Thursday, January 23, 2014

CRTS Conference

CRTS hosted an other interesting and successful theological conference: its 4th annual. (Full disclosure: I’m on the planning committee, so I am a little biased!) Over 180 people registered for the full conference, and well over 500 people attended the two public sessions on Thursday and Friday night. We were able to listen to 13 presentations by professors from the Netherlands, Canada and the USA. People attending came from as far as Australia, Brazil, Korea, the Netherlands. One thing that became clear was that the churches in the Netherlands are living in a dramatically different sort of culture from North America. The seminary there needs to respond to matters of the reformed faith in a very post-Christian and postmodern society. When we listened to the speeches of the Dutch professors, we could notice that they were answering different sorts of questions from what we would expect in North America. That meant that sometimes during discussion, it seemed that participants were talking past each other. But on the whole, though our synods have expressed strong concerns about the direction our Dutch sister churches are taking, the conference was collegial, brotherly, and I thought, fascinating. Differences of opinion were explored; differing approaches examined; different conclusions debated. But for the greatest part there was an atmosphere of Christian charity, for which I personally was very thankful. I’m already looking forward to the 5TH annual conference in January 2015!

Monday, January 9, 2012


This is a guest posting written by Matthew van Popta a Guido de Bres Christian Highschool senior English teacher (he's my nephew). It was originally published in the Guido Gazzette in Dec 2011.

Invariably at some point in the semester a student will ask me, “Do we really have to memorize all this?” implying of course that my request to memorize a dozen or so lines of Shakespeare and recite it in front of the class is not only completely unreasonable but also a thorough waste of time for all parties involved.  Unfortunately for them, I disagree.  The ability to remember and to memorize is an interesting and complex process.  Throughout the course of a day we are constantly remembering.  Some things we just need to remember for a few seconds, like a number to “carry over” in a math problem or perhaps a salient point needed to persuade a friend to see things your way.  God has given this unique ability—the ability to hold onto certain pieces of information for short time periods for very specific purposes—only to humans.  Using our short term memory activates our pre-frontal lobe, a highly developed region of the brain.

 How do pieces of information move from our short term memory to our long term memory?  Simply put, the hippocampus, a small sea horse shaped part of the brain, is the area of the brain responsible for this transfer.  Every piece of information decoded in the sensory area of the cortex converges in the hippocampus which sorts through them and sends them back where they came from.  The hippocampus compares these new sensations to previously recorded ones and creates associations and connections with other things we remember.  When we remember new facts by repeating them, using mnemonic devices, or by connecting them to other things we know, the hippocampus continually strengthens the associations among these new elements until it no longer needs to do so.  Eventually, the cortex has learned to associate these various new facts itself and is able to reconstruct a ‘memory’.

Perhaps as a student you remember reciting times tables over and over and over and over so you could ace that mad minute or maybe you remember being part of a school play and having to memorize hundreds of lines for that big performance.  Or perhaps, you had an English teacher that forced you to memorize a famous soliloquy from Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you remember staying up half the night to memorize the table of elements or a multitude of physics formulas.   I think the more mature among us could attest that memorization played much more of a role in school forty years ago than it does today.

And so what?  Is it important to memorize Canada’s prime ministers?  What about all the provinces and territories and their capital cities?  Should everyone know Lincoln’s famous address at Gettysburg?  What about snippets of the Constitution?  How about Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”?  Should we all know a Shakespearian sonnet or two or be able to quote something from The Merchant of Venice? How about a chronological list of major world events? Or, is this an old fashioned whim, nothing more than a nostalgic notion in the age of the internet and Wikipedia?  Why remember anything when you can just “Google it”?  Would we be better off outsourcing our memory to our iPhone?

Dave Schuler in his article, “From Memory” argues that there is a massive difference between being able to find information and actually living with it inside you.  He likens it to owning a Persian rug and being able to find a picture of one on Google Images.  Schuler argues, and rightly so, that memorizing poetry and other texts make them “part of the cadence and subtext of your thought and speech.”   Perhaps Lincoln’s speeches would not have had their effect and force if he hadn’t committed parts of the King James translation of the Bible and parts of Shakespeare’s plays to memory.  Further, Schuler points out that an underlying cause of our impoverished daily discourse is the transition to memorizing advertising slogans rather than classic poetry.

