watching because of their content, but most of them are only worth watching because they give some insight in this strange world of shouting television pastors and all kinds of, often bizarre, religious fringe phenomena, that form a unique aspect of American ‘culture.’

My ongoing fascination for these programs on Sunday morning on Dutch tv is probably at least partly due to professional deformation. But some of these do have something to say. That is true for many of the interviews by Jacobine Geel and also for some of the conversations during de Wandeling. After this I often stay with this channel for some time for the program of religious singing: Nederland Zingt op Zondag. I agree with my wife that, as far as quality is concerned, it cannot begin to compare with the BBC program Songs of Praise. Yet, even the traditional psalm singing has something special. Whatever one might say about it, it is a specimen of Dutch Calvinistic culture that, I believe, should be recognized by the folks of the World Cultural Heritage. However, my special appreciation  goes to the program De Verwondering (the Wonderment) that is presented by Annemiek Schrijvers. With a restrained kind of devotion she talks with a well-know Dutch person in her small cottage in the woods, some 25 kilometers from Amsterdam. She knows how to touch her guest in such a way that he/she will bare his/her soul and will share his/her faith (or the absence thereof) with the viewer.

This past Sunday Annemiek talked with Jan Brokken. I only vaguely remembered him. Brokken is a journalist, but also a gifted author of travel stories and novels. Last week I happened to see the program in which Bert Keizer, an author and well-known doctor in a care centrum for the elderly, was the guest. And a few weeks ago I switched on the tv just when Annemiek started her interview with Jan Terlouw—the author of books for children and writer of thrillers for adults, as well as a respected liberal-democrat ex-politician. Remarkable enough. all three of these men grew up in a pastor’s home, but all three, apparently, were not able to find in the church what their parents had discovered. Many of my fellow-pastors will readily admit that they share in what must have been the experience of the parents of Brokken, Keizer, and Terlouw: It is certainly not a matter of course that children who grow up in a parsonage will retain their bond with the church.

However, what may be more special about these three interviews by Annemiek Schrijvers is that they were about people like me. Admittedly, these men are much better known and undoubtedly more talented. But all three of them are, like myself, past seventy, but are nonetheless very active in society. They are erudite people, but, in particular, people who have been important to other people and have become mature in their thinking through their experiences. And, they certainly are very spiritual people. In short, this is a trio with whom I happily (rightly or wrongly) identify myself, and who might in this phase of my life serve as role models for me. I secretly hope that, here and there,  there are men and women who see something in me that inspires then and that, maybe, I can serve for some as a role model—even though I do not expect to be invited for a conversation on Sunday morning in the cottage of Annemiek.

[PS:  While I wrote this short piece I experienced no major coughing fit. Maybe the flu has passed its worst and life will be a little more pleasant again in a few days time.]

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Urker fishermen

Before I started the activities that I had planned for this day, I decided to first visit one of the local hairdressers. Although in my case my hair does not present much of a challenge, I have to give it my regular attention. While I was waiting for a few moments—enjoying my coffee that is always immediately offered—I considered how this place would provide a very suitable place for a hostage situation. It would be very easy for a recently returned jihadist or a confused inhabitant of Zeewolde, to enter with a genuine or fake gun, and to threaten the three hairdressers and the four customers, for instance in exchange for a fully paid vacation in some luxurious resort somewhere in the world!

Of course, there can be dangerous situations anywhere. Yesterday I travelled with the TGV, and later the Thallys (comfortable fast trains) through France. All over the world you have to pass strict security checks before you can enter a plane, but no one checks whether you have a suspicious parcel with you or have a gun under your jacket before you enter such a fast train. And I never see any obvious security measures before I drive my car onto a ferry. Who knows what might be hidden in all the trunks of the cars that are tightly packed together on the car deck?

Of course, it is impossible to make our world totally safe. Someone might get the idea to take a congregation in a full church hostage  on Saturday morning, or might even start shooting the people at random because of some serious grudge against the church or the pastor. It may be possible to protect buildings or big events, when there is an imminent danger. For instance, synagogues may need surveillance for some time. Even some Adventist institutions need constant protection, sometimes even by armed guards. But complete safety is not possible.

Well, even at home, something may happen to us, when we are careless, and as soon as we leave our home or go on a journey, there are plenty of dangers. You can never be sure that nothing will happen to you, and at the end of the day there is always reason to be thankful that you got home safe and sound, and got safely through the day. For those who believe in God there will always be a reason to say ‘Thank You’ to the Lord at the end of each day.

This past week a few fishermen from the fishing village of Urk drowned in the Channel near Dover. The regional TV-station (TV Flevoland) of course, paid more attention to this than the national media. I found one detail of the news broadcast quite remarkable. The commentator told the viewers that  Urker fishermen always pay a short visit to their closest relatives on Sunday evening before they take to the sea early Monday morning. For you never know . . .

There is something to this: to be aware that you never know what will happen to you. To say goodbye, before taking to the sea the next day! Maybe here is a lesson that we can learn from the Urker fishermen.

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Van Eijk and his remnant

 

Our traditionally christian Kingdom of the Netherlands is quickly becoming non-christian. A recent survey, carried out by the Dutch Protestant University in Amsterdam, found that, for the first time in history, more Dutchmen say they do not believe in God than there are those who are convinced that God indeed exists. Yes, there is a large segment in the middle of those who simply don’t know and of those who may believe in a vague ‘something,’ but it becomes ever clearer that faith in God is no longer self-evident for the majority of the Dutch people. And thus the churches are becoming more and more empty and the support for the institutional church is gradually drying up.

The annual national fundraising campaign for a number of denominations once again shows a further erosion of the importance many people attach to their church. The amount that the churches have raised is, once again, a few percent lower than the year before. This year the members of the participating churches gave a total of around 230 million euros. And, once more, the results show that on the average Protestants give substantially more than Catholics. A Dutch Catholic family gives on average gives 80 euro’s per year, while a Dutch Protestant family gives an annual donation of around 200 euros.

Protestant denominations, as for instance the United Protestant Church of the Netherlands, fear its membership and church attendance will further diminish. But we hear even more pessimistic sounds from the Catholic Church. The archbishop of Utrecht (the highest Catholic leader in the Netherlands), monsignor van Eijk, recently stated that he believes that by 2020 only some twenty of the current three hundred parishes will still exist. This dramatic development, in his estimation, results from a sharp decrease in vocations, a change in giving patterns and a rampant spiritual superficiality. The archbishop was heavily criticized. He is accused by many of himself being a major part of the problem. It appears that he does not mind so much that the church is getting smaller. He prefers to have a small church of faithful (and, in particular, very orthodox and obedient) believers over a larger church with people who want to think for themselves and want, in a number of areas, to follow their own interpretations of the rules for faith and conduct that originate in Rome. One might say that the archbishop has a view of the church that is based on the idea of a ‘remnant,’ that is left when the chaff has been separated from the wheat. Many, however, feel this is a totally wrong approach. They believe the church must be a place that offers a spiritual home for as many people as possible, where the gospel of our Lord is handed on in such ways that it will be understood by contemporary people—old and, especially, young. It seems that the archbishop is either unable or unwilling to grasp this

Unfortunately, the archbishop is not the only church leader who is stuck in this kind of thinking. There are parallels between him and leaders I could point to in my own (Adventist) church. Also ‘with us’ the question is pressing: Do we want to intentionally contribute to a situation in which only a small group of ‘true’ believers remains, or will we do all we can to translate the gospel in such ways that it will not just provide direction, but will also offer space and freedom. For me the choice is clear. I will go for the latter option.

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