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Kerkplanting

Immigrants and refugees bring new life to Reformed churches in the Netherlands.

When he first dreamed of a multicultural church plant movement in the Netherlands, Theo Visser was regarded with pity and curiosity. “There wasn’t even a word for church planting in Dutch!” he says. But no one could have imagined where that dream would take Theo and his wife Rieneke over the next two decades: from starting a movement that would change the face of church planting in the Netherlands to sparking hope in established churches and eventually reaching beyond Dutch borders into Europe.

As a young couple in 1995, Theo and Rieneke began a ministry to refugees in Rotterdam. They fell in love with “the beauty of diversity,” Theo says. At the same time, they noticed major problems in local churches. Dutch people were welcoming but struggled to share their faith with immigrants and refugees. Most churches were monocultural, either of Dutch origin or made up of a single ethnic minority group – despite a quarter of the country’s population having a migration background. “We wondered, is this the plan of God, that we all have our own islands?” Theo asks. Churches made up of minority ethnicities were losing their children to the gap between home and host culture. Reformed churches in the Netherlands, ethnically Dutch, were “struggling to survive instead of joyfully sharing the good news,” he says. So Theo and Rieneke planted a new intercultural church in 2000 – the International Church Fellowship (ICF) – with no experience and few examples.

How it all began

How were those first years? “Beautiful things were happening then,” Rieneke says. “People just came. We were so amazed that in the first two years, about 100 to 150 people found us.” News of the church plant spread through word of mouth.

Theo and Rieneke.

A few years later, a church in Amsterdam asked ICF for help. Their congregation was elderly and the church faced closure. They wanted to know if there was another option. “As pioneers this gave us so much joy. Then God started to open a door,” the couple says. That opportunity marked the birth of the ICP (Intercultural Church Plants) network.

Collectively, churches are a minority in the Netherlands. In 2016 the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam released research showing that over 82 percent of Dutch people no longer attend church or believe in God. Statistics show an increasing number of Dutch people do not identify with any religion. Those who do identify as Christians are primarily Catholics; in a 2018 survey, Christians from the three main Reformed streams account for only 15 percent of the population.

The Vissers started ICF under Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken, the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands. (As a note to our Christian Reformed Church of North America readers, the CRCNA and CRC Netherlands are not formally affiliated, but do share a name and a common history of Reformed Christianity in Holland. Perhaps it’s not dissimilar to how Dutch families double up on names within a generation.)

Today, the intercultural church plant they started is a church of over 400 people from more than 40 nations, pastored by Coen Legemaate, a respected Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken pastor.

In 2008 the Vissers transitioned out of their church leadership role to devote themselves to the church planting network, ICP. It has now grown to offer these services: assessment and start-up coaching for pioneers; team training and annual retreats for church planting teams; biannual networking days for leaders of intercultural churches; worship training and an annually updated database of multicultural songs; biannual summer camps where congregations mingle, and ongoing online training.

Many church plants begin in homes by people with careers. The COVID pandemic has only highlighted the importance of small groups, which flourished as support groups during a time of isolation.

Through the ICP Netherlands network, 29 more churches have been planted. Invitations came from other European nations and in 2017, Theo handed over leadership of ICP NL to a capable team and began the ICP Europe network. Meanwhile Rieneke had initiated a multicultural worship ministry called Songs2Serve, which has also expanded into a Europe-wide ministry.

Sing!

Rieneke grew up in Katwijk by the North Zee in a tight-knit Christian community. One moment stands out clearly to her from the early Rotterdam days of church planting: “We had a group in our house mixed from so many cultures and we were sharing meals and our life stories with one another, but then people started to teach us their songs and it was so amazing.”

The Vissers wanted this amazing experience to be present in church too, but the initial attempt didn’t go well. “The African people were on stage singing and worshipping and the Dutch people were just spectators. They folded their arms and were looking at how these people were worshipping the Lord. It frustrated me to the core,” Rieneke says. 

Rieneke’s frustration birthed the ministry that today is Songs2Serve, officially started in 2014. It takes songs from the cultures represented in a multicultural church and translates the lyrics into singable English and Dutch, allowing everyone to worship in multiple languages while preserving the sounds and rhythms of a sister or brother’s heart-style of worship. Songs2Serve’s database currently represents 17 languages. 

Syrian kebab and Dutch potatoes

As unique as the ethnicities and neighbourhoods that shape the church plants are the ways they began – a hair salon, a bookshop, a weekly barbecue, a soccer game, a community centre. What is it like to step into an ICP church? You have to stay curious and willing to experience God through someone else’s eyes, say the worship leaders of ICF Rotterdam. Worship is diverse: depending on the congregation you’ll hear Kurdish music, Congolese rhythms, a redeemed Romanian folk song typically heard in bars, Arabic chant of the Lord’s prayer, or celebratory merengue. The food is equally diverse: “If you look at the plates, you get a smile on your face. Syrian kebab with Dutch potatoes. Or an Indian curry mixed with an Iranian rice dish and a slice of cream pie,” one church planter in Nieuwegein says. And everyone has to learn to preach to an intercultural audience, honouring the fact that another cultural group may emphasize the honour-shame aspect of the gospel, for instance. “Just having one pastor who has gone to seminary and does most of the preaching doesn’t work in an intercultural church,” Theo says. “You need to invite the Chinese leader, the Kurdish leader, the African leader to preach. Bring them together to a group to learn from each other and give feedback after each sermon. The Kurdish people, for example, tell us all the time, you preach way too long. The African preachers say, ‘Why do you preach so short?’”

Dusty treasures

A host culture can become patronizing in a multicultural environment, Rieneke says, an attitude of “the good Westerners taking care of the poor refugees.” Diversity isn’t just about music and meals; “You have to make sure that you are working together with them and not doing things for them. It’s not only the worship but the leadership, the way you do organization in church; it’s everything, actually.”

a group of people standing together and singing
Baptism candidates singing Amazing grace. Left to right: Azerbaijan, Congo, Thailand, Dutch, Caribbean, Iranian.

Sara Mohi, an Iranian on the ICP NL leadership team, believes the blessing flows in both directions. “My dream is that each Dutchman sees himself as the one who opens the way for someone else,” she wrote in an ICP magazine. “That other person did not come to take your place; that other person needs you. On the other hand, I dream that each foreigner learns that his or her presence in the Netherlands has a purpose.” 

An Afghan friend of Sara who recently came to faith dreamt that he was in an old Catholic church with dusty precious items, which he had to take out and clean. What does it mean? She said: “I believe God will use you and me to bring those old treasures of the church, that are now covered with dust, and bring them forward again. They are now in the back room and there is nobody to take them out. That is why we have come.”

Changes in the Dutch Churches

Have migrants begun to dust off the old treasures in existing churches? Theo thinks so. “We had to fight many obstacles but later, when [Dutch Christians] saw the fruit and heard the testimonies of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists coming to faith, the tide started to change. People were surprised by the way God worked. The strictest Calvinists were now even defending us.”

ICP also works with the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN), a merger of the largest Reformed and Lutheran churches in the nation. “Up till today the PKN is one or our trusted partners. They involve us wherever some intercultural dynamics are involved.”

Slow or fast, Theo and Rieneke believe that the entire church is moving towards a Revelations 7 reality of worship in unity and diversity: “It is the work of the enemy to divide; it is God’s heart to bring reconciliation.”

Theo and Rieneke invite interested Canadian readers to reach out to them at ue.krowtenpci@eciffo.

  • Maaike is a freelance writer from Ontario and raised in Africa, where her heart stayed. Her degree is in Intercultural Service and World Arts.

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