Many progressive educators don’t like rote learning citing that exercises in memorization are nothing more than archaic curiousity with little to no educative value.  Forcing students to memorize classical poetry is an oppressive act, one that promotes a culture of servility and hampers creativity.  Students need to construct their own meaning from authentic and dynamic experiences.  Few educators will deny that students do need to construct their own meaning from what they have learned.  If a lesson is taught and a student does nothing but memorize a few key lines, the value of that memorization is little.  Memorization without understanding is having useful information but not knowing where it fits in context.

Kids need poetry and memorization, Michael Beran argues in his article “In Defence of Memorization”. And they need it not just because of the rewards rote learning offers: the sense of poetry, the heightened feel for language, the abundance of tales and myths, the turning on of their language capability and enhancement of their language store.  Most importantly, kids need poetry and memorization because the power of memorization lies in its ability to introduce them to their cultural inheritance of Western civilization.  Knowing what came before them improves their cultural literacy and it “etches the ideals of their civilization on their minds and hearts.”  According to Beran, these older educative techniques, and not the ‘progressive’ ones, are the techniques that nurture critical thinking and enable students to articulate their own thoughts and feelings and give them the ability to question authority intelligently.   
Based on this line of thinking, should we make more room for memorization in our community?  Do we find that our dependence on technology makes this goal difficult, if not impossible?  Should we be worried that our reliance on technology is separating our society from the past?  Do we sometimes have the tendency to think that we are the first people to have ever lived?  Is the igeneration’s philosophy of “Leave me alone, I’ll figure it out by myself with Google” starting to rub off?  Teachers, especially those teaching the humanities, wrestle with what exactly the function of the memory in the 21st century should be.  If our students have almost instant access to everything, should they even bother memorizing anything?  Even if we agree that memorization is important, what should we all know off by heart?  Is there a set of core knowledge in every subject area that everyone should know perfectly?

I won’t pretend to have all the answers to these difficult questions but I do think memorization should continue to play a vital role in education.  And so, my students will continue to memorize, for through memorization they remember “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” and “The quality of mercy is not strained”; they understand the need to “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” for “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day”.

Matt vanPopta

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Empty Pulpits

This is an article that I wrote recently for Clarion, our church magazine.

Empty Pulpits
John van Popta
For several decades, various church magazines in the broader Christian world have predicted that with the retirement of the baby-boomers there would be many empty pulpits in the various denominations in North America. Some very large church communities, which have more than ten thousand congregations, are reporting a thousand more empty pulpits than a decade ago. Though many of these churches had thought that by permitting women’s ordination they would stem the tide of “vacant” pulpits, this did not prove to be so. (I use the word “vacant” in the popular way: defined as a church without a fulltime preacher/pastor). Also there has been a trend to entering full time ministry in various Christian churches as a second or even third career. However, many of these new clergy are not interested in working in small rural churches. Many who choose to enter the ministry later in life take positions in larger urban centers where they can work in multi-pastor churches. They also gravitate to the cities because they often need to take their spouses’ careers into consideration. This leaves the many small rural churches vacant.
So far, however, the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia have not had this problem.[1] “Vacancy rates” in the pulpit have not been too high. Twenty-five years ago, there were five vacancies (in Canada; I don’t have Australian data for that far back) in the 42 pulpits and mission posts in the two churches. Fifteen years later, there were four vacancies in Canada and one in Australia, and yet there were 20 more churches. On average, together the two federations have instituted about one new congregation every year for the past 25 years (29 since 1986).
Today there are 84 positions in our federations for ordained ministers: exactly double the number 25 years ago. Add to that number the five professorships at the seminary (CRTS) in Hamilton, and we have nearly 90 positions for ordained men, but only 63 ministers, 10 missionaries, and 4 professors.
These numbers reveal a remarkable trend. Not only are there twice the number of pulpits, we also have twice the number of missionaries. Fully one seventh (15%) of our preachers are missionaries! They are working abroad in foreign lands, as well as in our own country. These are good trends, demonstrating vibrant, healthy, growing, and missions-aware communities, both here and in Australia.
However, the data also show a serious threat to our church life in our federations. Whereas 25 years ago there were five vacancies, a number that remained stable for the next 15 years, the trend is towards more and more empty pulpits. Some have said that we were heading to a time of “surplus ministers” in our federations. But the demographics tell us different. Rather, it will be difficult to fill all the pulpits in our churches in the coming years.
Of the 63 active ministers in our churches, 12 will turn 65 in the next five years. (These are the first of the baby boom retirees.) That is nearly 20 percent of our preachers! As we noted above, historically we have added one new pulpit per year for the past 25 years. If that trend continues, we will have five new pulpit placements by 2016. However, there are now 12 vacancies (counting churches actively calling a second man, and the need for a “fifth” professor at CRTS).
If we assume that most men will retire at around 65, in order to fill the pulpits in our churches we need to ordain (or find) at least 28 men in the next five years. Six more ministers will turn 65 in the following half-decade. And if the trend to new churches continues, five more new pulpits will open up. This means we will need 35-40 new preachers of the gospel in the next decade!
Reviewing the last decade of the alumni of CRTS, we can learn that only 20 of 30 graduates were ordained to the ministry. Though the enrollment at CRTS has been significantly higher this past decade than in previous years, we are not keeping up. We will need to ordain twice as many men in the next decade than we have in the last decade. Enrollment figures at CRTS at present show that there will be perhaps 15 graduates in the next 5 years. That number, however, is not keeping pace with the number of potential retirees and newly opened pulpit placements.
It takes 10 years to prepare a young man for the ministry. Churches, consistories, families, need to identify young men with gifts for the pastorate already at high school age, groom them to study the humanities, prayerfully coach them through a bachelors degree, support and encourage them through seminary. If we fail to do this, our story will be similar to many other church communities around us. There will be many congregations with no full time pastors.
Pray the Lord of the harvest send out workers; the harvest is plentiful. May there be many workers!

