Are We Following the Decline in the RCN (3)
The decline in the RCN (see previous two instalments) leads to the question: What about the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC)? Are we being drawn into the same kind of emotionalism and subjectivism as so many in the RCN? I’m afraid, continues Rev Moesker, I do see signs that something similar is happening or beginning to take place in the CanRC. Although our culture is somewhat different than in Europe, there are a lot of things that are the same. In North America we also live in a very emotionalistic, subjectivistic culture. And we exist as reformed churches amongst all sorts of evangelistic and charismatic churches where faith is also measured by feeling: if you have the Spirit you have all these feelings. So there is constant pressure on CanRC people also to be pulled along by emotionalism, to judge things more by your feelings and emotions than by the plain and sufficient Word of God.
To be sure, there might be things that mitigate that pull in the CanRC. As Dr J Visscher mentioned in his article (Clarion July 14 2017 ): we have relations with more orthodox Christians in North America. We have gone through a whole process. Our seminary doesn’t have government funding with strings attached.
Nevertheless, responds Rev Moesker, the pull is definitely there. And history shows us that eventually every church needs reformation again too. Think of the book of Judges. Every time there was a decline; and then a reformation and another decline. So let’s not assume it can’t happen to us.
Rev Moesker continues: Let me mention a few things that cause me to suspect that movement towards emotionalism. I mentioned the declining statistics in the RCN. Thankfully the CanRC membership is still increasing. But do you want to know something? The rate is declining, steadily. Membership increase in 2013 was 369, in 2014 it was 210, in 2015 it was 125. It’s getting smaller. And will we come to a turning point where we are losing members rather than increasing? Fewer children are being born. But the decline also reflects an increasing number of members leaving the churches, a lot of them for evangelical churches.
Church unhappiness based on feelings
Already in my early ministry I had to deal with young people who withdrew from the church I was serving. A lot of them just said to me: I’m leaving the church; I don’t think I’m getting anything out of it; I don’t feel good worshipping here. The first sign of withdrawing from the church is often just attending one service on Sunday, and then skipping more and more; just backing out of it.
It used to be just young people but more and more you hear that kind of talk from more mature people. Consistories and ministers deal with this on a regular basis. How many CanRC people are not worshipping in evangelical churches somewhere? That’s also why, for example, the article of Rev Schouten (Clarion August 11 2017) titled “So you’re thinking of leaving your church” is truly something to think about. It’s a to-the-point article and he uses the Form for Profession of Faith to confront people who are unhappy with the CanRC and are thinking of leaving it for a community church or a mega church. Worth reading, that article.
Rev Schouten invited reactions and, interestingly, a couple of letters-to-the-editor critiquing the article were forthcoming. One reaction referred to the beginning of the article where Rev Schouten says that, when questioned, those intending to leave often say: but I just feel happier and more at home in this new church. And the letter writer asks: is it wrong to desire to feel happy and at home in one’s home church? If our members do not feel happy in church, are there ways that we as church community can make that happen? Maybe we need to be focussed on making people happy. And then the letter also responds to Rev Schouten’s statement that “truth should trump emotion every time in the Christian life”. And this person reacts to that by asking, Can truth and positive emotion not stand side by side in a Christian life? In worship can and should they not both be present? Well, that answer is: Not as a judgement thing. You can’t judge worship by emotion. It needs to be judged by truth. And I would agree with Rev Schouten: truth trumps emotion.
Dr T van Raalte was asked a couple of years ago about the place of emotions in public worship. He replied: there are two things here; there’s emotion and emotionalism. Emotionalism seeks to arouse positive emotions, make happy; happy-clappy worship. On the other hand emotion is the good effect of godly worship. But it’s not the aim. That’s not what we’re in church for, as such. In fact, the effect of Biblical worship could be negative emotion when confronted by one’s sins and weaknesses. John Calvin once said: our sinful natures are lazy, stubborn donkeys which have to be whipped by the exhortations and admonitions of God’s Word to keep moving forward in faith and obedience. And that’s different from emotionalism.
There was another interesting reaction to Rev Schouten’s article. This letter stated that Rev Schouten has revealed a blind spot in reformed thinking. The Form for Profession of Faith seems to direct our thinking more to the confessions than to Christ. And as a result, we have lost much of the relational empowerment inherent in a life of faith. Relational empowerment; interpret it as: a lot of feeling is gone out of it.
