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In the Netherlands, church growth hinges on community relevance

Service, church-planting yield results among native population

In the Netherlands, church growth hinges on community relevance

Seventh-day Adventist Church President Ted N. C. Wilson, left, preaches at Ijsselhallen conference center in Zwolle, Overijssel, Netherlands, on Saturday, March 9. At right is Wim Altink, president of the Adventist Church’s Netherlands Union, who interpreted for Wilson in Dutch. The Adventist Church in the Netherlands has about 5,600 members and a strong church-planting program. [photos by Henk Koning]

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Don’t bother with complex biblical passages or intricate Seventh-day Adventist doctrines. For most Dutch-born Europeans, it’s a challenge to have them even consider the possibility that God might exist.

So says Wim Altink of the struggle of conducting evangelism in the Netherlands.

Altink, the president of the Adventist Church’s Netherlands Union, says the denomination here in recent years has embarked on a deliberate church-planting program, one that serves crucial community needs for years before a church member shares the gospel to newcomers.

“It’s not by preaching or holding meetings that people are going to be convinced of the Adventist message,” Altink said. “In reaching secular people, we’ve found that you need to be a very practical church.”

This method of outreach was shared with Seventh-day Adventist world church President Ted N. C. Wilson, who visited the country last week. In a Sabbath sermon, Wilson affirmed members for their commitment to God in a society that is largely indifferent toward Christianity.

“Although you may feel isolated and surrounded by and living in a postmodern and secular society, you are a part of the Seventh-day Adventist world family,” Wilson told some 3,000 congregants at the Ijsselhallen conference center in Zwolle last Saturday.

During his first trip to the European country as the church’s president, Wilson also urged church members to seek “revival and reformation.”

“Revival and reformation is most important for our lives, but revival comes only through prayer. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is God’s remnant church with a unique message for unique times.”

And in the Netherlands, evangelism requires a unique, tailored approach, one that can take years to make inroads into communities.

“We can’t just preach,” Altink said. “We need communities that practice the work of God long before we can preach it.”

That’s why leaders look to Adventist congregations such as the one in the city of Delft, which was born out of several Antillean Adventist social workers serving the community, including a focused ministry to teenage mothers. The group formed the Alivio foundation – which caught the attention and endorsement of civil authorities – and a church later grew out of the effort. Leaders consider the congregation a model for church planting by serving the community first.

There are 5,600 Adventist Church members in the Netherlands, with a growth rate of about 4 percent each year. There are 60 churches; seven of them are new within the past eight years. There are a dozen congregations in the pipeline.

The Adventist Church here is culturally diverse. Fifty percent of members are native Dutch European. About one-third of members are of Dutch Caribbean descent, up to 10 percent are Indonesian, and much of the rest is African, especially Ghanaian.

“I’m very grateful to God for the great variety of cultures in the church,” Altink said. “There is a good relationship between them.”

Church growth in the Netherlands comes largely from immigrant populations. Among the native Dutch, it can take 10 years to start a small church of 15 to 20 people. A new convert through baptism comes no sooner than six years, church leaders say.

Conversely, a new Adventist church among immigrant populations can sprout within three years with a flock of nearly 100 in weekly attendance.

Secularism among native Dutch is different and more severe than secularism in Central Europe or the United States, said Rudy Dingjan, church-planting coordinator for the union.

“You have to start with the very basics of Christianity in this country,” Dingjan said. “For example, a group of school kids in a museum will be shown a display of three crosses and told that Jesus is on the one in the center. They didn’t even know that or know what the reference was. This is because their grandparents stopped going to church, their parents never went, and they are being raised with no knowledge of these kinds of things.”

Altink said the union recently appointed a pastor to serve as a part-time director of Stewardship Ministries to improve giving. But a 2010 survey of church members was “an eye opener,” he said. About 15 percent of survey respondents said they regularly returned tithe because of biblical instruction, while more than 70 percent indicated their giving was strongly correlated with their involvement in their local church.

“So we need to involve young people," Altink said. "Stewardship is fruit of a healthy church.”