[1] I have combined the data concering these two federations in this article, since our minsters are (mostly) educated at CRTS in Hamilton, and students who graduate may often just as well accept a call in one federation as the other, regardless of their “home” country.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

German Prof on Preaching and Preachers

I translated this piece from a Dutch on-line paper. Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Graf reflected on trends in European churches. He comments on the change in the character of preaching, and the changing character of the office, because of women's ordination. He also muses about the relationship of church and state in Germany in light of the rise of Islam on European continent. On the one hand he calls for the return to Word based "masculine" preaching. On the other hand, he sees the need for the old state church to adopt a 'free church' model for the present multi-kulti age we live in. 

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Graf, professor of systematic theology and ethics at the University of Munich, thinks that a large part of Sunday preaching not good enough. "We have plenty of symbolic communication, candles are carried from left to right, and so on. That is all beautiful and important. But the word-culture, the sermon-culture, which was once a distinctive feature of Protestantism, has for the last thirty years lost its appeal to many ministers. We are now experiencing a kind of infantilisation of communication. "

The church should not squander its intellectual heritage, says Graf. "Christianity is, in the formulation of Hegel, a thinking religion, and I would love to hold to that. You can’t, in a society whose complexity is increasing, do just the opposite in the religious culture. You can not rely on the soft and infantile. I recently spoke to an friend who is marginal to the church. When he went to church, he said, it seemed as if he was not being taken seriously, right from the start. "

According to Graf, today we face two major trends: "event orientization" and "psychologizing." People want some sensational experience; which mean special events like a papal visit or an exceptional Sunday service. In addition, all theological and religious content is simplified and turned into "a psycho-jargon, which is only concerned about feeling good, and where the basic tensions and contradictions of life hardly play a role."

Graf sees the feminization of the church offices as one of the causes of the problem. Because the profession of a preacher has become a feminine calling, its role undergoes significant changes. "The sociological question also applies here: ‘What does it mean when a job is no longer attractive to men?’"

This development also changed the [understanding of the] image of God, and the nature of faith in the church, says Graf. He sees among his colleagues, "young women with a predominantly petty-bourgeois, socialist background: more mummy type, than intellectual." So "a form of religiosity that connects a cuddly God with bad taste

In light these trends and developments, Graf advocates for a return to the tradition: "In our kind of society cultural traditions are a very, very unstable and fragile heritage." Therefore, institutions like the church are necessary, despite the fact that in the past half century they have greatly diminished in authority.