Now, there has to be feeling in it. You can’t just make profession of faith with bare, bold facts. The writer says though, “I think the biggest question is that our wills and emotions are being directed to an inferior and static master, i.e. the confessions. I appreciate the point: confession is more than a bare essential body of doctrine. But I’m afraid I also hear in that letter a call to make faith more about feelings, about Jesus. It’s emotionalism: what do I feel about Jesus? Rather than what the Bible says about Jesus. If you focus on what the Bible says, the feeling will follow afterwards.
Judging Holy Supper attendance on emotions
Some time ago, continued Rev Moesker, I rubbed shoulders with someone at a gathering with whom I had words about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. And he asked, Do the elders invite people to the front up to the Lord’s Table in this church? And I said, yeah. And he said: What would you do if I simply walked up to the front without being invited by the elders or handing in an attestation? Well, I said, I think I would just go on with it but I think I would talk to him afterwards, or direct the elders to him. He didn’t go up to the table. But later he withdrew, from the Canadian Reformed Church he belonged to, about that issue. He was upset because he felt that we were being exclusivitic. So he judged the way we celebrate the Holy Supper by his emotions. To him it seemed as though the CanRCs are saying that unless you have an attestation we won’t accept you as a true Christian, or we don’t trust that you’re a true Christian. That offends some guests. And it offends the members because it offends the guests.
But this is not a matter that has to be determined by emotion but by Scripture. And you can check it out: Lord’s Day 30 and 31. Elders of the church have the task and the authority to admit and to withhold from the Lord’s Supper table, every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. Lord’s Day 30 and 31 say that they have that task and authority. And that’s reflected in Article 61 of the [CanRC] Church Order. And in that, too, truth has to trump emotion every time. And I’m afraid that there’s an increasing push to let emotion trump the truth in that matter, by the way, because I notice that Synod 2016 in Dunville decided that the Committee for Contact with Reformed Churches in North America is no longer mandated to raise the issue of the fencing of the Lord’s Table with the sister churches in the US. And I wonder: why not? Especially if the fencing of the table is a matter we confess from Scripture.
Changes to church services
One cannot help but notice, continued Rev Moesker, that also our worship services have changed and do change over the years. Change is not always bad; it’s positive if we find Biblically better ways to glorify God in Christ and encourage one another in praise. But the thing is, sometimes proposals to change the way worship is conducted are based more on feeling than on Scripture, also in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Some time ago a consistory received a proposal for a change in the liturgy. They presented that to the congregation at the annual congregational meeting. There was a lot of discussion about it. Some people were excited about it; some not, until one brother stood up and he said the only substantial reason he’d heard about this through all the discussion about liturgy was that people are bored with the way it is now. Well, he said, if you’re going to start changing the worship service because the people feel bored, be prepared to change it again and again because they’ll get bored with every change too. We don’t worship to keep people from becoming bored, or to entertain people, but to glorify and honour our God and to hear the gospel so that we can live out of it.
We also, as you know, hear criticism about the Genevan Psalter, about the tunes and the Psalms themselves: there should be more hymns, more uplifting songs. Again, the arguments are largely based on feeling. The Psalms were originally inspired for worship, and there’s a lot of feeling in them – but not all is nice, positive feeling. There’s also depression. Psalm 88 speaks of unhappiness with God that eventually becomes trust in God. A whole range of emotions can be found in the Psalms. But it seems that a lot of people only want the happy, happy, happy stuff. The Psalms were originally designed for worship. Genevan tunes were not inspired but they have historical value. They can connect us with brothers and sisters of the past. And according to synod 2004 we could add more hymns, but they must be Biblical and in a worship style that isn’t faddish but is classical. And, adds Rev Moesker, I suspect that though there is continual urging for contemporary hymns, which I hear from time to time, it is due to a desire for more emotional worship. And this will continue.
I believe as our society becomes more and more emotion based and also more and more egalitarian there will be a push to have females pushed more to the fore in worship and church work and eventually in church offices, says Rev Moesker. There is a slippery slope and you can say what you will of the decision to allow women’s voting, but I personally expect there’s a degree of egalitarianism behind, and emotion in, that decision. I researched it a bit, by the way. Pretty-well every church in North America which adopted women’s voting has over time also adopted women in church office.
