When I Was a Lad...: Dutch-language services, 20-minute prayers, and offering poles

When I was a boy I attended Canada's oldest Christian Reformed church—Nobleford CRC, a country congregation in the Monarch district of southern Alberta. My first memories go back to about 192^ just before Rev. Jacob Mulder became our pastor. The church had grown considerably since it was organized in 1904, from about five families to twenty. But we still shared our new pastor, Rev Mulder, with our "twin" congregation, the Granum CRC, about twelve miles to the west.

All of our services were conducted in the Dutch language in those days, whether led by the minister or by a "reading" elder. I distinctly remember the first time our congregation worshiped in English. It was on a summer Sunday evening. We had already held two Dutch services that day and stuck the English service in as kind of an "extra" during the time the young people's group usually met. Gradually though, our congregation got used to the idea of worshiping in English. By 1942, half of our services were in English, and by the mid-40s we had dropped the Dutch service altogether.

Many worship traditions and rituals flow through my mind as I flunk back on my early days in that little country church. I will describe a few of them.

Before the Service

We always entered the church by the single center aisle. Each father, as head of the family, led his wife and children to seats in a row of six chairs. Each member carried his or her Psalmboek, which usually also contained the New Testament and the liturgical forms. After taking their seats, the adults bowed in personal prayer, a ritual in which we children did not participate. We assumed prayer was for those who were professing members and had the privilege of the Lord's Supper. But we all sat quietly no matter what our age, waiting for the minister and consistory to enter.

The minister led the elders and deacons out of the consistory room where they had assembled before the service. He was a striking figure in his Prince Albert—a long, double-breasted coat, with formal shirt and tie. The consistory took its place in two short side rows where it could view both the congregation and the pulpit, the elders in front. The minister, standing with the consistory and facing the pulpit, bowed in personal prayer, as did the elders and deacons. The ritual prominence of the consistory clearly reminded us of its position as the ruling body of the church and indicated that the minister was conducting the service under its order and discipline.

Worship Begins

After a short prayer, the minister moved behind the pulpit. The service opened with the votum: "Our help is in the name of the Lord who made the heavens and earth." This was followed by the salutation: "Grace to you and peace, from God the Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ." The minister spoke the salutation with both arms raised and his eyes closed. The members bowed their heads and also closed their eyes until the minister's firm "AMEN."

The minister announced the opening Psalm, and the people sang one stanza, or at most two. Then the minister read the Law, and the people sang a penitential psalm-—in our congregation always the Dutch equivalent of Psalm 65:3-4:

A mighty stream of foul transgression
Prevails from day to day;
But Thou, O God, in great compassion,
Wilt purge my guilt away.
Blest is the man whom Thou hast chosen,
And hringest nigh to Thee,
That in Thy courts, in Thee reposing,
His dwelling place may be.

When we started worshiping in English, we sang Psalm 51 instead:

My transgressions I confess,
Grief and guilt my soul oppress.
I have sinned against Thy grace,
And provoked Thee to Thy face.
1 confess Thy judgments just.
Speechless I Thy mercy trust.

There was no absolution or assurance of pardon in those days. Only God could forgive sin!

Creeds and Prayers

In the second service the confession of faith replaced the reading of the Law. The minister read the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed, and the people responded by singing a psalm of praise in Dutch (later the Gloria Patri in English).

Then came the twenty-minute-long congregational prayer. Sunday after Sunday our minister prayed for every ministry and institution dear to the hearts of Christian Reformed people. That included not only the Heiden Tending (heathen missions), Home Missions, and Calvin College and Seminary, but also far-distant institutions for people who were mentally and emotionally disabled— Pine Rest in Grand Rapids, Bethesda in Denver, and Goffle Hill in New Jersey— even though there wasn't more than a ghost of a chance that any of our members would ever have personal contact with these institutions.

Offering

The offering was taken during the singing of a psalm or hymn. The deacons came around with a black velvet bag at the end of an eight-foot handle and passed it before each worshiper. Each year the congregation checked out the new deacons to see how well they did in passing the collection bag. The new deacons were usually nervous about their first tour of duty since it was always rumored that one might expect a trick or two at the hands of pranksters in the congregation. Eventually the offering bags were replaced by plates, but not without objection from some who judged that if "your left hand should not know what your right hand is giving" (Matt. 6:3) surely then an open plate was too public to ensure the privacy of one's giving.

