Are We Following the Decline in the RCN? (2)
In the previous article based on Rev J Moesker’s speech he illustrates that what we see happening in the RCN are changes to accommodate today’s culture. In this second article he expands on the idea that it is based very much on feelings and emotions, and that there are symptoms that this is a trend beginning to occur also in the Canadian Reformed Churches.
Rev Moesker acknowledges that not all accommodation to culture is wrong of course. For example, we all wear western clothing. But we must discern carefully with Bible in hand what can and what cannot be accommodated to. For instance, we live in a digital culture. All churches have a website nowadays, but we might consider whether it is a good thing to have so-called beamers (projectors) in worship. There are churches in North America which have given up the beamer idea because people don’t know where to find things in the Bible anymore. So there has to be Biblical discernment in those things to see whether they’re useful in giving glory to God and in helping the people grow in service to the Lord. As the apostle says: we’re in the world but not of it. And it’s that Biblical discernment which I believe has become derailed because people look at themselves; what do I feel; what do I want. It’s about me; it’s a sort of idolatry of me.
Rev Moesker sensed this when he expressed concerns at some of the changes taking place in the worship services to a relative who was an RCN elder. The elder’s reply was: you have to let us experiment. Rev Moesker replied: What do you mean by experiment? And his reply was: You have to see what works best for the people. That is: what feels good for the people; what attracts them; what holds them. But we confess about the Bible in Article 7 BCF that the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in God’s Word at length. But the sentiments expressed by the RCN elder gets away from the Bible and is more about what the people feel and want.
Contemporary western culture in Europe but also here in North America is very subjectivistic, says Rev Moesker. It is oriented to being man-centred, to self-centredness. And the choices of most people today are based more on their feelings about something than about truth or reason, especially objective truth such as in the Bible.
The advertising world knows that; it attracts customers by appealing to their emotions. Protest groups and political parties know that too and make greater use of emotional slogans than appeals to logic or reason. People allow their feelings rather than any objective truth or even reason to interpret their circumstances and their choices in life. That’s emotionalism. Contemporary culture, popular music, movies, art, etc., are very much geared to people’s feelings.
People want to feel good; they want to feel part of things. Think of the drug culture of today and how that came about. People want to escape the problems, the reality, of their lives and instead to feel good. And that’s how they get into drugs, because drugs give good feelings – at least for a time. Feelings even determine how people vote today for political leaders; it’s the reason for the rise of populism. And it’s this spirit of emotionalism in today’s modern culture has affected the RCN.
What God says determines our feelings, not vice versa
Rev Moesker says that this emotionalism might also be an over-reaction to the opposite problem where faith is rooted in theology but has not much feeling. While sound doctrine is critically important for the health of the church, that doctrine should lead to emotion too. The substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ is not only something we ought to affirm and defend but also something in which we should rejoice. But the emotionalism pushed by our secular culture today has led a lot of reformed people to follow that trend and go by their feelings instead of what it says in Scripture in the first place. The first thing they refer to is not what is in the Bible but what do I feel about this.
We confess from Scripture that our nature, which includes our emotions, is still inclined to evil. So we can’t rely on our feelings to interpret who God is and how He wants to be worshipped and served. Our emotions are poor judges of what is good and not good in God’s sight. His Word must remain the supreme norm for faith and life and worship, as we confess in the Belgic Confession. For people who hold the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation not feelings, but Scripture, is the measure of life and faith and worship. If we keep the Bible as the focus of our faith and life and worship, then the positive emotions have to come if we really deepen ourselves in what it says.
I’m afraid, adds Rev Moesker, this is where the Dutch have been drawn by their contemporary culture. I recall the words of a relative in the RCN about 25 years ago critical of the worship and pastoral care and so on in those churches, and he said, “I need to feel good in my skin in church (in Dutch: lekker in mijn vel zitten), otherwise what am I doing here?” I heard similar words more often in the Netherlands: emotion slowly becomes the measure of what is done, also then in the worship services of the RCN, and what is accepted in those churches. For example, people emphasise that you can’t push away those who live in a same-sex relationship and so on because that’s very hurtful. Feeling, not God’s Word, determines what happens.
