Once Upon a Time in Canada

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I was 14. Going to Church in Canada sure was different.

In Holland I biked to an uneventful and often boring service. Here I got picked up with my family in a van to attend church 20 miles away. This church had new faces, a much more social pastor, lively English hymns, and sermons that were a mixture of English and Dutch. What’s more, the time between services was the social highlight of the week, when the adults avidly exchanged experiences, and we younger ones entertained ourselves delightfully.

Soon I learned that the van that brought us to church was donated by a congregation in Detroit. Our pastor’s new Chevrolet (which as the congregation’s taxi wore out in 18 months) was donated by his former congregation in Grand Rapids, Mich. And our pastor’s salary was paid by the denomination. I had never heard of this denomination, but it certainly made a great impression.

I didn’t realize that the ministry I benefited from was a continuation of what the Christian Reformed Church had begun as early as 1905.

Back then, and through the 1920s and ’30s, several congregations and classes in the United States reached out to isolated groups in Canada, first in southern Alberta, and later in Vancouver and Ontario. Through a hardy breed of circuit-rider preachers the CRC brought spiritual, practical, and financial aid to these small, struggling groups. It organized them as churches and kept them going through difficult times, especially the Depression. The fruit of this ministry, according to Ty Hofman in The Canadian Story of the CRC, was that at the start of World War II the CRC had eight ministers serving 2,274 members scattered among 14 congregations in Canada.

Starting in 1947 and lasting for 10 years or more, large numbers of Dutch immigrants entered Canada. Many were of Reformed persuasion and needed a church home. Again the foresight and experience, the love and generosity of the CRC sprang into action. The CRC’s assistance gave these immigrants a sense of security—a prized commodity for any immigrant community—as well as direction.

The first two Christian Reformed pastors I knew were Rev. John Gritter and Rev. Joe Vande Kieft. Gritter was a straightforward preacher and an excellent organizer. He also had the wisdom, in a setting in which the immigrants’ varying backgrounds and customs provided fertile ground for serious disagreement, to instill a proper sense of order. That appreciation of order blessed the churches he organized for years to come.

Vande Kieft, while a less-than-stellar orator, had an enormous pastor’s heart. He preached with warmth and sincerity. And when he led our congregation through the tragedy of several members’ losing their lives in an industrial accident, we realized what a gift he was. These two pastors’ work and example led me to consider the possibility of entering the ministry myself. Thinking of them invariably brings a smile to my face and an irrepressible sense of thanks. And they represented a caring and generous denomination!

Learning to Live Like Family

As a pastor, I’ve had a front-row seat to observe the CRC at work in Canada for more than four decades. Much of what has happened has been heartwarming. The congregations have grown spiritually and have faced challenges with courage and ingenuity. These are reasons for celebration.

But as we celebrate, we also testify to sin and brokenness.

To function as a family of Christ was a major challenge for the new churches. We were a rough-edged, feisty, and opinionated bunch, with limited knowledge of the fruit of the Spirit. Deep hurt was a frequent result. We had a lot to learn about love, tolerance, and patience. But we celebrate undeniable growth. We understand more clearly now how best to bless each other’s lives.

The churches needed good leadership. But who was qualified? While there was some experience, the majority of members had never served as leaders before. A case in point was my father. He had to be pressured into serving as a deacon. Two years later he was pressured into becoming an elder, to which he finally agreed—on the condition that he’d never have to lead a worship service. In the end he did lead services, including the first elder-led English service in our congregation.

Over time many a consistory (as the church council was then known) became more effective. Today leadership is nurtured like never before. It’s heartwarming, for example, to have 700 to 800 Christian Reformed men and women participate in Ontario’s annual Day of Encouragement for growth in leadership through some 30 different workshops.

The immigrants came with the good vision of serving the Lord in every area of human endeavor. The desire to put it into practice in their newly adopted country is reason for thanksgiving. But applying a vision shaped in a country with a different history and tradition proved difficult. What sometimes stunted support for their kingdom vision was an ungracious way of promoting it. Patience—giving others the time and room to grow—was often treated more as a weakness than a virtue. Nonetheless, the Canadian churches succeeded in establishing Christian schools, which number more than 150 in Canada today.