The Munich professor finds a massive distrust of religious institutions. "If you ask the Germans, they trust a politician or a firefighter, infinitely more than a Roman Catholic priest. That is not a sign that this kind of teaching authority, by institutions, is still working. "

Nevertheless, it is necessary that the church as an institution remains. "You can only pass on the foundations of our culture to future generations if you have developed an institutional framework. If such frameworks suffer erosion it will become hard to pass on [the traditions]. "

Meanwhile, Graf finds it worrisome that churches in Germany are subsidized by the state. As long as the church has no financial worries, "reform impulses", according to professor, have little effect.

Churches need therefore to reflect on their relationship to the state, says Graf. Too much dependence on the government could well be harmful to the churches. "In addition, real problems of justice arise if the state gives privileges to the Christian churches and not to Muslim communities."

Against this background Graf calls for equal treatment of Christianity and Islam in politics. At least, at certain points. So he thinks that the German universities should have equal opportunities for Muslim theologians for imam training. "Integration means that Muslims should never feel that they have in German society are discriminated against."

Dutch .

based on this German interview report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: .

(I used Google Translate and Babelfish to produce my version. Errors remain mine.)


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Suicide Bomber in Stockholm

Today muslim fanatics detonated bombs in a downtown shopping district in Stockholm, Sweden.

Lest there be any mistake about motives, watch this video.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Prayers to the gods: the paganism of Global Warmists

The Washington Post reports that the Global Warming Summit in Cancun was opened with an invocation to the moon goddess, one of the gods of the heavens of the ancient American indigenous peoples.

Imagine the uproar if it opened with an invocation to the true God of Heaven.  The hyper warmists show their real colours. What next human sacrifice? Oops! That's already on their agenda: depopulation of the world by way of abortion as a moral way of restraining growth in 3rd world countries.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Random Acts of Culture

I wish I had been there

A random act of culture!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Mother Church

Here is an article I wrote for a Column in Clarion which I co write with my Brother George

Commentary on News and Trends in the International Church
Mother Church
In Sept. 2010, The Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI came to London, to visit the Queen, the head of the Church of England. Some 500 years earlier, the King of England, Henry VIII, had broken with Rome and declared himself head of the new Church of England. Since then, the British Monarchs have been titular head of the Anglican Church. In the years that followed Henry’s break, the Anglican Church joined the Reformation. Under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and with the ascendancy of Elizabeth I to the throne, Calvinism came to London and Westminster. Since then, the Anglican Church has been part of the Protestant world.
Benedict addressed the combined houses of Westminster, the “Mother of all Parliaments”. It used to be a beheading crime to vow allegiance to Rome in Westminster Hall, but relations, it seems, are better now. (Although Tony Blair left the Anglican Church for the Roman Church only after he left No. 10 Downing Street: no British Prime Minister could be allied with Rome, after all!) Later that same day Benedict joined Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in Westminster Abbey. There no Pope had ever set foot in its 1000-year history.  The Anglican Church had invited many, and in the congregation were official representatives of the many branches of British Protestantism: Methodists, Baptists, Reformed, Presbyterian. And so, in Westminster Abbey, the “Coronation Church” of the British throne, Archbishop Williams the Protestant, and Pope Benedict of Rome, greeted each other with the hand of fellowship and with a kiss at “the passing of the peace” and the congregation broke out in spontaneous applause. Benedict’s wry smile betrayed his pleasure at the moment! During his discourses that day, at both Westminster Hall—to the Parliament—and at Westminster Abbey—to the Church—he did not shy away from reminding the audience that he was the successor to the bishopric of Peter. In other words, “I am head of the church, not Rowan Williams; not Elizabeth II.  Rome is the ‘Mother Church’.”
His visit to London is a remarkable moment in the history of England, Britain, the Commonwealth and the world, but more so in the history of the church. One of the great Protestant churches of the world makes peace with Rome, but does not speak of their differences.
Closer to home, however, something different happened this year. The GKNv, our sister churches in the Netherlands (in a certain way, our ‘mother church’) has for the past decades sought to extend the hand of fellowship to many Reformed churches around the world. They were instrumental in the founding of the ICRC (International Conference of Reformed Churches). They have investigated various churches, and recognized and declared them true churches, and desired to have ecclesiastical fellowship with them. Recently they invited the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) to enter into a closer relationship; full ecclesiastical fellowship. (In our older vocabulary, they asked the OPC to formalize a “sister church relationship.”)  The OPC would find their history not in the Netherlands, but in Westminster. 100 years after Cranmer, the English churches met at Westminster Abbey, and drafted the Westminster Confessions (WCF). Via Scotland, these confessions became the standard of English Presbyterianism, also in North America.
Students of our own church history will know that it took nearly 40 years for us to move to that full relationship with the OPC. One of the obstacles we had was the “sister church” relationship the OPC had with the CRCNA (Christian Reformed Church). We had doubts about the faithfulness of the CRC and its trends concerning the truths of scripture.
Remarkably, the OPC has declined the invitation of the GKNv. At their General Assembly, in June 2010, they made (in part) the following decision.
However, the Assembly believes that, given the serious nature of the obligations undertaken in the sister church relationship, such relationships should not be entered into in situations where the Assembly finds itself unable to affirm, without reservation, that the other church is indeed Reformed in its confessional standards, church order, or life. It is our prayer that the Lord would be merciful to our GKNv brothers and grant them grace to work through the weighty issues facing them—particularly those touching upon the sufficiency (WCF 1.6), interpretation (WCF 1.9), and authority (WCF 1.10) of Scripture, that seem to be currently troubling the GKNv—in a manner that is in full obedience to and accord with Scripture (Article VII of the Belgic Confession).
Two strands of the English Church: both look to continental Europe. One looks to Rome approvingly; the other looks to the Dutch Reformed, and finds it lacking.  Perhaps we too need to look to our “mother church” and warn them seriously of encroaching error. Our Presbyterian “Westminster” brothers and sisters are hailing the first serious warning: “We are unable to affirm, without reservation, that the [GKNv] is indeed Reformed.” 
We must yet extend the right hand of fellowship to our “mother”, and be willing to give a kiss in peace—but not at the expense of the truth!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Heidelberg Rap