I’m very thankful for our seminary. And I trust that our seminary and its board of governors and the professors all have minds and hearts focussed on the Word and on training men to bring the Word. But I do believe that over time there will be increasing pressure on the seminary to accommodate the feeling-based changes that are fermenting among churches.
So, what of the future?
I believe that the emotionalism of our culture will continue to affect our reformed members and churches as it has in the Netherlands, says Rev Moesker. It will continue to push on the way we worship in the first place, as it already has pushed on it in some places. There will be less unity of practice and more modality in churches; maybe even in classes. There will be a push for more participation of members in worship; a push to change the songs and music in worship, a push to bring instruments in and allow bands in worship. The role of women in the church will probably become a matter of study. There will be more cooperation with other Christians of differing confessions and practice. There’ll be more drive to make room for members who don’t necessarily stand fully for the reformed confessions. There’ll be more pressure to change the way the Bible has always been understood in the past. And that push will reach out for support from the seminary. Overall a process that is different in some ways to what’s happening overseas, but we’ll follow, I’m afraid, a similar course as in the Netherlands—changes based more on emotion than on Biblical and reasonable discussion.
What should we do then? In the first place we must hold fast to what we confess in Article 27 Belgic Confession: that the holy catholic church has existed from the beginning of the world and will to the end, for Christ is an eternal King who cannot be without subjects. The church will always be. “He gathers, defends and preserves for Himself by His Spirit and Word in the unity of true faith a church chosen to everlasting life” we confess in LD 21. So there’s no need to be afraid of all this, but every reason to pray for your church and trust that as long as you do your task in your own place and with discernment, in your own place and station, according to Scripture. And be joyful, emotional from that. But judge from Scripture as best you can. Then the Lord will continue to gather and keep you for His church too. He will. Work and pray to stay faithful as church members. Know your Bible. Know your confessions. Teach your children to love the Lord and to speak out, keeping the Bible as normative when you see changes based on emotions rather than the Bible in the church. Be faithful to that holy, catholic church of Christ wherever and whatever name it has.
And as we have seen throughout church history, churches decline. Reformation is needed again and again. Time and again in history people have had to leave a body to stay with the church of Christ. Face that fact too, and that it might come in your lifetime. I pray that it might not be that way in my life time or your life time—that you don’t have to leave the CanRC to remain with Christ’s holy catholic church. But let’s not think it might not be needed 20 years from now: by 2037.
So, what should we do?
And let me just bring what I said together in the apostolic command throughout the New Testament to be sober and self-controlled. I love that word sober. Be sober. It comes back time and again in the Bible. The apostle Peter (such an emotional man) learned to ground his heart and mind in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At Pentecost, many people rushed together when they saw what was happening there and they wondered: What in the world is going on here? Then Peter stood up and explained what was happening in that house there. And the first words he spoke there were: These people are not drunk, as you suppose; they’re not drunk, they’re sober. And he explained that what was going on there wasn’t the work of uncontrolled emotion but the work of the promised Spirit.
In his letters he later emphasises that Christians need to be sober. And he does that, for instance, in 1 Peter 1:13 & 14: “Therefore, prepare your minds for action and be sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” Not the passions of your former ignorance; don’t go by your feelings. That’s how you used to do things. Not anymore. Be sober minded now, he says.
And then, 1 Peter 4:7, Peter says: “The end of all things is at hand, therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayer.” Be sober minded as you wait for the coming of the Lord. Sober minded, not emotionally carried away by anything. And then finally in 5:8 he says, “Be sober minded, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Resist him firm in your faith, knowing that the same kind of suffering is being experienced by the brotherhood throughout the world.”
We are to go forward with this warning. Be soberminded and watchful; the devil is on the prowl seeking someone to devour. Resist him firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by the brotherhood. These people were suffering because they were counter-cultural. They didn’t go along with all the things that were happening in their culture and society and because of that they were being persecuted – persecuted because they did not accommodate society’s emotion-based culture. Be sober and watchful; in other words, don’t be carried away by emotionalism.
Be self-controlled because the Spirit isn’t all about emotions. It’s about the truth of the Word. To be reformed is to hold to Sola Scriptura; the Word alone.