The origin of evangelical communities
In the Netherlands since 1970, drs Gijs van den Brink
The Elim-Community in the Netherlands functions as a platform and point of contact for 35 evangelical communities. The word `evangelical’ shows the limits of this platform. ‘Evangelical’ indicates that these fellowships stem from or belong to the evangelical wing of the universal church. This does not mean identification with a certain denomination. There are Protestant, Roman Catholic and Charismatic communities included. In what follows I will sketch the three main factors which have contributed to the emergence of these evangelical communities in the last 25 years; a spiritual, a kerygmatic and a historical reason.
Main factors of emergence
The Holy Spirit
The spiritual reason lies in the particular activity of the Holy Spirit in the Christian church, which creates a renewal of faith and life. We call this phenomenon revival. The first revival occurred in the first century of our era in Jerusalem, at the day of Pentecost, 53 days after the death of Jesus Christ. With this the first renewal movement in the church had become a fact. Luke mentions this in the book of Acts (2:44-45),
`All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.’ (NIV)
In the 20 centuries that followed, this has been repeated in all sorts of monastic and renewal movements. Next there are two more immediate reasons for the growth of evangelical communities in the Netherlands.
Emphasis on the small group
The second reason is a kerygmatic one. Since the sixties in preaching as well as in writing the small group is emphasized. This emphasis is a reaction and answer to the rapid secularization, that has caught the churches of our country off their guard. Let me illustrate this with three quotations from important church leaders. The Reformed (Calvinistic) scholar, K.A. Schippers, said, at an annual meeting of the National Church Administration Committee, the following:
“A new structural framework of the church is not only necessary to stop the process of secularization, but also to ensure that the local church in the future can meet its financial needs. Also the size of the present-day church buildings, a symbol of the old structure, has had its day. I am not saying `go and sell all your church buildings’, but the church can also meet in a living room”.
The Dutch Reformed scholar G.D.J. Dingemans, at a meeting of Reformed Church leaders in Amsterdam:
“In the coming century the church will be organised from the bottom up. The church will be close to the people to give a true picture of the Gospel. There will be no money available for all sorts of bureaucracy. I think we will have to get really close to the early Christians. The church will have to start a process of scaling things down.
The well known WCC veteran, Leslie Newbigin, is now retired in Birmingham, England. Writing about the Western church in the year 2000, he says:
“The main point of growth will be at the point where ordinary congregations are in contact with their neighbours. We are living in a time marked by skepticism about large organizations, even though (or perhaps because) the power of these organizations is increasing. Much of the liveliest Christian commitment is going into small groups, `base communities’, `house-groups’, and the like. This seems likely to continue in the coming decade.
We may assume that the European church of the future will consist of small groups, which socially speaking, will be a marginal phenomenon. This means that the church of Europe will return to its origin, to the time of the apostle Paul, when the Christians met in private homes. The evangelical communities and cell-groups can be considered as products of this process.
19th century missionary society
Then there is a third reason, a historical one, for the existence of evangelical communities in the Netherlands, which also explains why these fellowships are `intentional communities’, where living together is not only an aim, but in the first instance a means, a way that has been chosen for a purpose. In the evangelical movement worldwide you not only find churches, but also parachurch agencies.
The latter needs some explanation, because the parachurch organization is not identical with the Christian organization in general. It is a special type of Christian institute that came into being through the 19th century Missionary Society, that was independent of any denomination. The period of the `missionary society’ started with the English shoemaker and Baptist preacher William Carey. He was the pioneer of the new missionary movement. This renewal coincided with the revivals and renewals outside the existing churches, which were so characteristic of the beginning of the 19th century.
The church historians, Bakhuizen van den Brink and Dankbaar (Handboek der kerkgeschiedenis IV, Den Haag, 1968, p.134, 268) draw the conclusion that `the mission in the 19th century has mainly the character of a society’ and that it is typical of the European organizations during the 19th century and well into the 20th century, that they are `private and not formal ecclesiastical initiatives’. After World War II these societies became increasingly involved in other areas in their own countries, such as evangelism, training, renewal and relief.
From the very beginning the Missionary Society gave much attention to community life. The missionaries not only participated in the mission work, but mostly also practised a common household. Such a mission station was not only a working community or a co-housing community, but also a household community.
This idea is still alive among today’s evangelical institutions, to be not only a working agency, but to be a fellowship that lives and works for a common goal. Most of the evangelical household communities started as a result of working together in a certain project. These communities are ‘intentional communities’, which, in addition, almost exclusively hold an aim that exceeds living together itself. In other words, in these communities people live together with a goal that is greater than the bare fact of sharing a place to live.
The great aim is always to serve the Lord Jesus Christ and their neighbour, in the specific area to which one felt a call.