I played this for my catechism students tonight: The First Ever Rap Song About the Heidelberg Catechism.

They were impressed that their confession had a song written about it. As we listened there were smiles and nodding heads all around!


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CRTS Conference

The Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary is hosting a conference in January 2011

Dr. Cornelis Van Dam has taught a whole generation of ministers and missionaries in the Canadian Reformed Churches. It seemed appropriate to gather a number of his friends and colleagues together to celebrate what our faithful God has given us in this faithful teacher and preacher. 

Link to CRTS

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Polygamy and the Greens

When the same sex marriage debate filled the press and the airwaves, Christians argued that if the state attempted to change the definition of marriage to from a union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, it would not be long till some one would advance an argument for polygamy. Of course that was scoffed at as scaremongering! "That will never happen!"

Well a mainstream political party will debate the question in a plenary session of their convention. In Canada! I'm not making this up!

TORONTO - The Green Party of Canada will consider a motion Sunday on whether or not they will push to decriminalize polygamy.

Party members in a workshop on Saturday evening voted to send the motion to the full-Party plenary, where they'll debate and vote on it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I found this deep in an old archive file on my hard drive! I thought it might be time to revisit this!


Have you grown tired of hearing all the time-worn excuses people give for not going to church? Two pastors
put together this list of reasons for not attending the movies:


1. The manager of the theater never called on me.

2. I did go a few times, but no one spoke to me.

3. Every time I go they ask me for money -- they mention it even before I get in.

4. Many of the folks who attend do not live up to the moral standards of the films.

5. I went so much as a child I've had all the entertainment I need.

6. The performance lasts too long -- I can't sit still for a couple of hours or longer.

7. I don't always agree with what I see and hear.

8. I don't think that they have very good music.

9. The thermostat is always too high or too low, and the lighting is terrible.

10. The shows are usually in the evenings, and that's the only time I am able to be at home with my family.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dominion Day

Here is an interesting article explaining why we should continue to call July 1 "Dominion Day". Changing the name to "Canada Day" was actually illegitimate, if not illegal!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Earthquake 2

It was a 5.5 magnitude quake along the Ontario Quebec border. Maybe Quebec is separating!


At 1:45 PM today we had an earthquake roll through southern and eastern Ontario. I was sitting at my desk and the whole house started shaking and groaning. My computer screen was rocking back and forth intensely. I immediately sent chat note to my son who lives outside of Ottawa and they felt it too. That's nearly 400 Km away! I'm going to watch the news!