Because times were hard back then, offerings were usually meager. But everyone gave something— even the children. No one came to the Lord with an empty hand!

The Sermon

The sermons of my youth were rather equally divided between those based on Scripture and those grounded in the Heidelberg Catechism. (The ability to make the catechism come alive was the mark of a good preacher.) The reading of Scripture and the preaching of the sermon were carefully timed so that the service could be concluded in exactly an hour and a half. At times the people observed that the minister had engaged in a rather large amount of repetition to fill his allotted time!

Standing: For Men Only

In our church the congregation remained seated for the whole service. The only exception to this rule took place during the pastoral or "long" prayer, during which members of the consistory {or, in some congregations, all males over the age of 12) were expected to rise and remain standing. This practice constituted a bit of a hazard for hard-working elders in the heat of a summer-afternoon service. I can remember watching a tired elder weave back and forth, fighting off the overwhelming drowsiness that resulted in some pretty fair naps on the part of those members who could remain seated.

In our neighboring congregation, it was accepted practice for drowsy members to stand up during the sermon, in the hopes that even this amount of movement might restore their ability to listen. Notably only men took this liberty possibly reflecting the privileged position of men in the church. (Though it might also indicate that drowsiness was a particularly male problem!)

The Lord's Supper

The Lord's Supper was administered four Sundays a year in a highly ordered fashion. In those days the sacrament was served in both morning and afternoon services to accommodate those who could attend only once per Sunday. On those Sundays the services were always lengthy The sermon was somewhat briefer than usual, but the communion form was long and was abbreviated only in the second service. On the Sunday before the sacrament the minister always preached a preparatory sermon; in the second service, after the sacrament had been administered, he preached an applicatory sermon.

Professing members and guests from other congregations who had received permission from the consistory were invited to partake of the sacrament and were recognized by name during the service. During the sacrament, communicants were seated around a table fully covered with a beautiful white cloth. The silver bread trays and wine goblets or "cups" were also covered with the linen. Each communicant took and ate the bread as it was passed and drank the wine from the "common" cups.

After each table had been served, the attending elder would wipe the cups with a towel and, if necessary the minister would refill them with wine. As the communicants returned to their seats, each would place a coin under a white napkin located at each end of the table. I learned later that their gifts "were an offering for "the poor," though we children thought it was payment for the elements!

Benediction and Handshake

Each service ended with the minister pronouncing the benediction, again with both arms raised and head bowed. He then approached and shook hands with each consistory member. Many members thought that the pastor did this (erroneously I believe) to seek the elders' "approval" of the sermon. IVe heard tales of occasions on which the elders refused to give such approval, but that never happened in the services I attended.

Nobleford Now

I had the privilege of conducting services in the church of my childhood recently and to think back on those early days. In many ways the church is very different today from what I remember.

It is now home to more than three hundred members who enjoy a newly remodeled building.
Chairs have given way to padded pews.
Both Bibles and hymnals—not just psalters—are in the pews.
The elders no longer file in and sit together; they still meet for prayer before the service, but then they sit with their families.
Few even remember the struggle over changing to English.
Men do not stand for the congregational prayer.
The Lord's Supper is served to people in the pews.

However, all these matters speak of custom, not of ritual in the deeper sense of the word. The deeper rituals of the Nobleford congregation have not changed much over the years. People still gather each Sunday around the same basic order of worship. In other words, they respond to God's call to worship, bring their songs and prayers of confession and praise, thanksgiving and supplication. And God still meets them with words of grace, good news, and guidance for living. The Word is still preached, and the Heidelberg Catechism still functions as a guide for preaching. The Lord's Supper is still served—six rather than four times a year. Attendance is still excellent at both services. And the church is attracting people from the community.

Worship at Nobleford today is still simple too—perhaps even more simple and less ritualized than it was in the 1920s. There is more variety today in dress, in the order of worship, and in how worship is conducted. But, as ever, "Their help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth."

The late Tymen R. Hofman was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church.