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A Legacy of Learning: Institute for Christian Studies Marks Milestone

It's been 50 years since the first ICS Niagara Family Conference, a place where all ages engaged in kingdom building conversations.

This article appeared in our August 10 issue under the title “Summer Sessions.”

It was 50 years ago this month that the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) held its first Family Conference in Niagara, Ontario, on the August long weekend. Beginning in 1970, the ICS, originally the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship (AACS), gathered Reformed folks together to worship, learn and camp. Once a summer for the next two decades people of all ages came for this holiday weekend, staying in dorms and camping on the lawn of the Niagara Christian College or across the road at Miller’s Creek Campground. In my memories, the Family Conference was one big, happy mix of generations and occupations, engaging in lectures and workshops and worship. Attendees were predominantly Dutch-Canadian and Christian Reformed.

A gathering of minds and icecream cones, 1984
A gathering of minds and icecream cones, 1984. Photo by Stiny de Jong

The ICS had local chapters across Canada made up of farmers, housewives, engineers, businesspeople, teachers and all sorts. They came from a Kuyperian tradition of well-read, religiously, socially and politically active “little (ordinary) people” (kleine luyden). These people were not fazed by big-picture philosophy or theology, and they had activism bred into their bones. The offshoots of this activism (such as Citizens for Public Justice and many other organizations) are still flourishing across the country. The conference experience spread to other locations, most notably in Alberta and B.C. Though smaller than the flagship Niagara conference, the regional conferences were significant events for many. This movement is but a blip in redemption history, but it is still worth remembering.

Among my peers – the children of immigrants, cutting our teeth on Kuyperian sirloin at ICS Conferences – these weekends stand out as formative events, eagerly anticipated and left behind with some regret. Who knows, really, how much spiritual and emotional development got packed into those three days, over the years. There was always so much to digest.

A campground full of boats and bicycles, 1979
A campground full of boats and bicycles, 1979. Photo by J.Joosse

Heady conversations

The early conferences were radical, both in thought and operation, as befits any good, youthful start-up. Practically speaking, I’m not sure they really wanted or expected the deluge of children, but most parents, with more than a decade of family camping experience under their belts (in those days only the Europeans camped), thought nothing of taking kids along. The result was an inter-generational melange that is seldom seen outside of church settings.

There was some pretty heavy stuff being thrown around in lectures and seminars. It’s fascinating, now, to read reports of these speeches and discussions. From criticism of the “American way of life,” to the rejection of unlimited economic growth, to the call to care for the environment – conference themes seem remarkably prescient 50 years later. Thought ran deep here; the conference was not an echo chamber or a billboard for Facebook memes. Disagreements were shared and discussions spilled out of the halls onto the lawns and well into the campfire hours. Being part of this, especially for youngsters, made for a profound appreciation of nuance and possibility.

A typcial ICS campfire circle, 1986
A typcial ICS campfire circle, 1986. Photo by George Langbroek

But it was the worship services that stirred many people the most. Services were exuberantly pious, stretching on for hours, with endless singing to the accompaniment of guitars and drums. Most people would see nothing like it the rest of the year. The style of worship was way ahead of the times and its repercussions echoed far and wide.

To have had a hand (sticky with watermelon) in this fellowship of believers settling down-to-earth in a jostle of tents and trailers, meal preps and dining, to and froing through sweltering heat and heavy downpours, hour upon hour in session and hall – this is a gift that I hold tightly and treasure to this day.

A website has been created to record for posterity some of the ICS conference flavour and some of its teaching, and to gather reflections on its significance. Square-Inch is open to submissions of pictures, documents, resources, stories, comments and reflections from any and all who have been a part of the conference experience.

  • Henry de Jong is a newmaker/renovator by trade. His pictures of “Objects of Affection” and his writing about them can be found on his website at notes.newmaker.net/delight/objects/ofAffection/.

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