Despite significant mistakes, the church has made progress. The Christian Labour Association is a flourishing union. The Christian Farmers Federation stimulates many farmers to think about how to approach their work as the Lord’s steward. Members of provincial and federal parliaments are repeatedly made aware, through the Committee for Public Justice, of biblical approaches

to issues for which they must shape legislation. Special ministries have been organized for addicts, youths with mental challenges, and the elderly. And the Institute for Christian Studies has just been granted the right to award M.A. and Ph.D. degrees.

A Beloved Council

No celebration of the CRC’s centennial in Canada can ignore the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada. A strange body, it was neither a super-classis nor a national synod, but an official gathering of the classes in Canada.

Why was it called into being? Because of the deep conviction that, even though we were an immigrant church, we could not opt for isolation; we had to be the people of God for the nation.

Through the council we had contact with the government about education, gambling, war, capital punishment, and so on. We started a ministry to Canada’s

aboriginal people. And we pursued the unity of Christ’s church through contact with the other churches around us. In addition, the council gave our churches, so widely spread over the huge Canadian landmass, a sense of identity.

Though never run as efficiently as synod, the council’s meetings were always stimulating events. This was especially so when they were held in conjunction with a pre-council conference. The first such conference was held in 1979, with Henry van Andel and Andrew Kuyvenhoven leading us in refreshing reviews of where we’d come from, how we’d grown, what weaknesses we ought to address, and what our task was. Council meetings and the conferences helped us to reflect on our place and calling as the people of God in our nation.

The council is no more. It was innocently voted out of existence on the promise of something better—so its work could be done through the denominational structure and CRC agencies. I now see its demise as a serious mistake. Its existence was a visible reminder to our churches not to withdraw into a comfortable shell. While not an ideal instrument, it kept alive the vision of the CRC for Canada.

Still Healing

The celebration of our centennial is tempered by the losses we’ve suffered. It’s the unhappy story of how we’ve handled our differences, both within the denomination at large and in our Canadian churches in particular.

We discussed major issues such as the extent of God’s love, homosexuality, the nature and extent of the Bible’s authority, and women serving as deacons, elders, and pastors. It’s both natural and healthy that on such weighty topics differences come to the fore. Differences among Christians are meant to keep us humble and drive us back to the Word and to the Lord, the head of the church.

But when we allow anger to control how we handle our differences, the destructive forces of negativism are set loose.

Our churches suffered from a negativism that picked up steam in the ’60s. In the mid-’70s it became a storm, and during the ’80s and early ’90s it blew with hurricane force. The healthy criticism of positions repeatedly turned into attacks on the persons holding them. Positions themselves became distorted beyond all recognition, and trusted leaders were accused of deliberate unfaithfulness to God’s Word and the confessions. Attending a major assembly was for quite some time an experience to dread.

We should have drawn a biblical line in the sand much earlier, insisting that discussions remain within constructive channels. By not doing so, we created room for negativity to spread. As a result we suffered church splits and a major loss of membership in the ’80s and ’90s. More than 18 pastors and 1,500 families left our Canadian churches. The wounds are still fresh and will be felt for years to come.

Cause for Celebration

As we now celebrate 100 years of the CRC in Canada, I’m amazed. Amazed that a denomination from south of the border would tackle a major immigrant challenge at considerable sacrifice for a cause with no obvious benefit. But even more amazed at the miracle of the continued existence of the church.

The power of human pride, selfishness, and blindness should have choked off the possibility of the church ages ago.

But the miracle of the church is our gracious Lord at work. Through the gentle power of the gospel and the Spirit, God calls his people together. God washes us and nurtures us with enough faith, a good dose of selfless love, and sufficient vision that we can become his coworkers. That’s how the CRC in Canada got started, and that’s why today we can rejoice in the Lord’s work of grace.

That same Lord is the key to our future. By reaching out to him and giving every aspect of our life to him, we can continue to be part of the ongoing miracle of God, a blessing to each other, the peace of God to our neighbors, and a witness to the nation in which God has placed us.

About the Author

Rev. Jack Vos retired as minister in the Christian Reformed Church after having served several churches in Ontario, Canada.
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