The overriding desire to want to ‘feel good’
People want to feel, to experience God in the worship services. This focus on feeling is the measure of a lot of evangelical and charismatic worship, as you know, here in Canada too. A lot of emotion comes out there and that is supposedly the Holy Spirit. You feel close to God through music and worship. In fact, worship is designed to bring on emotions. And then that’s supposed to show the Holy Spirit’s presence. And I noticed, says Rev Moesker, in a number of worship services in the RCN that some people also lift up their hands and their faces in worship when they sing and in prayer. And that happens a lot in evangelical churches today. It’s an expression of emotion. And whilst that in itself is not wrong, it shows that there is a push to emotions.
Rev Moesker adds that a lot of songs in the RCN are ‘revival songs’ meant to move the singers emotionally. He gives the example of one with a refrain he has translated as:
“Hold me firmly close to your heart;
I feel your power and rise up like an eagle;
then I float on the wind, carried by your Spirit
and by the power of your love.”
Its repetition is designed to give people an emotional high, a feeling of being close to God. At least, that is what is assumed. Quite a few churches close to the RCN which have special services that include chanted prayers, a period of silent meditation (at least 10 minutes of just silence – sitting silently meditating), liturgical readings and icons, pictures of Jesus and so on. There is no preaching.
Feelings used to determine one’s calling and actions
One of the arguments that has come to the fore a few times in the RCN report of Deputies Male/female is that there are many gifted women in the church who feel strongly called by God to bring the gospel and to show mercy. Therefore, it is said, they ought to be given the room to do so by being ordained to church office. They feel this! How can we deny them?
I’ve been communicating, says Rev Moesker, with another relative and his wife. They said that they felt that God was calling them to a certain children’s ministry in Africa which they visited in the past. They saw the poor there, the poverty. And they raised enough money to cover their income for two years and felt that God was showing them that He wanted them there. And when they got the word that they were wanted and that things were happening they urged everyone to praise God for that. But the ministry fell apart and they were left standing sadly in the Netherlands just before they were supposed to go.
So there you see again how feeling directs what people do. Feeling becomes the real meeting with God and the real following of Jesus. And then feeling trumps everything else. It’s more important than the truth of God’s Word summarised in the confessions. Maybe not in theory; we all say we hold onto the Bible and the confessions. But in practise feelings become more important.
Feelings and the ‘ecumenicity of the heart’
Feeling is also behind the so-called ecumenicity of the heart, as it’s called, says Rev Moesker. It’s the willingness to accept and to work with and to worship with Christians of all kinds of churches. In this ‘ecumenicity of the heart’ you feel so one with those people. And that ecumenicity of the heart has caused a lot of organisations with strong roots in the RCN and its confessions to lose their distinctiveness and open up or become absorbed by other inter-church organisations. A lot of things that were pillars in the church have fallen by the wayside through that.
That inner ecumenical feeling has also led churches to team up with the national synod, an organisation in the Netherlands that seeks to unify Christians of all stripes in that country in one body. I already said, adds Rev Moesker, that this is I think due to the man-centred, emotion-centred culture. And I think there was vulnerability to that because of the soberness of the past decades when feelings were not expressed, even suppressed. I have my own ideas about that. It might have been because of the war-time too. People were not allowed to express their feelings or thoughts. But now a dyke has burst. And there is now hunger for emotion; for feeling things; for feeling God. And it’s a slippery slope. Sadly, all that seeking of feeling and ecumenicity has led to a steady decrease in RCN membership despite all the efforts to make everything more acceptable. Most of the people who leave go to evangelical churches.
(To be continued. Next instalment: “What about the Canadian Reformed Churches?)